The Scribes of Proto-MT and Their Practices
The practices of the proto-MT scribes (including the scribes that preceded them) as well as those of the medieval scribes of MT (or in short, the scribes of MT) are better known than that of other scribes. This happened not only because there are many more copies of the medieval MT than of any other text of Scripture, but also because proto-MT scribes as a group (i.e., not individual named scribes) are often mentioned in rabbinic literature.
When focusing on the scribes, we refer to their general approach to the text that may be examined with the aid of such criteria as precision, number of scribal errors, amount of scribal intervention in the text (corrections, additions and erasures in the text), and the approach to orthography (i.e., writing conventions). We know more about the scribes of the proto-MT texts from the Judean Desert than those of the medieval texts because the former display more individual features and have been studied more.
An important criterion that can be examined for the MT group and not for most non-MT texts is to what extent the scribes changed the texts from which they were copied. This cannot be examined for most texts since we do not know their Vorlagen (i.e., the texts that preceded them from which the scribes were copying), but for the proto-MT texts we think that we know a little more. After all, since these texts display the same text as the medieval MT, by implication they copied their Vorlagen precisely.
Rabbinic Traditions about the Use of Corrected Scrolls
The precision of the scribes of proto-MT is often mentioned in the rabbinic literature and this information exactly fits the scribes of proto-MT. On several occasions, rabbinic literature mentions a “corrected scroll”  (ספר מוגה).Furthermore, according to later rabbinic tradition, the Temple employed professional “correctors” whose task it was to safeguard precision in the copying of the text (b. Ketub. 106a):
מגיהי ספרים בירושלים היו נוטלים שכרם מתרומת הלשכה
Correctors (maggihim) of books in Jerusalem received their fees from the Temple funds.
This description implies that the correcting procedure based on the master copy in the Temple was financed from the Temple resources that thus approved of the copying procedure. This was the only way to safeguard the proper distribution of precise copies of Scripture.
These scrolls must have been used throughout the land of Israel, for public reading as well as for instruction, public and private, as suggested by b. Pesah. 112a, where one of the five instructions of R. Akiba to his student R. Simeon was:
וכשאתה מלמד את בנך – למדהו בספר מוגה.
And when you teach your son, teach him from a corrected scroll.
Another such precise copy was the “Scroll of the King,” which accompanied the king wherever he went. Y. San. 2.20c and Sifre Deuteronomy 160 tell us that,
ומגיהים לו מספר עזרה על פי בית דין של שבעים ואחד.
[This scroll] was corrected to match the copy in the Temple Courtyard in accordance with the court of seventy-one members.
The “Scroll of the King” may well be an imaginary scroll, and its description equally imaginary, but the reality for which it accounts, namely a practice of correcting scrolls from a master copy, fits the reality of the copies of proto-MT and the precision of its scribes. The tradition about the presence of a master copy of the Torah in the Temple Court is not necessarily historical either, but is supported by similar evidence about law codes and sacred writings found in temples in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome.
In the end, the textual unity described above has to start somewhere, and the assumption of a master copy is therefore necessary. The Judean Desert texts that are closely related to MT may well have served as such corrected copies.
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December 8, 2017
July 27, 2020
Prof. Emanuel Tov is J. L. Magnes Professor of Bible (emeritus) in the Dept. of Bible at the Hebrew University, where he received his Ph.D. in Biblical Studies. He was the editor of 33 volumes of Discoveries in the Judean Desert. Among his many publications are, Scribal Practices and Approaches Reflected in the Texts Found in the Judean Desert, Textual Criticism of the Bible: An Introduction, The Biblical Encyclopaedia Library 31 and The Text-Critical Use of the Septuagint in Biblical Research.
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