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Carol A. Newsom





There Was Never One Version of the Bible



APA e-journal

Carol A. Newsom





There Was Never One Version of the Bible






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There Was Never One Version of the Bible

During the Second Temple Period, scribes improved and embellished the texts they copied. As a result, divergent copies of biblical books existed side by side.


There Was Never One Version of the Bible


Modern books are stable objects, mechanically reproduced so that each copy has an identical text. Revised, expanded, or condensed editions are explicitly identified as such, and copyright protections ensure that different publishers cannot create their own variant editions of a book.

The situation was different before the invention of the printing press, when scribes hand-copied manuscripts. Not only were accidental changes made within the process of copying, but a scribe might undertake to improve the text by abbreviating it or by adding explanatory comments, embellishments, or even new material.

The manuscripts from Qumran, near the Dead Sea, constitute the largest collection of (mostly fragmentary) copies of biblical books—just over 200—found to date, following various early textual traditions that form the basis of what we have today:

  • MT-like—similar to the Masoretic Text;
  • Pre-Samaritan—an expansive text like the Samaritan Pentateuch, but without the specifically Samaritan additions about Mount Gerizim;
  • Septuagint—reflecting the LXX’s Hebrew Vorlage (original);
  • Other—showing patterns of difference unattested in Bibles that survived until today.

The retention of multiple divergent copies of biblical books at Qumran and its related settlements suggests that their understanding of what constituted “a book” differed from the modern sense of the term. John Barton of Oxford University reflects about the book of Jeremiah, for which the Septuagint and 4QJerb from Qumran differ significantly from the Masoretic text:

[P]eople knew that there was a prophetic book called Jeremiah, but they accepted as authoritative whatever version of it they, or the community they belonged to, had inherited. “Jeremiah” did not mean a specific and accurate range of content but a physical book—a scroll, of course—entitled “The words of Jeremiah,” whatever exactly was in it.[1]

Such an understanding of “a book” as consisting of all of its different versions means that readers could see differences as adding meaning rather than presenting a problem for meaning.

Finding Meaning across Multiple Text Versions

The pesher (commentary) on Habakkuk from Qumran, for example, quotes the text of Habakkuk 2:16 as שתה גם אתה והרעל, “You, too, drink and wobble” (hrʿl) (1QpHab 11:8–9). The MT, however, has שְׁתֵה גַם אַתָּה וְהֵעָרֵל, “You, too, drink and be uncircumcised” (hʿrl). And yet, the pesher refers to circumcision in its commentary on the passage:

11:12 פשרו על הכוהן אשר גבר קלונו מכבודו ‎11:13‏ כיא לוא מל את עורלת לבו וילך בדרכי ‎11:14‏ הרויה למען ספות הצמאה.
1QpHab 11:12 Its interpretation concerns the priest whose shame exceeds his glory, 11:13 for he did not circumcise the foreskin of his heart, but walked in the ways of 11:14 inebriation in order to quench the thirst.

Thus, the interpreter clearly knew the MT version even though he does not cite it.

Harmonizing Legal Differences

Some scribes harmonized legal differences to avoid having contradictory laws.[2]

Boiling the Paschal Lamb—In describing the preparation of the Passover lamb, Deuteronomy 16:7 (MT) says, וּבִשַּׁלְתָּ וְאָכַלְתָּ, “You shall boil (it) and eat (it).” By contrast, in Exodus 12:9, both the MT and the LXX say, אַל־תֹּאכְלוּ מִמֶּנּוּ נָא וּבָשֵׁל מְבֻשָּׁל בַּמָּיִם כִּי אִם־צְלִי־אֵשׁ, “Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but rather roasted in fire.” The LXX of Deuteronomy 16:7 harmonizes with Exodus 12:9 by requiring the lamb be both boiled and roasted: “You shall boil (it) and roast (it) and eat it.”[3]

Reasons for Shabbat—In Exodus, the commandment refers back to the seventh day of creation, while Deuteronomy (MT) relates the law to the experience of slavery in Egypt.[4] 4QDeutn combines both reasons, with the passage from Exodus being added to the one in Deuteronomy.[5]

Enriching Narratives by Adding New Material

Scribes did not limit themselves to simply harmonizing the biblical texts, however. They also revised and supplemented existing narratives in more extensive ways, for example by adding speeches, dreams, prayers, or songs.

Azariah’s Prayer—Daniel 3 in the MT only briefly describes the scene when King Nebuchadnezzar has Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah thrown into the fiery furnace, mostly focusing on Nebuchadnezzar’s reaction to what he sees. The LXX, however, includes a 68-verse expansion, with a prayer by Azariah describing conditions within the furnace, and a hymn by the three young men. The prayer and hymn show signs of having been translated from a Hebrew original.[6]

Greek Esther—The LXX version of Esther has six passages not present in the MT, some of which appear to have been composed in Hebrew, others in Greek. They contain narrative elements, dream accounts, prayers by Mordecai and Esther, and the texts of royal edicts dictated by Haman and Mordecai. Taken together they change the character of the story significantly.[7]

Esther and Daniel, of course, are relatively late compositions and, literarily, are short stories. Thus, we might consider that scribes felt freer to enrich and expand short texts that had not been circulating for centuries. Yet we also have Pentateuchal texts from Qumran that contain similar narrative and poetic enrichments.

Qumran’s Reworked Pentateuch

4Q364–367 contains material not present in MT, LXX, or SP. Consequently, scholars initially called it “Reworked Pentateuch.” Now, however, there is general agreement that “Reworked Pentateuch” is not the best label for these texts, and that they were simply considered to be Pentateuchal texts, even though they contained material not in the MT.

Rebekah’s Grief in the Story of Jacob’s Departure for Paddam-aram

In the MT, Genesis 28:5–6 begins with Isaac sending Jacob to Paddan-aram and then shifts to Esau’s reaction:

בראשׁית כח:ה וַיִּשְׁלַח יִצְחָק אֶת יַעֲקֹב וַיֵּלֶךְ פַּדֶּנָה אֲרָם אֶל לָבָן בֶּן בְּתוּאֵל הָאֲרַמִּי אֲחִי רִבְקָה אֵם יַעֲקֹב וְעֵשָׂו. כח:ו וַיַּרְא עֵשָׂו כִּי בֵרַךְ יִצְחָק אֶת יַעֲקֹב וְשִׁלַּח אֹתוֹ פַּדֶּנָה אֲרָם לָקַחַת לוֹ מִשָּׁם אִשָּׁה...
Gen 28:5 Isaac sent Jacob off, and he went to Paddan-aram, to Laban the son of Bethuel the Aramean, the brother of Rebekah, mother of Jacob and Esau. 28:6 When Esau saw that Isaac had blessed Jacob and sent him off to Paddan-aram to take a wife….

4Q364, however, includes a short scene in which Isaac attempts to comfort his wife Rebecca for the loss of Jacob:

1 אותו תרא֯ה֯ [ -- ] 2‏ תראה בשלום [ -- ] 3‏ מותכה ועל עיני֯[ך ? -- למה אשכל גם ?] 4‏ שניכם. ויקרא [ישחק אל רבקה אשתו ויגד ?] 5‏ לה את כול הדב[רים האלה ? -- ] 6‏ אחרי יעקוב ב֯נ֯ה֯[ ותבך -- . ⟦ ? ⟧] 7‏ וירא עישאו כי [ברך ישחק את יעקוב ושלח אותו] 8‏ פׄ[דן] א֯רמ לקחת לו מ֯[שם אשה -- ].
4Q364 3 ii:1 him you shall see […] 2 you shall see (him) in good health […] 3 your death, and unto your eyes […Why should I have to remain deprived of] 4 both of you? And [Isaac] called [Rebecca his wife and he told] 5 her all [these] things […] 6 after Jacob her son [and she wept. vacat?] 7 Now Esau saw that [Isaac had blessed Jacob and sent him away] 8 to Pa[ddan] Aram to find from [there a wife] for him […].[8]

The manuscript is fragmentary, but it appears that Isaac is upset that Rebecca has isolated herself in her grief, and he is promising her that she will see Jacob again before she dies. In the Hellenistic era there was an increasing taste among Jewish audiences for emotionally charged narrative scenes. Apparently, a scribe saw an opportunity to subtly shape the narrative to bring it more into line with contemporary sensibilities.

Jacob’s Dream of the Spotted and Speckled Sheep

In Genesis 3o:31–36, Jacob asks for permission to keep the spotted and speckled sheep from Laban’s flock as his wages. Laban agrees, but then attempts to limit Jacob’s “pay” by removing all such animals from his flock (Gen 30:31–36).

The MT initially presents the technique by which Jacob ensures the birth of more spotted and speckled sheep—a combination of “magic” and selective breeding—as Jacob’s cleverness (vv. 37–43). Later, Jacob tells Rachel and Leah that the technique was revealed to him in a dream in which God also told Jacob to leave Laban and return to his homeland.[9]

But the MT narrator never mentioned the dream, and Jacob only brings it up when he needs to convince his wives to leave with him (vv. 1–9), leaving open the possibility that he invented it. In contrast, 4Q364 4, includes the dream before Jacob implements the technique, thus solving the problem.[10]

Miriam’s Song Celebrating the Destruction of Pharaoh’s Army

The account of the Exodus also contains an expansion, after YHWH drowns Pharaoh’s army and Moses and the Israelites sing a hymn of praise. Miriam then leads the women in a very short song, just a variation of the first lines of Moses’s song (Exod 15:1):

שׁמות טו:כ וַתִּקַּח מִרְיָם הַנְּבִיאָה אֲחוֹת אַהֲרֹן אֶת הַתֹּף בְּיָדָהּ וַתֵּצֶאןָ כָל הַנָּשִׁים אַחֲרֶיהָ בְּתֻפִּים וּבִמְחֹלֹת. טו:כא וַתַּעַן לָהֶם מִרְיָם שִׁירוּ לַי־הוָה כִּי גָאֹה גָּאָה סוּס וְרֹכְבוֹ רָמָה בַיָּם.
Exod 15:20 Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. 15:21 And Miriam chanted for them: “Sing to YHWH, for He has triumphed gloriously; horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.”

4Q365, however, had an extended song praising God as Israel’s deliverer, of which only portions of seven lines have been preserved:

1 בזׄית ע֯[ -- ]
4Q365 6a ii + 6c:1 with an olive branch […]
2‏ כי גאו֯ת֯[ ]ל֯ע֯[ -- ]
2 for the pridefulness […]
3‏ גדׄול את֯ה֯ מ֯ו֯שיא א֯[ -- ]
3 You are great, O deliverer […]
4‏ אבד֯ה֯ תקות שונה ונשׄ[כח -- ]
4 the enemy’s hope has perished and he is for[gotten …]
5‏ אבדו במים אדירים שׄו֯נ֯ה֯[ -- ]
5 they have perished in the mighty waters, the enemy […]
6‏ וׄרוממנה למרומם[ פ]ד֯ות נתת◦[ -- ]
6 Praise him in the heights, he has given salvation […]
7‏ [עו]שׄה גאות.
7 [who has] done glorious things. vacat […]

The resumption of the story after this song aligns with the MT, as Moses leads the people away from the sea (Exod 15:22).

These manuscripts indicate that even in the late Second Temple period, at least some scribes continued to enhance the narratives of the Pentateuch.

Enhancing and Expanding Legal Texts in the Pentateuch

The book of Nehemiah mentions an annual offering to supply wood for sacrifices in the Temple:

נחמיה י:לה וְהַגּוֹרָלוֹת הִפַּלְנוּ עַל קֻרְבַּן הָעֵצִים הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם וְהָעָם לְהָבִיא לְבֵית אֱלֹהֵינוּ לְבֵית אֲבֹתֵינוּ לְעִתִּים מְזֻמָּנִים שָׁנָה בְשָׁנָה לְבַעֵר עַל מִזְבַּח יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ כַּכָּתוּב בַּתּוֹרָה.
Neh 10:35 “We have cast lots [among] the priests, the Levites, and the people, to bring the wood offering to the House of our God by clans annually at set times in order to provide fuel for the altar of YHWH our God, as is written in the Torah.

Although the passage says the offering is “written in the Torah,” the MT does not contain such instructions. 4Q365, however, inserts instructions for the offering in the context of Leviticus’s laws for supplying the Temple. The passage in 4Q365 begins by citing the introductory command from Leviticus 24:1, but instead of Leviticus’ commandment to bring olive oil for the lamps in the Tent of Meeting (Lev 24:2),[11] 4Q365 23 4–11 describes the Wood Offering:

‏ ⟦ ⟧ 4‏ וידבר י־הוה אל מושה לאמור צו את בני ישראל לאמור בבואכמה אל הארץ אשׄרׄ 5‏ [א]נ֯וכי נותן לכמה לנחלה וישבתם עליה לבטח תקריבו ע{{ש}}‸צׄ‸ים לעולה ולכול מל[א]כ֯[ת] 6‏ [הב]ית אשר תבנו לי בארץ לערוך אותם על מזבח העולהׄ
4Q365 23 4 YHWH spoke to Moses, saying, “Command the children of Israel, saying: When you come into the land that 5 I am about to give you as an inheritance, and where you shall dwell securely, bring wood for the whole burnt-offering and for all the work of 6 the house that you shall build for Me in the land, arranging the wood on the altar holding the burnt-offering;
[ו]אׄת הע֯ג֯לי֯[ם ]◦◦[ -- ] 7‏ [ ]◦םׄ לפסחים ולשלמים וׄלתו֯ד֯ות ולנדבות ולעולות דבר יוםׄ[ ביומו -- ] 8‏ [ -- ]ל◦[ ]ל◦[ ]◦מים ולדׄ[ל]ת֯ות ולכול מלאכת הבית יקרׄי֯[בו -- ] 9‏ [ -- ואחר מ]ו֯עד היצהר יקריבו את העציםׄ שנים [ -- . ]
and the calves [and also the wood…] 7 for Passover sacrifices and for communion offerings and for thank-offerings […] and for the doors and for all the work of the house they will bring 9 [… the fes]tival of new oil, let them bring the wood two […]

‏A detailed account of the sacrifices to be offered for each of the tribes for the days of the Wood Offering is found in the Temple Scroll (11Q19), a legal text that harmonizes and extensively supplements Pentateuchal texts.[12]

Did 4Q365 Contain Instructions for Building the Temple?

The Torah does not contain instructions for how to build the Temple, as we find in 1 Kings 5–7 (Solomon’s temple), and Ezekiel 40–46 (a vision of the future Temple to be rebuilt). Nevertheless, five fragments written by the same scribe as 4Q365[13] contain extensive directions and measurements for the construction of the Temple.

Emanuel Tov and Sidnie White Crawford considered such an extensive and radical expansion of the Pentateuch to be unlikely, and so suggested that these five fragments might belong to a separate work, which they designated 4Q365a.[14] In contrast, Molly Zahn and Michael Segal have argued that there is no compelling reason to exclude these fragments from the Pentateuchal text of 4Q365.[15]

If that is the case, then at least one scribal tradition supplied what it saw as a major omission in the Pentateuch: God’s own specific instructions for building the Temple, given to Moses.

Revision as Part of the Centuries-Long Process of Composition

Much is still unknown about how the Proto-Masoretic Text came to be the stable and enduring text of the Bible. Emanuel Tov has suggested that the Masoretic techniques that resulted in almost flawless reproduction of the consonantal text of the Bible for centuries originated in the Temple among the priests of Jerusalem, who preserved the Masoretic Text (MT) as the official text type.[16]

In contrast, Eugene Ulrich argues that, as in other centers where Jews preserved copies of biblical books (e.g., at Qumran and among the Greek speaking Jews of the diaspora), a variety of divergent texts may also have been preserved in the Temple. Only after the destruction of the Temple would a single text have been selected for biblical books, to provide a unifying focus for Jews, wherever they lived.[17]

Whether or not the techniques for flawless reproduction pre-date the destruction, the drive within Judaism to limit or prevent such scribal freedom in favor of an exact reproduction of the biblical texts appears to have been influenced by the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E.,[18] but no such stabilization characterized biblical texts before 70 C.E. Instead, the Second Temple era represents the final period of the composition of the Bible.


August 18, 2022


Last Updated

April 9, 2024


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Prof. Carol A. Newsom is Professor (emerita) of Old Testament at Emory University's Candler School of Theology. She holds an M.T.S. and Ph.D. from Harvard University. Among her many books are Rhetoric and Hermeneutics: Approaches to Text, Tradition and Social Construction in Biblical and Second Temple Literature (Mohr Siebeck, 2019); Daniel: A Commentary (OTL, 2014); The Self as Symbolic Space: Constructing Identity and Community at Qumran (Brill; 2004); The Book of Job: A Conflict of Moral Imaginations (Oxford, 2003); Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice: A Critical Edition (Scholars Press, 1985). Newsom is a past president of the Society of Biblical Literature (2011) and served as the director of Emory’s Graduate Division of Religion (2012–2015).