How Did We Get the Bible? Part II

My last post examined the role of scribes in the creation of the Bible. This post explores scribal activity in greater detail to demonstrate their actual work, especially as it relates to expansion, adaptation, and contextual engagement.[1]To be clear, scribes for the most part handled pre-existing oral and written compositions. They took seriously their job of passing down tradition in a faithful manner. However, sometimes adaptations and expansions were deemed necessary. This might seem troublesome to modern minds. We have a strong sense of the individual author. But ancient Near Eastern culture had no such qualms. Texts were communal products, not individual showpieces. In fact, much writing in antiquity was done anonymously. Texts typically bore the signature of the copyist rather than the original author. A modern analogy might be business or advertising literature. Such documents are not usually signed by the creator, and they may be adapted or changed to better convey the intended message by subsequent anonymous writers. The exception to anonymous texts in antiquity was prophetic oracles. Oracles had to be attributed to a particular prophet in order to be valid. However, scribes were still the ones that recorded, edited, and collated these oracles.

1. EXPANSION OF TEXTS. An undisputed example of scribal expansion in the Bible is found in the book of Jeremiah. The Greek translation of the Old Testament, Septuagint (or LXX), has a much shorter version of Jeremiah than the Masoretic Hebrew text (otherwise known as the rabbinic Hebrew Bible). The Masoretic Text (MT) is what most modern Jewish and Christian Bibles are based upon. The first five books of the Bible (Pentateuch) were translated into Greek during the 3rd century B.C.E. Other biblical books were translated over the next century or so. For a season, scholars wondered if the Septuagint version of Jeremiah might reflect a poor translation of the Hebrew text. However, the Dead Sea Scrolls discoveries eliminated that hypothesis. At Qumran, fragments of Hebrew texts were found matching the Septuagint’s Jeremiah (esp. 4Q71 and 4Q72a). The Jeremiah version represented in both the Septuagint and Qumran Hebrew texts seems to stem from a different Hebrew Vorlage (predecessor) than the Masoretic Text. In other words, different versions of at least some biblical texts were in circulation. Both the short and long versions of Jeremiah were found at Qumran. The Septuagint version appears to be based on an older Hebrew tradition than the Masoretic Text. Yet, most of our Bibles today include the scribal expansions of the Masoretic Text, including Jeremiah 10:6-8, 10 and 33:14-26 (see a full list of differences here).

Jeremiah 10:6-11 with the Masoretic expansions in bold italics (NASB):

3 For the customs of the peoples are delusion; because it is wood cut from the forest, the work of the hands of a craftsman with a cutting tool. 4 They decorate it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers so that it will not totter. 5 Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field are they, And they cannot speak; They must be carried, because they cannot walk! Do not fear them, for they can do no harm, nor can they do any good.” 6 There is none like you, O LORD; you are great, and great is your name in might. 7 Who would not fear you, O King of the nations? Indeed it is your due! For among all the wise men of the nations and in all their kingdoms, there is none like you. 8 But they are altogether stupid and foolish In their discipline of delusion -their idol is wood! 9 Beaten silver is brought from Tarshish, and gold from Uphaz, the work of a craftsman and of the hands of a goldsmith; Violet and purple are their clothing; they are all the work of skilled men. 10 But the LORD is the true God; he is the living God and the everlasting King. At his wrath the earth quakes, And the nations cannot endure his indignation. 11 Thus you shall say to them, “The gods that did not make the heavens and the earth will perish from the earth and from under the heavens.”

Jeremiah 33:14-26 addition in the Masoretic Text. These verses do not appear in the Septuagint:

14‘Behold, days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will fulfill the good word which I have spoken concerning the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15 ‘In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch of David to spring forth; and he shall execute justice and righteousness on the earth. 16 ‘In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will dwell in safety; and this is the name by which she will be called: the LORD is our righteousness.’ 17 “For thus says the LORD, ‘David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel; 18 and the Levitical priests shall never lack a man before me to offer burnt offerings, to burn grain offerings and to prepare sacrifices continually.’” 19 The word of the LORD came to Jeremiah, saying, 20 “Thus says the LORD, ‘If you can break my covenant for the day and my covenant for the night, so that day and night will not be at their appointed time, 21 then my covenant may also be broken with David my servant so that he will not have a son to reign on his throne, and with the Levitical priests, my ministers. 22 ‘As the host of heaven cannot be counted and the sand of the sea cannot be measured, so I will multiply the descendants of David my servant and the Levites who minister to me.’” 23 And the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah, saying, 24 “Have you not observed what this people have spoken, saying, ‘The two families which the LORD chose, he has rejected them’? Thus they despise my people, no longer are they as a nation in their sight. 25 “Thus says the LORD, ‘If my covenant for day and night stand not, and the fixed patterns of heaven and earth I have not established, 26 then I would reject the descendants of Jacob and David My servant, not taking from his descendants rulers over the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But I will restore their fortunes and will have mercy on them.’”

These two examples clearly show the scribes added praises to Jeremiah 10, and they added an emphasis on messianic hope springing from the house of David in Jeremiah 33. Less clear is when these expansions were added. However, the Masoretic Text tradition appears to have been stable by at least the 2nd century B.C.E. So, how did these disparate textual traditions develop? I will address that question in subsequent posts in this series. For now, its instructive to note that both traditions of Jeremiah were preserved, and apparently respected, side by side at Qumran.

2. ADAPTATION OF TEXTS. The Israelite scribes were familiar with the literature of their ancient Near Eastern neighbors. Sometimes they re-worked it for their own purposes. For example, Proverbs 22:17-24:22 is adapted from the Egyptian Teaching of Amenemope (c. 1300-1075 B.C.E).[2]The Israelite law codes also find roots in older ANE legal traditions.

I. Teaching of Amenemope and Proverbs

Example A
“Give thine ear, and hear what I say, And apply thine heart to apprehend; It is good for thee to place them in thine heart, let them rest in the casket of thy belly; That they may act as a peg upon thy tongue” (Amenemope, ch. 1)

“Incline thine ear, and hear the words of the wise, And apply thine heart to my doctrine; For it is pleasant if thou keep them in thy belly, that they may be established together upon thy lips” (Proverbs 22:17-18)

Example B
“Beware of robbing the poor, and oppressing the afflicted.” (Amenemope, ch. 2)

“Rob not the poor, for he is poor, neither oppress (or crush) the lowly in the gate” (Proverbs 22:22).

Example C
“Toil not after riches; If stolen goods are brought to thee, they remain not over night with thee. They have made themselves wings like geese. And have flown into the heavens” (Amenemope ch. 7).

“Toil not to become rich, And cease from dishonest gain; For wealth maketh to itself wings, Like an eagle that flieth heavenwards” (Proverbs 23:4-5).

Example D
Give thine ears, hear the words that are said, give thine heart to interpret them” (Amenemope, ch. 1).

“Apply thine heart unto instruction and thine ears to the words of knowledge” (Proverbs 23:12).

II. Israelite Law and Lipit-Ishtar

The biblical narrative indicates God gave Moses the Law. This sometimes makes us scratch our heads. Did God really tell Moses that a woman could be forced to marry her rapist? It’s helpful to realize the law codes in the Bible have similarities (as well as differences) with other ancient Near Eastern Law codes. Consider the case of violence-induced miscarriage:

Lipit-Ishtar law:
“If [a man] strikes the daughter of a man and causes her to lose her fetus, he shall weigh and deliver 30 shekels of silver” (P rev iii 2’-6’).

Israelite law:
“If men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she gives birth prematurely, yet there is no injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him, and he shall pay as the judges decide. But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (Ex 21:22-25).

This case is also found in other law codes, including Hammurapi and Middle Assyrian. Lipit-Ishtar pre-dates the biblical text (and Moses) by hundreds of years. That does not mean Mosaic law has direct dependence on Lipit-Ishtar, but a good number of Israelite laws are not original to the Israelites. These types of laws existed prior to Moses. However, the Israelites put their own spin on them. The biblical codes are framed by a narrative with a particular theological viewpoint. For more on this see my post “Fifty Shekels for Rape? Making Sense of Old Testament Laws.


The Israelite scribes did not live as hermits disconnected from the world around them. The Jewish text Sirach (c. 200-175 B.C.E.) says a scribe “appears before rulers and travels through the lands of foreign nations” (Sir 39:4). Even though prophets urged the people not to mingle with other nations, the Israelites had plenty of political and social interaction with other people groups. Some of these other groups resided in the land prior even after the Israelites dominated the land. Kings married concubines from other nations to bolster international alliances (I Kgs 3:1; 11:1). Trade and commerce with other peoples was common (I Kgs 10:21-24). They were also influenced by the Egyptians, exposed to Assyrian and Babylonian cultures during the exile, and shaped by Hellenism after the Greek conquest. In other words, the Israelites were familiar with various philosophies and theologies of the world. This is reflected in Scripture. That does not mean they “copied” other ancient Near Eastern works (except intentional adaptions). But, the writers of Scripture pondered and engaged these ideologies from their own theological perspective.

One example of contextual engagement is the book of Job (date unknown). This text demonstrates reflection on suffering that was common to Mesopotamia. As Van der Toorn points out, Job has fingerprints of a scribe. It contains rare vocabulary as well as knowledge of astronomy (e.g. 9:9). It is also similar to Babylonian Theodicy (c. 1000 B.C.E.)—a text whose scribal origin is evident in its acrostic format. Other texts Job resembles includes the Sumerian text A Man and His God (c. 2000-1700 B.C.E.) and the Akkadian text The Poem of the Righteous Sufferer (c. 1600-1200 B.C.E.) In A Man and His God a man suffers physical ailments induced by a demon. A god relieves the suffering after being placated by the victim’s tears. In The Poem of the Righteous Sufferer a righteous man laments that he is being treated like a sinner. His bewilderment over divine absence amid his physical suffering is similar to Job (from tablet II):

36 Who can learn the reasoning of the gods in heaven?
37 Who understands the plans of the underworld gods?
38 Where might humans have learned the way of a god?

49 As for me, the exhausted one, a whirlind is driving me!
50 Debilitating Disease is let loose upon me;
51 An evil wind has blown [from the ends] of the sky,
52 Headache has surged upon me from the breast of the underworld,
53 An malignant spectre has come forth from its hidden depth.
54-59 [These lines are fragmentary; not read]
60 [My face] was gloomy, my eyes were in flood.
61 They wrenched my neck muscles made my neck limp.
62 They thwacked my chest, pounded my breast.
63 They affected my flesh and caused convulsions,
64 [In] my epigastrium they kindled a fire.
65 They churned up my bowels, they tw[isted] my fingers
66 With coughing and hacking they infected [my lungs].
67 They wasted my limbs and made my fat quake.

Similarly, in Babylonian Theodicy the sufferer engages in dialogue with a friend much in the way that Job does. The Babylonian sufferer bemoans his misfortunate and the cruelty of the gods while his friend admonishes him for faulty thinking, urging him to be more reverent:

69 Just one word would I put before you.
70 Those who neglect the god go the way of prosperity,
71 While those who pray to the goddess are impoverished and dispossessed.
72 In my youth I sought the will of my god;
73 With prostration and prayer I followed my goddess.
74 But I was bearing a profitless corvée as a yoke.
75 My god decreed instead of wealth destitution.
76 A cripple is my superior, a lunatic outstrips me.
77 The rogue has been promoted, but I have been brought low.

78 My reliable fellow, holder of knowledge, your thoughts are perverse.
79 You have forsaken right and blaspheme against your god’s designs.
80 In your mind you have an urge to disregard the divine ordinances.
81 [………] the sound rules of your goddess.
82 The plans of the god [……..] like the centre of heaven,
83 The decrees of the goddess are not [………….]
84 To understand properly .[…………….]
85 Their ideas [………….] to mankind;
86 To grasp the way of a goddess […………]
87 Their reason is close at hand […………]


As detailed above, the Israelite scribes did not merely copy oral and written tradition, they also expanded upon it. Similarly, evidence demonstrates they adapted texts from other ancient Near Eastern traditions and also engaged with common theological concerns of their time. So, what does this mean for how we think of Scripture as the inspired Word of God? The author of Hebrews wrote: “God . . . spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways” (1:1). God spoke in many ways. Sometimes it was through visions or dreams. Sometimes it was through an oracle. Sometimes it was by way of adaptation of pre-existing non-Israelite texts. Sometimes God’s revelation came through prayerful reflection on the world and its circumstances. These inspired messages endured through the careful preservation of the scribes who, also guided by the Spirit, expanded, adapted, and collated texts.

Continue on to Part III for the role of the Septuagint in the development of the Bible.


[1] This post, like the last one, relies on the work of Karel van der Toorn’s Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible. I have also drawn from other sources as indicated.

[2] The following examples are taken from S.R.K. Glandville, The Legacy of Egypt (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1942) 246-248.