The Bible Project

A friend sent me this article…  Read it and let me know what you think.

In Jerusalem, scholars trace Bible’s evolution

By MATTI FRIEDMAN Associated Press
Friday, August 12, 2011

JERUSALEM (AP) — A dull-looking chart projected on the wall of a university office in Jerusalem displayed a revelation that would startle many readers of the Old Testament: the sacred text that people revered in the past was not the same one we study today.

An ancient version of one book has an extra phrase. Another appears to have been revised to retroactively insert a prophecy after the events happened.

Scholars at work at Hebrew University

Scholars in this out-of-the-way corner of the Hebrew University campus have been quietly at work for 53 years on one of the most ambitious projects attempted in biblical studies — publishing the authoritative edition of the Old Testament, also known as the Hebrew Bible, and tracking every single evolution of the text over centuries and millennia.

And it has evolved, despite deeply held beliefs to the contrary.

For many Jews and Christians, religion dictates that the words of the Bible in the original Hebrew are divine, unaltered and unalterable. For Orthodox Jews, the accuracy is considered so inviolable that if a synagogue’s Torah scroll is found to have a minute error in a single letter, the entire scroll is unusable.

But the ongoing work of the academic detectives of the Bible Project, as their undertaking is known, shows that this text at the root of Judaism, Christianity and Islam was somewhat fluid for long periods of its history, and that its transmission through the ages was messier and more human than most of us imagine.

The project’s scholars have been at work on their critical edition of the Hebrew Bible, a version intended mainly for the use of other scholars, since 1958.

“What we’re doing here must be of interest for anyone interested in the Bible,” said Michael Segal, the scholar who heads the project.

The sheer volume of information makes the Bible Project’s version “the most comprehensive critical edition of the Hebrew Bible in existence at the present time,” said David Marcus, a Bible scholar at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, who is not involved with the project.

But Segal and his colleagues toil in relative anonymity. Their undertaking is nearly unknown outside a circle of Bible experts numbering several hundred people at most, and a visitor asking directions to the Bible Project’s office on the university campus will find that many members of the university’s own staff have never heard of it.

This is an endeavor so meticulous, its pace so disconnected from that of the world outside, that in more than five decades of work the scholars have published a grand total of three of the Hebrew Bible’s 24 books. (Christians count the same books differently, for a total of 39.) A fourth is due out during the upcoming academic year.

If the pace is maintained, the final product will be complete a little over 200 years from now. This is both a point of pride and a matter of some mild self-deprecation around the office.

Bible Project scholars have spent years combing through manuscripts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, Greek translations on papyrus from Egypt, a printed Bible from 1525 Venice, parchment books in handwritten Hebrew, the Samaritan Torah, and scrolls in Aramaic and Latin. The last member of the original team died last year at age 90.

The scholars note where the text we have now differs from older versions — differences that are evidence of the inevitable textual hiccups, scribal errors and other human fingerprints that became part of the Bible as it was passed on, orally and in writing.

A Microsoft Excel chart projected on one wall on a recent Sunday showed variations in a single phrase from the Book of Malachi, a prophet.

The verse in question, from the text we know today, makes reference to “those who swear falsely.” The scholars have found that in quotes from rabbinic writings around the 5th century A.D., the phrase was longer: “those who swear falsely in my name.”

In another example, this one from the Book of Deuteronomy, a passage referring to commandments given by God “to you” once read “to us,” a significant change in meaning.

Other differences are more striking.

The Book of Jeremiah is now one-seventh longer than the one that appears in some of the 2,000-year-old manuscripts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some verses, including ones containing a prophecy about the seizure and return of Temple implements by Babylonian soldiers, appear to have been added after the events happened.

The year the Bible Project began, 1958, was the year a priceless Hebrew Bible manuscript arrived in Jerusalem after it was smuggled out of Aleppo, Syria, by a Jewish cheese merchant who hid it in his washing machine. This was the 1,100-year-old Aleppo Codex, considered the oldest and most accurate version of the complete biblical text in Hebrew.

The Bible Project’s version of the core text — the one to which the others are compared — is based on this manuscript. Other critical editions of the Bible, such as one currently being prepared in Stuttgart, Germany, are based on a slightly newer manuscript held in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Considering that the nature of their work would be considered controversial, if not offensive, by many religious people, it is perhaps surprising that most of the project’s scholars are themselves Orthodox Jews.

“A believing Jew claims that the source of the Bible is prophecy,” said the project’s bearded academic secretary, Rafael Zer. “But as soon as the words are given to human beings — with God’s agreement, and at his initiative — the holiness of the biblical text remains, even if mistakes are made when the text is passed on.”

Link to original article.


6 thoughts on “The Bible Project

  1. How can the Bible be seriously considered to be inerrant, infallible–the word of God–when orthodox Jew researchers at an esteemed university find that certain prophecies were added to the text AFTER the events happened? This is the kind of evidence which compels one to know that the Bible is not the divinely inspired or protected word of God, but the work of primitive. and might I add, scheming, men.


    1. Your comment goes completely against the project that these scholars have been working on for the past 53 years. Scholars are able to show, through documentary evidence, that there have been major changes to the text. They are proving that through time scribal guilds, possibly individuals, and others who most likely had nothing to do with the original writing of the books of the Bible have made the majority of these insertions, proving the older tradition to be more true than what most Christianity and Judaism believe in today.
      You bring up this point within your own comment: ‘certain prophecies wered added to the text AFTER the events happened?’ Like I said, some of these insertions were added later by scribes, and I’m sure many were added by ‘scheming men’, but most were probably isolated interpretive insertions that were either accidentally included later in manuscripts, as Eugene Ulrich and Peter Flint argue in DJD XXXII, or were added by Jewish scribes of a later period to coincide with what they then believed in their culture about the original teachings.
      The only reason this ‘kind of evidence… compels one to know that the Bible is not the divinely inspired or protected word of God’ is because one takes that kind of reading into these studies with him. There is absolutely no reason to come to the conclusion that original traditions were not inspired by God and given through prophecy from a detailed reading of what these scholars are now doing. If taken well this could be one of the most healthy projects for both Judaism and Christianity; looking at one’s religion and finding out how it has gotten to where it is now, what changes have been made since the beginning, and making an honest attempt to return to the original.


      1. Thanks for your thoughts, Colby. I agree with you that just because changes have been made in manuscripts does not simply mean the text is not in some sense divine. God chose to communicate to and through fallible creatures. We shouldn’t be surprised when there are deviations of the above sort. Thanks for reading and responding!


  2. It sounds as if it will be a great resource. I hope they are considering releasing individual books as they are completed.

    I’m surprised there aren’t (if there aren’t) several groups working on such a project, especially given the ease with which these texts could be scanned/photographed and shared. I don’t see any good scholarly reason not to divide the labor, or to have multiple groups working on the same portions of the text. If their goal is to produce the “authoritative” (their words or the reporter’s?) Hebrew Bible, they should have an interest in having their work peer-reviewed. The worry is that translational, interpretive, dating, and authenticity decisions that inevitably have to be made might be ideologically driven if all the work is done by this small, mostly ideologically-defined group (and their successors).

    The article is not very informative about what the project is exactly. It doesn’t make clear what the authoritative edition aimed at will be. Will the end product be written in modern Hebrew? 900s AD Hebrew? Whatever the language (version) the oldest text fragments are in? It is supposed to be a contemporary OT/Hebrew Bible, annotated with all the historical changes in the text? Would the annotations include changes made since the ~920 AD date of the Aleppo Codex? Is the goal to substitute (translations of) older fragments/books for the corresponding sections of the Aleppo Codex (i.e., are they giving authenticity-priority to older texts)? Would they reference independent, competing historical lines of these texts?

    Although not a central issue, I think the article also underplays the extent to which it was already known that the texts have been changed and edited. We’ve known for a long time that the Torah/Pentateuch, for example, is almost certainly a cobbling together of three distinct sources, plus commentary (sometimes considered a fourth source), as is most apparent when we get distinct versions of the same story sometimes side by side (as in the creation episode) or awkwardly intertwined (as in the flood episode), or in separate books (as with many of the laws). In fairness, it may be that these four were only oral sources, postulated on the basis of inconsistencies and anachronisms in the written text, and, so, wouldn’t constitute an instance of the “evolution” of the written text that the reporter is describing.

    Incidentally, there is a slight error in the report. Friedman writes, “This was the 1,100-year-old Aleppo Codex, considered the oldest and most accurate version of the *complete* biblical text in Hebrew.” The Aleppo Codex is not complete; it is missing Job and a few of the first and last books of the Hebrew Bible, by the Jewish ordering. The Leningrad Codex, the one the Stuttgart scholars are working on, is complete and only around 80 years newer, and, I believe, was already corrected on the basis of the Aleppo, which makes unclear what advantage this particular group has over the Stuttgart group.

    Will the final edition be “authoritative”? Perhaps in some limited sense, it will. It may be the most accurate and historically-informed edition … so far. As valuable as the project will be for Biblical scholars, older Biblical fragments are likely to continue to be discovered, as will non-Biblical writings of same time and place that will shed light on the language, writing style and historical context of the Biblical texts. Of course, there will continue to be debates about the translation, interpretation, purpose, and context of the texts, even if progress is made. Furthermore, even if all the original Biblical texts were discovered, we have yet no way of tracing the longer and perhaps more fluid oral tradition that led to the initial writings. So, those hoping to one day have the original “Word of God” (on Earth) are likely to be disappointed. Still, the Bible Project seems to be a worthwhile endeavor.

    Let me end with something a little more provocative. I think what these scholars are doing is interesting and important work. However, to the extent that Christians, Muslims and Jews are interested in these ancient texts for the purposes of moral guidance, why not spend more time listening to and reading our contemporary prophets, social critics and ethicists, rather than focusing so much on trying to understand and apply to our present culture what the ancients said, especially given how often those relying on the ancients have gotten things wrong both in interpretation and application?

    As Zer says at the end of the article, “A believing Jew claims that the source of the Bible is *prophecy*.” That’s similar to a point I was trying to make at my last Pub Theology regarding the question of whether the Bible is the highest authority for a Christian (although I also made a point of distinguishing between ‘source’ and ‘authority’). The Bible records what some ancients people(s) said and believed and thought worthy of recording and passing on. But, if these words and beliefs were important, they were important before they were written down, edited, collected, and granted canonical status (sometimes by people of dubious intentions). It’s not as if all the authors had in mind the ultimate goal of “contributing to the Bible.” They had more immediate goals in mind. I can’t imagine Paul would have considered his mail to be worthy of the same status as the Torah! We seem to have given up on adding new works to the list of canonical scriptures, for better or for worse. Nevertheless, surely there are equally (or more) important contemporary speakers and authors among us, prophets whose words are equally (or more) worthy of being heard and applied to our lives.


    1. I fully agree with you on the fact that we ‘seem to have given up on adding new works to the list of canonical scriptures, for better or for worse.’ And I enjoyed reading your comments very much. I have a question though. Who or what would you suggest be added to the current canon? Which canon do you belong anyway? I thoroughly enjoyed Zer’s comment about how a ‘believing Jew claims that the source of the Bible is prophecy’, and in my belief prophecy should be the highest authority and sought after by every believer in God. In your thought, though, what should be added?


  3. “A believing Jew claims that the source of the Bible is prophecy,” said the project’s bearded academic secretary, Rafael Zer. “But as soon as the words are given to human beings — with God’s agreement, and at his initiative — the holiness of the biblical text remains, even if mistakes are made when the text is passed on.”
    Now that is a statement of faith! An interesting perspective too.


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