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History of the Torah
By Jeff A. Benner

Oral Tradition

It is widely believed that the Torah was written by Moses. While this is the traditional origins of the Judeo-Christian religions, there is no record in the Torah of its author. Whether the Torah was written by Moses or another author, how did he know about the events of creation, the flood, and the history of the Hebrew people? Two possibilities exist to explain this knowledge. One possibility is that God had revealed the facts to him through divine inspiration. The other possibility is that the stories and events were handed down from generation to generation and the author would have been very familiar with these traditional stories and could have simply written them down.

In the Hebrew language, the Hebrew word דבר (davar) is used for a "thing," something of substance.

KJV Exodus 22:9 For all manner of trespass, whether it be for ox, for ass, for sheep, for raiment, or for any manner of lost thing

KJV Leviticus 5:2 Or if a soul touch any unclean thing

KJV Leviticus 23:37 These are the feasts of the LORD, which ye shall proclaim to be holy convocations, to offer an offering made by fire unto the LORD, a burnt offering, and a meat offering, a sacrifice, and drink offerings, every thing upon his day:

KJV Numbers 18:7 Therefore thou and thy sons with thee shall keep your priest's office for every thing of the altar…

This same Hebrew word is also used for an action or an important event.

Genesis 18:14 Is any thing too hard for the LORD?...

KJV Exodus 12:24 And ye shall observe this thing (referring to the Passover) for an ordinance to thee and to thy sons for ever.

KJV Numbers 32:20 And Moses said unto them, If ye will do this thing, if ye will go armed before the LORD to war,

KJV Deuteronomy 23:9 When the host goeth forth against thine enemies, then keep thee from every wicked thing.

From this we can conclude that actions were perceived as things of substance, much in the same way as physical objects. The word דבר is also used for "words" as seen in the following passages.

KJV Genesis 15:1 After these things the word of the LORD came unto Abram in a vision…

KJV Genesis 44:2 …And he did according to the word that Joseph had spoken.

KJV Exodus 14:12 Is not this the word that we did tell thee in Egypt…

KJV Numbers 11:23 …thou shalt see now whether my word shall come to pass unto thee or not.

In our Western culture, the written word carries much more weight than the oral word and all official documents, contracts and agreements are written to record specific events. While it may seem strange, or even impossible, in our culture, the opposite was true in the ancient Hebrew cultures, the oral word carried more weight them then the written word as the oral word was considered something of substance. This concept is clearly demonstrated in the Genesis chapter 27. Isaac is about to give his blessing to his eldest son, Esau, before he dies. Esau’s younger brother, Jacob, deceives his father by impersonating Esau and Isaac gives his blessing to Jacob. When Esau comes to his father to receive his blessing Isaac tells him, "Your brother came with treachery and has taken away your blessing." Esau then begs his father for the blessing, but Isaac states that he had already given it Jacob and he will be blessed because of it. The "words" of Isaac were given Jacob and he could not take them back, no more than if he had tried to take back a stone that he had thrown into the sea.

The ancients placed much weight on the oral traditions which were handed down from generation to generation. The stories and traditions were spoken from father to son and memorized with complete accuracy. The written document could be lost or destroyed but the story lived forever in the mind and could never be lost or destroyed. It would have been these stories that Moses would have heard since childhood and long ago put to memory.

Ancient Texts

The Original Manuscripts

Figure 37 – Hebrew manuscript, 11th C A.D. (Image courtesy of Schøyen Collection)

The original manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible, which would have been written on animal skins or papyrus, have long since deteriorated and what remains today, are copies from these original autographs.

In the digital age, electronic copies are perfect representations of the original. However, in ancient times, making a copy of a manuscript was much more tedious and not as precise and this allowed for human intervention or error.

Oldest Known Copies of Biblical Texts

Figure 38 – Silver scroll discovered in Ketef Hinnom

In a tomb at Ketef Hinnom in Israel, the oldest text of the Hebrew Bible was discovered. The text, inscribed on a silver scroll in the old Hebrew script dating to the 7th Century B.C., is the Aaronic blessing, which begins, "yeverekh'kha YHWH Vayishmarekha" (May Yahweh bless you and keep you).

Figure 39 – The Nash Papyrus

Another very old fragment of the Hebrew Bible is the Nash Papyrus, discovered in Egypt in 1898. The fragment includes the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2-17) and the Sh'ma (Deuteronomy 5:6-21) and is dated to the 2nd Century B.C.

Very few ancient texts of the Hebrew Bible have been found and are very rare, that is until 1947 when the discovery of a depository of scrolls in the Dead Sea Caves provided us with a library of ancient manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

Between 1947 and 1956, ancient scrolls and fragments of the Hebrew Bible were discovered in caves near the Dead Sea dating to the 1st Century B.C. and the 1st Century A.D.

Figure 40 – Dead Sea Scroll fragment, (Photograph courtesy of Petros Koutoupis)

The manuscripts discovered in the Dead Sea Caves include; all of the Canonical Books of the Hebrew Bible with the exception of the book of Esther, non-Canonical Books such as Enoch, Jubilees, Tobit and Sirach as well as Psalms that are not part of the 150 Psalms in the Canonical Bible, and Sectarian Books such as, the Community Rule, the War Scroll, the Damascus Document and commentaries on books of the Bible.

There are several different theories on the origin of these texts. The predominating theory is that the scrolls were the work of a Jewish sect called the Essenes who, it is believed, resided in nearby Qumran and that the scrolls were hidden away in the caves to protect them from the advancing Roman army.

Other theories for the writers of the scrolls include Early Messianics (often called Christians) or Zadokite Priests.

A newer theory, is that the scrolls were from various libraries and synagogues, in Jerusalem, about 15 miles from the caves.

The Isaiah Scroll

Figure 41 – A section of the Isaiah Scroll

The most famous of the scrolls found within the Dead Sea Caves is the Isaiah Scroll. While most of the scrolls are fragmented, deteriorating or incomplete, the Isaiah scroll is the only complete scroll found.

Figure 42 – Torah Scroll

The life of a scroll depends on its handling and storage, but can be in use by a community for several hundred years. Some Torah Scrolls still in use in synagogues today are over 500 years old.

The Isaiah scroll from the Dead Sea Caves has been dated to around 200 B.C. Isaiah wrote his original scroll around 700 B.C. and may have been in use up until around 200 B.C. This means that is possible for the Isaiah Scroll from the Dead Sea Caves to be a copy made directly from Isaiah's original scroll.

The Isaiah scroll, as well as many other scrolls and fragments from the Dead Sea, are currently on stored and on display in Jerusalem at the Shrine of the Book.

The Masoretic Texts

The Masoretes were a group of Jewish scribes and scholars from the 6th to 10th centuries that compiled the entire Tanach (Old Testament) into one Codex (book). The Masoretes added the nikkud (vowel pointings) to the text in an attempt to standardize pronunciation, added paragraphs and verse divisions and added cantillation marks to the text.

The two oldest Masoretic texts are the Aleppo Codex and the Leningrad Codex. Both of these codices are virtually identical, with only a slight variation in the paragraphs, verse numbers and spellings of words. The Mechanical Translation of the Torah is based on the Aleppo Codex, but when there is a spelling difference between the Aleppo Codex and the Leningrad Codex, the Leningrad Codex spelling is provided in the footnotes.

The Aleppo Codex

Figure 43 – A page from the Aleppo Codex

Up until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest existing complete Hebrew Bible was the Aleppo codex, also called the Masoretic text, which was written in the 10th Century C.E., a thousand years after the Dead Sea Scrolls. For centuries, this text has been the foundation for Jewish and Christian translators.

The major difference between the Aleppo Codex and the Dead Sea Scrolls is the addition of the vowel pointings in the Aleppo Codex to the Hebrew words. These pointings provide the vowel sounds that are not present in the Hebrew language and were probably inserted into the text to standardize pronunciation.

Figure 44 – The name ישראל (Israel) in a Dead Sea Scroll (left) and the Aleppo Codex (right)

The name ישראל (yis'ra'el – Israel), is spelled in Hebrew with five letters; י (yud-Y), ש (sin-S), ר (resh-R), א (aleph) and ל (lamed-L), and can be transliterated as Y-S-R-L. Only these five letters are used in the Dead Sea Scrolls, but in the Aleppo codex, vowel pointings, in the form of dots and dashes are placed above and below each letter to represent the vowel sounds (i, a and e), providing the pronunciation YiSRa’eL.

While the Masoretic text and the Dead Sea Scrolls were transcribed a thousand years apart, they are amazingly similar proving that the copying methods employed by the Jewish scribes over the centuries are very sophisticated and successful. However, there are some differences; some are simple variations of a reading, while others are much more complex.

Besides the addition of the vowel pointings, other changes have occurred in the Hebrew text after making copies of copies. One of the more dramatic changes is the accidental removal of whole verses.

Figure 45 – A portion of Psalm 145 from the Aleppo Codex

Psalm 145 is an acrostic psalm where each verse begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In the Aleppo Codex the first verse begins with the letter aleph, the second with the beyt, the third with the gimel, and so on. Verse 13 begins with the letter מ (mem-top highlighted letter), the 13th letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the next verse begins with the letter ס (samech-bottom highlighted letter), the 15th letter of the Hebrew alphabet. There is no verse beginning with the 14th letter נ (nun).

Figure 46 – A portion of Psalm 145 from the Dead Sea Scrolls

When we examine Psalm 145 from the Dead Sea Scrolls, we find between the verse beginning with the מ (mem-top) and the verse beginning with the ס (samech-bottom), the verse beginning with the letter נ (nun-center). This verse, missing from the Aleppo Codex, and all modern Hebrew Bibles that are copied from this codex, but found in the Dead Sea Scrolls reads,נאמן אלוהים בדבריו וחסיד בכול מעשיו (God is faithful in his words, and gracious in all his deeds).

This is why Psalm 145:13 reads differently in the King James Version and the modern versions such as the Revised Standard Version. The King James Version was written prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, while the Revised Standard Version, and other modern versions, were written afterward and often incorporate what has been found in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Ancient Translations

As the Jewish people began to spread out beyond Israel, they adopted the language of their new neighbors. This necessitated the need for translations of the Bible in their new languages in order for them to continue reading the Bible. While there have been many translations of the Hebrew Bible into many different languages, the three most widely used in ancient times are the Latin, Aramaic and Greek.

Figure 47 – A portion of an Aramaic Targum (Image courtesy of Schøyen Collection)

Of the many Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Bible, there are three principle ones. Targum Onkelos is an Aramaic translation of the first five books of the Bible. It was written in the 1st Century A.D. by Onkelos, a Roman convert to Judaism. Targum Jonathon is an Aramaic translation of the Prophets. It was written in the 1st Century B.C. by Jonathon Ben Uziel, a student of Hillel the Elder, the famous Jewish teacher and religious leader.

Figure 48 - A portion of the Aramaic Peshitta

The Peshitta is an Aramaic translation of the entire Hebrew Bible that was written around the 2nd Century A.D. The Peshitta also includes an Aramaic New Testament that was written around the 5th Century A.D.

Figure 49 – A portion of the Greek Septuagint

The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, written by Jewish scholars in the 3rd Century B.C. the remainder of the Hebrew Bible, the writings and the prophets were translated by unknown translators between the 2nd and 1st Centuries B.C.

Figure 50 – A portion of the Latin Vulgate

The Latin Vulgate, consisting of the Hebrew Bible as well as the New Testament, was written by Jerome, a Christian priest and apologist, in the 5th Century A.D.