Copyright 1982. Cited with permission from the author and Bible and Spade





Alan R. Millard


Every activity concerned with Old Testament study, owes its

existence entirely to generations of Jewish scribes, who copied and

recopied the books of the Old Testament for more than 1,500 years.

Until recently only the products of the last third of that time were

available, The most extensive example is the Aleppo Codex. This

manuscript represents at its fullest the meticulous concern of the

scribes for the accurate transmission of the sacred text. Their

activity in copying the text followed long-established patterns,

eventually codified in tractates appended to the Babylonian Talmud

(Soferim, Masseketh Torah).

The question of how old these practices, or the attitudes they

embody, might be has received only limited attention, partly

because of the lack of early material, Respect for small details of the

text characterized the teaching of Rabbi Akiba (died ca. A.D. 133)

and Aquila's even earlier Greek rendering of the Old Testament,

Care for the precise wording of the biblical text is attested


Alan R. Millard is professor of Hebrew, Akkadian and Near Eastern Archaeology

at the University of Liverpool. He has worked on numerous excavation projects in

the Near East and currently is epigraphist with the British Archaeological

Expedition at Tell Nebi Mend (Qadesh on the Orentes) in Syria.




therefore, at the start of the Christian era. The application of this

care to the copying of texts is thought to have been Jewish imitation

of Greek custom. In the course of this paper a different origin will be

indicated. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the last three

decades have given scholars the privilege of studying Hebrew

manuscripts of the Old Testament much older than any previously

known. Investigations of scribal techniques in the Scrolls have been

published, but an overall and balanced evaluation has to wait until

all the texts are made available. In the famous Isaiah Scroll from

Cave I the obvious corrections display the faults of the original

scribe and the attention of another. Other fragmentary manuscripts,

varying from the traditional "Massoretic" text have given rise to

various hypotheses about earlier stages of their history and the fluid

situation at Qumran. Without older copies, any opinions remain;

hypothetical. Although earlier copies of any part of the Bible are

denied us, neighboring cultures can show how ancient scribes

worked, and such knowledge can aid evaluation of the Hebrew text

and its history.

Babylonian Scribal Practices


The most prolific source of ancient documents is Mesopotamia.

There the practice of writing can be observed from before 3000 B.C.

Almost from the start customs arose which endured until the

demise of the cuneiform script at the beginning of our era. Scribes

categorized and listed words in regular order, probably to be learned

by rote. From the middle of the third millennium B.C. a significant

number of literary compositions survive, written in Sumerian, but in

some cases copied by scribes with Semitic names. Their names are

known because they are given in colophons, concluding the copies.

Here, at an early date, is a sign of responsibility; a signed copy could

be traced to its writer for credit or reproof, or to check a source. A

few works recently assigned to this era, the Early Dynastic III period,

prove to be the ancestors of several copies previously known from

Old Babylonian times, some seven or eight centuries later. Now the

textual history of one or two compositions can be investigated. In

editing a hymn in praise of the city of Kesh, R.D. Biggs commented

that "there is a surprisingly small amount of deviation" between

copies of the two periods, and "The Old Babylonian version is a

faithful reflection of a text that had already been fixed In the




Sumerian literary tradition for centuries." The archives of Ebla are

now revealing that the basic scribal conventions and textbooks were

common to that Syrian city as well as to the cities of Sumer about

2300 B.C.

It is the old Babylonian period, the age of Hammurabi, that has

bequeathed to us the largest collections of early literature. The

principal finds have been made at Nippur, Ur, and Kish, but it is clear

that the material was known over a wider area. So far as can be

determined, these tablets are the exercises of students in schools.

That is why many duplicate texts are found, enabling the

reconstruction of whole compositions from numerous incomplete

copies. It is worth emphasizing the number of manuscripts available

for individual compositions, in some instances 20 or 30,

occasionally 50 or 60, all of approximately the same date. When

they are set side by side in a critical edition the scribal errors are

made plain and they fall into the recognized classes. Large numbers

of differences appear which are not errors. The majority are variants

in orthography*; the minority, a relatively small number, are true

variants which occasionally allow manuscripts to be grouped by

type of text. Colophons occur in some of these copies, though not

frequently. Most common is a note of the total number of lines. In a

long text, every tenth line might be marked, and subtotals entered at

the foot of each column. Evidently a check was made with an

exemplar after the copy had been completed. Sometimes a

correction was made in the text, and if a line was found to have

been omitted, it was written on the edge of the tablet with a

horizontal line marking its correct position in the text. (This appears

to have been done on the Snake Charm text from Ras Shamra.) If a

composition occupied more than one tablet, the last line of the

tablet would stand as the first of the next. The Old Babylonian

manuscripts of the Atrahasis Epic display these points, each ending

with a comprehensive colophon: 1st tablet, "When the gods like

man" (the title), number of lines 416, scribe's name, month, day,


Just as third-millennium works were copied in Old Babylonian

times, so compositions of the early second millennium were copied

in the first. Again opportunities arise for comparison of copies made

many centuries apart. There are compositions which were copied for

a millennium or more with minimal change. The "Laws of


* Spelling. --Ed.



Hammurabi" exemplify this. The latest edition lists over three dozen,

manuscripts, many only small fragments, ranging from

Hammurabi's days until Nebuchadnezzar's. Variations are basically

in spelling: there are examples of "modernization" in grammatical

forms and a few small differences of wording. Another example of

faithful transmission is the poem edited as "The Return of Ninurta to

Nippur." The editor listed 64 variants from the 207 lines of

Sumerian text attested by 54 manuscripts from Old Babylonian,

Middle Babylonian, Middle Assyrian, Neo-Assyrian and Neo-

Babylonian periods. Of those 64 variants he stated that "only twelve

can be said to involve a real alteration of the sense of the line in

question, and in no case is the sense of the text as a whole

affected." On the other hand, some works show major differences

between the earlier and the later copies. In none is this more

obvious than the Epic of Gilgamesh. However, the differences in this

case are not simply the result of scribal error; they are due in large

part to deliberate editorial activity. Reasons for some of the changes

can be proposed in the light of known developments in religious

thought; for the majority no reason can be offered, and indeed, it is

hard to find any significance in them. Perhaps it is pertinent to

observe that when a manuscript of only one period survives, it is

impossible to predict whether an earlier or a later copy might or

might not differ, and if it were to differ, how it would do so. But this

is a matter that rises beyond our primary concern, the activity of the

scribes as copyists. The tradition of the colophon persisted

throughout the first millennium B.C., sometimes with the name of a

scribe's colleague or senior as the inspector or collator of the copy

following the scribe's name. In the later period, also, there are added

details of the exemplar or exemplars; for example "copied from a

tablet from Babylon," providing a pedigree, as it were, for the text.

Certain other points illustrate the scrupulosity of the scribes in

handling texts, their traditionalism, and their care as glossators*

attempting to elucidate texts. First, scribes copying from clay tablets

might find their exemplars damaged. In some cases they may have

been able to restore the damaged text and hide the fact from us.

Sometimes the scribe simply recorded the damage by writing

"break" or "recent break" in smaller script on his copy, even when

the restoration seems obvious to us. Second, scribes were careful

not to split a word between the end of one line and the start of the


*A "gloss" is an addition made to the text. --Ed.




next; in fact they normally avoided breaking phrases. Where there

were insufficient words to fill a line fully, the scribe would space his

signs and ensure that there was one at the end of the line.

Occasionally two lines of an exemplar might fit onto one line of the

copy. Third, when the two lines were complete in themselves, a

"colon" in the copy would mark the division. This "colon" varies its

form between one vertical or diagonal wedge, and two diagonal

wedges. If a scribe was forced by exigency of space to break a word

or a phrase, he could write it below the far end of the line,

sometimes preceded by the "colon." The "colon" also served to

mark glosses. From an early date, scribes adopted various

orthographic techniques to ease the reader's task, spelling

syllabically words written with word-signs, for example marking

them off with this sign. The Amarna Letters and the Ras Shamra

Akkadian texts provide many examples of Akkadian writings with

words glossed in a local language, the gloss usually being marked

by the "colon." Finally, certain copies of literary texts made in the

first millennium B.C. have doublets: a word is followed by a

synonym or variant. separated from the main text by the "colon,"

The explanation offered is that these are the readings of different

exemplars. This becomes a regular feature for distinguishing the text

from the comment in the learned commentaries of the Babylonian


Throughout the history of cuneiform writing there was a tradition

of care in copying. Babylonian scribes were aware of their

weaknesses and established various conventions to overcome them.

No one could claim they always succeeded, but it is important to be

aware of the fact that they tried,


Early West Semitic Scribal Practices


After the end of the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1200-1100 B.C,),

Babylonian influence in the Levant grew weak. The political

situation was one cause of this, and another, in the sphere of

writing, was the rise of the alphabet. With the simple script of 22-

30 letters, writing ceased to be a scribal monopoly, Nonetheless,

scribes still held a major place in the production of documents, and

doubtless they were responsible for introducing and maintaining

various conventions that are apparent in surviving texts, Unlike the

Babylonian scribes, early Hebrew clerks and their colleagues did not



hesitate to break a word between one line and the next if space ran

out. The likelihood of misunderstanding was minimized, however, by

the habit of dividing each word from its neighbor. Continuous

writing, without spaces between words, familiar from Greek

manuscripts as a fruitful source of error, was avoided. This practice

of word division was noted by some modern Old Testament scholars

but ignored by others who sought to emend the Hebrew text by

dividing the words differently. Ten years ago it was demonstrated

that scribes who wrote Ugaritic, Early Phoenician, Hebrew, and

Moabite were accustomed to word division by a point. Where

Aramaic dominated, the word-divider was not usual, but from the

Persian Empire onward spaces were left regularly between words.

To date, no preexilic Israelite literary manuscript is available. The

longest early Hebrew text in its contemporary form is the Siloam

Tunnel Inscription. Longer compositions from adjacent regions do

exemplify the work of scribes using the alphabet. There are many

early Hebrew ostraca (Andre Lemaire collected 250 or so in his

valuable Inscriptions Hebraiques I: Les Ostraca [Paris, 1977], many

of them illegible) and several dozen graffiti. Yet strangely, longer

texts are few. In contrast, early Aramaic texts of some length have

been found, but few ostraca or graffiti. Only time may tell whether

this situation is the accidental result of chance discovery or has

other causes.

In these longer Aramaic texts some indications of techniques that

would have been equally at home in the process of writing or

copying a book may be seen. One reservation is necessary: texts

written on stone are likely to have been traced by a scribe in ink,

then engraved by a sculptor or mason, a technique apparently

visible on some Assyrian stonework. Therefore, some irregularities

and errors may not be truly scribal.

The three stelae from Sefire near Aleppo, bearing the treaties

Bar-Gayah king of KTK (a place of uncertain identity) made with

Matiel of Arpad about 750 B.C., are the most extensive inscriptions,

about 175 lines preserved to some extent. In his recent edition of

the stelae, John Gibson has noted "several mistakes, certain or

probable, by the stone-cutters." In all he lists fourteen, but the

number that can be counted as "certain" is very much smaller,

possibly no more than three or four. The presence of an ancient

correction is as interesting an error as modern scholars can detect.

Face B of Stele II reads: "the treaty and favour which the gods have




Facsimile of an Aramaic treaty text, Sefire stele II, face B, showing inserted line,

ca. 750 B.C. Copied by J. Starcky, in A. Dupont-Sommer, Les inscriptions

arameennes de Sefire, 1958.



made in Arpad and among its people; and if Matiel will not obey,

and if his sons will not obey, and if his nobles will not obey, and if his

people will not obey " The repetition of "will not obey" lends itself

easily to the error of haplography., and, in fact, the words "if his

sons will not obey" in the second phrase were omitted originally.

After the third line had been incised in the stone, the missing words

were squeezed in between lines 2 and 3.

A similar error was made by the person who wrote the Aramaic

dialect text about Balaam on the plaster of a temple wall at Tell Deir

Alia in the Jordan valley about 700 B.C. (see Bible and Spade,

Autumn 1977, pp. 121-124). The first line of the text, as restored

by A. Caquot and A. Lemaire on the basis of Hoftijzer's edition,

reads, "The record (spr) of Balaam, son of Beor, the man who saw

the gods. Now the gods came to him by night..." Writing the text on

the vertical plastered face of the wall, the scribe omitted "to him"

before "the gods" and had to insert it above the line. (Similar

omissions were rectified in two other places.) This restoration

involves an adjustment to Hoftijzer's edition and is attractive, yet

leaves a space at the beginning of the first line. Indentation was not

normal at the beginning of a text, so another word should be

supplied at the start and the most likely word is the demonstrative

pronoun, "this" (znh). The narrative might then commence: "This is

the record of Balaam, son of Beor, a man who saw the gods was he.

Now the gods came to him by night " This inscription from Deir

Alia probably represents a column of a scroll. It has the upper and

left-hand margins ruled (the right was provided by the corner of the

plastered face) and headings written in red ink in Egyptian style. It is

the nearest we can come to the appearance of a book in Palestine

about the time of the prophet Isaiah.

The oldest actual example of West Semitic literature in book or

scroll form so far recovered is the "Proverbs of Ahiqar" from among

the papyri from the island of Elephantine at Aswan. Epigraphic study

has dated the manuscript late in the 5th century B.C.; thus, it

reflects book production at the time of Ezra, the time when

traditionally, the Aramaic or square script (called "Assyrian") was

adopted by Jewish scribes. Here it is interesting to see how the

introductory narrative is written in long lines, each one filled, the

words separated from one another by small spaces, and not broken


*Hapiography is the skipping from a word or phrase when copying a text to the

same word or phrase further on, thereby leaving out a section of the text. --Ed.






Facsimile of the opening section of the Balaam text from Tell Deir Alia, showing

inserted word in line 1, ca. 700 B, C, The writing appears to be laid out as a

column of a scroll. (J. Hoftijzer, Aramaic Texts from Tell Deir Alia, Brill, pl. 29).


between one line and the next. (The scribe was not concerned to

justify his left-hand margin!) In the section containing the proverbs

the scribe often ended one proverb and left the rest of the line blank,

starting the next one on a new line. Sometimes he marked the end

of a proverb with an alep-like sign, whether or not the next proverb

followed on the same line. Other proverbs are distinguished from

each other by a horizontal stroke between the lines. The

commencement of each proverb on a new line is not regular.

however, nor is the insertion of the terminal mark or the bar.


Scribal Accuracy


These diverse examples of extrabiblical documents reveal how

ancient copyists wrote their texts, and how they tried to write them




!so they would be readily legible to anyone trained in the same

conventions. In this atmosphere, too, the early copyists of the Old

Testament books were bred. That they maintained similar high

standards of careful and accurate copying is proved, at least in

certain respects, by the following collection of examples.

Within the Old Testament are numerous foreign names, many of

them alien to the western Semite. (Foreign names pose problems in

all languages and scripts; the various spellings of East European or

Oriental names in our newspapers illustrate that.) Where ancient

!writings of these names are available, detailed study shows the

Hebrew writings represent the contemporary forms very closely.

Thus the names of the Assyrian kings Tiglath-pileser and Sargon, as

handed down through the Old Testament, turn out to be accurate

reflections of the Assyrian dialect forms of these names. Tiglath-

pileser is found in an almost identical spelling on the Aramaic Bar-

Rakkab stele from Zinjirli, carved during his reign, or very shortly

after. Sargon, occurring in Isaiah 20:1, has become familiar in

Akkadian dress as Sharru-ken, but in Assyria during the king's rule,

the sh was pronounced s and the k as 9 as in Tiglath-pileser. These

are normal sound-shifts between the Babylonian and the Assyrian

speaking regions in the early first millennium B.C.. They are

demonstrated by the way Sargon s name IS spelled In Aramaic

letters on two documents. In the Aramaic letter written on a

potsherd sent to Ashur, the old Assyrian capital city, from southern

Babylonia, Sargon appears as sh, r, k, n, shar-ken, while on the

Aramaic seal of one of his officers, known from an impression found

at Khorsabad, Sargon's new city in Assyria, it is s, r, g, n, sar-gon. It

is exactly that spelling that has been preserved in the traditional

Hebrew text of the Old Testament. A comparable precision can be

argued for other foreign names throughout the Old Testament, as

continuing study and discoveries indicate. In a recently published

papyrus fragment from Elephantine, dated 484 B.C., the name of

king Xerxes (Ahasuerus) is seen for the first time written in Aramaic

with prosthetic alep as in the Old Testament and in Akkadian. From,

the same age there also survives a seal now in the British Museum.

According to its Aramaic inscription, this cylinder seal belonged to a

Persian, Parshandatha son of Artadatha. Where an identical name is

read in Esther 9:7, the likelihood that the Jewish scribes correctly

preserved a good Persian name seems high.

Now these minutiae may not seem to be of great consequence,





Facsimile of a stele of Bar-Rakkab from Zinjirli, giving Tiglath-pileser's name in

Aramaic letters in line 3, ca 730 B.C. (F. van Luschan, Ausgrabungen in

Sendschirli 4, 1911, p. 379).



and may simply show the scribes could transmit names with

precision. There is a corollary, however, which deserves emphasis:

in each case mentioned, the Septuagint differs considerably from

the Hebrew. Sargon, in Isaiah 20:1, became Arna; Parshandatha

was distorted through Pharsannestain to become two names,

Pharsan and Nestain, in Codex Vaticanus. These cases, not confined

to one book, should at least warn against reliance on the Septuagint

for emendation of proper names in the Old Testament, unless the

evidence against the Hebrew text is very strong indeed.

Indeed, the purpose of this paper is to point to the care which

was an integral part of a scribe's skill in the ancient Near East. The

practices of scriptoria in imperial Rome offer a strong contrast, as

the complaints of several ancient authors reveal, but the mass

production techniques applied there were probably never at home in

the world of the Old Testament. Rather, from the examples

presented, and from many others, a copying process can be

discerned that included checking and correction, a process that had

built-in devices to forestall error. Some of these, the counting of

lines or words in particular, reemerge in the traditions of the

Massoretes in the early Middle Ages. That device is so obvious that

a connection with Babylonian practice is unlikely. It is part of an

attitude which was common: the copyist's task was to reproduce

his exemplar as faithfully as possible.


Be Wary of Emendations!


In this light the way the Old Testament text is viewed by

scholarship seems to need some modification. The Dead Sea Scrolls

make explicit what had previously been supposed by many, that the

Massoretic text preserves an earlier text-type current in the century

or so prior to the Fall of Jerusalem. Between the completion of

some books of the Old Testament and the Scrolls there is a

relatively short period of time. (How short will depend upon opinions

about the age of each book.) Only In that period can the great

majority of the errors textual critics and commentators claim to find

in the Hebrew text have arisen. Is it conceivable that those who

copied Jeremiah's prophecy for over four centuries made so many

mistakes as to require an average four to six lines of textual

apparatus to every page in the current critical edition of the text, the

Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia? Jeremiah may be peculiar in respect




to its Septuagint version, but the problems involved are such that to

I emend the Hebrew on the basis of the Greek would seem a very

risky business indeed.

The preceding paragraphs suggest ancient copyists were not

likely to be so careless. If this is true, then textual emendations

should become rarities. Before charging an ancient and anonymous

copyist with error, every possible explanation of the form that seems

objectionable should be sought.

Emendations to remove hapax legomena* should be a last resort.

As more ancient texts are recovered, more of the unique words in

the Old Testament gain satisfactory explanations without

emendation. Even if there is no alternative evident, any emendation

offered should be properly supported and compatible with ancient

scribal practice. Further, there should always be a recognition that

the text may be right after all. Of course the scribes made mistakes,

and some of them were perpetuated. It is the scholar's duty to try to

discover them to correct them; it would be wrong to argue that we

have received a perfect Hebrew text. The present argument is that

we too freely underrate the ability and the accuracy of those

copyists to whom we owe the Old Testament. There are no grounds

for supposing they were less attentive to their task than those

whose products have been recovered in modern times.


Scribal Alterations


For the work of scribes as copyists there is much informative

material from the ancient world, from which a few pieces have been

used here. With their copying, reliably or not, the scribes commonly

face the accusation of altering or modifying the texts they copied.

They are not reckoned as editors, a more wide-ranging activity and

one beyond the scope of this study, but as glossators and

interpreters, adding comments and explanations, applying the text

to current circumstances. Obviously, without manuscript evidence it

is almost impossible to prove that words have been added or

altered. Again, the practices of ancient scribes, visible in extant

speciments of their work, suggest caution should accompany every

claim to detect glosses or interpretations in the biblical text. Scribes

writing cuneiform normally signaled the presence of a gloss, as

mentioned already, although no cases have come to light in early


*Words that appear only once in the Old Testament. --Ed.




West Semitic texts. The commentaries of the Akkadian scholars

working in the first millennium B.C. interpreted standard works and

applied them to the existing situation. But their interpretation and

application were kept distinct; they were not incorporated into the

text. Now it is possible that only after a text gained an authoritative

status would the scribe provide a commentary, a process modern

scholarship cannot observe.

Turning to the biblical books, it is noteworthy that the Septuagint

and the Aramaic Targums also fit the text to their times. The

simplest cases are the replacements of obscure place-names. In

Isaiah 48:12 Sinim of the Hebrew (= Aswan) is represented by

Persia in the Greek; the old name Aram in Isaiah 9:11 is replaced by

Syria. In the Aramaic Genesis Apocryphon from Qumran, a more

imaginative retelling of Genesis than the standard Targums, Kaptok

(Cappadocia) replaces the Ellasar of Genesis 14:1. Such changes

are not found in the Hebrew text. Therefore, application of the

Hebrew text to current affairs, having an effect on the text itself, is

unlikely to have occurred later than the making of the Greek

translation or the Aramaic paraphrase. How much was done before

those stages cannot be discovered at present; the customs of the

Babylonian scribes, if the comparison is valid, suggests there was

little done, if any at all.


Ancient Scribes Also Were Human!


Everyone who writes and copies is aware of the likelihood of

mistakes in their own work. Ancient scribes were equally prone to

failure. The conventional "introductions" to the Old Testament and

handbooks of textual criticism instruct their readers in the

categories of scribal error that appear in ancient manuscripts and

may be detected in the Old Testament. There is no doubt that errors

were committed by copyists and have passed into the printed text.

The modern reader's readiness to detect them should not be greater

than his readiness to admit that ancient scribes and copyists could

also be as precise and careful as he and may have known their

business better than he. The ancient scribes deserve our thanks and



(Reprinted by permission from the Biblical Archaeologist. Vol. 45. No.3. Summer

1982. pages 143-153.)


This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Bible and Spade and Alan R. Millard

Associates for Biblical Research
      PO Box 144
      Akron, PA 17501


Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: