Author Archives: Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler

About Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler

Marc Zvi Brettler is the Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies and chair of the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University. His main areas of research are religious metaphors and the Bible, biblical historical texts, and women and the Bible.

The Stabilization of the Biblical Text

Reprinted with permission from JPS Guide: The Jewish Bible.

A book may be authoritative even though it does not have a fixed text. The spelling of its words, certain whole words themselves–even whole verses–could and did vary from one written copy to another. Thus we should consider the issues of canonization and textual stabilization separately. Indeed, it is highly likely that the biblical text became stable only in the early Rabbinic period. By then, Jews already had a relatively clear idea as to which texts were “in ” and which were “out,” and they had devised certain methods of midrashic interpretation (namely, methods of interpretation that read the text care fully and may even be based on fine spelling variants). Functionally speaking, the latter development allowed for fluid meaning even as the text became fixed.
torah scroll
The Dead Sea Scrolls community considered authoritative a Bible of sorts, yet they did not have a single stable text for its books. That ancient desert community still proceeded to expound its texts–sometimes in versions that are quite different from those found in what later crystallized as the masoretic text. In fact, in at least one case it see med to be interpreting two different versions of the same verse. In other words, just because the community believed a certain work to be holy and inspired did not imply that the text had to exist in a single version.

When Did Stabilization Begin?

Based on the early texts available to us, we can say that the Bible’s consonantal text (that is, the consonants only, without the vocalization-the vowels and cantillation marks) largely stabilized by the 2nd century C. E. We do not know exactly how this happened; perhaps someone made a master edition from which other scribes copied. Perhaps the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. and the failure of the revolt of 132-135 C.E. (the Bar Kokhba rebellion) created a crisis that served as an impetus for creating an authoritative text.

Considering the wider range of ancient versions (and the opportunities meanwhile for scribal errors in transmission ), medieval biblical texts show remarkably few variants. However, even that era knew occasional, significant textual variants, including readings in the Babylonian Talmud that differ from most of our biblical manuscripts. The stabilization of the consonantal text continued until well after the advent of printing in the late 1400s. Even so, to this day, a few variant spellings remain.

The Order and the Ordering of Biblical Books

Reprinted with permission from JPS Guide: The Jewish Bible.

For the many centuries before Jewish scribes published books in codex form, they preserved books in the form of separate scrolls. In certain cases, the scribes put several books in a single scroll–and in a particular order. This was true of the Torah, which needed to be ordered because Jews read it ritually in order, as part of their worship. Similarly, the scribes grouped Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings in sequence since they tell a more or less continuous story in chronological order. However, for the rest of the Bible, even in Rabbinic times, there was a varying order of the Prophets (except for the “Minor Prophets“) and the Writings.
Certain people and groups (especially professional scribes!) love order. Mesopotamian scribes often copied series of cuneiform tablets in standard orders. The resulting predictability made it easier for readers to find what they were looking for, no matter which copy they consulted. Similarly, perhaps ancient Israelite librarians may have kept biblical scrolls in ordered cubbyholes, so that they could locate the right text easily. This may be the original function of ordering the books of the Bible.

The Bible shows evidence of ordering at both the macro and the micro level. On the micro level, its text is divided into books- typically, what can fit on a scroll. (Thus the 12 Minor Prophets constitute a single book or scroll, even though it is made up of many books.)

On the macrolevel, this large collection comprises smaller collections. Exactly how and when this was done are subjects of intense current debate: How early is tile three-part division of the Bible into Torah, Nevi’im, and Kethuvim? When and why did this tripartite division develop? Rabbinic sources–though not any of the earliest such sources–do attest to a three-part (what scholars call a “tripartite”) Bible. Scholars have found allusions to this structure in the New Testament and among the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, these references do not decisively prove that the Bible was organized into three parts as early as the 1st century C.E. Indeed, Jews clearly employed a variety of orders and ordering schemes in the Second Temple period.