How Was the Bible Text Written and Transmitted?

The earliest Bible text may have inscribed in stone.

The popular image of Ten Commandments on stone tablets which were round-topped rectangles has little basis in religious tradition. According to rabbinic tradition, they were rectangles, with sharp corners.

The popular depiction shows the Ten Commandments represented by the first ten letters of the Hebrew alphabet, which in Hebrew usage may be used interchangeably with the numbers 1-10.

The original manuscripts inscribed by the ancient writers and redactors (editors) of the Bible text were made of a variety of ancient writing materials.

* The Ten Commandments were written on tablets of stone (Exod. 31:18; 34:1, 28).

* Wooden tablets were also used extensively (Isa. 30:8; Hab. 2:2).

* The Jewish Talmud required the Scriptures to be copied on to rolls of leather up to 100 feet long.

* The New Testament was almost certainly written on papyrus.

* Vellum or parchment, made from animal skins, came into prominence in the early second century BCE.

* By the fourth century CE almost all known extant (surviving) manuscripts are on vellum.

* By the early second century CE the sheets of writing material were put together in a book form.

* A manuscript in book form is called a codex.

Leather scroll from the Dead Sea Scroll collection, c. 100 BCE. Leviticus 22-27.

The Hebrew Bible Text

The text of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible and Christian Old Testament) is based on the traditionally preserved Masoretic Text. This text was copied, edited, and distributed by a group of scribes called the Masoretes (from Heb. masorah, which means “tradition”) between sixth and ninth centuries CE.

This Hebrew Bible text defines the books of the Jewish canon. It also designates the precise letter-text with their vocalization and accentuation for both public reading and private study.

Traditionally, a ritual Torah scroll contained only the Hebrew consonantal text. Nothing may be added, nothing taken away. However, because the Masoretic codices (a codex is a bound book) were intended for personal study as well as ritual use, they provide extensive additional material, called masorah, to show correct pronunciation and cantillation.

The manuscripts include vowel points, pronunciation marks and stress accents in the text. In addition they include short annotations in the side margins, more extensive notes in the upper and lower margins and at the end of each book.

Note: "Cantillation" is the ritual chanted reading of the Tanakh.

The Aleppo Codex is a medieval bound manuscript of the Hebrew Bible. It was written in the 10th century CE. It is considered the most authoritative document in the Masoretic tradition and the most accurate representation of Masoretic principles in any extant (i.e. still in existence) manuscript.

There are very few errors among the millions of details that make up the Masoretic text. This renders Aleppo Codex the most authoritative source document for both the original Hebrew Bible text and its cantillation.

The Christian “Old Testament” draws on the Masoretic text, scholarly studies and other ancient texts of the Bible, including the Dead Sea Scrolls to arrive at a more accurate Hebrew text.

The New Testament Text

At the time the Bible text came to be printed (1455 CE) there were over 2,000 manuscripts known to scholars. Many contain only portions of the original text, but put together a full text can be secured. Today there are over 4,500 extant manuscripts of the New Testament.

In 1956 archaeologists in Egypt unearthed a tiny piece of papyrus with about 30 Greek words on it. Experts examined it anddeclared it to be a small fragment of the Gospel According to John. The fragment has been dated about 130 CE. It is the earliest extant piece of the New Testament, and is now housed in the Rylands Library, Manchester, England. It contains John 18:31-33, 37-38.

The two most important extant manuscripts are Codices A and B, known respectively as the Sinaiticus and the Vaticanus.

After the manuscripts, the next most important form of the Scriptures is the Bible versions. A version is a translation from the original language of a manuscript into another language.

The most important ancient version of the Hebrew Bible is the Septuagint. It is a translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. It was begun about 200 BCE and completed around 180 BCE. It is the oldest scriptural document known to be in existence.

This is the Tanakh text that is most frequently used in citations and allusions by the New Testament writers.

The Latin Vulgate is the ancient version of the Bible in the Latin language. “Vulgate” means common or current. It was produced by Jerome in the late fourth and early fifth centuries as a revision of the somewhat inaccurate Old Latin version (c. 150 CE).

The importance of Jerome’s Vulgate cannot be over emphasized. For more than a millennium every translation of the Bible in Western Europe was based on the Vulgate. After the invention of the printing press, it was the first book ever printed using movable type in 1455.

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