The Text of the Old Testament -- By: Merrill F. Unger

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 108:429 (Jan 1951)
Article: The Text of the Old Testament
Author: Merrill F. Unger


The Text of the Old Testament

Merrill F. Unger

The Old Testament, being an ancient document some parts of which were written as early as the fifteenth century B.C., naturally underwent a long process of development before it attained its present form. It is not easy for us moderns, to whom writing is such a simple process, to understand this. But writing in the ancient world was far from the simple thing it is now. Not only were writing materials and implements woefully inadequate from our modern point of view, but many baffling difficulties existed of which the ancients were not even aware. That which to us seems so obvious—the necessity of separating letters into words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters for the sake of clarity—dawned upon them only gradually.

Those who first attempted to reduce human speech to writing did not at once perceive the chasm that separates the spoken words from the characters in which they are symbolized. They wrote as they spoke in unbroken succession, inscribing the letters in closest proximity to each other without separating them into words, much less into sentences, paragraphs and chapters. Ancient scribes did not at once realize that the writer, if he would make himself clearly understood, had to use some device to compensate for the natural modulations of voice and the manipulations of the organs of speech to which the speaker commonly resorts.

Imagine, then, an ancient text consisting of one unbroken string of letters and, to make matters worse, only consonants. Ancient Old Testament texts employed only consonants. Not a single vowel was indicated till centuries after Moses, and a full system of vocalization was not devised until 600–800 A.D. Think, then, what the task of the reader and the copyist

was! The men who supplied the vowelless jumble of letters with vocalization, separated them into words, converted them into readable sentences, arranged them into prose or verse, into paragraphs and larger divisions, etc., were the sopherim or scribes. The story of their labors is the history of the text of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is a thrilling account of the providential preservation of the divine Oracles, century after century, through the meticulously accurate and tirelessly active hand of the ancient scribe. The result of their painstaking effort is the Old Testament that we possess today.

I. The Literary Vehicle of the Old Testament

Frequently many who are untrained in literary criticism go to the Old Testament as an inspired source of spiritual truth and help, and drink of its inexhaustible well of refreshment but fail to see or appreciate its sublime worth from a purely literary point of view. On...

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