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How the Bible Came to Be: Part 2, The Word Is Preserved

TitleHow the Bible Came to Be: Part 2, The Word Is Preserved
Publication TypeMagazine Article
Year of Publication1982
AuthorsRead, Lenet Hadley
Issue Number2
Date PublishedFebruary 1982
KeywordsLanguage - Aramaic; Language - Hebrew; Poetry; Recordkeeping; Septuagint

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How the Bible Came to Be: Part 2, The Word Is Preserved

By Lenet H. Read

Ancient Methods of Keeping Records

There were several ways to record and preserve records anciently—none of them easy. The most common was to use papyrus, made from pith scraped from the papyrus plant, then wetted and pressed together. Scribes could write on both the front and back. (See Ezek. 2:10.) For more space, additional scrolls could be pasted at the bottom, the whole being rolled around rods. Some rolls may have reached as long as thirty-five feet, though such length would obviously become very clumsy and unwieldy.

Clay tablets were also written upon and then baked in the sun or in kilns. More durable than papyrus, clay tablets are more commonly discovered in ancient ruins.

Records were also made upon writing-boards—flat boards of wood or ivory cut out in such a way that an inlay of wax could be written upon. The boards were hinged together to become a folding book. Perhaps this is the kind of record Ezekiel is referring to when he speaks of the sticks of Judah and Ephraim being joined into one stick. (See Ezek. 37:16–17.)

Animal skin (leather) was also used by the Hebrews. And for very significant religious records, metals were used. (Laban’s brass plates are an example.)

While we can mention all these methods quite easily in passing, we do the ancient scribes injustice if we do not at least acknowledge the great hand labor required to prepare these writing materials before even one letter could ever be set down upon them. The process of writing is tedious and immensely challenging even under the best of conditions. To expend all the energies necessary to write in those days with what we would consider inadequate light, awkward writing instruments, difficult writing materials, and uncomfortable surroundings would incur sacrifices which we can only vaguely imagine.

The preservation of records was of great concern to the Hebrews. From the first, scriptures were treated with the utmost care: Moses’ writings were preserved in the ark of the covenant. The scriptures record the names of those who were called to be state scribes, for this was considered an office of very great importance. Senior scribes were even given their own rooms in the palaces and temples. Ancient writings remained only in the hands of priests and were read only by scribes. Each scroll had to be copied directly from another scroll, and until the destruction of the temple, official copies were taken directly from the master copy in the temple. The official scrolls were the most holy objects in the synagogue and were treated in every way like treasures.

New scribes were carefully instructed about the sacredness of their task: “My son, be careful in thy work, for it is heavenly work, lest thou err in omitting or in adding one jot [the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet] and so cause the destruction of the whole world.”1

Style and Form

The scriptures are far more than just history: they are the word of the Lord. As such, they deserve to be put in the most beautiful setting possible. And, for the most part, they were, even though each writer spoke out of his own time and culture, and in spite of human weaknesses. The record is not merely prose: it is rhythmic prose, and often even poetry. In fact, several of the prophetic books are in part or almost wholly poetic, although we may not recognize this at first since Hebrew poetry differs from English poetry. Rather than using a repetition of sounds for effectiveness, Hebrew poetry achieves its impact through a rhythmic repetition and balance of ideas, either similar or contrasting. This style carries truth to the ear in a more powerful, more pleasing, more memorable way. Imagine, to be prophet and poet both!

But surely poetic gifts did not come readily. We can only imagine the many additional hours, the greater mental fatigue, the greater patience required to work and rework, to write and rewrite the scriptures until the form was rhythmic and the imagery and language poetic.

This quality of the Hebrew scriptures augments another unique quality: history saturated with similitudes and prophecies of Christ, the ultimate Suffering Servant. Some of the Hebrew authors not only wrote about, but also experienced their prophecies. One was asked to offer a son as sacrifice; another struggled through a wilderness as savior to a rebellious and bondaged people. It is only when we realize that their ultimate gift to the word of God was the lives they led that we can fully grasp just how much they really gave for the sake of truth.

The Challenges of Translation

Aramaic is generally thought to have been the general tongue of the Hebrews after their Babylonian captivity. Since it was also the language used in trade and diplomatic relations over a wide area, it became entrenched as the everyday speech of the inhabitants of Judah. Therefore, from the fourth century B.C., the Hebrew scriptures were an enigma for most Jews unless translated for them. Yet at that point, according to Jewish tradition, written translations were forbidden, as if the language and the concepts were inseparable. Oral translations were permitted, but only by official synagogue translators. Even then, the translation had to be done verse by verse in the Torah and at least after every third verse in the “Prophets.”2

The oral translations, or Targums, were more than just translations. They were interpretation and explanation, sometimes even extending into sermons. The religious leaders found these methods actually useful in overcoming what they felt were easily misunderstood passages. An example used by one scholar of explanatory translation is that given for Exodus 24:10 [Ex. 24:10] which states, “And they saw the God of Israel.” In Aramaic it would be translated and interpreted, “And they saw the glory of the God of Israel.”3 It is particularly interesting that the passages indicating an anthropomorphic (physical) God were the ones most often explained away. It is not surprising, then, that when One arrived a few centuries later claiming to be the Son of God, his claim was met with hostility: the rejection of a God with a body of flesh and bones had begun long before.

Eventually, written Targums were also allowed, but the translations had to be written between the lines of the Hebrew on the scrolls. Translation into Aramaic became quite extensive: remnants of Targums of almost all the books of the Old Testament have been discovered.

But there was a need for other translations as well. With the conquest of Palestine by Alexander the Great in 333 B.C., there was another dispersion of Jews, this time to Egypt. Again, many who adapted themselves to living in other lands never returned. Now there were two major centers of the Diaspora (scattering): Babylon and Alexandria. Alexander’s conquests had spread the use of Greek throughout a very wide area, and Greek became the language used in commercial and literary enterprises. Most Jews living in lands other than Judah became Greek-speaking.

And so around 250 B.C. a translation was made of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek. How it came about is highly debatable. One ancient account, popular among early Christians but viewed as legend by scholars today, is contained in a narrative called the “Letter of Aristeas.” According to this story, King Ptolemy of Egypt heard of the excellent Jewish records and desired a copy in Greek for his growing library. To obtain them, he sent a group, including Aristeas, to the high priest in Jerusalem, loaded with presents. The Jews agreed to his offer and sent scholars back to Egypt to carry out the translative work. According to the legend, each of these seventy-two elders worked upon the translations separately, but when they compared the results of their progress, their renderings were identical. The work was accomplished within a period of seventy-two days. Because of these elements of seventy—seventy-two elders and seventy-two days—the work came to be known as the Septuagint, Latin for seventy.4

Modern scholars obviously have doubts about the authenticity of such a legend. Generally, they do agree that the translation probably occurred in Alexandria and that it was probably done by Jewish translators from Jerusalem. Regardless of its exact origins, the Septuagint was well accepted by the Jews of Alexandria, and, as we will see later, became a powerful influence in later years.

The Old Testament during the Time of Christ

What became the record of the Jews, though sparse in parts, had been built step by step from the time of Adam. It had grown to a collection of many sacred writings and had been translated into the changing common languages of the people. But now its very Author, the One from whom it had all originally sprung, appeared upon the scene. The scriptures themselves relate this wondrous happening:

“In the beginning was the Word, … and the Word was God. … And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” (John 1:1, 14.)

He who from the beginning had uttered the words which prophets had written and man had studied and vocalized and repeated—he of whom all the scriptures had borne witness—came among his people. Although they possessed his words, they understood them not, and he rebuked them, saying, “Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures.” (Matt. 22:29.)

And although they possessed his words, they did them not, and he rebuked them, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.” (Matt. 23:2–3.)

While in the flesh, he repeated his word in awesome irony: “Did ye never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner?” (Matt. 21:42.)

And finally, he fulfilled his word before their very eyes and even at their doing. His atonement, crucifixion, and resurrection were the fulfillment of all that the prophets had spoken.

After his resurrection, he showed his disciples how the Old Testament had borne witness of all the events which had just come to pass. On the road to Emmaus those who walked with him exclaimed, “Did not our heart burn within us … while he opened to us the scriptures?” (Luke 24:32.)

And then he departed, and his disciples were left to take the joyful news that the old word—the laws, prophecies, and covenants—had been fulfilled through Christ’s life and death.

The basic scripture of the earliest Christians was the Septuagint, the Hebrew record translated into Greek. But the record was used in a new way—as a witness of Christ. It was in this role that the Septuagint began to play a very important part. When the Christian message began to spread outside the borders of Palestine, the Septuagint became the main instrument of teaching and conversion. Already in the international tongue of Greek, it allowed a rapid spreading of the gospel to many nations. (And interestingly, its name, Septuagint, takes on new meaning: it became a missionary—a seventy—to all the nations.)

Several incidents in the New Testament detail conversions occurring through the use of the Old Testament. One missionary, Apollos, “mightily convinced the Jews, and that publicly, shewing by the scriptures [the Old Testament] that Jesus was Christ.” (Acts 18:28.)

The Hebrew records, then, were not abandoned by the first Christians. Rather, they were studied even more diligently, but with new eyes. Unlike the unconverted Jews, who believed these records contained all, Christians (both Jewish and gentile) were taught that they contained but the first step—testaments which would lead to new life through the Savior.

Just as there emerged vast differences in the way Jew and Christian interpreted the ancient writings, so there were some differences in the actual manuscripts they used. There are differences in the wording found in Greek and Hebrew scrolls. The Septuagint’s “a virgin shall conceive” was “a young woman” in the later Masoretic version. Exactly how and at what point such differences emerged is uncertain.5

In addition, early Christian Apostles made reference to teachings found in writings attributed to Moses and Enoch but which are not found in scriptures possessed by traditional Judaism. Various manuscripts discovered in modern times claim that after his resurrection Christ himself gave his Apostles certain ancient writings the Jews didn’t possess.6

After the Time of Christ

The fact that the Septuagint was being utilized so extensively by Christ’s followers was greatly disturbing to rabbinic Jews. Disavowing the Septuagint, they prepared translations of the Greek that were more acceptable to them, making references to an anthropomorphic God less obvious.7

Many events at this time had devastating impact upon the Jews: the rise of Christianity, which, to them, was a major apostasy; Christianity’s misappropriation of their scriptures; the fall of Jerusalem; and the second destruction of the temple. These events caused them to reexamine the status of their records. Since the temple, their central place of worship, had again been destroyed, they became even more “the religion of the book,” for the book was the only religious thing of a physical nature left to them.8

Sometime during the first century the Jews made a final determination of what constituted authoritative Jewish scriptures. There is evidence that the Council of Jamnia in A.D. 90 may have been the culmination of this effort, for the council debated the authority of certain books and established a fixed canon of Judaic writings.9 Among books not included were some accepted by the Christians. Apocalyptic writings, in particular, were the ones most consistently discriminated against and have survived (except for Daniel and parts of Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Zechariah) only in non-canonical works.10

To ensure thereafter that the canon would be preserved uniformally, all future Hebrew manuscripts were made to conform to a certain pattern, and variant texts were destroyed or suppressed.11

Much of the work of preserving the Hebrew scriptures through the centuries after Christ was accomplished by the Masoretes, traditional Jewish scholars who worked in Palestine and Babylon between the sixth and tenth centuries A.D. The Hebrew manuscript with which they dealt was a solid mass of consonants: there were no written vowels, no word separations, no punctuations. The tedious work of transcribing and the lack of space had led Hebrew scribes to utilize this shorthand system. Regarding the text as sacred, the Masoretes were reluctant to insert vowels, but they developed a system of using dots and dashes which stood for certain vowels. In essence, they were filling out the words without changing the consonantal text.12

The copying methods of the Masoretes were strictly prescribed by Talmudic law. Among the rules were the following: (1) A synagogue roll had to be written on skins of clean animals prepared specifically by a synagogue Jew. (2) Only authentic copies were to be recopied, and scribes were not to deviate in the least. (3) Nothing must be written from memory.13

For years, scholars searching for original copies of our scriptures were unable to find any Old Testament copies in Hebrew older than the ninth century A.D. Part of the reason for this is that as new copies were made, the old were burned or buried.14 Though parts of some manuscripts eventually turned up, the real breakthrough came in the 1940s when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. Among the scrolls were one of Isaiah and portions of other Old Testament books. Although they agree generally with later copies, there are also important points of divergence, enough to arouse some belief that variant pristine texts once existed.15

Although the Old Testament has been canonized and theoretically completed, scholars today still search for its sources and for its original texts.

Regardless of its failings, the Old Testament as preserved by the Jews deserves high tribute. It is praised by scholars of many faiths. Some point out that unlike the tales of other Near Eastern cultures, archaeological evidence shows that Israel’s story is true history and deserves praise for its respect for fact—particularly since respect for fact did not generally prevail during the time of its writing. Others point out that while neighboring cultures had records of beliefs and ways of life, these beliefs died and are known now only because of excavations centuries later.

But the Jewish history and record of beliefs, far from dying and being buried, “has provided a continuing tradition and a source of constant study; people have read it, re-examined it and lived by it.”16

Thus, from the beginning, the word went forth from God. Men received it and sought to hold on to it. Though some was lost, much was saved. Our eighth article of faith recognizes this fact, and yet it affirms the record’s divine origin, and that it must be read with an ear tuned to the voice of the Spirit. Although we look forward to the time when the records will be whole, that which we now have is reverenced and appreciated.

It is a good foundation upon which many things have been and will yet be built.

End of Part 2. To be continued.

Lenet Hadley Read, mother of five, is a Sunday School teacher in her Gainesville, Florida, ward.


  1. See Geddes MacGregor, The Bible in the Making, Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1959, p. 48.
  2. See A. A. Macintosh, “From the Ancient Languages to the New English Bible,” in The Making of the Old Testament, ed. Enid B. Mellor (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1972), p. 154.
  3. Ibid., pp. 154–55.
  4. See Josiah H. Penniman, A Book about the English Bible (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1931), pp. 10–11; also Frederick C. Grant, Translating the Bible (Greenwich, Conn.: The Seabury Press, 1961), pp. 20–22.
  5. See MacIntosh, p. 148.
  6. See Hugh Nibley, “A Strange Thing in the Land: The Return of the Book of Enoch.” Ensign, July 1976, p. 65.
  7. See MacIntosh, pp. 148–49.
  8. See The Cambridge History of the Bible, Vol. 1, ed. P. R. Ackroyd and C. F. Evans (Cambridge University Press, 1970), pp. 132–33.
  9. See Fred Gladstone Bratton, A History of the Bible (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959), pp. 122–24.
  10. See Margaret Barker, “Other Writings of the Jewish Community,” in The Making of the Old Testament, pp. 75–104.
  11. See Bratton, p. 226; also Shemeryahu Talmon, “The Old Testament Text,” in The Cambridge History of the Bible, Vol. 1, pp. 162–63.
  12. See MacIntosh, pp. 143–44.
  13. See H. G. G. Herklots, How Our Bible Came to Us (New York: Oxford University Press, 1954), pp. 38–39.
  14. See MacIntosh, pp. 144–45.
  15. See Talmon, p. 162.
  16. See MacIntosh, p. 45.