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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Outline History of the Text

In the first stage the ‘original texts’ of individual books of the Old Testament were composed in different generations, and in different historical circumstances. In the case of some books (e.g. the prophet Isaiah) there may have been long initial periods of oral transmission. The commitment of a book to writing may also have been a long process that itself had many stages. The book of Daniel is something of an extreme case, because of the unusually brief period between its composition and its commitment to writing as indicated by the earliest fragments we possess of the book. At the other extreme lie books such as Isaiah, that may have circulated in several varying forms for centuries before our earliest witnesses to that text. The history of the text of the Hebrew Bible in a pre-canonical stage must be considered book by book and development by development. ‘It must remain, for the time being within the realm of conjecture’ (Goshen-Gottstein 1965: L[12]). It quickly encounters the same problems as a history of the people of Israel and Judah. The data on which we could base such a history of the first stage of the text are problematic. It is not possible to discuss them here.

A second stage (although not strictly speaking a chronological or developmental stage, because it is defined by accidents of survival rather than any developments in the text) may tentatively be identified as the earliest text or texts to which we have access through direct and indirect witnesses. The more significant of these witnesses will be discussed below. Goshen-Gottstein (1965) considered that this period began about 300 BCE.

In the third stage, one of these forms is chosen as the definitive form for tradition in Jewish contexts, and is now termed the proto-Masoretic. The nature of this choice is unclear, but it seems most likely that the text adopted was already held in high esteem by a dominant Jewish group of the time, probably the Pharisees. Alternative forms—termed extra-Masoretic or non-Masoretic—sometimes fall into disuse, whether by suppression or neglect. One or other of these may have been the textual basis for translation into Greek or another language in the first or second stages. The proto-Masoretic form is consonantal (although some consonants indicate vowels). Subsequent translations from Hebrew are made from this proto-Masoretic text. Great efforts are made to transmit this text faithfully, with the addition over the centuries of elements that conserve the pronunciation, reading, and writing details.

The fourth stage represented in modern editions is the fully developed Masoretic text based on the manuscripts produced by the ben Asher family of Masoretes at Tiberias in the ninth and tenth centuries. This forms the basis for modern editions of the Hebrew text. After this period there were no further developments of the Hebrew text itself. The task changes to the conservation, reproduction, and interpretation of the text, which was seen to have been perfected by the Masoretes of Tiberias.

This four-stage description is loosely based on that adopted by the Hebrew Old Testament Text Project of the United Bible Societies (Barthélemy et al. 1980, final report Barthélemy 1982, 1986, 1992), as well as that articulated by M. H. Goshen-Gottstein in his introduction to the sample edition of the book of Isaiah for the Hebrew University Bible Project (1965). A history of the text that builds on a hypothetical reconstruction of the process of composition is soon lost in speculation. In what follows we consider the material primarily in relation to stages two to four, and in function of the editions and sources available to the reader.

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