How were Manuscripts Selected for the Ancestor of the Masoretic Text and for the Hebrew Ancestor of the Septuagint? Answer: We Don’t Know!

Image result for image of emanuel tov

Professor Emanuel Tov is J. L. Magnes Professor of Bible (emeritus) in the Dept. of Bible at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Born in Amsterdam, Emanuel Tov emigrated to Israel in 1961 and obtained his Ph.D. in biblical studies at the Hebrew University in 1973. Tov specializes in various aspects of the textual criticism of Hebrew and Greek Scripture as well as in the Qumran Scrolls. Under his editorship, thirty-three volumes of the Dead Sea Scrolls series, Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, appeared (1992-2008).

Professor Tov, from his lecture series on The Torah:

In many ways, the origin of MT [Masoretic text] remains enigmatic. This text is far from being unified or consistent in its spelling and other editorial characteristics. Through the generations the MT scribes copied their scrolls faithfully, but these scrolls inherited an earlier tradition that was not always precise or consistent.  The variation in the nature and quality of the texts that ended up being included strongly implies that there was no selection process of manuscripts for inclusion in the archetype of MT.[6] Instead, there probably was only one candidate for inclusion in the archetype of MT for each text, and which text was chosen likely depended on coincidence.

The persons who created the archetype were, for the most part, unaware of differences between scrolls and did not pay attention to the small details under scrutiny in this study,[7] otherwise the specific MT text of Samuel, for instance, with its many errors as compared to the Qumran and LXX versions, would not have been included.

Just as inconsistencies can be found in spelling and quality between the different books in the MT corpus, so too can they be found in individual books themselves. Large books, such as Samuel, Kings, Jeremiah, and Psalms, consisting of several smaller scrolls, could coincidentally be combined from scrolls of a different textual nature. Thus, two of the five books of Psalms in MT use elohim as the main divine appellation, while in the other three books it is YHWH.[8] For similar reasons, Jeremiah 27–29 differs in specific scribal details from the remainder of the book.[9]

The same processes happened in the creation of the archetype of the LXX, whose books differ much from one another. For example the different segments of the books of Samuel-Kings are of a differing nature.[10] We note that in a corpus that developed over the course of such a long period, internal differences such as those in the LXX and MT should be expected.

[emphasis, Gary’s]

Gary:  If Professor Tov is correct, the selection of manuscript copies used for each individual book of the Hebrew Bible, in both the Masoretic Text and the Hebrew ancestor text of the (Greek) Septuagint, was coincidental.   Wow!  How in the world will anyone ever figure out which text was closest to the originals???

4 thoughts on “How were Manuscripts Selected for the Ancestor of the Masoretic Text and for the Hebrew Ancestor of the Septuagint? Answer: We Don’t Know!

  1. And this is exactly what I was getting at in the previous thread. It’s impossible to say which of the texts are more accurate or authentic, because we have no idea what scrolls either version was based on, nor do we have any idea which of *those* versions was closest to the Hebrew texts that were compiled in the Babylonian Captivity.

    It’s worth noting, though, that most of the Dead Sea Scrolls are closer to the MT than to the LXX. But, with all the variety of forms found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, I think scholarly views tend, now, to see the LXX as simply having been based on a separate bunch of scrolls than the MT, and neither version is due to “mucking around” either by Christians or by Jews.


    1. That is the impression I am getting.

      So far, I haven’t seen any evidence that the Jews in Palestine corrupted their texts to “erase Jesus”. The question remains, however, why did Hellenistic Jews living in the diaspora, Jews who had been using the Greek LXX, abandon that text in the last half of the first century? We will see if Professor Tov gives any hints on that issue in future lectures in this series.

      One point that is clear, however: There is good reason to reject the claim by some Christians apologists that we can be confident that the Hebrew textual ancestor of the Septuagint is older than the textual ancestor of the Masoretic text. Tov has shown that proto-Masoretic texts existed in the first century BCE and if the Jewish scribes were capable of maintaining a high level of consistency in copying the text going forward 1,000 years, why should we doubt their ability to maintain the accuracy of the text going back into the BCE era several hundred years?


  2. The consistency of copies of the Hebrew scriptures is somewhat “legendary” (in a good sense). In my first class in Hebrew and Archaeology, back in the dark ages (1972), I remember the professor (who became a friend of mine), Dr Roy Blizzard, made precisely the point you have made: If the Hebrew texts we now have – which exist despite all the incredible difficulties the Jews endured, starting with the destruction of the Temple and going on for centuries – could be so astoundingly close to the Qumran scrolls, then there is no reason to think that those writings were any less “faithful” going back from the first century, clear to the Babylonian captivity (when so much of the Tanach was compiled), and even earlier than that, when the “base documents” were written.

    Why did the Jews switch from the LXX to the MT?

    My theory is pretty simple: With the destruction of the Temple, and with Jews heading out to the four corners of the world, I think it’s entirely possible that the reason the rabbis crystalized around the MT was simply to retain something uniquely Jewish – Hebrew-language scriptures – rather than letting every sub-group of Jews in whichever country do their own translation into their “new” (or, newly-adopted) language. So, as Judaism lost it’s focus on the Temple (which no longer existed), and on Israel in general (since so very many were run out of there), hanging on to the Hebrew scriptures was one of the ways they retained their identity as Jews.

    Some say it had to do with Christians using the Septuagint, and therefore, the Jews wanted to differentiate themselves from the Christians. But, the truth is, there weren’t really all that many Christians to be concerned with by the end of the first century. Granted, Christianity had spread pretty far, but, not in massive numbers. So, I don’t think Jews that had to leave Judea to go live in what is now Iraq (for example) were really terribly concerned at that time with what Christians were doing. Besides, they had much more pressing matters at hand – specifically – how do we all remain Jews, and “stay on the same page” as Jews, when we’re living all over the place now?


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