The Stabilization of the Biblical Text

The Bible probably only became stable in the early Rabbinic stage.

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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.

Today, were we to open two texts of the Hebrew Bible, they would contain the same books, grouped into three major parts, appearing mostly in the same order, with a well over 99 percent agreement on the consonants and vocalization.

This consistency was the result of a long and complicated process that took place largely behind the scenes, obscured from our view.

More than half a century later, guardians of the biblical text devised various systems of marking the proper vocalization of the consonantal text. The vocalization system associated with the Masorete Aaron Ben Moses Ben-Asher and with the city of Tiberias in the Galilee "won" over competing systems, giving us the Bible as we now have it. This means that in its current form (with vowels), the Bible is only a little more than 1,000 years old.

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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.