Old Testament Authentication – Scribal Tradition

It would be hard to overestimate the central place the Word of God held in Israeli life during the time of the Old Testament. We know that there was a special class of service for the Lord in the Old Testament economy of things that involved taking care of the Scripture. These particular Israelites were called scribes. Unfortunately we have this notion that they simply were folks who copied the Scripture. But it was far more involved than that – these were a professional class of workers.

“This Ezra went up from Babylon; and he was a ready scribe in the law of Moses…”

Ezra 7: 6

“And Hilkiah the high priest said unto Shaphan the scribe, I have found the book of the law in the house of the LORD. And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, and he read it.”

II Kings 22: 8

“And Zadok the son of Ahitub, and Ahimelech the son of Abiathar, were the priests; and Seraiah was the scribe;”

II Samuel 8: 17

We know that Ezra (450BC) was called a “scribe” – the term that is used here is “safar”. In Hebrew, it is basically the same word used for counting…it means “to count” Another term for scribe was “those who count”. As we explore this further, you will see why.

This goes further back than even Ezra. Shaphan was a scribe during the time of Josiah (640BC). Seraiah was a scribe (safar) during the time of David (1000BC). However, even before this period, there were scribes.

“And the families of the scribes who dwelt at Jabez were the Tirathites, the Shimeathites, and the Suchathites. These were the Kenites who came from Hammath, the father of the house of Rechab.

I Chronicles 2: 55

“Also it shall be, when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write for himself a copy of this law in a book, from the one before the priests, the Levites. And it shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God and be careful to observe all the words of this law and these statutes.”

Deuteronomy 17: 18 – 19

Just after the time of Joshua and Caleb (1300’s BC), scribal guilds already existed. They were chiefly comprised of family members – like we see with Levitical priests. In I Chronicles 2, you find out this particular family is associated and in some way related to Caleb and Moses.

As far back as the time of Moses (1400 BC), the copying of God’s Word was to play a central part in Israeli life. Did you know that all kings were expected to make their own copy of God’s Word…by hand?

Digging Deeper

The scribes came to be called the Sopherim (from the Hebrew word “safar”) which, as previously mentioned, means “to count.” The Scribes or Sopherim were tasked with counting up all of the appearances of each letter and word in each book. They knew how many letters and how many words should be in each line of text and the middle letter and word of each line and each book.  This was all done with the idea of preserving Scripture. Look at the exactness of their procedures:

They knew it would be easy to make a mistake in copying a new transcript, so…they developed elaborate and meticulous rules for transcribing. They decreed that when a person was making a new text, he had to copy the original page with such exactness 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, each letter 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.

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. Besides this the copyist must sit in full Jewish dress, and wash his whole body each time they were to write God’s name down. 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.


Into the New Testament Times…

From what we can tell, the Jews maintained the rigid scribal tradition right up until the time of the Diaspora began (70 AD). They were still very prevalent right thru the Gospels (Mark 11:27) – they were part of the Jewish leadership challenging the Lord.

After Rome destroyed the Temple and began the Diaspora, the Jews were spread throughout the world. Over the next 1000 years, 3 schools of Jewish Torah (i.e., Law or Pentateuch) tradition begin to arise:

  • Ashkenazi – Northern and Eastern European Jewish tradition
  • Sephardi – Latin and North African Jewish tradition
  • Yemenite – African Jewish tradition

Yet, even with these very distinctive cultural groups that arose within Judaism – separated by thousands of miles and over hundreds of years, they kept to these very rigid traditions of copying the Bible. It’s these traditions that gave rise to the 1000+ Masoretic copies of the Hebrew Bible that we have today. When the Jews were spread throughout the ancient world, so too were their scribes.

Masoretic Texts

Coming into the 20th Century, the oldest copies of the Old Testament in Hebrew dated back to only @ 850 AD. This leaves at least a 1200 year gap between the end of the Old Testament – skeptics argue this gives ample opportunity for error. The manuscript shown here is one of these old Hebrew copies and belongs to a group of documents referred to as the Masoretic Text.

The scribes who copied these texts were referred to as the Masoretes (from the Hebrew word “massorah”, which means to fence off or protect). Like their predecessors, they counted everything. Counts were placed as instructions in the margins of the manuscripts. These instructions would be used by the Masoretic scribes as they copied Scripture down through the years.

This particular Masoretic text is called the Leningrad Codex (Folio 40 verso) and dates to @ 1010 AD.  Exodus 15: 14b – 16: 3a is seen above. You can actually see the word counts and middle letter instructions in the margins (as well as other checking mechanisms for the scribes).

Before the discovery of these scrolls, the oldest complete copy of the Old Testament in Hebrew was Codex Babylonicus Petropalitanus from AD 1008, more than 1,400 years after the Old Testament was completed.

Torah Masoretic Counts

These are just some of the counts they were aware of. Do you know that historians have compared the 1000+ copies originating from these three great Jewish traditions (Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Yemenite) and have largely found the differences to be trivial, such as:

  • Ordering of the Books of the Old Testament
  • Where paragraphs may start
  • Notes in margins pertaining to vocalization and accents.

In one case, a comparison was done between a Yemenite version of the Torah and a Russian one – There were 9 letter differences.