In Praise Of Ancient Scribes -- By: Alan R. Millard

Journal: Bible and Spade (First Run)
Volume: BSP 11:2 (Spring 1982)
Article: In Praise Of Ancient Scribes
Author: Alan R. Millard

In Praise Of Ancient Scribes

Alan R. Millard

[Alan R. Millard is professor of Hebrew, Akkadian and Near Eastern Archaeology at the University of Liverpool. He has worked on numerous excavation projects in the Near East and currently is epigraphist with the British Archaeological Expedition at Tell Nebi Mend (Qadesh on the Orontes) in Syria.]

Every activity concerned with Old Testament study, owes its existence entirely to generations of Jewish scribes, who copied and recopied the books of the Old Testament for more than 1, 500 years. Until recently only the products of the last third of that time were available. The most extensive example is the Aleppo Codex. This manuscript represents at its fullest the meticulous concern of the scribes for the accurate transmission of the sacred text. Their activity in copying the text followed long-established patterns, eventually codified in tractates appended to the Babylonian Talmud (Soferim, Masseketh Torah).

The question of how old these practices, or the attitudes they embody, might be has received only limited attention, partly because of the lack of early material. Respect for small details of the text characterized the teaching of Rabbi Akiba (died ca. A.D. 133) and Aquila’s even earlier Greek rendering of the Old Testament. Care for the precise wording of the biblical text is attested,

therefore, at the start of the Christian era. The application of this care to the copying of texts is thought to have been Jewish imitation of Greek custom, in the course of this paper a different origin will be indicated. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the last three decades have given scholars the privilege of studying Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament much older than any previously known. Investigations of scribal techniques in the Scrolls have been published, but an overall and balanced evaluation has to wait until all the texts are made available. In the famous Isaiah Scroll from Cave I the obvious corrections display the faults of the original scribe and the attention of another. Other fragmentary manuscripts, varying from the traditional “Massoretic” text, have given rise to various hypotheses about earlier stages of their history and the fluid situation at Qumran. Without older copies, any opinions remain hypothetical. Although earlier copies of any part of the Bible are denied us, neighboring cultures can show how ancient scribes worked, and such knowledge can aid evaluation of the Hebrew text and its history.

Babylonian Scribal Practices

The most prolific source of ancient documents is Mesopotamia. There the practice of writing can be observed fro...

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