The Texts of Isaiah

Day Eighteen of “Through Advent with Isaiah”

Although parts of the Book of Isaiah go back as far as the eighth century BCE – 2700 years or so – the oldest complete manuscripts are only about a thousand years old. The two main manuscripts of the Tanach (Hebrew Bible) are both codices – that is, they are bound pages with writing on both sides, and not scrolls. The older one is the Aleppo Codex, which dates from the late 10th century, and the other one is the Leningrad Codex from the year 1008 CE. Both are high quality specimens of what is called the Masoretic text.

The Masoretes were a movement of Jewish textual scholars and scribes based at Tiberias in Galilee in the last centuries of the first millennium. As Hebrew ceased to be a spoken language they made an effort to collate the very best readings of the manuscripts available to them. Hebrew writing often does without vowels – they are indicated by helping letters like Aleph or Ayin, or you just know them from using the words and knowing how to pronounce them.  This, as the Masoretes knew, becomes problematic when Hebrew is no longer a living language, and so they indicated the vowels with signs above and below the consonants, as well as including signs as to how it should be chanted, with various other notes. The result is a very accurate text of the books of the Bible, with lots of notes and information.

Aleppo Codex - First Page of Isaiah

Aleppo Codex– First Page of Isaiah

The Aleppo Codex was written in Galilee, but made its way to Cairo, where the famed rabbi Maimonides saw it and attested to its quality. The Leningrad Codex (also known as the Cairo Codex) was copied from manuscripts in Cairo and checked against the Aleppo Codex. The first printed Hebrew Bibles were based on later manuscripts into which the inevitable copying errors had entered. When the German biblical scholar Rudolf Kittel decided to revise his critical edition of the Hebrew Bible in 1921 he wanted to use the Aleppo Codex, but the Jewish community in Aleppo were so protective of their great treasure that they refused him access. So he turned to the Soviet Union, which as the heirs of the Russian Empire had the Leningrad Codex, which had been bought from a collector in the 1860s.  The 3rd edition of the Biblia Hebraica (“BH”) was based on it, and reporoduced all the Masoretical notes and markings. When a revision was done after the Second World War – the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (1968-77) (“BHS”) it also followed the Leningrad Codex; that’s the Hebrew Bible I have at home.

Leningrad Codex - First Page of Isaiah

The first page of the Book of Isaiah from the Leningrad Codex.

Between the BH and BHS two major things happened. First, in the immediate post-war era the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in caves just to the northwest of the Dead Sea. Second, in the wake of the establishment of the State of Israel the Aleppo synagogue was attacked, and the Aleppo Codex disappeared for a few years, and then reappeared in Israel. Unfortunately, when it reappeared, major portions of the book were missing, including most of the Torah. While there were photographs made of the missing pages, they were not of the highest quality, nor were they comprehensive. The Aleppo Codex has now been issued in part in a critical edition by Hebrew University, and it provides the basis for a standard text of the Hebrew Bible known as The Jerusalem Crown (2000). This has now become the official Tanach in Israel, used in the Knesset and to administer oaths of office.

Great Isaiah Scroll

The Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa) • Qumran Cave 1 • 1st century BCE • Parchment • H: 22-25, L: 734 cm • Government of Israel • Accession number: HU 95.57/27 From the Digital Dead Sea Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls consist of a wide variety of Jewish religious manuscripts that appear to have been hidden in caves during the Jewish revolution against Rome in 66 CE – 70 CE. Many of scrolls are Biblical texts, and although fragmentary they form an important source for modern textual criticism. The only scroll of a complete text (with a few damaged areas) is that of Isaiah found and named 1Qlsaa, (i.e. 1Q = “in the First cave at Qumran”, “Isa” = Isaiah,  a = a letter distinguishing it from other Isaiah texts). It is also known as the Great Isaiah Scroll, because it is very large.

What was surprising to biblical scholars was that the text of 1Qlsaa was not very different from that of the Masoretes a thousand years later, as evidenced in the Aleppo and Leningrad Codices. There were some differences, of course. Some were obvious errors of manual copying, and some were just variations in spelling. A few of the differences actually clarified obscure passages in the Masoretic text, suggesting that the Masoretes had inadvertently preserved some corrupted words in the text.

Again, some of these differences corresponded to translations in the Greek Septuagint. The Septuagint was a translation of Jewish scriptures into Hellenistic Greek, done in the second and first centuries BCE. While undoubtedly used extensively by Greek speaking Jews across the eastern Mediterranean, its use by Christians in the centuries after Jesus led to it being abandoned by them.

In practice the BHS uses the Leningrad Codex as its text, but its critical apparatus notes differences with the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Aleppo Codex. As a result, the translator has the opportunity of making her own judgement as to what the probable original text was, and can translate accordingly. Isaiah seems to have had a remarkable textual stability through its 2500 year history.

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at
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