The Hebrew bible (Old Testament) was originally written by several authors ranging from roughly the 15th to 5th century B.C. in the Hebrew language with small segments in Aramaic. (Primarily Daniel 2:4b-7:28 and Ezra 4:8-6:18, 7:12-26) Aramaic was spoken by the Jews after the exile, which explains its appearance in these books with later dates. Documents in the original language are called manuscripts and copies of them are transmissions. Documents in other languages are called versions as they are translations.
Languages vary in communication style, flow, and structure. We would therefore prefer to possess the earliest manuscripts in the original language to ensure accuracy and avoid the translators’ interpretations. The two extremes in translation would be “word for word” translations which tend to be more literal but often can lose the exact meaning of the text, or “thought for thought” translations, which attempt to capture the meaning but lose the nuances of specific words. This makes evident the difficulty in translating a translation. For exa,ple, translating the Old Testament from Latin into English introduces the difficulties of moving across two language barriers instead of translating from Hebrew directly into English. The science of studying manuscripts to remove scribal copying errors and obtain the most likely original text is known as textual criticism. The intention of textual critics is to provide a precise original language text that can be used as a basis for translation into any language.
Ironically, the oldest manuscript of the complete Hebrew bible that we have is the Leningrad Codex (codex meaning ‘book’ as opposed to scroll) which is dated to 1008 A.D. Another important Hebrew codex is the Aleppo Codex, named after the city in Syria in which it was located. It was considered a model codex used for Jewish high holidays and settling matters of dispute amongst scholars. Unfortunately it was partially destroyed in a fire in 1947. Both of these come from a strong Jewish scribal tradition and are known as the Masoretic text. The Masoretes were a group of scholars that flourished between the 7th and 11th century A.D. They had meticulous practices of preserving the text and required the destruction of worn copies (They didn’t see the need for older copies because the text was firmly established.) They were also responsible for vowel pointing. The original Hebrew text was consonantal only. The Masoretes were concerned about the pronunciation of the language, as it wasn’t being spoken much anymore; and they added vowel pointing to preserve the proper way of reading the Hebrew.
Other portions and fragments of the Hebrew text have been found which have significantly earlier dates, such as the Nash Papyrus. It contains parts of Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 and 6. Scholars debate its date. Some believe it was pre-exilic while others give it a first or second century A.D. date. These fragments serve as a snapshot of the early text. They provide some confirmation and some potential conflicts with the Masoretic text.
Even though we lack early complete Hebrew manuscripts, we have a number of early witnesses. These are translations that give us insight into the original text.
The Samaritan Pentateuch
Sometime after the exile, the Samaritans became an independent faction from the Jews. Their scriptures were written in a script variant of the Hebrew (called the Paleo-Hebrew script) and are now called the Samaritan Pentateuch. The Samaritan Pentateuch serves as a second Hebrew text of the Pentateuch and carries some six thousand variations from the Masoretic text. Most of these are orthographic (spelling differences) and some are additions that were introduced by the Samaritans to preserve their cult. (I.e. the command to build a sanctuary on Mount Gerizim was inserted after Exodus 20:17). It should be noted that about nineteen hundred variants agree with the Septuagint (see below) against the Masoretic text.
Hellenism spread the Greek language as universal in the Diaspora. An Alexandrian Jew named Aristeas writes to his brother in the Letter of Aristeas that Ptolemy II Philadelphus, while serving as King of Egypt (281 B.C. to 246 B.C.), desired that his library have a copy of the Jewish Law. He sent to Eleazar, the High Priest, in Jerusalem for translators. Eleazar selected six elders from each of the twelve tribes and sent them with Hebrew scrolls to Ptolemy II. Supposedly, the seventy two men translated the Pentateuch in seventy two days on the island of Pharos; it was read to the Jews in Alexandria and approved as accurate. We aren’t sure how the rest of the Septuagint was translated, but we do know that it was done by multiple translators because parts of it tend to be literal (word for word) and other parts are more free (thought for thought). The Septuagint (abbreviated LXX, which means “according to the seventy”) is significant as it was widely recognized as the bible of the early church and many viewed the translation as inspired.
Other early translations
Language influences necessitated other translations for the Jews and early Christians. As previously noted, many post-exilic Jews spoke Aramaic. The Aramaic translation is known as the Aramaic Targums. The Syriac Translation is known as the Peshitta. The early Egyptian Christians read the Coptic Version. We also have the Ethiopic Version, the Armenian Version, and the Arabic Versions that bring perspective on the early text. Of special note is the Latin Vulgate. (Vulgate meaning “common language”) There were a number of Latin versions of the scriptures floating around the church by the fourth century A.D. Pope Damasus I commissioned Jerome, an eminently qualified scholar in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, to translate a uniform and reliable text. Jerome’s Vulgate was pronounced the “authentic Bible of the Catholic Church” at the Council of Trent on April 8, 1546.