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How Did Scribes and the Scribal Tradition Shape the Hebrew Bible?

Ancient Near Eastern scribes lived and worked in a culture where texts were primarily transmitted orally/aurally, which helps explain the variations in different forms of the written Bible.

Qumran Rule of Community

The scribes of ancient Israel were a tiny literate minority in an overwhelmingly illiterate and oral-based culture. It was these scribes who put their people’s oral traditions into writing, who edited independent stories into books, and who created new compositions. Some of them appear to have belonged to the priestly class, a landless tribe with the time and resources to engage in literary activities. Other scribes, such as the record-keepers, “historians,” and letter-writers in the royal palaces and urban administrative centers, were affiliated with the ancient equivalent of professional guilds. 

Modern scholars are divided concerning the existence of scribal schools in Israel during the Iron Age (1200–539 B.C.E.). But the eventual standardization of the Hebrew letter forms and writing system between the eighth and sixth centuries B.C.E. would presumably have given rise to codified rules and principles of language that scribes would then have learned. The education of scribes in ancient Israel was supported at least in part by the state and the Temple cult, although some scribal arts could have been taught within a small number of families.

Even after some of the earliest portions of what later became Scripture were committed to writing (perhaps in the eighth to seventh centuries B.C.E.), orality was still the primary means of transmitting the material that would eventually become the Hebrew Bible. In truth, the oral/aural tradition continued to be the dominant means by which most people encountered “Scripture” throughout the biblical period and beyond. Most people did not read the texts that would become parts of the Bible, but rather heard them. Literacy rates in the ancient Near East, including Israel, were extremely low—between 5 and 15 percent of the total population, with urban centers averaging higher percentages. And while the vast majority of literate individuals and scribes appear to have been men from the upper end of the socioeconomic and societal spectrum, texts recovered from ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt indicate that women—daughters of scribes or members of the royal entourage–occasionally also functioned as scribes.

Ancient Israelite scribes had many opportunities for contact with literate individuals from other cultures—through merchants who traded both goods and stories, for example, or through military and governmental figures, foreign and local. These verbal interactions offered a way to engage with the shared conceptual landscape and linguistic traditions of the wider ancient Near East. Some non-Israelite myths, traditions, law, and lore became integrated into Israelite tradition. But as the Israelites’ identity and beliefs started to come into sharper relief in the centuries leading up to the Babylonian Exile, Jewish scribes began to invest more and more time in defining themselves and their religious tradition over and against neighboring cultures. This trend came to a head during the Babylonian Exile (586-538 B.C.E.), when the majority of the Jewish elites, including the scribes, were forcibly relocated to Babylon. Many scholars now believe that most of the “biblical” books were composed and edited in the decades and centuries after the exile of 586 B.C.E. Yet even though many of these compositions deal with maintaining the Israelites’ ethnic and religious distinctiveness, they also exhibit numerous cultural and theological similarities with their Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, and Greek neighbors.

Our best evidence for scribal activity in ancient Judaism, and its relation to the Hebrew Bible, comes from the witness of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Discovered beginning in 1947 and dating from approximately 250 B.C.E. to 68 C.E., the Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran have yielded copies of every “biblical” book except Esther, and multiple copies and versions of certain books, such as Psalms, Deuteronomy, and Isaiah. Some 220 of the 980 scrolls recovered from the caves along the northwest shore of the Dead Sea are “biblical,” meaning they contain fragments of what would later become the Hebrew Bible. Although many of these manuscripts are nearly identical to the consonantal text that would become standard in later Judaism (the Masoretic Text), others diverge from that text in striking ways. (These are more similar to the Hebrew text from which the Septuagint, the early Greek Bible, was translated). While the scribes who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls were not “authors” in the modern sense, they were responsible for writing, copying, and editing. It is unclear how much freedom and autonomy scribes took on when transmitting a text, but they at least preserved others’ expansions, addressing silences in the texts, articulating new theological opinions, or combining rules that were located in different “biblical” books. Until the turn of the millennium, the scribes of the Dead Sea Scrolls and their related communities lived in an era in which they were free to innovate. There was, as yet, no finalized form of the Hebrew Bible.

The fact that scribes, editors, and copyists were not wedded to “authenticity,” or to the idea that word-for-word accuracy maintained the sacredness of a text, is clear in the innumerable variations in the early source materials that eventually became known as “the Bible.” This explains why the Hebrew text of Gen 1:2 states that “God ceased on the seventh day,” while the Septuagint and other ancient versions (the Samaritan and the Peshitta) reflect a text that says, “God ceased on the sixth day.” Similarly, the Masoretic Text of Exod 1:5 states that 70 descendants of Jacob came down to Egypt, while the Septuagint, two Dead Sea Scroll fragments, and some other witnesses offer the number 75. In most versions of Isa 6:2, the word “holy” is found three times, but the great Isaiah Scroll from Qumran translates it only twice: “Holy, holy is the LORD of hosts.” A careful comparison of the biblical text’s ancient attestations shows such “small” variations in virtually every verse, indicating that copyists through the late Second Temple period did not view themselves as Xerox machines or believe that they must reproduce texts exactly and precisely.

This type of inexact copying, whether in the case of books appearing in fundamentally different editions or in words differing here and there, quite possibly had its origin in the oral culture that originally produced what became the Bible. In most such cultures, people were not expected to memorize the “text” exactly, but had the liberty to switch around elements of the story, to embellish, to adjust length for particular performance contexts, and certainly to paraphrase.  This may help explain why even when written down, “biblical texts” were much more flexible in their contents and phraseology than we might have imagined. Indeed, we can even point to examples from the Dead Sea Scrolls, such as the Genesis Apocryphon and Jubilees, which translate the “Bible” and rewrite it extensively. These too reflect a milieu in which texts that became the Bible were extremely flexible.

Even once the collection of books that formed the Bible (the canon) began to stabilize, each version of a book retained variations. This is not surprising; in the ancient Near Eastern world, important works typically circulated in different versions and among different communities. Such variations were a reflection of diverse oral traditions and scribal interpretation of that tradition.

  • Ian Werrett

    Ian Werrett is associate professor of religious studies and director of the Spiritual Life Institute at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. He specializes in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient Judaism and early Christianity. Werrett is the author of Ritual Purity and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Brill Academic, 2007).