What evidence do we have regarding the accuracy of the Torah text (five books of Moses)?

How much if at all has it changed over time?


3 Answers 3


The Dead Sea Scrolls of Qumran (see here as well for a list of all the finds and their locations) are a good way of seeing the accuracy of the Masoretic Text of our Torah. They are important because they are currently the oldest extent manuscripts and texts of the Bible, as well as show the scrupulousness that scribes throughout the generations for thousands of years used when copying the texts. See here for an example:

After years of careful study, it has been concluded that the Dead Sea Scrolls give substantial confirmation that our Old Testament has been accurately preserved. The scrolls were found to be almost identical with the Masoretic text. Hebrew Scholar Millar Burrows writes, “It is a matter of wonder that through something like one thousand years the text underwent so little alteration. As I said in my first article on the scroll, ‘Herein lies its chief importance, supporting the fidelity of the Masoretic tradition.'” A significant comparison study was conducted with the Isaiah Scroll written around 100 B.C. that was found among the Dead Sea documents and the book of Isaiah found in the Masoretic text. After much research, scholars found that the two texts were practically identical. Most variants were minor spelling differences, and none affected the meaning of the text. One of the most respected Old Testament scholars, the late Gleason Archer, examined the two Isaiah scrolls found in Cave 1 and wrote, “Even though the two copies of Isaiah discovered in Qumran Cave 1 near the Dead Sea in 1947 were a thousand years earlier than the oldest dated manuscript previously known (A.D. 980), they proved to be word for word identical with our standard Hebrew Bible in more than 95 percent of the text. The five percent of variation consisted chiefly of obvious slips of the pen and variations in spelling.”

See this wikipedia page as well:

The MT is widely used as the basis for translations of the Old Testament in Protestant Bibles, and in recent years (since 1943) also for some Catholic Bibles, although the Eastern Orthodox churches continue to use the Septuagint, as they hold it to be divinely inspired. In modern times the Dead Sea Scrolls have shown the MT to be nearly identical to some texts of the Tanakh dating from 200 BCE but different from others.

Yigael Yadin remarked:

“The great importance of the antiquity of the Dead Sea Scrolls, therefore, lies in the fact that they belong to the period in which no standardization of the holy scriptures had been effected. This is at once obvious by comparing the text of the scrolls with that of the translations on the one hand and the Masora on the other. What is astonishing is that despite their antiquity and the fact that the scrolls belong to this pre-standardization period, they are on the whole almost identical with the Masoretic text known to us

See here as well:

Most of the biblical manuscripts found at Qumran belong to the MT tradition or family. This is especially true of the Pentateuch and some of the Prophets. The well-preserved Isaiah scroll from Cave 1 illustrates the tender care with which these sacred texts were copied. Since about 1700 years separated Isaiah in the MT from its original source, textual critics assumed that centuries of copying and recopying this book must have introduced scribal errors into the document that obscured the original message of the author.

The Isaiah scrolls found at Qumran closed that gap to within 500 years of the original manuscript. Interestingly, when scholars compared the MT of Isaiah to the Isaiah scroll of Qumran, the correspondence was astounding. The texts from Qumran proved to be word-for-word identical to our standard Hebrew Bible in more than 95 percent of the text. The 5 percent of variation consisted primarily of obvious slips of the pen and spelling alterations (Archer, 1974, p. 25). Further, there were no major doctrinal differences between the accepted and Qumran texts (see Table 1 below). This forcibly demonstrated the accuracy with which scribes copied sacred texts, and bolstered our confidence in the Bible’s textual integrity (see Yamauchi, 1972, p. 130). The Dead Sea Scrolls have increased our confidence that faithful scribal transcription substantially has preserved the original content of Isaiah.

  • did the dead sea scrolls include a copy of the five books of moses?
    – ray
    Jun 23, 2015 at 20:39
  • Yes. Qumran Cave 2 (2Q) –Discovered by Bedouin in 1952. Cave 2 yielded fragments of many biblical books, including all Five Books of Moses, Jeremiah and Psalms, as well as other works such as Jubilees and the book of Enoch. Jun 23, 2015 at 20:42
  • how accurate were those? i.e. how many letters differed from our scrolls.
    – ray
    Jun 23, 2015 at 20:47
  • 1
    werent those were just fragments of all 5 books? see truthmagazine.com/archives/volume45/V4501040102.htm most significant find was isaiah
    – ray
    Jun 23, 2015 at 21:01
  • 1
    It should be noted that the text of the Dead Sea Scrolls is not generally used (to the best of my knowledge) by Orthodox Jews, as an authoritative text of the Torah. There is no evidence that the authors were the Pharisee precursors of Rabbinic Judaism, and there is indeed evidence to the contrary (that they were sectarians). They are certainly useful to the historian (be he Orthodox, or not). Thus, regarding the historical question of the evolution of textual variation in the Torah it is useful, but I doubt that one would (e.g.) revoke a derasha of the talmud, on the basis of such texts.
    – mevaqesh
    Jun 23, 2015 at 21:25

Contrary to another answer to this question an answer provided to a related question explains that there have been a large number of textual changes to the Torah over time. These changes often seem to be scribal errors. There are some indications that either the Men of the Great Assembly or perhaps Chazal (the Rabbinic sages) emended some words in the Torah out of sensitivities to God's honor (see this lecture on tiqqun sofrim). The work Sefer Mishpat Soferim lists 556 discrepancies (in 1883) between our text of the Torah and the text of those same verses found in the Talmud.

This lecture reviews the history of the text of the Torah, discusses the changes found in the Masoretic text, other textual witnesses such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, various translations and ends with a discussion of the final standardization process which took place with the advent of the printing press.

In terms of "How much if at all has it changed over time." Here I can only answer from a personal perspective as I don't believe anyone has provided an accurate numeric count, though In Mishnas Rebbi Yaakov (1929) 8-9 (4:3) he actually counts every word and letter to compare it to the totals provided in Kiddushin 30a and finds the following totals: Number of letters in the Torah: 304,805 (Vav of Gichon is 157,236) Total number of words: 79,980

I think it is reasonable to say that there has been change, but the amount is minuscule when compared to the overall body of work, and, perhaps most importantly, there is no indication of adding or deleting whole verses or sections. Nor is there any indication of which I am aware, of changes which would have significant theological impact

  • 1
    I was going to link to my answer but you beat me to it
    – Aaron
    Sep 1, 2019 at 17:59
  • Can you provide the name of the author who wrote Sefer Mishpat Soferim?
    – Yosef
    Jun 11, 2023 at 12:17

This source argues that textual witnesses from outside what I will call ancient mainstream Judaism, such as the Samaritan torah, the Septuagint, and the Dead Sea Scrolls cannot be relied upon to show variants in the torah due either to religious reasons or methodological ones.

For a theological example the Samaritans believe in the religious importance of Mount Grizim and have material in their version of the ten commandments which supports this belief.

A methodological example would be that texts written by the Dead Sea sect would not have been subject to the same scribal rigors as those written by temple scribes who had recourse to the either the scroll written by Moshe or similar ancient and authoritative source material.

The article is extensive and I recommend reading through it in its entirety to address your question of how much has(n't) changed over time but to cite his conclusion which bears directly on your second question

we find that the three most authoritative versions differ in less than ten places. Less than 0.01% of the 304,805 letters of the Torah are under question.

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