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.