Biblical Principle #109: There are Multiple Biblical Text Families

Biblical Principles List


There are multiple text families of the Bible’s writings.


Origin of the Hebrew Scriptures

We previously established that the Bible is a compilation of numerous writings which were written over the span of about 1,500 years and that these writings were spread and preserved through scribes making copies.

The ancient Israelites spoke and wrote in Hebrew. From the time of Moses (~1500 B.C.) until about 720 B.C., the Old Testament writings composed to that point would have solely existed in Hebrew.

In 723 B.C., the northern kingdom of Israel was taken captive to Assyria. About 586 B.C., Babylon conquered Jerusalem and the kingdom of Judah was mostly deported to Babylon.

Babylonians spoke and wrote in Aramaic. The Jews were held 70 years in Babylonian captivity before the first wave was allowed to return to Jerusalem. That’s the full lifetime of one generation. During this period, many Jews learned to speak and write in Aramaic, and the Aramaic influence followed them back to Judea.

However, the scribes continued preserving the Scriptures in Hebrew. The Hebraic heritage was somewhat diminished among the common people but not lost. When the opportunity to return to Judea arose, many Jews had established lives in Babylonia and chose to remain behind.

The Babylonian Empire was eventually conquered by the Medo-Persians, who were conquered by the Greeks.

The Septuagint

Around 280 B.C., at the request of the Greek ruler over the Egyptian and Judean territory, Ptolemy II, the Old Testament writings began to be translated from Hebrew into Greek. Seventy-two elders—six from each of the twelve tribes of Israel—were sent to Egypt to translate this Greek copy of the Hebrew Scriptures. While the full extent of which texts were translated at this time is unknown and disputed, what we know for certain is that the Jews began to use and rely upon this Greek translation of the Old Testament. The translation is known as the Septuagint (LXX) because of the seventy translators involved.

By the time of the first century A.D., Greek had become the predominate language of much of the inhabited world.

Early Christian writers state that the Septuagint was the exclusive biblical translation used by Christians of the first several centuries A.D. The early Christians would not have used a version of the Old Testament Scriptures that was disputed by the Jews of the day, for that (using faulty copies of the Scriptures) would have instantaneously ended the Christians’ claim of Jesus being the Messiah.

Jews Abandon Septuagint

By the second century A.D., the Jews stopped using the Septuagint in favor of updated translations. It is unknown which Hebrew source(s) they used.

Respected early Christian writers accused the Jews of intentionally modifying certain Scriptures in new translations they were creating. For example, Justin Martyr wrote the following around 160 A.D., recounting a conversation with a Jew named Trypho:

“But I am far from putting reliance in your teachers, who refuse to admit that the interpretation made by the seventy elders who were with Ptolemy [king] of the Egyptians is a correct one; and they attempt to frame another. And I wish you to observe, that they have altogether taken away many Scriptures from the translations effected by those seventy elders… For you assent to those which I have brought before your attention, except that you contradict the statement, ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive,’ and say it ought to be read, ‘Behold, the young woman shall conceive.’ And I promised to prove that the prophecy referred, not, as you were taught, to Hezekiah, but to this Christ of mine: and now I shall go to the proof.”

—Justin Martyr (160 A.D.)

Numerous early Christians remarked about differences between the Septuagint, which the Christians used, and the newer translations used by the Jews.

“The Lord Himself saved us, giving us the sign of the virgin. But it is not as some allege, who are now presuming to expound the Scripture as ‘Behold, a young woman will conceive…’ as Theodotion the Ephesian has interpreted, and Aquila of Pontus, both Jewish proselytes.”

—Irenaeus (180 A.D.)

“At this point, we have an asterisk. The words are found in the Hebrew, but do not occur in the Septuagint.”

—Hippolytus (205 A.D.)

Latin Vulgate Translated from Hebrew

As Christianity spread westward, need increased for a reliable Latin translation of the Scriptures. At the suggestion of Pope Damascus, about 380 A.D., Jerome began translating the Bible into Latin. This version would become known as the Latin Vulgate.

Jerome had relocated to Jerusalem and befriended Jewish rabbis and religious leaders. Rather than using the Septuagint, Jerome translated the Old Testament from the Hebrew copies that were accepted by the Jews of that day.

Hearing of Jerome’s plan, Augustine wrote to Jerome imploring him to use the Septuagint as his source for the Old Testament Scriptures.

“I beseech you not to devote your labor to the work of translating into Latin the sacred canonical books, unless you … let it be seen plainly what differences there are between this version of yours and that of the Septuagint, whose authority is worthy of highest esteem.”

—Augustine, to Jerome (394 A.D.)

Jerome did not heed Augustine’s advice.

With the political influence of the Pope, the Latin Vulgate became the predominate Bible translation used throughout the western world. While the Eastern churches continued using the Septuagint, their influence declined and the Septuagint virtually faded from memory.

Rise of the Masoretes

Around the seventh century A.D., a sect of scribes known as the Masoretes became viewed as the leading authorities regarding the official Hebrew version of the Old Testament writings. The Masoretes had a reputation for being meticulous in their methodology of copying the Scriptures, ensuring accurate copies relative to the source.

The Masoretic version of the Hebrew Old Testament was known as the Masoretic Text (MT).

Sadly, the oldest source fragments that we possess of the Masoretic Text Hebrew Bible date back to the 800s A.D. We do not know what source manuscripts or translations the Masoretes used when they began.

The majority of English translations of the Bible use the Masoretic Text for their Old Testament source, including the King James Version (KJV).

The Dead Sea Scrolls

In 1946, the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in caves near the Dead Sea. These copies of the Old Testament date between the 200s B.C. to the first century A.D. According to scholars, the Dead Sea Scrolls reveal multiple text families even that far back. Some of the Scrolls are written in Hebrew, others Aramaic, and still other Greek. Some contain Hebrew and Aramaic side-by-side, demonstrating the influence of the Babylonian period on the post-captivity Jews.

Some of the texts align with the Masoretic Text, others, the Septuagint.

The Dead Sea Scrolls reveal that there were variations in manuscripts as far back as the third century B.C.

The New Testament Writings

What about the New Testament writings?

Although the New Testament writings date only as far back as the first century A.D., the same principles apply. The oldest known manuscript fragments of New Testament texts date back to the second century. Interestingly, there are enough quotations of New Testament texts from the Christian writers of the first four centuries A.D. to piece together nearly the entire New Testament.

Handwritten copies of the New Testament writings were produced, distributed, and reproduced until the Bible could easily be printed. Probably somewhere there are cultures still producing handwritten copies of the New Testament writings.

As with the Old Testament writings, we find variations among the Christians of early centuries as to which writings were accepted as divine or authoritative. Christians like Origen and Eusebius proposed canons, but it was not until the fourth century A.D. that we read of the proposition of the full 27 writings which currently comprise the generally-accepted New Testament Scriptures.

As you would expect, there are variations between the manuscripts of New Testament writings as well, for imperfect humans copied them.

Biblical Principles List


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *