Serious Scribes

From Issue: Discovery 3/1/2015

Moses began to write the first books of the Old Testament almost 3,500 years ago. All of the original documents that Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the other Old Testament writers produced have been destroyed. We have only copies of their writings. So, how do we know that the original books were copied correctly? Can we be sure that the book of Genesis that we read in the 21stcentury is the same book that God inspired Moses to write 3,500 years ago? Yes, we can be sure that the Old Testament that we read today has been copied accurately. Let’s look at the reasons why.

Sometimes kids get in trouble at school, and for punishment they are made to copy pages out of the dictionary or encyclopedia. Copying such pages is boring. But suppose you lived in a time when the printing press or the computer did not exist. If each school needed a dictionary, how would so many copies be produced? Well, someone would have to sit down and copy the original by hand. Such a person was called a scribe. Scribes copied almost any type of document imaginable—business receipts, legal documents, marriage certificates, and more.

Scribes took their jobs very seriously because the slightest mistake could make a big difference. For instance, suppose that a person bought a piece of land for 20 gold pieces. If the scribe did not pay close attention to his work, he might write 2 gold pieces or 200 gold pieces, drastically altering the original price.

But there was one group of scribes who took their jobs more seriously than all the rest. Those ancient scribes who copied the Old Testament went to great lengths to try not to make any mistakes. They knew that they were copying the Word of God, and they wanted to be absolutely sure that it was done right. For this reason, they made many rules concerning copies of the Old Testament. These rules included using a special kind of ink, making sure that each letter of a word was spaced exactly a hairsbreadth (the thickness of one hair) from its neighbor, and never writing even the smallest letter from memory.

One group of scribes, who were known as the Masoretes, made even stricter rules than the ones above. They counted every single verse, word, and letter of the Old Testament books that they copied. They also counted how many times a letter was used and which verse, word, and letter should be exactly in the middle of the book. The Masoretes were some of the world’s greatest perfectionists.


A copied sheet of paper

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