The Hebrew Bible Moses Couldn’t Read

The name of God is shown here in Paleo-Hebrew (top) and in modern Hebrew (bottom). Modern Hebrew texts would be unrecognizable to Moses and almost every other Old Testament author.

If Moses had a copy of today’s Hebrew Bible, he wouldn’t be able to read it.

Just imagine . . . You discover a time-machine, you travel back to the year 1425 B.C., and you meet Moses face-to-face. You excitedly tote along your favorite Hebrew/English interlinar Bible, complete with the Masoretic text and its English translation. You look forward to showing Moses his own writings in print, transported over three thousand years in time.

To your surprise and disappointment, Moses just shrugs at the text, and leers at you with an odd look on his face. You show him the Ten Commandments, yet Moses has no clue how to read it. He gladly acknowledges his encounter with God on Mt. Sinai, but he says this text looks nothing like what God wrote on those two stone tablets.

In desperation, you focus on the most important word in the entire Old Testament. The Tetragrammaton. The all-holy four-letter name of God. YHWH. Surely Moses will immediately recognize the Hebrew inscription for God’s name!

To your dismay, Moses says this word is just as foreign as everything else you have shown him. Moses writes the Lord’s name himself, hoping to teach you the proper way to write it. This word, too, is four letters. But it looks as foreign to you as your text looks to Moses.

You return home, disappointed, but wiser. The next time someone gushes with excitement about the “ancient Hebrew text”, and the ability to “read the same words Moses wrote”, you don’t share their excitement. You hold your peace, and you meditate on God’s awesome ability to preserve His Truth from generation to generation, even if He has not preserved the original text of Scripture.

~135 A.D. - This coin struck during the Bar Kokhba revolt demonstrates usage of the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet in the early 2nd century.

Most of the Old Testament scriptures were written in Paleo-Hebrew, or a closely related derivative. Generally considered to be an offshoot of ancient Phonecian script, Paleo-Hebrew represents the pen of David, the script of Moses, and perhaps even the Finger of God on the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments.

Modern Hebrew, on the other hand, is not quite so ancient.  Israelites acquired this new alphabet from Assyria (Persia), somewhere around the 6th-7th century B.C.    This was the same general time period as Israel’s exile to Babylon . . . many centuries after most of the Old Testament was written.

Initially, the Old Testament Scriptures were exclusively written in Paleo-Hebrew.
Then, after borrowing the new alphabet from the Assyrians, the Jews began transliterating large portions of Scripture into the newer version.

The Samaritan Pentateuch uses the Samaritan alphabet, which is closely related to Paleo-Hebrew. It is likely that much of this text looks similar to what Moses and David saw in the original copies of the Old Testament. The Masoretic Text differs from the Samaritan Pentateuch in over 6,000 places.

But old habits die hard.  Especially with religion. Especially in regard to the name of God. For a period of time, Jews transcribed the majority of the Old Testament using the new Hebrew alphabet, while retaining the more ancient way of writing God’s name. Thus, for a while, the Hebrew Scriptures were written with a mixture of two different alphabets. Even after the Jews began exclusively using the new Assyrian letters to copy the text of Scripture, the more ancient Paleo-Hebrew letters persisted in some corners of Jewish society. As late as the 2nd century A.D., during the Bar Kokhba revolt, Jewish coins displayed writing with the ancient Paleo-Hebrew script.

Eventually, though, the newer Assyrian alphabet won the day. No new copies were being made of the ancient text, and the earliest copies of Scripture eventually disintegrated. By the time of Christ, the only existing copies of the Old Testament had either been transliterated into modern Hebrew, or translated into Greek (in the Septuagint). One exception is the Samaritan Pentateuch, which continues to be written in the ancient form, even to this day. However, Jews and Christians both rejected the text as being of questionable accuracy.

Today, many people are under the false impression that the Masoretic Text represents
the “original Hebrew”, and that the Septuagint is less trustworthy because it is “just a translation”.  In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.  The Septuagint is actually more faithful to the original Hebrew than the Masoretic Text is.

We no longer have original copies of the Old Testament.

Nor do we have copies of the originals.

We now have copies of the Scriptures transliterated into modern Hebrew, edited by scribes, compiled by the Masoretes in the 7th-11th centuries, and embellished with modern vowel points which did not exist in the original language.  This is what we now call the “Masoretic Text”.

The Orthodox Study Bible is faithful to the Septuagint translation of Scripture, the same translation used by Jesus and the Apostles.

We also have copies of the Old Testament Scriptures which were translated into Greek, over 1000 years earlier than the oldest existing Masoretic text.  During New Testament times, Jesus and the Apostles quoted from this Greek translation frequently, and with full authority.  They treated it as the Word of God, and as a faithful translation.  This is what we now call the “Septuagint”.

Here is a sample of the differences between the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint.

While many Protestant bibles rely heavily on the Masoretic Text, the Orthodox Church has continued to use the Septuagint for the past 2000 years.  The Orthodox Study Bible is an English copy of the Scriptures, and its Old Testament is translated from the Septuagint.  It is very good, and comes highly recommended!

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About Dn Joseph Gleason

I am a contributor to On Behalf of All, a simple blog about Orthodox Christianity, theology, and philosophy, written from the diaspora of North America. I am also the Deacon of Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois, and am blessed with seven children and one lovely wife.
This entry was posted in Holy Scripture, Masoretic Text, Septuagint. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Hebrew Bible Moses Couldn’t Read

  1. It is also worth emphasizing that the Septuagint would have been what was used in the synagogues in Jesus’ day, what the Jews studied, what was meant by the Scriptures mentioned in the New Testament, not the Masoretic Text.

    • JGHunter says:

      Not so. Jesus spoke Aramaic and used the Hebrew texts. The Septuagint was for the Greek speaking Jews outside Israel. The Old Testament that Jesus quotes is not the Septuagint, but is almost indiscernable from the Septuagint – which in fact strengthens the Septuagint’s argument, that it was closer to the Hebrew texts Christ used.

  2. Pingback: Masoretic Text vs. Original Hebrew | The Orthodox Life

  3. Onieu says:

    Yeah i would definitely agree with the thrust of the article here.

    My current view is that the Dead Sea Scrolls alone are supreme. Next in authority is the Samaritan Torah, though the Samaritan Torah is occasionally inferior to the Septuagint. For example, the Septuagint includes Cainan and so does Luke. But both the Masoertic and Samaritan exclude Cainan. Yet in other places there in my opinion are superior readings in the Samaritan than the Septuagint.

    I will say accept for a few minor instances, I find the Masoretic version completely pathetic in light of the other versions. The other versions are so much more superior. The Masoertic text however is an important witness in that it assists occasionally with retroversion of the Greek and other versions back into Hebrew. But as you have noted, it often cannot serve this purpose, because of the Septuagint being derived from a very alternate Hebrew text. Perhaps my favorite superiority of the Septuagint is that of the Book of Esther which is infinitely superior to the Masoretic one. Right now, i am unsure about the Septuagints authority on the Book of Proverbs and Jeremiah. The DSS confirm the order of the LXX which differs widely from the Masoretic text, but appear at least according to some scholars to present the fuller text of the Masoretic text I have to study that more to determine if that is true . For the proverbs, apparently the Septuagint omits many of the proverbs. So if that’s true, i’m not sure about Proverbs being superior in the Greek to the Masoretic one. But i suspect even if the Greek is a shortened version from the original, that it more accurately preserves what it has than the Masoretic text does. Just a hunch which is a safe assumption to make based on the overwhelming supremacy of septuagint demonstrated elsewhere.

    By the way i also have that Orthodox Study Bible and i agree it is really good as far as standard non literal english translations are concerned.

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