Scribal Tradition


When you compare Masoretic Text Manuscripts with each other and with the manuscripts that serve as the basis for Bible translations today, they are virtually identical!




Although the Printing Press didn’t come along until the mid 15th Century, Jewish scribal tradition was utterly meticulous in copying the Scriptures. The following article provides a sense of the techniques employed by Masoretic scribes as they carefully copied Holy Writ. Remember, these scribes believed they were the copying God’s Word!

The following detail of this process is extremely interesting:

“They knew it would be easy to make a mistake in copying a new transcript, so they developedelaborate and meticulous rules for transcribing. They decreed that:

  • When a person was making a new text, he had to copy the original page with suchexactness that the number of words on a page could not be changed.
  • If the original page had 288 words, then the page being copied had to have the same 288 words.
  • Each line on a new page had to be the exact same as the line on the old page. If the first line on the original page had nine words, the first line on the copy page had to have nine words.
  • After a page was copied, the number of letters on that page was counted and compared with the original.
  • After a page was copied, someone would check to see what the middle letter was on the copy and the original.
  • A synagogue roll must be written on the skins of clean animals, the length of each column must not extend less than 48 or more than 80 lines; the breadth must consist of 30 letters.
  • No word or letter, not even a yod, must be written from memory… Between every consonant the space of a hair or thread must intervene, between every book three lines.
  • Besides this the copyist must sit in full Jewish dress, and wash his whole body”(Hebrew Text of the Old Testament, Davidson).
  • The scribes were not allowed to copy sentence for sentence or even word for word.They had to copy letter for letter.
  • After a page was copied and checked by another, still a third person would check to see what the middle word was on the page.
  • Then, when the whole book was finished, another would count the phrases. This process was so accurate they could pinpoint the exact middle of a book simply by letter count and would check the verse at that point as one of the methods of confirmation.
  • If a single error was found, the entire manuscript was destroyed to ensure that it could never be used as a master copy in the future.

These are just a few examples of the great detail that went into ensuring the accuracy of the Scriptures.”




To illustrate just how accurate the scribes were – they counted and knew, for example, that there were exactly 78,064 letters within Genesis!

When comparing Yemenite copies of the Torah with Masoretic copies from Eastern Europe, a discrepancy of only 9 letters was found (not just with Genesis – but the entire Torah, or Pentateuch).