Introduction to the Old Testament
of the New English Bible

by Sir Godfrey Driver

The Old Testament consists of a collection of works composed at various times from the twelfth to the second century B.C.; and much of it, e.g. genealogies, poems and stories, must have been handed down by word of mouth for many generations. It contains, however, scattered references to written texts; but how extensive or widely current these may have been cannot be said, as no manuscripts have survived from the period before the destruction of Jerusalem and the deportation of the Jews into exile in 587/6 B.C. The text therefore is not infrequently uncertain and its meaning obscure.

The whole Old Testament is written in classical Hebrew, except some brief portions which are in the Aramaic language (Ezra 4.8–6.18 and 7.12–26, Jeremiah 10.11, Daniel 2.4–7.28), a sister language which became the lingua franca of the Semitic world.

The earliest surviving form of the Hebrew text is perhaps that found in the Samaritan Pentateuch (Genesis–Deuteronomy). This text must date from a period before the secession of the Samaritans from Judaism, but it is preserved only in manuscripts the earliest of which is tentatively assigned to the eleventh century A.D. It differs from the orthodox Jewish text in some six thousand places, in about one third of which it agrees with the Greek translation, the Septuagint; a few of these differences are doctrinal or political in origin (e.g. Deuteronomy 27.4), a small number are helpful in difficult passages of the traditional Hebrew text, but the majority have little if any importance. The next witness to the Hebrew text is provided by the Scrolls from Qumran, commonly called the Dead Sea Scrolls, dated c. 150 B.C. to A.D. 75 or thereabouts. These include fragments, often minute, of every book in the Old Testament except Esther, one complete scroll of Isaiah and another of which approximately half has been lost, and a commentary on the first two chapters of Habakkuk containing most of their text. All these agree essentially with the 'received text' of the Old Testament except for orthographic variations or occasional variant readings hardly affecting the sense, and so suggest that stabilization of text is already beginning. Fragments, however, of Samuel and one of Jeremiah have a shortened form of the text like that of the Septuagint in these books. The only other fragment of this period is that known as the Nash Papyrus, which cannot be exactly dated, containing two excerpts from the Law (Exodus 20.2–17 and Deuteronomy 6.4–5); its chief interest is that the words are more or less clearly spaced.

Very few manuscripts are said to have survived the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Soon after that disaster, therefore, the Jewish religious leaders set about defining the canon and finally standardizing the text. This last process went on for many centuries and resulted in the production of an eclectic text based on arbitrary rather than scientific principles. This was the Massoretic (so called from the Hebrew massorah, 'tradition') or traditional text found in all Hebrew Bibles.

This text was written in a purely consonantal alphabet, although the scribes at Qumran had already attempted to indicate the vowels by using certain letters for them (for example w for o and u, and y for e and i). This system, however, was soon found inadequate when, except in very restricted circles, the use of the old Hebrew language was dying out. Accordingly, in order to preserve the correct pronunciation in school and synagogue, the Massoretes inserted signs above or below or within the consonantal symbols to indicate this. Several systems are known, but that devised by the Rabbis of Tiberias (hence known as 'Tiberian') in the fifth to sixth centuries A.D. eventually prevailed. What they preserved, however, was not so much the original pronunciation as that current amongst themselves; further, however helpful these vowel-signs may have been, they are demonstrably not always correct. The present translators have therefore held themselves free to disregard the vowels and to re-vocalize the consonantal text wherever that seems desirable.

This text perpetuated not only genuine divergent readings but also numerous slips of the early copyists, made at a time when it was not copied with such meticulous care as in subsequent ages when it had come to be regarded as canonical and sacred; even then, however, many fresh errors found their way into it. The Rabbis soon felt the need to take account of and preserve any divergences that seemed to them important. They therefore listed a number of variant readings, omissions from and additions to the text as known to them, as well as possible corrections, which perhaps were often nothing but the conjectures of individual scribes. The consonants, however, were generally regarded as unalterable, and the usual method of indicating corrections adopted by the Massoretes was to attach the vowels of the word which they wished to be read to the consonants of that written in the text, although it might be an entirely different word.

One such substitution calls for special notice as affecting the divine name. This, written YHWH, was normally replaced by 'God' or 'Lord' as too sacred for common use (Exodus 20.7 and Leviticus 24.16), being uttered only by the priest in the temple giving the priestly benediction (Numbers 6.24–27). The true pronunciation was already passing into oblivion before A.D. 70; but Christian writers between A.D. 150 and A.D. 450 have Yaouai and Yabe (Yave) in Greek characters, and early magical texts have Yhbyh (Yahveh) in Aramaic characters, all pointing to Yahweh as the original pronunciation. The Massoretes, however, never vocalized the divine name as Yahweh; instead, to the consonants YHWH they added the vowels of adonay, 'my Lord' (replacing a by e as required by Hebrew phonetic laws), or of elohim, 'God', thus warning the reader to use one or other of these words in place of the divine name; and the early translators generally substituted 'Lord' for it. The Massoretes, however, did not intend the vowels of either of these words to be attached to the consonants of the divine name as though it was Yehowah or Yehowih, both grammatically impossible and meaningless forms; this uncouth combination, written Ieoa in Greek letters in Hellenistic magical texts, did not become effective until Yehova or Jehova or Johova appeared in two Latin works dated in A.D. 1278 and A.D. 1303; the shortened Jova (declined like a Latin noun) came into use in the sixteenth century. The Reformers preferred Jehovah, which first appeared as Iehouah in A.D. 1530 in Tyndale's translation of the Pentateuch (Exodus 6.3), from which it passed into other Protestant Bibles. The present translators have retained the incorrect but now customary 'JEHOVAH' in the text of passages where it is explained in a note (Exodus 3.15 and 6.3; cp. Genesis 4.26) and in four place-names (Genesis 22.14, Exodus 17.15, Judges 6.24, Ezekiel 48.35); elsewhere they have put 'LORD' or 'GOD' in capital letters.

The Hebrew text as thus edited by the Massoretes became virtually a single recension probably remaining substantially unaltered from the second century A.D., but this text has not survived in any manuscripts dated before the ninth to eleventh centuries A.D. Unsatisfactory as it may be, however, it is perforce reproduced in all printed Hebrew Bibles. These began to appear late in the fifteenth century, when printed copies of single books or groups of books came from various presses, followed by the first complete Bibles in 1488 and 1491; but the text of Jacob ben Chayyim's Rabbinic Bible (Venice, 1524–5) is that found in most modern Bibles. Collections of various readings were published in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, unfortunately taken from late manuscripts and therefore of relatively little value. The most-used modern edition, with selected variations from Hebrew manuscripts and the principal divergences in the ancient versions implying a different Hebrew text, together with emendations proposed by modern scholars, is the third edition of R. Kittel's Biblia Hebraica (Stuttgart, 1937). It is the basis of the present translation.

The Hebrew text as thus handed down is full of errors of every kind due to defective archetypes and successive copyists' errors, confusion of letters (of which several in the Hebrew alphabet are singularly alike), omissions and insertions, displacements of words and even of whole sentences or paragraphs; and copyists' unhappy attempts to rectify mistakes have often only increased the confusion.

The order of the books of the Old Testament followed in the present translation, though not entirely the same as that found in Hebrew manuscripts and in the ancient versions, is that of the Authorized and Revised Versions.

In early inscriptions the writing commonly runs on continuously with no division between the words; but already c. 1000–700 B.C. some have points or vertical strokes to divide them. By the sixth century B.C. this use of points was becoming rare and words were being separated by spaces; and the reader was further assisted, when the Aramaic script replaced the old Phoenician script, by the peculiar forms of several letters used at the end of a word. The Greek translators of the Hebrew text, however, still divide words wrongly, and errors caused by such false divisions can be traced occasionally in Jerome's Latin translations and linger even in the Massoretic text, although words are properly divided in the Scrolls. The main Scroll of Isaiah, like the Nash Papyrus, occasionally separates verses by a space; but this process was not completed until the Massoretes introduced a vertical stroke, afterwards replaced by two points resembling a colon, to divide the verses. They also devised various systems of breaking up the text into paragraphs. Finally, the present division of the text into chapters, ascribed to Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, was adopted into Latin Bibles in the thirteenth century A.D.; their numbering is found in Hebrew manuscripts c. A.D. 1330 and in Hebrew Bibles first in the Complutensian Polyglot Bible (A.D. 1514–17).

The present translators have inserted their own headings, which are not found in the Hebrew text, to define longer sections; otherwise they have more or less accepted the paragraphing of the Authorized and Revised Versions without much regard to the Massoretic system; they have often, however, broken up the text into shorter sections than those of these two versions. They have adopted the Massoretic system of verses but have occasionally run two or three verses together in order to bring out the sense or to avoid a cumbrous or awkward sentence.

In the Hebrew text, headings are prefixed to many of the Psalms. Some are historical notices, obviously deduced from the text and often unsuitable; all are of doubtful value. Others are musical directions, which are found also in one other poem (Habakkuk 3.1,9,13,19); they are now for the most part unintelligible, and even the ancient translators seem to have been ignorant of their meaning. Further, the Syriac version has totally different headings throughout the Psalter. As such headings are almost certainly not original, they have been omitted from the present translation.

The treatment of verse raises special problems. Only three books were regarded by the Massoretes as poetry (Job, Psalms, Proverbs), and they have their own accentuation in the Hebrew text; this however does not always coincide with the obvious metre or rather rhythm of the poem, which is based on parallelism of thought between the two halves of the line and on the number of units of sense, not of metrical feet of so many syllables, in each half. When these clash, the present translators have disregarded the Massoretic system and adapted the English text to rhythmical necessity. Further, the Massoretes have treated all the prophetic books as prose; but since the middle of the eighteenth century much in them has been recognized as verse, or prose mixed with verse, and the editors of these books in Kittel's Biblia Hebraica have printed whatever can be regarded as poetry in verse-form. The translators, therefore, have followed this system while using their own judgement in accepting or rejecting it in any given passage.

The verses in a few Psalms and in one or two poems outside the Psalter begin each with a successive letter of the alphabet; but no attempt has been made to reproduce such acrostic arrangements in this translation. They occasionally help to restore the order of the lines (Nahum 1.2–14) and once to join two Psalms which have been wrongly separated (Psalms 9–10). In Psalm 119, each group of eight verses begins with the same letter, following the order of the alphabet, and Jerome has added the Hebrew names of the letters in Latin characters at the head of each group; but, as they are not in the Hebrew text, though preserved in the Authorized and Revised Versions, they have been here omitted.

Occasionally groups of verses are marked off by a common refrain; and this once or twice enables a displaced fragment of a poem to be restored to its proper position with the others sharing this refrain (Psalms 42–43 and Isaiah 5.24–25 and 9.8–10.4).

Lastly, the Hebrew text of the Song of Songs does not differentiate between the speakers. They are distinguished, however, in two manuscripts of the Septuagint, though perhaps not always correctly, and can often be inferred from the gender and number of the persons addressed; they have therefore been added, according as they seem appropriate, in italic type in the present translation. Elsewhere the translators have here and there inserted the speaker's name when it has not been given for some time and have also occasionally added 'he says' or the like when the sense seems to be obscured by the absence of such indications.

Where the problem before the translators was that of correcting errors in the Hebrew text in order to make sense, they had recourse, first of all, to the ancient versions, of which a considerable number has survived.

The earliest version is the Greek translation made in Egypt in the third and second centuries B.C. It was designed to meet the needs of Greek-speaking Jews after the dispersion of the Jews following on the conquests of Alexander the Great (who died in 323 B.C.). According to tradition the Pentateuch was translated by seventy-two elders, six from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, and so the Greek version of the Old Testament came to be called the Septuagint, from the Latin septuaginta, 'seventy'. Written in the 'common dialect' of the Greek language current in the Mediterranean world, it is clearly the work of different translators of varying skill; for example, the Pentateuch is reasonably well translated, but the rest of the books, especially the poetical books, are often very poorly done and even contain sheer absurdities. Errors apart, this translation is now literal, now paraphrastic and now interpretative. Further, the underlying Hebrew text differed in many places from the Massoretic text; so, for example, the Septuagint represents a shortened form of the text of 1 and 2 Samuel and has the chapters of Jeremiah in an entirely different order. Yet, even though the Greek text itself is frequently corrupt, it is very often useful for recovering the original Hebrew text, if used with caution and skill. Early in the Christian era, when its defects were becoming increasingly apparent, several scholars attempted to revise it or make new recensions or translations based on it. Such were Aquila, whose renderings were often ludicrously literal, Symmachus, who replaced Hebraisms by idiomatic Greek expressions, and Theodotion, who made a free revision which was thought so good that his rendering of Daniel actually displaced that of the Septuagint. Some considerable time afterwards other scholars produced fresh recensions of the Greek text, amongst which that commonly associated with the name of Lucian may be included. Only fragments of the first three, apart from Theodotion's Daniel, have survived from the Hexaplar (i.e. six-columned) Bible made by Origen (c. A.D. 185–254), and Lucian's work is thought to lie behind certain Greek manuscripts. The history of these recensions is buried in obscurity; but most of them have something, however small, to contribute to the translation of the Hebrew Bible.

As Christianity spread westwards, the need of a Latin translation began to make itself felt, and the Old Latin Version, or perhaps rather Versions, came into existence, made from the Septuagint, about the end of the second century A.D. It is known partly from manuscripts, none complete, but mostly from quotations in the Fathers. The defects of this version, however, were so patent that Pope Damasus towards the end of the fourth century A.D. instructed Jerome to revise it. He began with two revisions of the Psalter, the 'Roman Psalter' based on the Old Latin Version, and the Gallican Psalter (so called as finding ready acceptance in Gaul) made from the Septuagint; he then produced Latin revisions of five other books (of which Job alone survives) based on the Septuagint, and finally new translations of the canonical books made from the Hebrew text, including one of the Psalms known as the 'Psalter according to the Hebrews', which failed to displace the Gallican Psalter in the Latin Bible. This version, made with the help of Jewish scholars and commonly called the Vulgate, by its idiomatic and forceful renderings was the best of the ancient translations; but, being based on the Massoretic 'received text', it is not so useful as the Septuagint for the recovery of the original Hebrew.

As the classical language of the Old Testament ceased to be understood by the common people in Palestine, an interpreter followed up every verse of the Law and every three verses of the Prophets when read in the synagogue by an Aramaic translation which was often spun out into a long but edifying paraphrase. Such interpretations, known as Targums (so called from the Aramaic targum, 'translation'), tended to become traditional and had already begun to be written down before the Christian era; for Gamaliel, St Paul's teacher, ordered one of the Book of Job to be buried and his grandson declared such a work heretical. There are Targums to all the Old Testament books except Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah; and fourteen or fifteen such Targums are extant. Of these the most important are the so-called Targum of Onkelos on the Pentateuch and that of Jonathan on the Former and Latter Prophets, which are reasonably literal and therefore helpful in recovering the Hebrew text where it is corrupt.

The first Syriac version, called the Peshitta (meaning the 'simple', i.e. literal, version), was made for the Eastern Church between the first and third centuries A.D. Though affected by the Septuagint, it is basically a rendering of the Massoretic text and so occasionally elucidates difficult passages. The Syrohexaplar Version is a Syriac translation, made in the seventh century A.D., of Origen's text of the Septuagint as found in the fifth column of his Hexaplar Bible; its language so slavishly imitates the Greek of the parent text that it is invaluable, where it has been preserved, for restoring that text. Fragments of yet another Syriac version have been preserved, and the names of three others are known.

A number of other versions made between the third and ninth centuries A.D. in different languages are extant but, being made from or influenced by the Greek and Syriac versions, rarely help with problems of the Hebrew text. Several Arabic versions of diverse date, not all complete, exist, notably those of the Pentateuch, of which one lies behind the Samaritan Targum, and of a few books by Sa'adyah (tenth century A.D.) and another of the Pentateuch by 'Abu Sa'id (thirteenth century A.D.), which is the textus receptus of the Arabic Pentateuch now used by the Samaritans; the work of these two translators is from time to time helpful as embodying Jewish traditions.

These ancient versions, especially when they agree, contribute in varying degrees to the restoration of the Hebrew text when incapable of translation as it stands; and they also contribute much to the understanding of the Hebrew language. No Hebrew literature contemporary with the Old Testament is available to the Hebraist; only a few inscriptions carved in rock or stone or daubed on potsherds have been preserved, and these throw but little light on the Hebrew language. Further, the range of subjects with which the Old Testament deals is limited, although it is spread over a period of some thousand years. Consequently its surviving vocabulary is small, numbering only about 7,500 different words, of which nearly a quarter occur only once each; and the meaning of many of these is quite unknown or can perhaps only be guessed from the context or learnt from the ancient translators if they have preserved it. The meaning, however, of not a few words is clearly unknown even to them.

Some of these rare words were explained, not always rightly, by medieval Jewish scholars from surviving traditions or by comparing them with cognate Arabic words. This last method was revived by Christian scholars in the seventeenth century and was greatly advanced during the following two centuries, when the Syriac and Ethiopic languages were also used; but the Babylonian and Assyrian languages did not become available till the decipherment of the cuneiform inscriptions in the middle of the nineteenth century. The authors of the Revised Version were able to make some use of these languages; but the huge accumulation of texts, including native glossaries, in them now provides a source on which the present translators have been able to draw for the explanation of many unknown or misunderstood Hebrew words and phrases.

The general understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures has also been greatly helped by archaeological discoveries made during the past century. These serve mostly to illustrate the setting of a particular passage or custom, but they occasionally throw light on a word of unknown meaning.

In the last resort the scholar may be driven to conjectural emendation of the Hebrew text. This is practised as sparingly as possible in the present translation, and attention is always (except where changes only in vocalization are involved) drawn to it in the notes.

Another difficulty in translating the Old Testament is one inherent in the circumstances of time and place. Long ago Erasmus remarked that the student of Scripture ought to be 'tolerably versed in other branches of learning ... and especially in knowledge of the natural objects — animals, trees, precious stones — of the countries mentioned in the Scriptures; for, if we are familiar with the country, we can in thought follow the history and picture it in our own minds, so that we seem not only to read it but to see it'. This goal indeed is not always easy to reach. Palestine differs greatly from the western world in its physical features and natural history, and the English language has no words for much that is characteristic of the country. The same problem arises with the arts and crafts, articles of clothing and vessels in daily use, the institutions of the family, administration and army, religion and cult. The translators, in seeking a way round many such problems, have made every effort to avoid the introduction of anachronisms and words reflecting an entirely different social background. They have transliterated technical terms where strict accuracy seemed to be required, but rendered them by some word or phrase approaching or suggesting the original sense where this was not so. Notably the rendering of the terms for each kind of offering or sacrifice has been standardized in the laws, whereas they have been translated more freely, without much regard to consistency, in the Psalms and other poetical passages where no technical problems are involved.

The translators have resorted to a paraphrase when the original Hebrew word or phrase does not lend itself to literal reproduction; but they have generally given that in a note. They have also, on the one hand, here and there expanded a Hebrew idiom to avoid a Hebraism likely to be unintelligible to English readers, especially as Hebrew is able to express in three or four words what may require a dozen or so to make it intelligible in the English language; on the other hand, they have sometimes abbreviated the text when the original Hebrew has seemed by English standards unduly repetitive.

Hebrew writers are fond of playing on words, both common nouns and proper names; but no attempt has been made to reproduce such puns, if only because the result is generally something unnatural and bizarre. This problem is especially tantalizing in regard to proper names such as those of the patriarchs and the family of Naomi, all of whose characters are reflected in their names; such points can rarely be brought out in a foreign language, and the explanation of the names has been relegated to the notes.

Previous official translations of the Bible have been for the most part revisions of those that have preceded them. So the Authorized Version was practically a revision of Coverdale's work, and its language was largely that of the sixteenth rather than of the seventeenth century. The Revisers of the nineteenth century were instructed 'to introduce as few alterations as possible into the Text of the Authorised Version' and 'to limit, as far as possible, the expression of such alterations to the language of the Authorised and earlier English Versions'. The obvious consequence of such instructions was that the language of the Revised Version tended to be several centuries out of date when it appeared; it even contained Latinisms which had come down from the Vulgate through a succession of English translations and which had long gone out of use. The present translators, therefore, were instructed to keep their language as close to current usage as they could, while avoiding expressions likely to be proved ephemeral. This task they have tried to perform to the best of their ability. They are well aware that a precise equivalent for a Hebrew word can only rarely be found in another language, and that complete success in such an undertaking is unattainable; but they have had in mind not only the importance of making sense, which is not always apparent in previous translations, but also the needs of ordinary readers with no special knowledge of the ancient East; and they trust that such readers may find illumination in the present version.