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Part II: Hebrew Scriptures

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Known by Christians as the "Old Testament," the 39 books of Scripture in Hebrew were carefully copied and passed down over the centuries. The Divine inspiration of these books was recognized from the time of their writing. God had inspired each writer in their selection of material and content of what they wrote.  He kept their writings from error, and revealed to them new facts and ideas. Through these authors, God gave these divine writings to be widely distributed, carefully studied, taught, and understood. But the sacred books were also to be carefully guarded. In making copies from the original, copies from those copies, and so forth, great care had to be taken to ensure against errors in the text.

The preservation of God's Word began with the first five books, when Moses commanded them to be placed in the Holy of Holies:

And it came to pass, when Moses had made an end of writing the words of this law in a book, until they were finished, that Moses commanded the Levites, which bare the ark of the covenant of the Lord, saying, 'Take this book of the Law, and put it in the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there for a witness against thee.' (Deuteronomy 31:26)

The original Word of God given to human writers was perfect and complete in the original languages, and thus these words had to be preserved with great care. God never promised absolute accuracy of the preservation of the text of the Bible as it was copied and recopied over the centuries. He left this responsibility up to man. Yet His Divine hand can be clearly seen in working through men and in history to protect His Word from error.

A Jewish man who embraced the responsibility of preserving the integrity of the Hebrew Scriptures was called a sofer, Hebrew for "scribe." These devout men were masters in the art of writing and calligraphy, and systematic in their methods for copying the Scriptures. In fact, there are still sofer scribes today who, despite the invention of the printing press and modern technology, faithfully copy the Scriptures by hand in much the same what their ancestors did.

The Talmud, a book of Jewish law, outlines how a scribe is to write the letters of the Hebrew Scriptures, also called the "Torah." The letters of the Torah could only be written in square letters called K’tav Ashuri. This would be like saying an English text could only be written in a certain font, such as Times New Roman, not in cursive handwriting or another font. The purpose of this law is to preserve the text from errors over the centuries, for if one scribe wrote in their own handwriting, a scribe a century latter might misread a word and copy it differently (known as a variant). Variants are almost non-existant in ancient Hebrew Scriptures because of the faithfulness of the scribes.

There are many other rules scribes followed to preserve and pass down the Hebrew Scriptures. They could only use clean animal skins- "vellum" or "parchment." These skins were prepared for holy use by soaking in water for several days (for softening), soaked in lime water for several more days and scraped to remove all of the hairs, and then dried on a stretching rack. Ink also was prepared in a special way to be considered "kosher," or fit for use, by the scribe. No base metals could be used on the parchments, because metals such as iron, brass, and steel are also used to make weapons. Nothing that is ever used for killing could be used, so tools of silver, gold, and ivory were often used instead.

Hebrew Torah Scroll, over 300 years old

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Many of the rules for copying the Scriptures dealt with the character and heart of the scribe himself. A scribe had to speak and sing aloud each word as he wrote it. They washed their hands before each writing session, not just to make them clean, but rather to prepare the heart and mind for performing the holy act of writing the Word of God. They also prayed before each session. Writing a Torah is a "mitzvah," a holy act. Before writing "Jehovah," the name of God, the scribe had to clean the pen and wash their entire bodies in a "mikveh," a pool of natural running water. In writing the Scriptures, scribes were careful to show great reverence and respect, even centuries before the Hebrew Scriptures were canonized, showing that from the earliest times these writing were recognized as God’s Word.

To preserve the text of God’s Word from error, scribes also took numerous precautions. Even though most scribes had the Scriptures memorized, they were not allowed to write a single word from memory. They must use the "tikkun," or perfect text that was passed down from the generations before. Every word had to be checked against the older copy before and after it was written. Once the page of parchment was complete, the letters, words, and paragraphs had to be counted and be identical to the original document. Each letter had to be clear and legible, and no two letters could touch each other. If just one error occurred, the page had to be re-done.

Once a sheet of parchment was complete, it had to be checked by three rabbis before being sown with other parchment sheets into a complete Torah scroll. A complete torah scroll consists of about 250 parchment sheets and, if completely unrolled, can be up to 100 yards long! Even after the entire scroll was complete, however, it was reviewed again within thirty days. If one or two pages had errors, those errors could be corrected, and the scroll used, but if three or more parchment pages were found to contain errors, the entire scroll was unfit for use and had to be re-done!

An old and worn scroll was discontinued from use because of the possibility of someone using it to make a copy, and thereby making a mistake because of faded or smudged letters. Since the Jews never destroyed any document containing God’s Word, they were stored or buried in a special hiding place called a "genizah," usually under or within a synagogue or Jewish cemetery.


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The Bible Preserved and Passed Down: Ancient Times

Man was given the responsibility to both preserve the text of God's Word from error, while at the same time making copies of the Scriptures to share with all people and pass down to future generations. There was a constant tension between carefully guarding the text against errors (called variants) for future generations, and widely distributing it for people of the current day to learn and understand. In the years before Christ, God chose the Jewish people for this task, and the Jewish scribes were the most faithful in all of human history to find and maintain a balance between these two responsibilities concerning the Word of God.


Were the scribes truly accurate in copying the Scriptures? Over the centuries, how many errors had crept into the text of the Old Testament? History would prove that the scribes’ methods were extremely accurate. Many centuries of copying had passed when a young boy exploring in the hills of Southern Israel made the greatest archeological find of the twentieth century- a find that proved to skeptics the accuracy of the Scriptures we have today. This find was a group of caves with ancient buried parchments of the Hebrew Scriptures and other ancient writings, known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.




Copyright 1998, The Ancient Page