English, Ruminations, Talk of the Town

Trying to Understand Scribal Practices

Among the many advantages of studying in Jerusalem are the many wonderful opportunities for class-outings. Not since elementary school have I been on so many field trips. Last week, I managed to get myself on a tour of The Shrine of the Book organized by the student councils of the departments of Bible and Hebrew Language. The tour was led by Dead Sea Scroll experts Prof. Emanuel Tov and Prof. Steven Fassberg.

One of Tov’s findings with regards to the biblical scrolls from Qumran that most struck the students on the trip was the character of those scrolls that were apparently written at the Qumran site. In the most recent edition of Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, Tov sums up the meaning of some of the changes found in these biblical scrolls: “These changes reflect a free approach to the biblical text…” (103). Fassberg, in his discussion of spoken Hebrew at Qumran, brought examples from The Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa) that exemplify this attitude. Here are two from Chapter 49 (my bar-mitzvah haftorah):




הֲיֻקַּח מגבור מלקוח

היקחו מגבור מלקוח


גבור יֻקָח ומלקוח

גבור ילקח ושובי

Whereas the Masorah uses the passive Qal (imperfect 3rd person masculine singular) twice, in the first instance The Great Isaiah Scroll has an active Qal in the 3rd person masculine plural, and in the second it has a Nifal imperfect 3rd person masculine singular. The Qumranic version adapts the ancient passive Qal, which disappeared as Hebrew developed, to more current, perhaps even spoken, forms of the verb (see Kutscher, The Language and Linguistic Background of the Isaiah Scroll, pg. 364).

For many on the tour such examples were startling. This attitude towards the biblical text and its transmission seemed at odds with the commonly recieved image of the Qumranic sect as a pious, elitist, and extremely devout group. How could such a group treat textual transmission – of the bible no less – so lightly? This question relates to what we expect from scribes, and how we are to imagine them. Must a pious scribe be a copious one with a significant amount of reverence for the text? And what does “reverence for the text” even mean? As these questions started to pop up in my head while exiting the shrine, I thought of their relevance to some of the well-worn partisan debates from the field of Rabbinics, and how scholars of biblical and rabbinic textual criticism might work collaboratively on problems of textual transmission.


8 thoughts on “Trying to Understand Scribal Practices

  1. In the course of teaching the Babylonian Esther Midrash (preserved in Bavli Megilla) this semester I am repeatedly struck by how an otherwise, extremely reliable and careful manuscript like the Yemenite Columbia MS often includes extra midrashic traditions found nowhere else (often from Yemenite midrash). In other words, the scribe of this MS was exceedingly faithful in his copying while at the same time he felt a certain level of freedom to add to the midrashic project by collating other traditions.

    • Noah Bickart says:

      Isn’t this true of many Yemenite MSS of the Bavli? I am thinking about MS Yad HaRav Hertzog of Sanhedrin, which both preserves old readings and presents lots of “new” editorial insertions.

  2. Avraham Yoskovich says:

    Concerning the link between piety and the “light” attitude to the canonical text, Ta-Shema (and others) emphasized the “liberal” attitude in Ashkenaz. It seems to me the same phenomenon in the sense that it reflects a totally different perception of the holiness of the text from that of modern piety. A perception which leads to a development of the text and not to its preservation.

  3. AS says:

    Shai, I wasn’t trying to be cryptic. We imagine scribes as functionaries who passively copy texts instead of people who produce texts for themselves or others for particular purposes. We also begin with the normative assumption that a good scribe is a faithful scribe. Maybe a good scribe in a given context is a fast scribe, or one who produces texts most easy to use, or one who is good at incorporating other material. And if the intended audience is the scribe himself then we could easily imagine all sorts of other reasons why fidelity is not of paramount importance.

    • Of course! ‘We’ at the Talmud Blog, having read Zvi Septimus’ dissertation and the earlier work that engages the way scribes actually produce a text are well aware of this. I’m just amazed that a scribe who is unusually faithful in one area – that is copying everything in front of him extremely accurately, even when the words and forms are foreign to him – on the other hand adds lots of material from external corpora.

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