Archaeology And The Text Of The Old Testament -- By: Howard F. Vos
BSP 7:1 (Winter 1978) p. 1
Archaeology And The Text Of The Old Testament
[Howard F. Vos, Th.D. (Dallas Theological Seminary), Ph.D. (Northwestern University), is professor of history and archaeology at the King’s College, Briarcliff Manor, New York. He is the author of a number of books on biblical and archaeological subjects.]
Anyone who has studied classical literature is impressed with the tremendous variation in the existing manuscripts of even the greatest authors (e.g., Plato, Aristotle). One might expect that the same variation or corruption exists in manuscripts of Old Testament books. But such is not the case. Ancient scribes exercised meticulous care in copying the Old Testament, reverencing it almost to the point of worship.
This care is especially evident in the work of the Masoretes. These Jewish scholars lived primarily in Tiberias, Palestine, during the fifth to the ninth centuries A.D. and are called Masoretes because they preserved in writing the oral traditions (Masorah) concerning the biblical text. They sought not only to determine the exact text handed down to them but to pass it on to future generations without change. Their special contribution to the fixation and perpetuation of the text was its vocalization. Up to that time there were no vowel markings on the consonantal text. Their reverence for the text would not permit making changes in it, so they worked out an ingenious system of editorial notes. Where it appeared to them a copyist’s error had occurred, they left the error written in the text (a kethib wording—that which is written) but put vowel markings with it for a preferred wording (qere—that which is to be read) and inserted the consonants for that reading in the margin.
This Masoretic text has been extremely carefully preserved over the centuries. Robert Dick Wilson concluded,
BSP 7:1 (Winter 1978) p. 2
An examination of the Hebrew manuscripts now in existence shows that in the whole Old Testament there are scarcely any variants supported by more than one manuscript out of 200 to 400, in which each book is found.. .. The Massorites have left to us the variants which they gathered and we find that they amount altogether to about 1,200, less than one for each page of the printed Hebrew Bible.1
But when Wilson made his study, the oldest Hebrew manuscript of any length did not date earlier than the ninth century A.D., and the oldest complete Hebrew Bible dated about a century later. What sort of textual corruption had crept in during all the preceding centuries of copying? The Dead Sea Scrolls provide a partial answer.
The Qumran Scrolls
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