The Hebrew Bible: Texts and Versions
The Masoretic Text
The basic text for the Hebrew Bible today is called the Masoretic Text (MT), an edition of the Hebrew that was standardized in the fifth to tenth centuries CE by rabbinic scholars (called masoretes, from massorah, probably “what is handed down,” that is, “tradition”). The Masoretic Text accomplished two things: It settled upon a consonantal text, that is, it established specific choices for the letters of the Hebrew words in the text; and it pointed those letters with a system of markings that indicated which vowels should be read with the Hebrew letters. This two‐part decision was necessary because classical Hebrew writing was in effect a system of consonants, with only a few ways of indicating vowel sounds. Words with the same consonants but different vowels would look the same, as would the English words “untrained” and “interned” if they were both spelled “ntrnd.” In the notes to the Hebrew Bible of the NRSV, “Heb” may refer to the consonantal (unpointed) Hebrew text, and MT to the same text with the vowel pointings included. The distinction is an important one, because the consonants are more likely to represent the original text than are the vowel sounds, which were added later, though based on older traditions. If the same consonants will make more sense with different vowels, the NRSV (and most other modern translations) will assume that those different vowels yield a word that is closer to the original text.
When scholars had gotten the Masoretic Text into its final form, it became the standard text‐form and alternative text‐traditions were lost. It was therefore the case that all copies of the Hebrew Bible that were known were based upon this Masoretic Text, and although there were variants among the different copies, there was no way to check independently on the textual basis of most of the Hebrew Bible. With a few exceptions, this remained the case until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (the documents of the Qumran community) in 1947. Among the scrolls were manuscripts of most books of the Hebrew Bible that were over a thousand years older than the oldest manuscripts available up to that point. These more ancient copies of the Hebrew text have shed light on some passages in the traditional form of the biblical text. For example, at 1 Sam 10.27–11.1 in the traditional text there is no indication of the background to the conflict between King Nahash of Ammon and the men of Jabeshgilead. But in a Qumran manuscript of 2 Samuel there is a continuation of 10.27 and an opening phrase for 11.1 that explains the context, and the NRSV includes them.
Ancient Versions of the Hebrew Bible
In cases where no form of the Hebrew text gives a reading that is satisfactory, scholars can turn to the ancient versions. The assistance these ancient versions give to textual critics and translators is partly due to the situation with regard to the text of the Hebrew Bible explained above. These early translations were made from Greek or Hebrew texts that, for the most part, are earlier than those copies of the Masoretic Text that have survived to the present. They therefore can give guidance to scholars about the state of the text, and even choices of wording, that are not represented in existing manuscripts. They can also confirm certain readings as being more likely. Of course, these ancient translations are themselves preserved only in copies, so that all of the considerations that apply to the original language texts of the Bible also apply to them: It is necessary to establish a critical text for them by comparing variant readings. They must therefore be used with caution, and they cannot be relied upon absolutely. This is, of course, a standard of comparison at one remove from the text itself: Scholars must look at the Greek, for instance, in the Septuagint, and conjecture or assume what the Hebrew would have been in order to result in a particular rendition into Greek. Nevertheless, it is a valuable source of clues.
For example, at 1 Sam 10.1 , the text of the Septuagint is longer than that of the Hebrew Bible. In examining the difference, scholars have theorized that a copyist of the Hebrew text inadvertently omitted part of the verse because the same phrase occurs twice in it, and the copyist went directly from one to the other, omitting what was in between.
Names and Character of the Ancient Versions
The ancient versions of the Bible are referred to in a variety of ways by scholars. Following is a list, by language, of the chief versions.
Greek: The most prominent Greek version, and the oldest surviving translation of the Hebrew Bible, is the Septuagint, which was translated for use of Jews who were living in the Diaspora in Alexandria, Egypt, and other places around the Mediterranean in the centuries after the conquests of Alexander the Great, and who therefore spoke Greek. The Septuagint, from a word meaning “seventy” because of a legend that seventy or seventytwo scholars worked on it, is abbreviated LXX (the Roman numerals for seventy) and, in the notes to the NRSV of the Hebrew text, is referred to as “Gk”. Three later Greek versions—by Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion—were produced for the use of Jews after Christians had taken over the Septuagint and the increasing conflict between Jews and Christians about the interpretation of the Jewish scriptures had led Jews to stop using the Septuagint. These versions are also sometimes used by translators, but none of them has survived in its entirety.
Aramaic: The Aramaic language was the official language of the Persian Empire, and the Jewish people who lived under Persian domination spoke Aramaic, which eventually supplanted Hebrew as the ordinary language of Jews. Aramaic is a Semitic language, like Hebrew, and shares some vocabulary with it, but Aramaic speakers cannot easily understand Hebrew. It was therefore necessary to provide translations of the Hebrew Bible for Aramaic speakers. Read aloud in liturgical contexts, after the Hebrew had been read (see Neh 8.7 for an early example), these translations, called Targums, are often more paraphrases than literal translations. They nevertheless provide useful information about earlier forms of the Hebrew text. In the NRSV notes they are abbreviated “Tg”.
Syriac: The Syriac language is a form of Aramaic and was spoken by Jews in northern Syria who translated their Bible into it. The Peshitta (which means “simple,” that is, a plain translation without textual comments) was prepared for the use of Jews and later taken over by Syriac‐speaking Christians, who added a Syriac version of the New Testament to it. In the NRSV notes it is abbreviated “Syr”. There is also a Syriac translation of the Septuagint that was part of a hexaplaor “sixfold” Bible; in the NRSV notes this is abbreviated “Syr H”.
Latin: Two Latin translations are used by scholars. The first, the “Old Latin” version, was actually a Latin translation of the Septuagint and of the New Testament dating from before the fourth century CE. More useful is the Vulgate, the translation prepared in the fourth century by the great biblical scholar Jerome. Jerome, in translating his Old Testament, worked directly from the Hebrew text of the time, and his version therefore can be helpful in determining original readings in that text. In the NRSV notes the Old Latin version is abbreviated “OL,” and the Vulgate is abbreviated “Vg”.