Ancient Scribes and the Word of God

THE Hebrew Scriptures were completed by the end of the fifth century B.C.E. During the centuries that followed, Jewish scholars, notably the Sopherim and later the Masoretes, proved to be meticulous custodians of the Hebrew text. However, the oldest Bible books go back to the days of Moses and Joshua, a thousand years before the time of the Sopherim. The material upon which those books were written was perishable; so the scrolls must have been copied many times. What is known about the scribal profession in that early period? Were there skilled copyists in ancient Israel?

The oldest Bible manuscripts available today are parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls, some of which date back to the third and second centuries B.C.E. “Earlier copies of any part of the Bible are denied us,” explains Professor Alan R. Millard, a scholar of Near Eastern languages and archaeology. He adds: “Neighboring cultures can show how ancient scribes worked, and such knowledge can aid evaluation of the Hebrew text and its history.”

The Early Scribal Profession

Historical, religious, legal, scholarly, and literary texts were being produced in Mesopotamia four thousand years ago. Scribal schools prospered, and one of the disciplines they taught was the faithful copying of existing texts. Present-day scholars find only minimal changes in Babylonian texts copied again and again for a millennium or more.

The scribal profession was not limited to Mesopotamia. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East states: “A Babylonian scribe of the mid-second millennium BCE would probably have felt at home in any number of scribal centers throughout Mesopotamia, Syria, Canaan, and even Egypt.” *

The scribal profession enjoyed elite status in Egypt in Moses’ day. Scribes were constantly copying works of literature. Such activity is depicted by Egyptian tomb decorations that are more than four thousand years old. The above-quoted encyclopedia says of ancient scribes in this early period: “By the second millennium BCE, they had created  a canon of literature that exemplified the great civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt and established a code of ethics for the professional scribe.”

This “code of ethics” included the use of colophons appended to the main text. Colophons contained the names of the scribe and of the owner of the tablet, the date, the source of the original from which the tablet was copied, the number of lines, and so forth. Very often the scribe added: “According to its original, it was written and checked.” These details indicate that ancient copyists were concerned about accuracy.

Professor Millard, quoted earlier, states: “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.” So at the time of Moses and Joshua, an attitude favoring care and accuracy in transmitting writings already existed in the Middle East.

Did the Israelites also have qualified copyists? What does the Bible’s internal evidence indicate?

Scribes in Ancient Israel

Moses grew up as a member of Pharaoh’s household. (Exodus 2:10; Acts 7:21, 22) According to Egyptologists, Moses’ education would have included mastering Egyptian script and at least some of the skills of the scribes. In his book Israel in Egypt, Professor James K. Hoffmeier states: “There is reason to believe the biblical tradition that ascribes to Moses the ability to record events, compile itineraries, and other scribal activities.” *

The Bible refers to others in ancient Israel who had scribal skills. According to The  Cambridge History of the Bible, Moses “appointed literate officials . . . to record decisions and order affairs.” This conclusion is based on Deuteronomy 1:15, which says: “So I [Moses] took the heads of your tribes . . . and put them as heads over you, chiefs of thousands and chiefs of hundreds and chiefs of fifties and chiefs of tens and officers of your tribes.” Who were these officers?

The Hebrew word for “officer” occurs a number of times in Bible texts referring to the days of Moses and Joshua. Various scholars explain that this word means “a secretary for recording,” “one who ‘writes’ or ‘records,’” and “an official who assisted the judge in secretarial work.” The occurrences of this Hebrew word indicate that a considerable number of such secretaries existed in Israel and that they had extensive responsibilities in the early administration of the nation.

The third example concerns Israel’s priests. The Encyclopaedia Judaica argues that their “religious and secular functions demanded that they be literate.” For instance, Moses commanded the sons of Levi: “At the end of every seven years, . . . you will read this law in front of all Israel.” The priests became caretakers of the official copy of the Law. They authorized and supervised the writing of subsequent copies.​—Deuteronomy 17:18, 19; 31:10, 11.

Consider how the first copy of the Law was made. During the final month of his life, Moses told the Israelites: “When you will cross the Jordan into the land that Jehovah your God is giving you, you must also set up for yourselves great stones and whitewash them with lime. And you must write upon them all the words of this law.” (Deuteronomy 27:1-4) After the destruction of Jericho and Ai, the Israelites assembled at Mount Ebal, centrally located in the Promised Land. There Joshua did indeed write upon the stones of an altar “a copy of the law of Moses.” (Joshua 8:30-32) Such inscriptions required both writers and readers. This indicates that the early Israelites had the competence and skill needed to preserve their sacred texts accurately.

Integrity of the Scriptures

After the days of Moses and Joshua, various other Hebrew scrolls were produced, and handwritten copies of them were made. As these copies wore out or succumbed to the effects of humidity or mold, they had to be replaced. This process of copying went on for centuries.

Despite the care taken by Bible copyists, some errors inevitably crept in. But did the copyists’ mistakes substantially change the Bible text? No. On the whole, these errors are insignificant and have no bearing on the Bible’s general integrity, as proved by critical comparison of ancient manuscripts.

For Christians, Jesus Christ’s view of the early Bible books is a confirmation of the textual integrity of the Holy Scriptures. Such expressions as “Did you not read in the book of Moses?” and “Moses gave you the Law, did he not?” show that Jesus considered the handwritten copies available when he was on the earth to be reliable. (Mark 12:26; John 7:19) Moreover, Jesus confirmed the integrity of the entire Hebrew Scriptures when he said: “All the things written in the law of Moses and in the Prophets and Psalms about me must be fulfilled.”​—Luke 24:44.

We therefore have reason to be confident that the Holy Scriptures have been accurately transmitted from antiquity. It is just as the inspired prophet Isaiah stated: “The green grass has dried up, the blossom has withered; but as for the word of our God, it will last to time indefinite.”​—Isaiah 40:8.


^ par. 6 Joshua, who lived in the mid-second millennium B.C.E., mentions a Canaanite city called Kiriath-sepher, which means “Town of the Book” or “Town of the Scribe.”​—Joshua 15:15, 16.

^ par. 12 References to Moses’ recording legal matters can be found at Exodus 24:4, 7; 34:27, 28; and Deuteronomy 31:24-26. His recording of a song is noted at Deuteronomy 31:22, and his record of the itinerary of the wilderness trek is referred to at Numbers 33:2.

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An Egyptian scribe at work

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The oldest books of the Bible go back to the days of Moses