Searching for the Better Text

How errors crept into the Bible and what can be done to correct them

by Harvey Minkoff

American minister and folk artist Edward Hicks depicts an Eden-like Peaceable Kingdom, based on the vision of Isaiah. Art Resource, NY

Isaiah’s vision of universal peace is one of the best-known passages in the Hebrew Bible: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6).

But does this beloved image of the Peaceable Kingdom contain a mistranslation? *

For years many scholars suspected that it did. Given the parallelism of the phrases, one would expect a verb instead of “the fatling.” With the discovery of the Isaiah Scroll among the Dead Sea Scrolls, those scholars were given persuasive new support. The Isaiah Scroll contains a slight change in the Hebrew letters at this point in the text, yielding “will feed”: “the calf and the young lion will feed together.”

This is just one of numerous variations from the traditional text of the Hebrew Bible contained in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In some cases the traditional text is clearly superior, but in others the version in the scrolls is better.

Thanks to the scrolls, more and more textual problems in the Hebrew Bible are being resolved. The notes in newer Bible translations list variant readings from the scrolls, and in some cases, the translations incorporate these readings in the text as the preferred reading. No one has ever seriously suggested that the Dead Sea Scrolls contain anything like an eleventh commandment; but the scrolls do help clarify numerous difficult phrases in the Hebrew Bible, and for textual scholars that is more than enough.

Before we list other examples of how the Dead Sea Scrolls influenced—or altered—Bible translations, we need to understand how ambiguities crept into the text of the Hebrew Bible in the first place. And we must also familiarize ourselves with the ancient versions of the Hebrew Bible on which modern translations rely (for good reason scholars call these ancient versions “witnesses” to the biblical text).

Hebrew is remarkably compact: Almost all words consist of consonantal roots that convey their basic meaning. L-M-D, for example, means “learning,” B-Q-R means “examining,” and K-T-B, “writing.” Particular patterns of vowels and consonants narrow the meaning; me-a-e added to a root means “one who,” while a-a means “he did.” Thus, meLaMeD is “one who teaches,” meBaQeR is “one who examines,” LaMaD is “he learned,” and KaTaB is “he wrote.”

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These vowels are crucial for the meaning. However, ancient Hebrew writing recorded no vowels, only consonants. (Vowel marks were not added to Hebrew writing until the sixth or seventh century C.E.) Consonants alone were usually enough to distinguish between possible meanings. LMDT means “you (singular) learned,” while LMDTM means “you (plural) learned.” Often, however, the absence of vowels in written Hebrew leads to ambiguity. The word NSTM, which appears in Zechariah 14:5, could be parsed as the root STM with the prefix N, in which case it would mean “(it) was filled up.” But it could just as plausibly be read as NS with the suffix TM, which means “you (plural) fled.” The Jerusalem Bible translation opts for the former reading and translates the passage in Zechariah as “And the Vale of Hinnom will be filled up…it will be blocked as it was by the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah.” The King James Version, however, reads “And ye shall flee to the valley of the mountains…like as ye fled from before the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah.” Fleeing citizens in one text, a filled up valley in another. How much difference one word makes!

To eliminate, or at least reduce, such ambiguities, a convention arose among Hebrew scribes. They began to insert certain consonants, to be used as vowels, as aids to reading; these are called matres lectionis, literally, “mothers of reading.” LMD (lamad, “he learned”) became visually distinct from LMDH (lamda, “she learned”) and LMDW (lamdu, “they learned”). Such expanded spellings are called plene, or “full,” orthography (spelling); the more rudimentary spellings are called defectivus, or “defective,” orthography.

Plene orthography did not catch on all at once; some scribes were using full spellings as early the first century B.C.E., while even today in Israel their usage has not been standardized. One Dead Sea Scroll that testifies to the older scribal tradition contains Deuteronomy 24:14. The traditional Hebrew text contains the full spelling SKYR (sakir), meaning “workman”; most translations give “You should not oppress a workman.” But this manuscript, called 1QDeutb, contains the “defective” form SKR (sakar), which can also mean “wages”; following this scroll, the New English Bible renders the passage as “You shall not keep back the wages of a man.”

So far we have discussed “micro” issues—variations in spelling and the like. But there is a much larger factor that contributes to the differences we find in modern Bible translations: the variations in the textual traditions behind the text of the Hebrew Bible.

Straddling two animals, Jesus rides into Jerusalem (the opening act in the drama of his final week) as depicted by the Italian Renaissance painter Pietro Lorenzetti. Scala/Art Resource, NY

We have three major traditions, or “witnesses,” to the Hebrew Bible: the Masoretic text, the traditional Jewish text; the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that became authoritative for Christianity; and the Samaritan Pentateuch, the text holy to the small offshoot of Judaism that still survives in two small communities in Israel and the West Bank. How did these differing versions arise?

The Samaritan Bible is limited to the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses. The most striking difference between the Samaritan Bible and the Jewish Bible is that the Samaritan Bible considers Mt. Gerizim, not Jerusalem, as God’s holy place on earth.

Samaritan origins can be traced to events following the conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel by Assyria in 722 B.C.E. Many of the inhabitants were exiled, and other conquered peoples were resettled in the lands of the northern kingdom, including Samaria. To the people of the ancient Near East, every land was thought to be protected by its local god, and the people who had been forcibly resettled in Samaria naturally added worship of the Jewish God to their religious practices. The southern kingdom of Judah, too, was to suffer dispersal, at the hands of the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E., and when those exiles returned, the people of Samaria asked to assist in rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple. But the leaders of the returning exiles, Ezra and Nehemiah, rebuffed them for having watered down their religious practices and for having intermarried with the neighboring, resettled peoples. That, at least, is the story as found in the Jewish Bible.

The Samaritans, not surprisingly, tell a different tale. They explain their name as deriving from the word shomerim, (guardians) because they were the guardians of the true religion of Israel. According to their Chronicles, they are the descendants of Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, and have continuously inhabited their ancestral land. Though the Samaritans had offered to help their coreligionists who were returning from the Exile, they were rejected, mistreated and finally attacked by the Hasmonean king John Hyrcanus in 128 B.C.E. Their temple, located on Mt. Gerizim, rather than in Jerusalem, was destroyed.

The world of Biblical scholarship is never static. Research into the ancient cultures from which the Biblical texts arose is continually shedding light on how to interpret and understand these ancient writings, events and peoples. In the BAS Lecture Series DVD Texts and Contexts, Biblical scholars James Hoffmeier, Steve Mason, James Charlesworth, Ben Witherington III and Bart D. Ehrman give new meaning to familiar texts and historical questions as they explore the latest in literary interpretation.

Though the two versions outlined here assign the roles of hero and villain differently, both agree that by the second century B.C.E. the Samaritans had separated from normative—or, to use the more modern, scholarly term, common—Judaism.

The development of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible took a different path. It began in the wake of the Babylonian attack on Judah in the sixth century B.C.E., when some Jews fled to Egypt. Then, two and a half centuries later, Egypt, too, was conquered, by Alexander the Great. Alexander established cities organized on the Greek model in an attempt to unify his empire through a shared culture. The great metropolis of Alexandria attracted many Jews who adopted Greek as their language but who retained the religion of their forebears. By the third century B.C.E., their grasp of Hebrew was so tenuous that they needed a Greek translation of their sacred scriptures.

According to legend, in 270 B.C.E. Ptolemy II Philadelphus invited 72 scholars from Jerusalem to translate the Bible into Greek—hence the name Septuagint, from Interpretatio Septuaginta Seniorum (The Translation of the Seventy Elders).a When Christianity spread to the Hellenized world, the Septuagint became incorporated into Christian Bibles as the Old Testament.

A glum Zechariah exhibits unexplained dismay in a portrait by Jan Provost Scala/Art Resource, NY

One would expect that over many generations of copying, variations would creep into the three textual traditions. And that is what happened. The variations arose in several ways, including scribal errors, editing and polemical tampering.

One common error, called a homoeoteleuton, occurs when a scribe omits a phrase when his eye jumps from one word in the text he is copying to another appearance of the same word (or a similar one) a little farther in the text. That’s what seems to have happened in the Masoretic version of 1 Samuel 14:41: “Saul then said to the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Show Thummim.’” Apparently the Masoretic scribe’s eye skipped from one occurrence of the word “Israel” to the next and he missed all the words in between, as shown by the fuller text preserved in the Septuagint: “Saul said to the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Why have you not answered your servant today? Lord God of Israel, if this guilt lies in me or in my son Jonathan, let the lot be Urim; if it lies in your people Israel, let it be Thummim.’”

Some changes were made deliberately. Jewish tradition speaks of tikkun sopherim, scribal emendation, of disrespectful or misleading phrases. In 1 Kings 21:10, 13, for example, the euphemism “bless God” has replaced the unacceptable “curse God.”

Sometimes variations in the Septuagint indicate a misunderstanding of Hebrew poetic technique. The Masoretic version of Zechariah 9:9 reads “Rejoice greatly, daughter of Zion; shout, daughter of Jerusalem. Behold, your king is coming to you; he is just and triumphant, humble and riding on an ass, upon the foal of an ass.” In this passage, each key word is reinforced by a synonym or a parallel: rejoice//shout, Zion//Jerusalem, just and triumphant//humble and riding. But the translators of the Septuagint apparently missed the parallelism between ass//foal of an ass and instead pictured two animals—an ass and a foal. This misunderstanding becomes significant because the verse is used as a prooftext in Matthew 21:2–7, which describes Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Jesus sends two disciples to fetch an ass and a foal “to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet”; Matthew then quotes the passage in Zechariah and adds that the disciples did indeed bring Jesus an ass and a foal. The textual misunderstanding carried over into Christian art; some scenes of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem show him straddling two animals!

Filling a gap in the bible. The Dead Sea Scroll fragment shown here helps explain an otherwise perplexing account in the Hebrew Bible. The traditional text of 1 Samuel 11 begins with the abrupt announcement that Nahash the Ammonite besieged the city of Jabesh-gilead. Nahash has not previously appeared in the story, and he is not identified, as we would expect, as king of the Ammonites. Worse yet, there is no hint of why he would attack Jabesh-gilead. The Dead Sea Scroll version, however, preserves two sentences missing from the traditional Hebrew text. Israel Antiquities Authority

Some variations in translations are really disagreements over how a verse should be punctuated. A good example is Isaiah 40:3. Most modern Bible scholars recognize that here, too, there is a parallelism at work: “A voice cries out, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, in the desert make straight a highway for our God.’” The Septuagint, however, reads, “A voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’” Is it a crying voice that is in the wilderness or a path? Matthew, Mark and Luke all quote this passage as the Septuagint has it; of course, for them John the Baptist was the voice crying in the wilderness and declaring the arrival of Jesus.

What do the Dead Sea Scrolls tell us about the three major textual traditions? In the majority of cases (about 60 percent of the biblical scroll manuscripts), the scrolls follow the Masoretic text. About 5 percent of the biblical scrolls follow the Septuagint version; another 5 percent match the Samaritan text; 20 percent belong to a tradition unique to the Dead Sea Scrolls; and 10 percent are “nonaligned.” The key point is that the readings in the scrolls show that many variations in the biblical text are of long standing, and are not simply errors in later transmission.

Just because a text is old, however, does not mean it is better. Ancient editors may have tried to correct difficult texts. Psalm 145 is an alphabetical acrostic: The first line begins with aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and so on through the alphabet—except that in the Masoretic text there is no line for nun(N). But the Septuagint versin does have a line beginning with nun-and a Dead Sea Scroll of the Psalms has the line as well. That would seem to clinch the case for the line’s originality. But scholars point out that the line uses one name for God-Elohim-while the rest of the psalm employs the personal name Yahweh. So the line may be a later addition after all, despite being found in both the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Dead Sea Scrolls have filled one large gap in the Bible. First Samuel 11:1 begins jarringly with the notice that “Nahash the Ammomite came and besieged Jabesh-gilead.” The announcement is abrupt—Nahash has not been previously mentioned, and we would expect him to be identified as Nahash, king of the Ammonites. Even worse, the text gives no reason for the attack. But a Dead Sea Scroll text of Samuel contains two preceding sentences, which contain the expected “Nahash, king of the Ammonites” and a description of how seven thousand of his enemies had found refuge in Jabesh-gilead, making his attack understandable. Most Bible scholars accept these verses as authentic. The New Revised Standard Version includes them in its text of 1 Samuel, and other translations cite them in a note.

The Dead Sea Scroll version of 1 Samuel contains many other readings that have been adopted by modern translations. By one count, the New Revised Standard Version of 1 Samuel incorporates 110 alternatives to the Masoretic text; the New English Bible uses 160; and the New American Bible, 230.

The evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls must be used carefully, however. Large portions of Samuel, Isaiah and Jeremiah are represented in the scrolls, but other biblical books appear only in small fragments. They may not be biblical texts at all, but rather paraphrases from commentaries or prayers.

Even large chunks of text present problems. The Psalms Scroll contains a selection of psalms, mostly from the last third of the Psalter. James A. Sanders, who edited the Psalms Scroll for publication, maintains that differences in content and order between the Psalms Scroll and the traditional text prove that alternative psalters existed as late as the first century C.E. But other scholars counter that the differences prove that the Psalms Scroll was a prayer book, not a biblical text.

The Dead Sea Scrolls have already made their mark on modern Bible translations. Even when they do not settle textual questions once and for all, the scrolls prove that the Septuagint and the Samaritan Bible have ancient pedigrees and may preserve accurate readings. Bible translators now have an important new body of evidence to help them decide how best to settle problems in the text—evidence not available to earlier generations of scholars. William Foxwell Albright’s exclamation when the scrolls were discovered—he called the Isaiah Scroll “the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times!”—has been proved true many times over.





*“Searching for the Better Text” appeared in Bible Review, Aug 1999, 24-29, 51. This article was adapted from Harvey Minkoff, Mysteries of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Owing Mills, MD: Ottenheimer Publishers, 1998). It draws on information from the following sources: Edward M. Cook, Solving the Mysteries of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), appendix; Moshe Greenberg, “The Stabilization of the Text of the Hebrew Bible, Reviewed in the Light of the Biblical Materials from the Judean Desert” and “The Use of the Ancient Versions for Interpreting the Hebrew Text,” in Studies in the Bible and Jewish Thought (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1995); Minkoff, ed., Approaches to the Bible, 2 vols. (Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1994–1995), vol. 1, parts 1–2; James A. Sanders, “Understanding the Development of the Biblical Text,” in Hershel Shanks, ed., The Dead Sea Scrolls After Forty Years (Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1991); Harold Scanlin, The Dead Sea Scrolls and Modern Translations of the Old Testament (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1993); Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Scrolls (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1994), chap. 10; Adam S. van der Woude, “Tracing the Evolution of the Hebrew Bible,”BR 11:01; James C. VanderKam, The Dead Sea Scrolls Today (Grand Rapids,MI: Edermans, 1994) chap 5.



A professor of linguistics at Hunter College in New York City, Harvey Minkoff is the author and editor of nine books, including Visions and Revisions (Prentice-Hall, 1990) and Approaches to the Bible: The Best of Bible Review, vols. 1 and 2 (Biblical Archaeology Society, 1995).

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11 Responses

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  1. milton says

    what is the new hebrew reading? insteadof מְרִיא֙ what ios the reading in the scroll?

  2. Ben says

    This article was a great help to me in getting a start on understanding how English versions of Isaiah have been influenced by the Isaiah scrolls found at Qumran.

    Specifically, it helped me get started on my own work on that topic, which narrowly focuses on two major Jewish-affiliated translations. Since that work might be of interest to readers of this excellent overview, thus providing me with a not-too-spammy opportunity for shameless self-promotion, I’ll conclude with a couple of relevant URLs from my blog.

    Qumran, Isaiah, and the NJPS

    Qumran, Isaiah, and Stern

  3. Ben says

    The word ימרו is the answer to milton’s question. I.e. 1QIsa-a has ימרו (will feed) where MT has וּמְרִיא֙ (and the fatling).

  4. Ben says

    See footnote 17 of the NET Bible’s Isaiah 11:6 for a little more on the “will feed” vs. fatling issue.

    Here’s a link to the NET Bible’s Isaiah 11

  5. ChoimiSteme says

    The church purpose – We believe in the everlasting punishment of the wicked. NO SCRIPTURE FOR THIS

    We believe that the devil and his angels and whosoever is not found written in the book of life shall be consigned to everlasting punishment in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone, which is the second death – Revelation 19:20; Revelation 20:10-15.

    NOW! Lets see the deception. You will see who John’s true Father is

    NO where does it say people are assigned to the Lake of Fire for all time. Read for yourself

    Revelation 20:10-15
    And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.

    1. Devil, 2. Beast. 3. False prophet. That’s it.

    14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

    The word “forever” or “everlasting” is “aionios”. Look this word up and you will see it means “an age” not forever.
    The word for “torment” in Revelation 14:10 is the Greek “basanizo” which has a primary meaning of testing with a touchstone. the analogy is in testing metal with a touchstone to make sure it is pure


    1 Cor 15:26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. The Lake of Fire is the second death and will be destroyed. So while the 2nd
    death exist, death is still continuing until it is abolished. So the lake of fire (death) cannot be eternal because it will be destroyed

    In Revelation 20:”Then Death and Hades (HELL) were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.”

    Revelation 21:4 and God shall wipe away every tear from their eyes, and the death shall not be any more, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor shall there be any more pain, because the ..

    God’s Grand plan accomplished

    Who will be saved? Everyone

    1 Corinthians 3:13
    Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be SAVED; yet so as by fire.

    there you have! Everyone!

    Read carefully. Everymans works shall be revealed by fire. This means every single person ever created. They shall receive a reward or their works will be burned. They may suffer a loss but everyman will be SAVED by fire. Can you see it? Read every word again if you cannot

    Hebrews 12:29 For our God is a consuming fire
    God is this consuming fire

    John 2:2 And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world

    John 1:29 The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world

    2 Corinthians 5:19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.

    1 John 4:14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father sent the Son to be the savior of the world

    Isa 26:9 for when they judgements are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness
    Future prediction

    2 Co 5:19 to wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them;
    and hath committed unto us the word reconciliation.

    Webster dictionary: to restore to friendship or harmony . b : settle, resolve <reconcile differences

    1 Tim 1:12 Christ Jesus Came Into the World to Save Sinners.
    If you are a sinner Jesus come to save you

    Luke 19:10 For the Son of man came to seek and to save that which is lost.
    If they are lost he will find them and save them.

    John 3: 16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life
    John 3:17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him

    No one can be condemn

    Are you still blind or can you see it?

    1 co 15:28 And when all things shall be subdued until him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be All in All
    God is ALL and this is what he will be in ALL of humanity


    Botton line

    2 Peter 3:9 The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.

    Isaiah 46:11 From the east I summon a bird of prey; from a far-off land, a man to fulfill my purpose. What I have said, that will I bring about; what I have planned, that will I do.

    If God cannot accomplish his Will then how can he be God and Jesus failed to save the world.

    Pastor John Mcmartin is a false prophet and is destined for the lake of fire for his manipulation of Gods word

  6. Victor says

    Hello ChoimiSteme. Read your submission with complete neutrality…. that is until I got to the sentence “Pastor John Mcmartin is a false prophet and is destined for the lake of fire for his manipulation of Gods word” WOW! Don’t know who Pastor John is, but I don’t believe that his point of view should condemn him ANYWHERE! It’s been people like you with such vicious bitterness and hostility towards others, that has destroyed millions of lives in the name of religion. Grow up man!

  7. Chuck says

    Since Jehovah refused to create 2 robots with Adam and Eve he projected a PURPOSE to have humans WANT to serve him. Why would he abandon that purpose and GIVE salvation to everyone? This would put the whole situation back to square one, but with billions of humans, not just 2 humans as in Adam and Eve. We know what humans in general do. Cain started it out by killing Abel, WAR. I strongly feel that Jehovah will judge every human that has lived and is living and pick the ones that will do what they are told out of love and devotion, not compulsion. How else can we have a crime free world to turn into a paradise? So it is not what a person does NOW or did, but what they will do if give a shot at life on the other side of Armageddon. True, this will be the bringing back of people who are known by mankind to be very evil, but we know they will no loger be evil if picked. Not even for a test. I doubt Jehovah wants victims because folks had to be tested again and crime ended their life in the new system.

  8. GENE says

    Universal salvation is not a teaching of the Bible. For example, those who die in the oncoming Battle of Armageddon, will suffer everlasting destruction. Note 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9 “This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of the Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power….” (New International Version)

    What Jesus said at Matthew 7: 13,14 has special meaning for our day: “Go in through the narrow gate; because broad and spacious is the road leading off into to destruction, and many are the ones going in through it; whereas narrow is the gate and cramped the road leading off into life, and few are the ones finding it.” (New World Translation)

    Jesus said in the last days the good news (gospel) of the Kingdom would be preached in all the world and then the end would come (Matt. 24:14). Viewing the wicked world conditions today, (like Noah’s day) this is the time to search out those who are preaching that good news of a Kingdom of God that will replace all human governments and cleanse this earth. Be a survivor!

Continuing the Discussion

  1. The complete Torah - written and Oral - Jewish religion, Hebrew - Page 8 - City-Data Forum linked to this post on July 9, 2012

    […] Back on topic: today's BAR offering has a reasonably decent article on Searching for the Better Text. […]

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    […] is the title of a somewhat technical article by Harvey Minkoff over at Bible History Daily in which he discusses the nature of the Hebrew […]

  3. Was Jesus literate and educated? - Baha'i Forums linked to this post on June 19, 2015

    […] to still earlier texts, as we now know from the Dead Sea Scrolls." It's estimated that in "the majority of cases (about 60 percent of the biblical scroll manuscripts)," writes Harv… Just because Luke depicts Jesus as reading a Greek text doesn't mean he did; it only tells us what […]

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