Persistent Pluriformity of Prebiblical Texts (1)

Prior to 1947

Prior to 1947, while there was a recognition among textual critics that the manuscripts of the prebiblical[1] texts were pluriform in nature, it was understood that there were three main text families/types: (1) Masoretic (MT); (2) Septuagint (LXX); (3) Samaritan Pentateuch (SP). There were some manuscripts that could not be so categorized but were of minimal concern. The texts that could be categorized as MT were given preference. The texts categorized as LXX or SP were thought to be derived from a Masoretic style text and that most of the differences were the result of unintentional scribal error or intentional scribal interpolation and interpretation. Therefore, textual critics relied on the LXX or SP only to help in places where the MT was lacking, confusing, contradictory, etc. Prior to 1947, there was a definitive hierarchy of texts that favoured the MT over all other text types.[2]

            Before the discovery of the prebiblical manuscript fragments among the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) between 1947 and 1956, the oldest almost complete Hebrew/Aramaic copy of the Jewish Scriptures was the Leningrad Codex, which is dated to approximately 1008 CE.[3] It is still largely this text—consistently updated—that is used as the base text for most modern translations. About sixty percent of the Jewish Bible is found in the Aleppo Codex, which is dated approximately one hundred years earlier.[4]

            However, before 1947 biblical scholars were aware that there were significant divergences between their eleventh century CE textus receptus (i.e., the MT text of the Leningrad Codex) and the fourth and fifth centuries CE Greek codices (i.e., Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, and Alexandrinus). Yet, the divergences from the MT were—and by some scholars today still are—considered to be the result of unintentional scribal error or intentional scribal revision.[5]

Since 1947

            Over a period of these ten years (1947 to 1956), thousands of manuscript remnants representing approximately 930 separate scrolls were discovered mostly in caves near the Qumran community, just north and west of the Dead Sea. In addition, a smaller number of manuscript remnants were found in other locations throughout the Judaean Desert, including Masada, Wadi Murabba‘at, Wadi  Sdeir, Nahal Hever, and Nahal Se’elim.[6] Approximately 210 scroll remnants represent prebiblical texts. The scriptural texts most often represented are of Genesis, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and Psalms, including one scroll containing the virtually complete copy of Isaiah (1QIsaa).[7] Interestingly, these are the scriptural texts most quoted in the New Testament documents.[8] The Qumran scrolls, sectarian and prebiblical, have been dated from ca. 250 BCE to 68 CE.[9]

There was incredible excitement with the discovery of these manuscript remnants since they opened wide a door that had previously been only barely ajar; that is, they collectively reveal much about the pluriform nature of Judaism and its sectarian and sacred literature in the Second Temple period. Of course, the manuscripts of Jewish prebiblical texts garnered the most enthusiastic response. Again, it must be emphasized that referring to these as “biblical” is completely anachronistic. There was no anthology of texts at the time known as “the Bible,” and there would not be for a few centuries after these texts were written.[10] That does not mean that some of these texts didn’t have authority among the Jews during the Second Temple period, but not all had equal authority among all sects of Second Temple Judaism. The five texts that comprise the Tanakh’s Torah (i.e., law or instruction) and the majority of texts that comprise the Nevi’im (Prophets), as well as probably most of the Psalms had authority for these Jews. However, a few of the texts later included among the Nevi’im and most of the texts included among the Ketuvim (Writings) were variously regarded and their authority was debated even after the end of the Second Temple period in 70 CE.[11]

For various political, personal, and probably economic, reasons the results of the research on the DSS were made public very slowly and infrequently. The reticence and/or reluctance to share this research resulted in conspiracy theories regarding the content of the DSS and the reason why there were not being publicized. After decades of arguing “the struggle to free the scrolls ended” on November 20, 1991, when the Biblical Archeological Society published “its two-volume folio edition of photographs of the unpublished scrolls…Anyone with $200 could now purchase this edition and have all the pictures within arm’s reach.”[12]


[1] I strive to use the term “prebiblical” to refer to the texts that existed prior to their inclusion in various Jewish and Christian canons. These texts underwent a process of copying and revision before reaching the form that was included in Jewish and Christian Bibles, thus they are “prebiblical”.

[2] Garrick V. Allen, “Textual Pluriformity in Jewish and Christian Antiquity,” in The Book of Revelation and Early Jewish Textual Culture, SNTSMS (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 43.

[3] Eugene Ulrich, “Our Sharper Focus on the Bible and Theology Thanks to the Dead Sea Scrolls,” CBQ (Jan. 2004; 66, 1): 2. See also, Martin Abegg Jr, Peter Flint and Eugene Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible (New York: HarperOne, 1999), x.

[4] Michael Law, When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible (Oxford: oxford University Press, 2013), 21.

[5] Eugene Ulrich, “The Text of the Hebrew Scriptures at the Time of Hillel and Jesus,” in Congress Volume Basel 2001 (Leiden: Brill, 2002), 92.

[6] Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, 3rd edition (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 99.

[7] Law, When God Spoke Greek, 25.

[8] Find reference

[9] Ulrich, “Our Sharper Focus,” 2.

[10] See Allen, “Textual Pluriformity,” 44, n. 18; Eugene Ulrich, “The Evolutionary Production and Transmission of the Scriptural Books,” in Changes in Scripture: Rewriting and Interpreting Authoritative Traditions in the Second Temple Period, edited by Hanne von Weissenberg, Juha Pakkala and Marko Marttila (Berlin: DeGruyter, 2011), 48; and James E. Bowley and John C. Reeves, “Rethinking the Concept of Bible: Some Theses and Proposals,” Henoch, (Vol. XXV, 2003), 10.

[11] Law, When God Spoke Greek, 89-90.

[12] Hershel Shanks, The Mystery and Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), 58.

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