Our manuscripts for the Old Testament come from three major sources, namely the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Masoretic Texts, and the Septuagint. First off the Masoretic Text refers to the Hebrew manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible which were copied and preserved by those know as the Masoretes. The Masoretes were a group of scribes who lived and worked between the 7th and 10th centuries AD. The oldest extant manuscripts of the Masoretic Text date from roughly the 9th century AD.
Until the late 1940s the Masoretic Texts (MT) represented the only Hebrew manuscripts of the Jewish Bible until, between 1947 and 1956, the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) were discovered in the caves of Qumran. These texts have traditionally been identified with a Jewish sect known as the Essenes. What is important concerning these scrolls is that they date from the last three centuries BC and into the 1st century AD. What this shows is that these extant manuscripts predate the MT by some 1000 years, and thus they are by far the oldest Hebrew manuscripts that we have at our disposal. The only biblical texts that are older than the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in two silver scroll-shaped amulets holding portions of the Priestly Blessing from the Book of Numbers which was excavated in Jerusalem at Ketef Hinnom (this find was dated to around 600 BC). There was also a burnt piece of Leviticus dating from the 6th century AD analyzed in 2015 found to be the fourth-oldest piece of the Torah known to exist (1). Further, for the historian wishing to learn about the world within which Jesus was born the DSS gives significant information (2). As James VanderKam explains the importance of the DSS in relation to the New Testament: “As a result, the more one knows about Judaism during the time of Christian origins, the stronger basis we have for understanding the New Testament” (3).
Finally, the Septuagint is a Koine Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that was originally translated between the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. Extant fragments of the Septuagint (LXX) date back as early as the 2nd century BC (notably fragments of Leviticus and Deuteronomy), and within the 1st century BC (fragments of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and the Minor Prophets).
Using the academic discipline of textual criticism one can see many differences between the MT, LXX and DSS manuscripts. Textual criticism is thus concerned with analysing these differences and attempting to determine which version may reflect the most primitive textual tradition.
1. Zion, I. 2015. CT scan of charred scroll yields oldest Biblical remnant after Dead Sea Scrolls. Available.
2. Sauter, M. 2015. The Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament. Available.
3. James VanderKam quoted by Megan Sauter in The Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament (2015). Available.