The Ketef Hinnom amulets are, as far as we know, quite exceptionally early, but they only preserve a few sentences of the text of the Hebrew Bible. The earliest substantial collection of Hebrew Bible manuscripts currently available is the Dead Sea Scrolls. In addition to many other texts, the Dead Sea Scrolls contain thousands of fragments from over 200 biblical scrolls, written mainly in Hebrew. These date from roughly the mid-third century BC, through to the end of the first century AD. Many of these fragments are tiny, containing only a few letters, while others are far more complete—the most complete biblical scroll from Qumran, known as the Great Isaiah Scroll, is 734 cm long.
So, the Dead Sea Scrolls provide us with our earliest large-scale collection of Hebrew Bible manuscripts—an explosion of textual data, from the centuries immediately before and after the death and resurrection of Jesus. They are a resource of unimaginable significance, though not without their limitations. Most obviously: the great majority of the Scrolls really are just fragments. Of the 915 verses in the book of Proverbs, for example, the Scrolls preserve only fragments from 48 verses—many of which are represented by only a few surviving letters.
Sadly, after the Dead Sea Scrolls, the trail goes cold in our hunt for Hebrew Bible manuscripts (though many manuscripts containing translations of the Bible into Greek, Latin, Syriac, Ethiopic, and other languages, have survived). For the next seven or eight hundred years we have only a handful of Hebrew Bible manuscript remains. Scrolls of the Hebrew Bible must have continued to be produced and used, but very few traces of them survive. The few scroll fragments we do have from towards the end of this dark period have only survived because they were stored away for burial (according to Jewish practice then and now), but, by happy providence, never received that burial.
This dark period comes to an end around the year 900. Many fragments of Hebrew Bible manuscripts have survived from between AD 900 and AD 1000, as well as a handful of larger, more complete manuscripts. A great many Hebrew Bible manuscripts—some very complete and beautifully produced—survive from the eleventh century onwards. Many of these are currently housed in libraries in Cambridge, Oxford, London, Saint Petersburg, and other European cities. According to our current state of knowledge, the earliest complete Hebrew Bible manuscript (containing all the books of the Old Testament in one volume) still fully preserved today, dates from the year 1008. It is called the Leningrad Codex. We will come back to it later.
From our earliest evidence onwards, the text of the Hebrew Bible was copied onto scrolls (hence Dead Sea Scrolls). From antiquity, through the Middle Ages, and right up to the present day, Jewish ritual requires that the biblical text read in the synagogue must be read from a scroll, rather than any other format of book (remember Jesus reads from a scroll in Luke 4:16–20). Nonetheless, from about AD 900 onwards, a new—and immensely significant—type of Hebrew Bible manuscript appears on the scene, quite different to these scrolls: the Masoretic manuscript.
Masoretic Bible Manuscripts
Let’s compare (just at the visual level for now) this new type of Hebrew Bible manuscript—the Masoretic manuscript—with the more traditional Hebrew Bible scroll.