Hebrew Bible Manuscripts

With over one hundred English Bible translations to choose from, it’s easy to get overwhelmed when trying to decide on which Bible to read and study.  My aim in this series of articles is to pop the hood and take a look inside the world of Bible translating so you can understand how it all works.  We’ll start with manuscripts, so you understand the underlying texts from which translators begin their work.  Then we’ll delve into the process of translation, including the main strategies of dynamic and formal equivalence.  This will put us in a good place to evaluate two popular versions: the King James Version and the Message.  Next, we’ll consider how theological bias creeps into translations before concluding with a strategy to help you choose a good Bible translation for study.

I want to begin our overview of the Bible translation process by looking at the manuscripts that translators use as a source.  “Manuscript” is a compound word from manus “hand” and scriptio “writing.”  Thus, by definition, manuscripts are handwritten documents.  Consequently, we have relatively few manuscripts after 1440 when Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press invention began replacing handwritten copies.  Thus, the bulk of our extant manuscripts are at least six centuries old, and some of them go back more than twenty-two centuries.  Furthermore, many of the most significant manuscript discoveries for both the Old and New Testaments have occurred in the last century.  This sometimes makes a huge difference to Bible translation, since the source from which translators work has changed and continues to change over time.  Since scholars have been putting out English translations for centuries, it’s critical for our inquiry to get a grasp of how the fields of manuscript discovery and comparison have developed over the years.  But before we get into that subject, let’s familiarize ourselves with a basic knowledge of what kinds of manuscripts we have for the two major parts of the Bible—the Old Testament (OT) and the New Testament (NT)—since they are quite different.

Hebrew Manuscripts

Israelites wrote the OT (what they call the Tanakh1) almost entirely in Hebrew with just over one percent of it in Aramaic, a sister language.2  The original Hebrew scrolls, also called “autographs,” that Isaiah or Ezra wrote have not survived the ravages of time.  Thankfully, diligent scribes copied these precious texts before they wore out, transmitting them to the next generation.  Eventually, scribes began copying the entire Hebrew Bible so that each generation would have access to sacred scripture.  However, most ancient manuscripts perished long ago, eventually succumbing to age and usage.  This should not surprise us very much, since even to this day, Jewish synagogues bury their scrolls when they wear out.  Nevertheless, we have two large ancient Hebrew manuscripts: Codex Leningradensis (the Leningrad Codex3) and כֶּתֶר אֲרָם צוֹבָא (Crown of Aleppo4 or the Aleppo Codex).  The Leningrad Codex dates to the 11th century and contains the complete OT, whereas the Aleppo Codex is from the 10th century and is missing most of the Torah as well as parts of the final books from Song of Songs 3:11 to the end.


In addition to these two, Bedouin shepherds and university archeologists competed to discover scrolls in eleven caves in Qumran near the Dead Sea between 1946 and 1956.  These Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) contain 981 documents out of which about 40% turned out to be copies of the OT, mostly in Hebrew.  Paleographers have dated the DSS to between 50 and 225 BC, which pushed back the date of our extant5 OT manuscripts more than a millennium!  Even so, the DSS are not the oldest evidence of the Hebrew Bible on the planet.  In 1979, archeologists discovered two small silver amulets with scripture engraved on them at Ketef Hinnom (near Jerusalem).  These contain the high-priestly blessing of Numbers 6 in paleo Hebrew, dating to the 6th or 7th century before Christ.  Beyond these sources, archeologists have found quite a number of other ancient Hebrew scrolls and partial remains.  Here is a list of the earliest sources of the Hebrew Bible in chronological order.













In addition to these Hebrew sources for the OT, we have several important early translations into other languages, including the Aramaic Targums, the Greek Septuagint, and the Latin Vulgate.  These ancient translations have value because they can help in deciding between variant readings in two manuscripts, since the Hebrew texts they came from often antedate the existing sources we have.

Hebrew Critical Text

With so many manuscripts both in Hebrew and other ancient languages, we are bound to find differences between them.  Now the scribes that faithfully copied these texts did their best to prevent mistakes from creeping in, but over so many centuries, variations were inevitable.


After collecting the different readings for each verse of the Hebrew Bible, specialists compare them to arrive at what they believe to be the more original text.  The scholars who do this work are called textual critics, not because they criticize the Bible, but because they carefully analyze the differences between manuscripts to figure out the initial version.  The result of textual criticism is the production of a critical text with an extensive apparatus at the bottom of the page, indicating variant readings.  This, in turn, is what translators all around the world will use to produce Bibles in modern languages.

In 1901, Rudolf Kittel began developing a critical edition of the Hebrew Bible using as a base text the Mikraot Gedolot of Jacob ben Hayyim ibn Adonijah (1470-1538), a well-known rabbinic Bible, originally printed by Daniel Bomberg in 1525.  Kittel added a critical apparatus to the bottom of the page so he could print textual variants from other manuscripts such as the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Septuagint, the Vulgate, and Syriac Peshitta.  He published his first edition of Biblia Hebraica in 1906 and his second edition in 1913, which corrected some mistakes in the first.  In 1921, the German Bible Society of Württemberg bought the rights to Biblia Hebraica and changed out the base text to the more accurate Leningrad Codex.  After revamping and expanding the apparatus under the leadership of Paul Kahle, they released the complete Biblia Hebraica in one volume in 1937.  Then in the 1960s, the German Bible Society began work on the fourth edition, completely revising the textual notes in the apparatus.  After nearly ten years, they published the single volume Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS) in 1977.  This critical edition, the BHS underlies most translations completed between 1977 and the early 2000s.

A team of Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant scholars in thirteen countries have been working on a new version since 2004.  Since this will be the fifth edition, it is called the Biblia Hebraica Quinta (BHQ).  This is a massive project with a projected output of twenty volumes with a revised main text (Leningrad) and an apparatus based on more recent discoveries as well as extensive commentary about the variants.  Approximately 75% of the volumes are already available, with the rest projected for completion in the near future.  Since the main text is not a critical text per se, translators must make their own decisions by consulting the apparatus and textual commentary.  “To this day,” Philip Comfort explains, “almost all Bible scholars and translators still use the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible as the authoritative, standard text.  At the same time, they make use of the findings of the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as two other important sources: the Septuagint and the Samaritan Pentateuch.”11  Although anyone can purchase single volumes of the BHQ, they are expensive and unavailable on Bible software except for Accordance.12  Once BHQ is complete, they will likely release a single volume Hebrew OT, which will then become the standard for Bible translators going forward.

I realize this was a lot of detailed information, but it all serves to equip you to understand where the world of Bible translation is at in the year 2020.  I would have thought that scholars would have established the text of the OT centuries ago and that there was little new to talk about.  However, what I’ve discovered is that not only is the text in the process of a massive revision, but that many English Bibles do not take into account the amazing manuscript discoveries that occurred in the twentieth century (see table above).  This means that we have good news and bad news.  The bad news is that some of our most beloved and traditional Bibles are becoming obsoleted as these discoveries have come to light and have begun to affect Bible translation in the twenty-first century.  Nevertheless, the good news is that we are moving closer and closer to the original text year by year.  I realize how counterintuitive this seems.  Five hundred years ago when Bomberg put out his printed Hebrew Bible, we would think it would be more accurate then, because he was closer to the time when the OT came into existence.  However, we in the twenty-first century have better access to both many more and much older manuscripts, especially due to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  This means that our new Bibles are becoming progressively more accurate in reflecting the older Hebrew texts (assuming the translation is accurate).  Now before anyone freaks out, it’s important to realize that the differences between these texts are minor.  To my knowledge, no major Bible doctrine is at risk of getting overturned due to a manuscript change.  Even so, my heart is to get as close as I can to the original Bible, even if that means I have to rememorize a favorite verse or embrace some other change.  Even though it’s uncomfortable, I’m willing to do that.  How about you?


1Tanakh is an acronym from the three divisions of the Hebrew Bible: Torah (Law), Nevi’im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings).   T + N + K results in TaNaKh.
2Out of the Old Testament’s 23,208 verses, 269 of them are in Aramaic, totaling to 1.2%.
3A codex is just an ancient book (as compared to a scroll).
4The astute Hebrew student will know that this actually reads “Crown of Aram-Zova” not “Crown of Aleppo.”  However, from the 11th century onward, rabbinic literature identifies Aram-Zova as the area of Aleppo in Syria.
5Extant means currently existing.  Museums all around the world own and preserve most manuscripts of the Bible.
6Rather than saying this or that manuscript was “discovered,” I chose to label this column “available to the west.”  Some of these were never lost; nevertheless, western scholars did not have access to them until the year listed.
7In 2016, Professor Brent Seales of the University of Kentucky led a team to scan the charred scroll and employ virtual unwrapping software to reconstruct 18 lines of text from Leviticus.
8The genizah (scripture room for worn out texts) of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo, Egypt contained around 300,000 Jewish manuscripts of several languages.  Thousands of these turned out to be Hebrew Bible fragments.
9Although the Samaritans claim their treasured Abisha scroll goes all the way back to Aaron’s great-grandson of Moses, experts who examined it said “it had a distinctly medieval appearance” probably dating to the thirteenth century.  Sir Frederic Kenyon, Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1939), p. 52.  However, Codex Zurbil dates to 1100 to 1149, making it the earliest representative of the Samaritan Pentateuch.
10This is the text that underlies the King James Version.
11Philip Comfort, Essential Guide to Bible Versions (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2000), p. 43.
12At present, Bible Works and Logos still use the BHS instead of the BHQ.

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