Is the Torah’s Text Accurate?
Is the Torah’s Text Accurate?

Is the Torah’s Text Accurate?


Is the Torah’s Text Accurate?


Overview: In this article we discuss various elements of the Hebrew Bible’s text. It’s original script, the rabbinic invention of Safrut, the amendments made to it, the scribal errors, and the general reliability of the traditional Masoretic text versus the Septuagint, the Samaritan text, and the Dead Sea Scrolls.


There’s a common misconception among many religious Jews that the Torah’s text as we have it today is a word-for-word text of a Torah that God gave Moses to write.[i] They understand this to be the basis for the Halachic mandate to write a perfect Torah scroll using a specific Hebrew script. But this is wrong on many levels. Moses didn’t write the whole Torah as explained here. Additionally, the Hebrew script that we have today is an invention from much after Moses’ times. It is also a misconception because the ancient rabbis themselves speak of amendments made to the Torah text, as we shall explain. This is all besides for the fact that there has been more than one Torah version in the past. For the most part these textual differences are only minor, almost never changing the meaning of the biblical sentence.


The ancient Hebrew script

There is ample evidence that the original Hebrew script was not the one we have today. Like all languages, Hebrew went through an evolution in the shape of its letters of the Alphabet (or in the case of Hebrew, the aleph bet). The Hebrew alphabet we have to today is known as Phonetic-Hebrew, whereas the original Hebrew is called paleo-Hebrew. The Jews adapted the Hebrew script we have today from the Assyrian/Aramaic script after leaving their exile in Babylon in the 5th-century B.C.E. During the Second Temple era, we see both scripts being used in Israel and Judea.

The Talmud recognizes the fact that the Hebrew we have today isn’t the same as it always was and addresses the issue in Sanhedrin 21b among other places.  Essentially, there is a three-way dispute. The first opinion is as we said. The Torah was originally given in the ancient Hebrew language, known as ksav ivri in Talmudic terms, and in the times of Ezra the Jews adapted the modern Hebrew script known as ksav ashuris in Talmudic terms. The second opinion is that the Torah is that the script was always the script as we have it now. And the third opinion is that the Torah was given in the script we have now but afterwards it was forgotten and they began writing in the ancient Hebrew script. In the times of Ezra, they reinstituted the modern Hebrew script.

Archaeology confirms the first opinion over and over again. The third opinion seems unfitting and baseless to begin with. Some suggest that the ancient Hebrew script was used for mundane documents and the Hebrew script as we have it now was used for holy documents as the Torah.[1] But this theory is very unlikely for several reasons. First off, there’s no reason to say this novel idea that isn’t attested to anywhere in ancient documents in Israel. Secondly, as far as archaeology is concerned, the modern Hebrew script wasn’t invented until several centuries after the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Third of all, many scrolls were found that imply otherwise. These Second Temple era scrolls are written in modern Hebrew alphabet or in Greek but when they come to writing the Name of God, they replace it with the ancient Hebrew script. This is the very opposite of what this theory is suggesting. It is rather clear that the strict laws in the writing of a Torah that we have today (known as safrut) was the invention of post-Second-Temple era rabbis, as we shall now discuss.[2]

Rabbinic invention of safrut

What comes out of all this, is that the strict rules for the writing of the Torah scroll (known as safrut) are all rabbinic ordinances implemented for the sake of preserving Torah. Some will think that these laws are actually from Moses at Sinai, but there are many issues to saying that. We have all the issues mentioned above. In addition to all of those issues, there’s also a clear Mishna that demonstrated the rabbinic hand involved in the laws of safrut. Megillah 8b describes which languages the sages permitted the scrolls to be written in. This makes it obvious that the sages had the power to do so since Moses at Sinai didn’t give any restrictions on how to write the Torah.

On the same note, we can assume that the tagim and taamim (crowns and tunes) of the Torah are also rabbinic. See Encyclopedia Talmudit on “taamim” for an argument between many early post-Talmudic rabbis on this very question whether or not the taamim (as well as tagim perhaps) are of Sinaic origins. From a reasonable point of view, it seems that there’s more credibility to the opinion that it is not of Sinaic origins but rather a creation of later rabbinic scholars. This is because the whole idea of reading from the Torah Scroll in the synagogue every few days was a rabbinic enactment of Ezra’s time at the onset of the Second Temple—see Talmud Bava Kamma 82a. Therefore guidelines and disqualifications of these Torah scrolls were issued as well. (Moses’ enactment mentioned in Bava kamma 82a was also that everybody should read/learn from the Torah every three days, but it seems that it was not limited to the reading of a specific type of scroll as was by Ezra. It should be noted that the Synagogue wasn’t established until much later than Moses’ times.) In addition, since Moses didn’t write the entire Torah, he couldn’t have made the taamim and tagim for the (entire) Torah scroll.

The rabbinic laws of safrut, requiring professional scribes to write the Torah in a specific script with no mistakes whatsoever, have helped preserve Torah’s precise text until this very day.


Scriptural amendments

The text of Torah has been edited in many different ways. Besides for the additional verses added by later scribes (see here), there was also amendments done to the entire Torah, specifically in its spelling. The rabbinic sages speak of a tikunei sofrim¸ or “corrections of the scribes,” in various different places.[ii] According to many, there are 18 instances in which this “scribal correction” is applied to.[3] For various reasons, the early sages (probably the anshei kneses hagedolah[iii]) have edited the text, being that the text wasn’t standardized as it is today. For a more in-depth discussion of this topic, see here.

Besides for these “scribal corrections” mentioned sporadically in rabbinic literature, there are also the spelling amendments. In modern Hebrew, the letters vov and yud often serve as vowels. The Hebrew script lacks vowels, and the only exception is the vov and yud. But these two letters haven’t always existed as vowels. Archaeology has shown that the before the 8th century BCE, the letters vov and yud have not been used as vowels.[iv] But our Torah scroll today does have those letters as vowels many times. This is because the sages and scribes have made changes to the Torah as the Hebrew script and spelling have changed. (This concept is called malei and chaser in Talmudic terminology.)[v][4]


Scribal errors

When texts are preserved from generation to generation, copied from scroll to scroll, naturally there will be many mistakes in the text. The Torah’s text is no exception to this phenomenon. When God gave the Torah to human beings, He expected there to be the inevitable human error. This doesn’t invalidate the entire text; it just shows that there are potential mistakes every here-and-there in the text. There’s also the philosophical argument that if God wanted us to keep His Torah and Mitzvos, then He wouldn’t allow for major scribal error to the point that the Torah text is no longer reliable. Additionally, from the fact that we see that God is judging us and giving us the consequences for disobeying His Covenant (see here), shows that we are expected to keep the Covenant and the Law that we have in front of us. Also, despite all the textual differences between various version of the Torah, as we shall soon see, there are no significant variations that would alter the Torah Law on a practical level. The reason for this, perhaps, is the extra caution the Jews would take to preserve their sacred texts. This would minimize the textual error compared to other, more mundane documents.


How do we know there are scribal errors?

In the Torah version that we have today, known as the traditional Masoretic text, there are nine disagreements of the spelling of certain words, although they are trivial spelling variations.[5] But once we go earlier back in time, the spelling variations and alternative texts begin to be more drastic and frequent.

There are various obvious spelling mistakes, specifically in the Prophets and Writings (which were probably less preserved having been less sacred to the scribes).[6] The Midrash speaks of three Torah scrolls that Ezra the Scribe had in front of him, each with a different spellings of various words. He decided to follow the majority over the minority and would take the spelling of the two scrolls versus the one.[vi] Avot DeRabeinu Nosson speaks of Ezra the Scribe placing dots on top of the words “lanu ulvaneinu” (Deut. 29:28) since he wasn’t sure of the proper writing for those words.[vii]

A very puzzling passage in the Babylonian Talmud states that according to the “first scholars,” called soferim (“Scribes”), the middle letter in the Torah is a particular letter in Leviticus 11:42 and the middle pair of words appears in Leviticus 10:16. However, in the texts used today, the middle letter appears 4830 letters earlier, in Leviticus 8:28, and the middle words appear 933 words earlier, in Lev. 8:15.[viii] There have been numerous far-fetched attempts to explain this discrepancy between the Talmud and the MT. Unless the tradition of the “first scholars” is based on erroneous calculations, it seems to imply that they were referring to a text of the Torah that was either of a different length than today’s text or had the pertinent passages in Leviticus in a different order than they are today.

There are a few places in Torah where the text seems to be missing some words that were originally there. For example, in Genesis 4:8, when Cain talks to Abel, the Masoretic version reads, “Now Cain said to his brother Abel, while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him,” – with no description of what Cain said to his brother Abel. It is worth noting that the Samaritan Torah contains additional words: “Now Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let’s go out to the field.’”

There are also many different version of the Torah and we cannot just say that the traditional Masoretic text is by default the proper text in all instances. There is the Septuagint, the Samaritan Torah, the Dead Sea Scrolls Torah, and even within the traditional Masoretic text, there are minor variations. Many rishonim (medieval rabbinic scholars) recognized this reality of scribal error in our Torah text.[ix]

Jews today have what is called the Masoretic text of the Torah. But earlier versions of the Torah exist. For example there is the ancient Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Bible, that differs from the Masoretic text. There’s also the Dead Sea Scrolls that differ from both versions. And then of course there’s the Smartian version, still used by the Samaritan community today, that drastically differs from the other versions.


The Dead Sea Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the Judean dessert in 1947 and the following years to come. Among the treasure-drove of artifacts and scrolls dating back more than 2,000 years ago, an almost complete Torah scroll was found. The scrolls were thoroughly inspected having been perhaps the greatest archeological discovery of the 20th-century. The version of the Torah’s text found in this oldest Torah scroll ever found shed new light on the preservation of the Torah’s text by the Jewish community.

The Dead Sea Scrolls’ Torah was found to be 95% similar to the Masoretic version we have today. The differences were primarily spelling variations and obvious pen-slips. It is clear that the scribe of the Dead Sea Scrolls’ Torah was a sloppy one. He made many spelling mistakes obvious to the Hebrew reader. Those spelling mistakes and variations account for the vast-majority of the 5% text difference.[x] There were no practical differences to Judaism as we have it today if we were to accept the Dead Sea Scroll’s Torah version. But as explained, the Dead Sea Scrolls’ documents are highly unreliable, having many obvious sloppy mistakes. In addition, the singular set of fragments found at the site is of no reliability when faced against the Torah’s text as preserved by the entire Jewish community for over 2,000 years.

There are also documented examples of biblical phrases “updated” by the Dead Sea Scroll’s scribes – even though we know the original biblical phrases were different than to what they updated the text to. The Masoretic text is known as the conservative text which, for the most part, preserved the text as received in tradition.[xi]

Despite the small differences between the Masoretic version and the Dead Sea Scrolls’ version, the latter attests to the overwhelming accurate preservation of the Masoretic text by the Jewish community at large.



The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Bible dated to sometime between 2,400 years ago and 2,100 years ago. Ancient sources attribute the translation to a group of rabbis whom the Ptolemy of Egypt asked to translate the Torah for his vast library.[xii] Although written in Greek, the Septuagint sheds light on the Hebrew Torah it was translated from. It appears to have quite a number of differences from the traditional Masoretic text.

Many people are generous with their credit to the Septuagint, pointing to its old origins. They will favor its version of the Torah over the traditional Masoretic text. This is especially so in the Christian community being that the New Testament is mostly quoting out of that Greek version of the Bible. But as we shall point out, the ancient origins of the manuscript hardly give it as much credit as is commonly given to it by proponents of the Septuagint manuscript.

Even with this prestigious ancient origin of the Septuagint, the document is hardly as reliable as one might think. First off, the original copies of the translation are long gone and the version we have now is a copy of a copy of a copy of the original translation.

The preservation of the Septuagint was confined to a limited number of scribes and librarians. Given these conditions, it is easy to imagine the scribal corruption of the text over the years. There was no accountability. The Masoretic text, on the other hand, had full transparency to the entire Jewish community worldwide and in fact was read from in the synagogue every week.[7] With access to so many people, it is hard to imagine that the Masoretic text could have too many intentional or unintentional mistakes. This is especially so given the strict rules implemented in the scribal process of writing the Torah as explained earlier.

To top it all off, the Dead Sea Scrolls version of the Torah is far more identical to the Masoretic text than it is to the Septuagint.


Samaritan Torah

The Samaritans are a tiny community dwelling in the north of Israel for over 2,500 years. They are discussed as being adversaries of the Jews coming from Babylon after the Babylonian exile.[8] Their origins are debatable but they are rejected by world Jewry as being authentic Jews as they claim they are. Their ancient community still has a Torah, but a Torah that largely diverts from all other versions of the Torah.

The vast majority of historians and bible scholars reject the credibility of this corrupt Samaritan version of the Torah. And they reject it for good reasons.

Their version of the Torah differs drastically from the other versions. They have different spelling, different words, and additional verses placing significance to their holy site at Mt. Gerizim in Shechem.

Given their small population, both currently and historically, it is hard to give their Torah’s version much credibility. As explained, with a small population there isn’t much accountability and scribal errors and intentional corruption are easy. All it would take for them, is one scribe-meeting to decide to change the text to fit their religious preferences and ideologies. And no one in their small community would stop them. Compare that with the hundreds of Jewish communities worldwide, all using the same text, with strict scribal rules, all coming out with the same Torah version after 2,000 years of separation.

In any event, if God wanted us to keep his Torah properly, it is hard to imagine that he would let only a small group of self-claiming Jews to have the real version while giving the vast majority of the Jewish community a corrupted version of the Torah.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email




Leave a Reply

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