A New Guide to the Old Testament – Transmission

A New Guide to the Old TestamentNow that we have seen the makeup and historical context of the Old Testament, we will now turn to the issues of composition and transmission. The word of God did not pop into existence as a Bible app. The tablets Moses carried down the mountain did not have English writing on it, or even Hebrew for that matter. So how did the Old Testament get to us here in the 21st century?

Oral Tradition

The Old Testament finds its roots in oral transmission. Ancient Israel, like other ANE cultures, was primarily an oral culture. Stories were told orally, passed down from one generation to the next.

Several examples can be found in the Old Testament. After crossing the river Jordan, Joshua has the nation erect a monument and instructs them to recount the story to their children (Joshua 4:5–7). Likewise, the Passover story was to be recounted—and even reenacted—every year, for generations to come.

Other times the Lord passed information to the people verbally through a mediator, often called a prophet or a man of God. Throughout the Pentateuch, Moses is instructed to pass on laws to the nation. Later in the nation’s history, the prophecies of Jeremiah, Isaiah, and others were first communicated orally to the people.

Written Down

Over time, the words of God—spoken by the prophets of God—would be written down, becoming the Old Testament. It was always the Word of God; it now becomes the written Word of God.

Moses compiled the commands he received from God into the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 24:7), which he read to the nation. Baruch recorded the words of Jeremiah onto a scroll twice (Jeremiah 36:4, 32).

These stories and prophecies were not merely recorded into a written format; they were shaped. A later addition to the book of Deuteronomy (chapter 34) provides an end to the Moses narrative, as well as a fitting bridge to the book of Joshua.

Shaping is also seen in poetry; several of the Psalms are acrostics, meaning each line (or stanza) starts with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Psalms that have an acrostic structure include 9/10, 119, and 145. This structure is also found in the description of an excellent wife (Proverbs 31:10–31).

Later biblical editors were also involved in shaping entire books of the Old Testament. For example, the editors of the book of Psalms arranged all 150 individual psalms into a cohesive unit; moreover, they divided this collection into 5 books, likely reflecting the Pentateuch. This is also seen in the book of Proverbs, which connects wisdom sayings spanning hundreds of years1.

The book of Chronicles was also shaped by an editor or group of editors. Drawing from a variety of ancient sources—including the books of Samuel and Kings—Chronicles provides a later retelling of Israel’s history. But the story-shapers were not plagiarizing, they cite 75 sources throughout the text2.

Finally, later editors also modernized the text, for a variety of reasons. They did it to update archaic or out-of-use place names, like referring to the northern city of Dan (Genesis 14:14), well before it was conquered and named (Judges 18:29). They provided editorial comments, like emphasizing the depravity of Israel before the days of the kings (Judges 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). They also referred to modern times, highlighting that Joshua’s statue still stood by the Jordan (Joshua 4:9).

A Note on Copies

As these written documents were compiled, they were also copied. This is for our benefit, as any original manuscripts3 are lost to history.

This is due to several reasons. First, these documents were written on papyrus and other fragile material that would rot and wear out. Second, the history of the Israelite nation is riddled with wars, invasions, and occupations; it is likely that many original documents were lost in the fires that consumed Jerusalem in both 586 BCE and 70 CE.

We are indebted to the generations of scribes who transcribed each letter meticulously by hand. Otherwise, the vast riches of the Old Testament would be lost to us today.

Masoretic Text

Masoretic Text - the dots and dashes denote vowels.
Masoretic Text – the dots and dashes denote vowels.

Eventually copies would be made in a more readable form of Hebrew. A scribal group—known as the Masoretes—helped standardized the Hebrew Old Testament. Active between the 6th and 11th centuries CE, the Masoretes were very particular, even reverential, in copying the Hebrew text; they counted every single letter in each book, so they would know if they missed one. As they copied the Hebrew, they added special markers and signs to help with translating and pronunciation. These vowel points and accents, not found in ancient or modern Hebrew, helped make the Old Testament copies into fully-readable documents4.

English Translations

Modern English translations—like the ESV and the NIV—base their Old Testament translations on the Masoretic text, alongside alternate translations5. But this has not always been the case for English translations.

John Wycliffe translated the Old Testament into English...and his bones were burned for it.
John Wycliffe translated the Old Testament into English…and his bones were burned for it.

John Wycliffe and his students created the first English translation of the Bible, with the Old Testament being published in 1382. The text was translated from the Latin Vulgate, which was itself a translation from the Greek, which had come from the Hebrew. This did not make for the most accurate English translation, but it was a start. Unfortunately, it was not well received by the religious leaders, who did not want a Bible in the common vernacular. Although Wycliffe was already dead by the time the Council of Constance condemned him, the religious leaders dug up his body and burned his remains at the stake.

The mood had not changed some 150 years later, when William Tyndale published his first New Testament in Modern English in 1526. Translating Scripture into the common language was illegal in England, and Tyndale was executed for it in 1536, before he could publish his translation of the Old Testament.

Once translating the Bible in English was legalized, a succession of translations updated Tyndale’s work—but kept it largely intact. Finally, in 1611 the King James Bible—also know as the Authorized Version—was published; it depended on previous English translations, but did utilize some Hebrew manuscripts. The Hebrew manuscripts used were good for its time, but we have learned so much more in the 400 years since.

As our understanding of Hebrew grew, as well as additional ANE findings like the scrolls at Qumran, translators began incorporating these findings into new translations. This can be seen in footnotes, which list alternate translations, as well as in the notes of study bibles and commentaries.

Why does it matter?

Again, the question must be asked as to how the transmission of the Old Testament text affects 21st-century Christians. I believe there are several takeaways.

First, it helps us understand from where the Old Testament came. Like I said in the introduction, the Old Testament was not written as an English translation; it has gone a long, winding road to reach us today. Created in an ancient culture, using an ancient language, the Old Testament must be translated before we can understand it.

Second, we can see how different the formation of the Old Testament is in comparison to how we now create written works. This will be important to keep in mind as we continue to look at the Old Testament, especially in terms of authors, purpose, and audience.

Third, we can gain a deeper appreciation for God’s work in preserving the Old Testament. By God’s grace, the text of the Old Testament has lasted for thousands of years. It has survived invasions, clumsy translations, and the elements. And it survives to this day. For that, we must rejoice.

  1. The initial 24 chapters are attributed to Solomon; later additions are compiled by Hezekiah’s men (25:1), Agur (30:1) and King Lemuel (31:1). 

  2. See 1 Chronicles 29:29–30 for an example. 

  3. Which we sometimes call autographs 

  4. To the benefit of seminary students throughout history! 

  5. Including the Greek Septuagint, Latin Vulgate, Syriac Peshitta, and the scrolls found at Qumran, to name a few. Good Bible translations will note the alternate wordings in the footnotes. 

Brandon Schmidt

I am Brandon Schmidt: writer, husband, father, brother, reader, and laugher.

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