Friday, September 24, 2021

Hebrew Scribes at the End of the Line

Composing a text by hand demands an awareness of certain details that we can ignore when using a word processor. One of these details is if the next written word corresponds to the available space. At times, the space didn’t for Hebrew scribes, and when this happened, they had several ways to navigate this situation. Let’s review some of these. For more information on these practices, see Tov’s discussion in chapters 4 and 5 of his book Scribal Practices. This list depends on and derives in part from his helpful discussions.

First, scribes could utilize the margin to finish the word. This practice is not uncommon. Here is a portion of column 2 of 1QIsaa illustrating this practice.

Second, a scribe could fill in the remaining line with space fillers. The scribe of 1QIsaa resorts to using dots in 1QIsaa Col 3:6.


Third, a scribe at times began a word at the end of a line but didn’t finish it. Instead, the word was written in full at the beginning of the next line. Here is an example from 1QIsaa Col 2:11.


Fourth, it is possible that the scribe of 1QIsaa began a word and simply failed to finish it. See 1QIsaa Col 6:3.


Fifth, a scribe might begin a word at the end of the line and complete it on the next line. Tov states that this was a practice of scrolls written in paleo-Hebrew. 11Q1 Col 3:5, 6, 7 are examples of this.


Sixth, a scribe might resort to a smaller “font-size” to fit the word in the available space. See 1QIsaa Col 16:30 (the first line in the photo below).

Seventh, a scribe might write part of the word above the line. Here are some examples from 4QPsx.


Eighth, a scribe might cram words together leaving little space between the words. This tendency is common in 4QPsx and here in 1QIsaa Col 16:24.

Ninth, a scribe might leave bigger spaces between letters as here in 4QDeuth 1:5–7. Tov labels this device “proportional” spacing. 


These pictures were taken from photos found at the Leon Levy DSS Digital Library and the DSS Digital Project.


  1. Were these "scribes" you write of, the same kind as the Scribes Jesus addressed as hypocrites? It is my understanding that the ones Jesus confronted were the legislators of Israel, interpreting the Law of Moses and codifying their interpretations, placing burdens God never intended upon the people. Even so, they were highly respected. The "scribes" you write about were copyists. Let's call them what they were and preserve an important distinction, which might prevent some people from wondering why Jesus got so mad at the poor "scribes"!

    1. The late Larry Hurtado championed the distinction of calling copyists "copyists" as opposed to "scribes", so I'm very much in favour of following suit:

      There was a poll on this question on ETC back in 2011, where it seems the majority weren't in favour of this change. Maybe a decade going by will see more people being open to this? :)

    2. The reality is he was talking about the copyists. Jesus accepted the qumran version of the Torah which forbids polygamy and opposes remarriage after divorce. The scribes corrupted the law by omitting the explicit condemnation of polygamy and remarriage after divorce. By tbe scribes removing laws, they made of none effect those commands of the Law to justify their behavior. This was condemned by Jesus and rightly so. (See the Temple Scroll and the socalled Reworked Pentateuch for the more original version of the Torah that Jesus also accepted.

    3. Thanks for these helpful comments, Karen and Stewalch. For now, I am not in favor of using the term "copyists" as Hurtado describes it since I see those who originally copied manuscripts as making both intentional and unintentional changes to their text. In Hurtado's words, "copyists didn’t take the time to make intentional changes." The manuscripts I cite in this blog post are filled with unintentional errors of copying and intentional changes in my mind. Thus, these are not "copyists" according to Hurtado's description.

      Of course, I'd love to hear any further thoughts on this important topic.

    4. Ounyeh,

      Regarding the issue of who copied these manuscripts, see my comment to Karen and Stewalch.

    5. So, when you describe changes as intentional, are you saying that the ‘scribes’ made intentional theological changes similar to what B. Erhman has described in his books? If so, you are far from what Dr. Hurtado meant by ‘copyist’ and also far from what many scholars mean when they use ‘scribe’ instead of ‘copyist.’

    6. 1QIsaa includes hundreds if not thousands of intentional changes. These include instances of harmonization, updating grammar, and cases of interpretation. There seem to be others reasons that motivate intentional changes in 1QIsaa and the other texts, but these are some of the main ones. Not sure these are analogous to what you call "theological changes."

    7. It's noteworthy that Dr. Hurtado distinguished three groups in that post: scribes (the γραμματεις of the Gospels etc.), "copyists" (I'm thinking these were typically referred to as [απο]γραφοντες), and "readers/users". In his schema, "scribe" is not a copyist who makes changes, but a specific social position.

      Rather, he seems to imply that the only substantial changes came from "readers/users". But that seems to put it a bit too benignly -- surely the "D-text", for example, came from a person/group that was far more intentional than "reader/user" would imply, a "redactor", perhaps. On the other hand, implying as Ehrman does that most substantial changes came from intentional "redactors" puts it far too nefariously, as many others have observed.

      So *when things get technical* we need to distinguish between 4 groups: scribes (social group), copyists / transcribers (the usual meaning of "scribe" in TC), readers/users (sometimes used in NTTC, at least), and redactors.

      That said, "scribe" as copyist / transcriber has been accepted English usage for centuries. "Preserving an important distinction" (per the initial comment) assumes that such a distinction has historically been the norm in English, which is not the case at all.

  2. Karen
    I don’t speak for the author of this article, but the audience this blog reaches is absolutely clear who he is describing.