Chapter 2
The Old Testament

Let us take first the Old Testament, before passing on to the New, of which there will be more to say.

It is a matter of common knowledge that, broadly speaking, the books of the Old Testament were originally written in Hebrew, and those of the New Testament in Greek; and the first thing to be remembered is that for by far the greater part of the period which separates us from the dates when the several books of the Bible were first written, every copy of them had to be written by hand. Printing was first invented in Europe in 1454; and the Hebrew Old Testament first appeared in print in 1488, and the Greek New Testament in 1516. Before these dates we are entirely dependent on manuscripts, i.e. handwritten copies; and since it is impossible to copy great quantities of writing without making mistakes, and since also, as we shall see, copyists were not always very particular about exact accuracy, and editors deliberately altered what they thought was either erroneous or obscure, it results that no two manuscripts are ever exactly alike. During these hundreds of years, therefore (nearly 1,400 years in the case of the New Testament, much more in the case of the Old), we are dependent upon manuscripts, all of which have strayed more or less from the true originals; and from the thousands of manuscripts which have survived we have to determine, as best we can, what was the original form of each passage. As a rule, the older the manuscript the greater the chances of its being correct, though this is a rule to which there are many exceptions; and one of the welcome results of recent discoveries is to give us earlier copies of many of the books than were known before. The Bible is not unique in these respects; the same conditions applied to all books before the invention of printing. The main difference is that we have far more manuscripts, and far older, of the Bible than of other ancient books; on the other hand, as will appear later, the conditions under which the books of the Bible, and especially of the New Testament, were produced and circulated caused special difficulties, which complicate the task of the modern scholar who tries to determine the true original text.

Far less is known of the origins of the Old Testament books than of those of the New, because of their greater antiquity. A word should be said about their dates. [1] The books of the Prophets, no doubt, go back to the lives of their respective authors, ranging from the eighth century B.C. in the case of Amos, Isaiah, Micah and Hosea, to the fifth century in the case of Malachi; though all seem to have been subject to editorial alterations and additions. The poetical books include compositions of very various dates, from the time of David to the second century. The historical books present greater difficulties, and the opinions of scholars vary considerably.

About the middle of the nineteenth century there was a period when it was often maintained that writing was unknown in the time of Moses and the judges and the earlier kings, and consequently that the narratives of these early periods could not be based on authentic records. This disbelief in the antiquity of writing has been completely disproved by the discoveries of the last century. First of all, in 1852 and 1853 Henry Layard and his assistant Rassam discovered the libraries of the kings of Assyria at Nineveh, which contained hundreds of tablets of baked clay (the form of book used in Mesopotamia), including the chronicles of Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, and other rulers contemporary with the kings of Israel and Judah. Others contained the Babylonian narratives of the Creation and the Deluge. Subsequent discoveries carried back the proof of the early use of writing far beyond the time of Moses and even of Abraham. American explorers at Nippur in Lower Babylonia discovered thousands of tablets going back to the third millennium B.C., among which were earlier narratives of the Creation and Deluge, and lists of kings and other historical materials. Other excavations, such as those of Woolley at Ur, have amply confirmed the proof that writing was not only known but habitually used in Mesopotamia long before the time when Abraham migrated thence to Palestine. It was known also, and commonly used, in the other countries which adjoined Palestine. From Egypt we have actual manuscripts on papyrus written about 2000 B.C. and evidence that writing was known a thousand years earlier or more. A particularly interesting discovery in this connection is that of the Tell el-Amarna tablets, found in Egypt accidentally by a peasant woman in 1887, which consists of correspondence between the King of Egypt (Amenhotep IV, the immediate predecessor of Tutankhamen) and his officials in Palestine and Syria, written about the time of entry of the Israelites under Joshua into the land of Canaan. We have also writings from the Hittite Empire in Asia Minor and from Crete which date from the second millennium B.C. So though the earliest actual writing in Hebrew yet discovered is an inscription found at Byblos in 1926, which some scholars would date before 1200 B.C., and which is certainly earlier than 1000 B.C., there is ample evidence that writing was well known in and about Palestine in the time of Moses; and consequently there is no reason to doubt that the authors of the historical books of the Old Testament had written materials (some of which they expressly refer to) on which to base their history of their nation.

NOTE: Kenyon's discussion of Old Testament manuscripts in the following paragraphs was made almost entirely obsolete by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls shortly after the publication of his book. We give the paragraphs as they were written in 1936, but we refer the reader to the discussion of the Old Testament text by F.F. Bruce in the supplementary chapter for a description of the current state of scholarship. See also the more recent articles by Skilton and Driver on this website. In brief, the Dead Sea Scrolls have confirmed the antiquity and reliability of the Masoretic text. While the Septuagint remains useful in places where the text is in doubt, there is now no basis for any theory that the early Masoretes "revised" the Hebrew text in any important respect. --M.D.M.

But if we agree that the books of the Old Testament were written down between the eighth century and the second before Christ, there is a wide gap between those dates and the earliest copies which we now possess; for it is a surprising fact that the earliest Hebrew manuscript now known of any part of the Bible is not earlier than the ninth century after Christ. The oldest is probably a copy of the Pentateuch in the British Museum, which is believed to be of this date. At Leningrad there is (or was) a copy of the Prophets, which bears the date of A.D. 916. At Oxford there is a copy of nearly the whole Old Testament which is assigned to the tenth century. There are a few which bear dates as early as, or earlier than, these, but these dates are believed (and in some cases known) to be unreliable; and on the whole we must accept the fact that for the Old Testament there is a gap of more than a thousand years between our earliest Hebrew manuscript and the latest of the books contained in it. This need not in itself shake our belief in their general authenticity; for in the case of many of the works of classical literature, which we accept without question, the interval is even greater. We can, however, do something to bridge the gap, and also to account for it. The interval with which we have to deal may be divided into two parts, the dividing-line between which lies about A.D.100. After the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the leaders of the Jewish people, deprived of their Temple and threatened by the spread of Christianity, were forced to make their sacred books the centre of their national unity. For this purpose it was felt by them to be necessary to define authoritatively which books were to be regarded as sacred, and to secure, as far as might be, the purity of their text. Accordingly, as there is good reason to believe, about the year 100 a synod of Jews drew up the list of accepted books, as we find it in our Old Testament today; those books which we now have in our Apocrypha, which had previously been accepted as almost, if not quite, of equal value, being excluded from it. Further, they prescribed rules to ensure the accurate copying of the sacred text. Copies intended for use in the synagogue were to be written according to precise rules, and with the most minute attention to accuracy. Any copy which was found faulty or damaged was to be destroyed. When a new copy had been made, and its accuracy tested, the old manuscript (especially if it had been in any way damaged) was destroyed or consigned to a lumber-cupboard. This practice accounts for the disappearance of all the early manuscripts, but it is also a guarantee of the accuracy of those that survive. In fact, although even these precise regulations have not sufficed to secure the exact identity of all Hebrew manuscripts, it has brought it about that the differences are of minor character and small importance; and scholars are agreed that the Hebrew books, as we know them today, have come down to us without material change since about A.D. 100.

But what about the centuries before this point? For them we have some evidence, though not of a full or conclusive character. In the third century before Christ, when Jews were becoming more and more spread over all parts of the Greek-speaking world, where they habitually spoke Greek and lost the practice of Hebrew, the need arose for a Greek translation of their Scriptures. Such a translation was made in Egypt, where Jews were plentiful in the capital city, Alexandria, and where the interest in literature was lively. It was said to have been promoted by the King himself, Ptolemy Philadelphus, who was engaged in founding his great Library. Now of this translation, commonly known as the Septuagint, or 'work of the Seventy', from the number of translators said to have been employed upon it, we have many copies much earlier than the oldest Hebrew manuscript. The great Codex Sinaiticus, of the fourth century, originally had the whole of it, though much had been destroyed before the manuscript left the monastery at Sinai where Tischendorf discovered it. The equally old Codex Vaticanus has practically the whole of it, except the greater part of Genesis; the Codex Alexandrinus, of the fifth century, has the whole of it, apart from a few casual mutilations; and there are many of somewhat later date. But earlier than all these are the Chester Beatty papyri, discovered about 1930, buried in one or more jars in the ruins, probably of a church, in Egypt, and published in a series of parts a few years ago. The earliest of these is a copy of the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy, written about A.D. 120-50; from the third century there are large portions of Genesis, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and Esther, with some smaller fragments of Jeremiah. These are the earliest copies of the Bible as yet known to exist, and they establish our knowledge of this Greek translation of the Hebrew books, made some centuries before the final form of the Hebrew text.

Now the Septuagint differs in many, and often not unimportant, details from the Hebrew text. In the first place, it includes those books which were excluded from the Hebrew canon in A.D. 100, and which appear in our Apocrypha. Throughout there are additions, and sometimes omissions, and often varieties of phrasing, which make it clear, either that the Greek translators were working on a Hebrew text differing from that fixed later, or that they took considerable liberties with it. Probably both explanations are true. What is certain is that the Septuagint deserves very careful study, and that the recent discovery of ancient manuscripts of it is an important contribution to our knowledge of the Old Testament.

There is another version of the Hebrew Scriptures which take us back before A.D.100. This is the Samaritan Pentateuch. As we know from 2 Kings xvii. 24-41 and from Josephus, the Samaritans were foreigners imported into the country of the Ten Tribes by the King of Assyria, who there adopted the worship of Jehovah, as the God of the land, but who, when the Jewish leaders refused to let them take part in the rebuilding of the Temple, became bitterly hostile to the Jews. To them came Manasseh, grandson of a high-priest, who had been expelled from Jerusalem by Nehemiah because he had married a heathen wife; and he set up a rival worship at Gerizim, where the rites of the Samaritan Church are performed to this day. As their sacred books they had, and still have, the Pentateuch; and the fact that they recognized these books only is some sign that at the date of Manasseh's secession (408 B.C.) these were the only books yet formally accepted by the Jews themselves. The language is Hebrew, but written in the old characters, not in the square letters adopted by the Jews shortly before the Christian era. The Samaritan community is now reduced to a few score persons living in the town of Nablus; but they still celebrate their Passover on Mount Gerizim (usually celebrated in April), and they still have manuscripts of their Scriptures, which they show to favoured travellers (as to the present writer a few years ago), one of which they assert to have been written by the great-grandson of Moses -- a claim which the appearance of the manuscript, though undoubtedly old and worn, hardly bears out!

The substantial differences between the Samaritan text and the orthodox Hebrew are not very numerous. It is probable that the books of the Pentateuch, being the first to be recognized as sacred, were always carefully copied and were not seriously altered by editors. Still, there are a number of variations of some interest; and when, as happens in several instances, the Septuagint version agrees with the Samaritan, there is strong reason to believe that they, and not the orthodox Hebrew, represent the original text.

The general position, therefore, with regard to the text of the Old Testament is this. It may be accepted that since about the year A.D. 100 it has been handed down with no substantial variation; but before that period it is probable that it had undergone alterations, not so much in the Pentateuch as in the other books. To recover the original form we must depend mainly on the Septuagint; but this can only be done with much caution, for many of the differences which appear in the Greek may be, and probably are, due to mistakes, misunderstandings, deliberate alterations on the part of the Greek translators.

Moreover, there was a tendency to alter the Septuagint text so as to bring it into conformity with the accepted Hebrew text; a tendency to which the great Christian scholar, Origen, contributed by producing an edition of the Septuagint (known as the Hexapla, from its containing six different versions of the text in parallel columns) [2] in which some passages were introduced from the Hebrew, and others marked for omission as not being in the Hebrew. Origen himself carefully marked such passages with special signs; but copyists tended to omit these. It is therefore no easy task to ascertain the true original form of the Septuagint itself, which is necessary before we can compare it with the Hebrew. Nevertheless it remains a fact that the early manuscripts of the Greek Bible, the Vaticanus, the Sinaiticus, the Alexandrinus, and now the Chester Beatty papyri, are the earliest records which we have of the Old Testament, as they are of the New; and in telling the story of how the New Testament has come down to us, we shall in great measure be telling also the story of the Old.

A critical edition of the Septuagint on a large scale is in course of publication by the Cambridge University Press, under the editorship of A. E. Brooke and N. McLean. Eight parts have appeared, containing Genesis-2 Esdras. In this the text of the best manuscript (Codex Vaticanus where it is extant) is printed with a full apparatus of various readings from other manuscripts and versions. The same text, with a select textual apparatus, is printed in the smaller Cambridge Septuagint, edited by Swete (3 vols., 1887-94). A new handy edition, with a revised text and select textual apparatus, has been published by A. Rahlfs (2 vols., Stuttgart, 1935). The Chester Beatty papyri have now (1946) all been published.

ADDENDUM (1946). Two interesting discoveries may now be added: (1) Some fragments of Deuteronomy, found in the Rylands Library, written in the second century B.C., and thus the earliest extant Bible MS, [3] published by C. H. Roberts (1936); (2) a library of clay tablets, discovered by C. F. A. Schaeffer at Ras Shamra in northern Syria, written in a hitherto unknown cuneiform alphabet, and containing religious texts, etc., of the Canaanite kingdom of Ugarit, about 1400-1350 B.C. These, besides throwing much light on the religion of the Canaanites in Palestine at the time of Joshua's invasion, are conclusive evidence of the free use of writing in Palestine at that date.

1. For a convenient summary of the recent trends in Old Testament study see H.H. Rowley, The Growth of the Old Testament (1950). Also useful are a volume of essays edited by Dr. Rowley under the title The Old Testament and Modern Study (1951), and A Critical Introduction to the Old Testament, by G.W. Anderson-1959.

2. These six versions were (1) the Hebrew text, (2) the same transliterated into Greek characters, (3) the Greek translation made by Aquila, which follows the official Hebrew very closely, (4) the Greek translation of Symmachus, (5) Origen's edition of the Septuagint, (6) the Greek translation of Theodotion. The versions of Aquila, Symmachus and Theodotion were made in the second century, but have now almost wholly disappeared.

3. Except of course for the Qumran discoveries, referred to in the supplementary chapter.