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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

- Introduction

The Old Testament consists of a collection of works composed at various times from the twelfth to the second century B.C.E. The books are written in classical Hebrew, except some brief portions (Ezra 4.8–6.18 and 7.12–26; Jeremiah 10.11; and Daniel 2.4–7.28 ) which are in Aramaic, a closely related and widely used language.

Very few manuscripts survived the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., and soon after that disaster the Jewish religious leaders set about defining the ‘canon’ (the scriptures accepted as authoritative) and finally standardizing the text. This was the Massoretic or ‘traditional’ text.

The original texts were written in a script which represents only a small proportion of the vowel sounds. In order to preserve the correct pronunciation in school and synagogue, and so to fix the meaning of words which could be read in more than one way, the Massoretic editors used vowel signs to modify the consonantal symbols. They were following a continuous tradition of reading the scriptures aloud; over the years errors had crept in, and so on occasion the present revisers, like the translators of The New English Bible, substituted other vowel signs where it seemed necessary.

In one case the Massoretes did not give the true vocalization. The divine name (YHWH in Hebrew characters) was probably pronounced ‘Yahweh’, but the name was regarded as ineffable, too sacred to be pronounced. The Massoretes, therefore, wrote in the vowel signs of the alternative words adonai (‘Lord’) or elohim (‘God’) to warn readers to use one of these in its place. Where the divine name occurs in the Hebrew text, this has been signalled in The Revised English Bible by using capital letters for ‘LORD’ or ‘GOD’, a widely accepted practice.

It is probable that the Massoretic Text remained substantially unaltered from the second century C.E. to the present time, and this text is reproduced in all Hebrew Bibles. The New English Bible translators used the third edition of R. Kittel's Biblia Hebraica (Stuttgart, 1937). A new and thoroughly revised edition, Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, appeared in 1967/77, and is the most widely used modern edition. Both these take their text from a manuscript of the early eleventh century C.E. now preserved in Leningrad.

Despite the care used in the copying of the Massoretic Text, it contains errors, in the correction of which there are witnesses to be heard. None of them is throughout superior to the Massoretic Text, but in particular places their evidence may preserve the correct reading.

There are, firstly, Hebrew texts which are outside the Massoretic tradition: the Samaritan text and the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Samaritan text consists only of the Pentateuch (Genesis–Deuteronomy). It must date from a period before the secession of the Samaritans from Judaism (probably no later than the second century B.C.E.), but is preserved only in manuscripts the earliest of which is tentatively assigned to the eleventh century C.E. This is in effect the Hebrew text in Samaritan characters. Translators of the Old Testament may now make use of what are commonly known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, the discovery of which, in x1947 and after, revealed Hebrew manuscripts perhaps a thousand years older than those previously known.

The translators and revisers had in addition to the early Hebrew texts the evidence provided by the ancient versions in other languages. The earliest of these, the Greek translation made in Egypt in the third and second centuries B.C.E. and commonly called the Septuagint, is the major tool for recovering the original Hebrew text. In the early Christian era Lucian produced an edition of the Septuagint. Other Greek versions of the period were those of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion.

When the need for a Latin Bible arose, the Old Latin version was produced by translating the Septuagint. The Vulgate, Jerome's translation into Latin of the Hebrew text, followed towards the end of the fourth century C.E.

As Hebrew had ceased to be commonly understood in Palestine, renderings into Aramaic known as Targums had been produced for synagogue use from the fourth century B.C.E. onwards. The early Christian church in Mesopotamia had its version in Syriac (a form of Aramaic); it is known as the Peshitta, a ‘simple’ or literal translation.

All these versions contribute in varying degrees to the recovery and understanding of the Hebrew.

Other contributions to the understanding of the Hebrew text have been made by archaeological discoveries and by the study of the cognate Semitic languages. This last method, used by medieval Jewish scholars and also by Christian scholars in the seventeenth and following centuries, has received fresh impetus from the decipherment of texts notably from Ras Shamra in Syria. It is a method which has led to valuable results, but its application demands both skill and particular caution; the revisers have been aware of the dangers of an over-zealous use of it.

The text is not infrequently uncertain and its meaning obscure, and after all the study of the texts and versions, the languages and culture of the ancient Near East, there remain a number of passages where the translator must either leave a blank in his version or, as the New English Bible translators and the present revisers have chosen to do, resort to conjectural emendation of the Hebrew text. This has been done as sparingly as possible, and attention is drawn to such cases in footnotes by the indicator prob. rdg.

Where exact identification of specialized terms such as ‘Sheol’ (the Hebrew word for the underworld) is required, these have been given as transliterations of the Hebrew, but where exact identification is less vital they have been rendered by some word or phrase approaching the original sense. The rendering of the terms for each kind of sacrifice has been revised and standardized in the statements of the Jewish legal codes, whereas they have been translated more freely in parts of the Old Testament where no technical problems are involved and strict consistency is not of overriding importance.

Where no exact equivalent exists for the original Hebrew, a somewhat expanded translation has been provided; on the other hand some abbreviation has been made when the Hebrew text seemed unduly repetitive by the normal standards of writing in English. Changes such as substituting nouns for pronouns have been made when clarity demanded it.

As elsewhere in The Revised English Bible, the guiding principle adopted has been to seek a fluent and idiomatic way of expressing biblical writing in contemporary English. Much emphasis has been laid on correctness and intelligibility, and at the same time on endeavouring to convey something of the directness and simplicity of the Hebrew original. All those who have been concerned with the production of this translation have done their work in the conviction that the Old Testament has contributed vitally to every tradition of Christian worship and culture, and that an accurate understanding of the Bible of the Jews is essential to the full appreciation of Christian doctrine and the events recorded in the New Testament.

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