Texts and Versions (Old Testament)

See also Old Testament

TEXTS AND VERSIONS (OLD TESTAMENT). The OT is a book of sacred literature for Jews and Christians and has no rival in quality or scope of influence among other sacred writings of the world today. It is the focal unit of Judaism and the foundation of Christianity’s sacred literature. In Jesus’ time it was called “the Scriptures,” though Jesus himself often referred to it by its divisional terminology. On the day of his resurrection, for example, Jesus declared to the disciples, “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke.24.44). It was also the Bible of Peter, Stephen, Philip, Paul, and the other early Christians (Acts.2.7; Acts.8.13).

I. Origin of the nodetitle

A. General discussion. The English OT today is identical with the Hebrew Bible but is arranged differently. The customary divisions of the thirty-nine books books in the English version are (1) seventeen historical books, (2) five poetical books, and (3) seventeen (major and minor) prophetical books. The Hebrew Bible was divided into (1) Law (Torah, i.e., the Pentateuch), (2) Prophets (Nebhiim, including Joshua, Judges, Kings, and Later Prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve Minor Prophets), and (3) Writings (Kethuvim, composed of the eleven remaining books). The Hebrew OT—combining certain books that are separate in English—numbered only twenty-four books. Josephus reduced the number to twenty-two by further combinations.

B. Canonization. The final confirmation of the books of the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings as exclusively canonical by Jewish scholars cannot be placed later than 400, 200, and 100 b.c. respectively. However, the writing and adoption by consensus doubtless antedated these dates by centuries. Since some contemporary writings were accepted and some rejected during the periods mentioned above, some basis for discrimination was necessary. The critical term for this process is “Canon,” derived from the Greek word Kānon, “rod,” which came from the Hebrew and Old Babylonian words for “reed,” meaning “measure.” There were no canonical decrees governing selection, but scriptural authority seems to have been derived from usage by devout Jews, and any pronouncements of measuring methods were only confirmations of that authority. Some critics think that the formation of the Canon began in 621 b.c. during Josiah’s reign and ended in the Council of Jamnia, a.d. 90. Actually the Council only confirmed the established authority of the books composing our present OT, recognized and accepted before the time of Jesus. The need for some criterion, however, for standardization to protect and preserve Holy Writ was doubtless long in the minds of the rabbis. Probably the first to sense keenly this need were the scribes, the Sopherim, who elaborated a theory of inspiration. They said that inspiration belonged to the prophetic office, and the range of prophetic activity began with Moses and ceased with Ezra (though according to rabbinical writings it ended in the time of Alexander the Great). According to these limitations, any writings before Moses or after the prophets would automatically be apocryphal. Consequently the books of the OT were all inspired writings of men chosen by God, spanning a period of approximately a thousand years, embraced within the traditional dates of 1450 to 444 b.c.


Internal and external evidences combine to give a provisional view of biblical authorship. The cultural development of the Hebrews in correlation with that of their contemporaries may be seen through the eyes of the archaeologists. First, however, the scriptural record should be reviewed.


In Exod.24.7 we read concerning Moses, “Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people.” The Book of the Covenant (Exod.20.1-Exod.20.26-Exod.23.1-Exod.23.33) is probably the oldest writing in the OT. It is the nucleus around which the framework of the Pentateuch was built.

II. Texts

A. Fragmentary scripts. No autograph texts of any OT writings are known to exist today, but the textual critic tries with all available means to reconstruct texts as nearly like the originals as possible. Until a.d. 1947, when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, the earliest complete extant manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible were dated about 1000. There were, however, fragmentary evidences of considerable value, brought to light from time to time by archaeologists, contributing to the validity of the Bible claims.

B. The art of writing. Writing was known as early as 3000 b.c. among the old civilizations of the Near East. Temple inscriptions; the Code of Hammurabi; and the Gilgamesh Epic, with accounts of Creation, original sin, and the Flood, antedate Moses by several centuries. There are numerous examples of early writing that support the claim that Moses, who “was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” (Acts.7.22), could have and did write the passages claimed for him in the Bible.

C. Antecedents of the Hebrew language. These may be found in Old Phoenicia, a land on the Mediterranean coast north of Palestine settled by an early wave of Semites. These precocious seafaring people are credited with giving the world its first alphabet. As early as the sixteenth century b.c., evidences of a Hebrew-Phoenician alphabet are found, from which a standarized script emerged about the tenth century. This is the cursive script, used in Old Hebrew and for the original writing of the OT books. This script was replaced by the Hebrew-Aramaic square script probably a century before Christ. However, since the Samaritan Pentateuch is in the old cursive script, the square letters must not have been used until after the schism between Judea and Samaria about 432 (Neh.13.28). Modern scholarship dates the Samaritan Pentateuch at 128 or 122 b.c. Furthermore, the transition seems not to have preceded the Septuagint, though the Aramaic square letters were in use centuries before by the Jews in Egypt. Seemingly, the square Aramaic script was gradually adopted by the Jews after the Exile (536-538 b.c.) and used latest in sacred writing. The letter from Arsham (the Persian satrap of Egypt c. 410 b.c.) is nonbiblical and was written in the square Hebrew letters. Jesus’ reference to the “jot” in the law indicates that this type of script was in biblical use in his time (Matt.5.18 kjv).

Other writings discovered in Phoenicia have had valuable bearing on Hebrew philology. Excavations in a mound at Ras Shamra, ancient Ugarit, unearthed a small temple with a library underneath. Among the finds were tablets containing a script of only twenty-seven different characters. This proved to be archaic Hebrew, dated about 1400 b.c., hence one of the earliest alphabetic writings yet known. Another important discovery on the Phoenician coast was made at Byblos, OT Gebal (Ezek.27.9). It was a remarkable alphabetical inscription on the Ahirams sarcophagus (stone coffin), dated about 100. Byblos is the name from which our term Bible is derived.

D. Fragments of the Hebrew language. From Palestine, the mound of Old Lachish (Josh.10.31-Josh.10.32) yielded a bowl, a jar, and a dagger containing brief inscriptions in alphabetic script similar to that found in Sinai and dating probably between 1750 and 1550 b.c. Similar characters inscribed in ink on a potsherd were found at Beth Shemesh from about the tenth century. Twenty-one letters found at Lachish consisted of broken pieces of pottery on which were inscribed archaic Hebrew by a military commander during the invasion of Nebuchadnezzar in 588. To these may be added fragmentary inscriptions from the Gezer Calendar, c. 900; Moabite Stone, c. 800; Siloam Tunnel, c. 700; and numerous others. Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the small sheet known as the Nash Papyrus, dated second to first century b.c., was our earliest biblical Hebrew document. It contains the Ten Commandments and the Shema (Deut.6.4).

E. The Bible in the Hebrew language. The OT was originally written in Hebrew, with the exception of a few chapters and verses in the later books. These were written in Aramaic, a kindred language, and are found in Dan.2.4-Dan.7.28; Ezra.4.8-Ezra.6.18; Ezra.7.12-Ezra.7.26; and Jer.10.11.

The Scriptures were written on animal skins, called vellum or parchment, or on papyrus. Papyrus comes from a water plant of that name from the marshes of the Nile. The glutinous pith was sliced and the stripes laid at right angles and pressed together, making a very smooth and durable paper.

The Hebrew Bible is the work of many authors over a period of more than a thousand years, roughly between the fifteenth and fifth centuries b.c. As it grew in size it also grew in sacredness and authority for the Jews.

F. Preservation of the texts. Two obvious factors have militated against the preservation of original autograph writings and archaic texts. First, when transcriptions were made onto new scrolls, the old deteriorating ones were destroyed lest they fall into the hands of profane and unscrupulous men. Second, attempts were made at different times by the enemies of the Jews to destroy their sacred literature. Antiochus Epiphanes (c. 167 b.c.) burned all the copies he could find, and many rolls were destroyed during the Roman wars (c. a.d. 70).

Another hazard that threatened accurate transmission of the Scriptures was the repeated copying by hand. Scribal errors and explanatory marginal notes doubtless resulted in slight deviations from the original, but the fidelity of the copyist is amazing. Ezra and his school of scribes, the Great Synagogue, and subsequent rabbinical schools and priests and scribes worked diligently to perpetuate the original Scriptures. It was the Masoretic scholars who devised the present vowel system and accentual marks. Before this the consonantal Hebrew Scripture was not vocalized. Chapter divisions came much later, appearing first in the Vulgate, a.d. 1227 or 1248, and transferred to the Hebrew Bible about 1440. Verses were marked in the Vulgate as early as 1558.

G. The Dead Sea Scrolls. In a.d. 1947 some Palestinian herdsmen accidentally discovered a cave in the Judean hills that proved to be a veritable treasure house of ancient Scriptures. The discovery of these scrolls was acclaimed by biblical scholars as the greatest manuscript discovery in modern times. From this and other caves by the Wadi Qumran, NW of the Dead Sea, came a hoard of OT parchments dated 200 b.c. to the first century a.d.

The first major find comprised four scrolls. One of the first documents was a copy of the Book of Isaiah in Hebrew, and another a copy of the first two chapters of the Book of Habakkuk in Hebrew, with added commentary. Later discoveries yielded fragments with portions of other biblical books in Hebrew. The Deuteronomy fragments were written in archaic script. Altogether, the manuscript fragments constitute over four hundred books, a few almost intact, and more than forty thousand fragments. Ninety of these books were parts of the Bible, with every OT book except Esther being represented among them.

These scrolls are of great critical value on the basis of such factors as antiquity and authenticity. The scroll of Isaiah A is dated near 200 b.c., while that of Ecclesiastes and the fragments of Exodus and Samuel are estimated by some to be as old as 250 and 225 b.c. respectively.

One valuable contribution of the Dead Sea Scrolls is their provision of a critical basis for the study of the three main lines of transmission by which the text of the OT has come down to us. The first of these, and probably the most trustworthy, is the Masoretic Hebrew text of the eighth and ninth century a.d. The second is the Greek Septuagint, and the third is the Samaritan Pentateuch. The antecedents of these three forms of Hebrew texts seem to have been varying types of texts used by the people of Israel in general in the closing centuries of the Second Jewish Commonwealth, and were in no sense confined to or used by a particular sect. It may be that the Masoretic text was derived from a Babylonian revision, the Septuagint from Egyptian Hebrew, and the Samaritan from a Palestinian text; but it seems obvious that all were used in Judea.

III. Versions of the Old Testament

A. Greek versions.

1. The Septuagint, whose value can hardly be overestimated, was in popular use in Jesus’ time and is often quoted by NT writers. It is a translation of Hebrew into Greek by Jewish scholars in Alexandria, Egypt. The Pentateuch was translated about 250 b.c. and the entire OT completed a hundred years later. The term Septuagint is the Latin word for seventy, representing the seventy-two rabbis who did the translating, probably under orders of Ptolemy Philadelphus. The Greek used was not the classical idiom but rather anticipated that of the NT, the Koinē. It was designed to preserve the old religion among the dispersed Jews in a language they commonly used. The oldest extant fragments of the Septuagint today are from a papyrus roll of Deuteronomy, dated about a.d. 150, found on an Egyptian mummy, and now in the John Rylands Library, Manchester, England. (See also Septuagint)

2. Other Greek versions. Three Greek translations from the Hebrew were made in the second century a.d., but only fragments of them have survived. Aquila, a proselyte Jew, made a very literal translation that became the official Greek version for the Jews. Theodotion, a Christian of Pontus, made a translation between 180 and 192 that seemed to be partially a revision of the Septuagint. It was a free rendering of the idiomatic Greek and became popular in the early Christian churches. In about 200, Symmachus faithfully translated the Hebrew into good, smooth Greek, though it was somewhat a paraphrase. Jerome’s commentary on these versions was that “Aquila translates word for word, Symmachus follows the sense, and Theodotion differs slightly from the Septuagint.”

3. The Hexapla was a translation and six-column arrangement by Origen in Caesarea about a.d. 240. This was a kind of harmony of the translations of Aquila, Theodotion, Symmachus, and the Septuagint. It became the authoritative Greek OT for some churches. Only fragments of this work remain.

4. Several Greek manuscripts containing excerpts from the OT have been discovered. The oldest were written on papyrus; and those after the fourth century a.d., on vellum. The script of the latter is in “uncials,” capital letters written separately, used generally from the third to the tenth century, and in “cursives,” from about the ninth to the sixteenth century.

A papyrus manuscript of the minor prophets, in uncials, dated the latter part of the third century a.d., was found in Egypt and is now in the Freer collection, Washington, D.C.

Codex Vaticanus, “B,” dated about the middle of the fourth century a.d., contains most of the OT and NT. It is in the Vatican Library, where it was known as early as the fifteenth century.

Codex Sinaiticus, א (or Aleph), contains a limited fragment of the OT of equal age with “B.” It was discovered in 1844 by Tischendorf in the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai and placed in the royal library at St. Petersburg (Leningrad). It was later purchased from the Soviet government and placed in the British Museum in 1933.

Codex Alexandrinus, “A,” a manuscript in uncials, dated in the fifth century a.d., was a gift to King James I and was brought to England in 1628 and placed in the British Museum.

Codex Ephraemi, “C,” contains sixty-four leaves of the OT dated from the fifth century a.d. and is now in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.

B. Aramaic versions. The Targums were probably oral translations of the Hebrew Scriptures into Aramaic after the latter replaced the Hebrew as the spoken language of the Jews. The Targums contain religious instructions along with interpretations, which accompanied the reading of Scripture in the synagogues. Compare the procedure followed when Jesus was in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke.4.16-Luke.4.27). Besides the Targum of Jonathan on the Prophets, there are three on the Pentateuch, all of which were put into written form from about the first to the ninth century a.d. The three are the Onkelos (Babylonian), the Jerusalem Targum, and the Fragmentary Palestinian Targum.

C. Syriac versions. The Peshitta is the Syriac Bible of the OT translated in the second or third century a.d. for the benefit of Christians whose language was Syriac. Many manuscripts survive. The earliest data known on any manuscript of the Bible is found on one containing Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, in the British Museum, dating to a.d. 464.

D. Latin versions.

1. The Old Latin versions probably originated among the Latin-speaking Jews of Carthage and were adopted by the Christians. An entire Bible in “Old Latin” circulated in Carthage by a.d. 250. There were a variety of Latin versions before Jerome’s day, representing three types of Old Latin text: African, European, and Italian.

2. The Vulgate was produced by the scholarly Jerome in a cave in Bethlehem adjacent to what he believed was the Grotto of the Nativity. Jerome translated directly from the Hebrew with references to the Septuagint and Origen’s Hexapla. He was commissioned in a.d. 382 by Pope Damasus to make an official revision of the Old Latin Bible. His work was completed in 405. The Vulgate is a creditable work, though not an infallibly accurate translation of the original text. Rather, it was an interpretation of thought put into idiomatic, graceful Latin. It was virtually without a rival for a thousand years. The Douay Version, translated from the Vulgate, was until recently the only authorized Roman Catholic Bible in English.

E. Other Eastern versions. The Coptic versions were made for Christians in Egypt in the second or third century a.d. The Ethiopic version was made in the fourth or fifth century. The Gothic version was prepared by Ulfilas about 350. The Armenian version, beautiful and accurate, was made for Christians of eastern Asia Minor about 400. A twin to the latter was the Georgian version of the fifth or sixth century. The Slavonic version of the ninth century is preserved in the oldest manuscript of the whole Bible in existence today. It is dated 1499 and is known as Codex Gennadius, now in Moscow. The Arabic version, necessitated by the Arabic conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries, was begun by Saadya in the tenth century.

These ancient versions aid the critic in trying to restore the original text and in interpretations. For data on English versions, see Bible, English Versions.

For bibliography, see next article.——GBF