Textual Criticism and the Hebrew Bible

1962620703_ce815aff15I have five loves in terms of study and scholarship: theology, rabbinics, New Testament, Second Temple Jewish literature, and Hebrew Bible studies.

You might not know it from Messianic Jewish Musings, but my greatest area of competence is actually in Hebrew Bible. It was my field of graduate study (M.T.S. from Emory University), the concentration of my undergraduate studies (I started at Georgia Tech in engineering but moved on to Moody Bible Institute for a B.A. in Bible and Theology), and I have a published thesis in the field of Hebrew Bible (“Elisha and the King: The Elisha Narratives and Prophetic Authority,” 1998, Emory University).

Well, my old love is back. In fact, it looks like it will be my future in many ways — I have a goal to start doctoral work in Hebrew Bible in a few years.

In order to prepare, I am doing a lot of reading in the next year or two to catch up on a general survey of the field. My specialization is literary or poetic analysis of narratives. Yet I am interested in archaeology, textual criticism, historical studies, and theology of the Hebrew Bible. So today I am writing a small bit about a chapter I just read in The Face of Old Testament Studies, ed. David Baker and Bill Arnold by Baker Academic Press.

Al Wolters writes the first chapter in The Face of Old Testament Studies (ed. David Baker and Bill Arnold by Baker Academic Press, 1999). The issue is “The Text of the Old Testament” or textual criticism.

Textual criticism is the art (not science) that “deals with the history of the transmission of the Hebrew Bible” and “the recovery of an authoritative starting point” for translating and interpreting it.

This definition is important and it points to a major issue. When I first started learning about textual criticism, I was told the goal was to get back to what the author wrote and exactly what he wrote. Yet, when you get into the details of textual criticism (which I rarely do), you find that this is an overly optimistic goal. There is far too much uncertainty.

Now it should be obvious to everyone that we do not possess a perfect copy of the Bible as written by the ancient authors (there is debate in many parts of the Bible about who those authors are and what time period they lived in). No matter how fundamentalist your leanings, even the Hebrew Masoretic text taken from the Leningrad Codex has variations called the written (ketib) and the read (qere) and no two Masoretic texts are perfectly matched either. And in that Masoretic text, some verses are missing a word or a number in obvious ways, such as in 1 Samuel 13:1 which most versions other than the King James admit has a missing number.

And then there is the fact that we have so many manuscripts with differences. Most of the differences are minor, things like spelling which can be explained by later scribes in different periods of the development of the Hebrew language. Occasionally they are major. The LXX (Septuagint, Greek version) of Jeremiah is a great deal shorter than the Hebrew Masoretic text version.

This is all coming to a happy point . . . I assure you.

Wolters’ article is helpful in explaining a few different camps of thought about the development of the Hebrew text from its earliest days (the time of Moses for some but others would say later during the monarchy of Judah) until the manuscripts we possess. To be clear, here is a partial list of what we have:
(1) The Dead Sea Scrolls (c. 200 B.C.E. and later) — some complete books and fragments of all but Esther with most books having multiple witnesses.
(2) The LXX in various stages of development (mostly the late stages).
(3) The Samaritan Pentateuch with some copies older than the oldest Masoretic texts we possess.
(4) Other ancient versions such as the Syriac and the Latin versions.
(5) The Masoretic text preserved by the rabbis and scribes whose earliest complete example is late indeed at about 1000 C.E.

The Evidence from the Dead Sea
Wolters considers a number of different theories about the texts found at the Dead Sea. Some say these texts represent three families: (1) the proto-Masoretic, (2) the proto-Septuagint, and (3) the proto-Samaritan. Other see two additional categories: (4) a Dead Sea family and (5) miscellaneous texts not belonging to any of these. Finally, some believe these are not families but represent unlimited diversity that scholars erroneously lump into families.

Those who believe in five families of the Hebrew text see this as the rough distribution:
(1) 60% Masoretic
(2) 20% the Dead Sea family
(3) 15% miscellaneous (in no family)
(4) 5% Proto-Septuagint and Proto-Samaritan combined

Note that by the time the Dead Sea Scrolls were written, we might say that this community valued the Masoretic tradition most highly or at least had the most access to it for some reason. One hypothesis, unprovable, is that the priestly-temple community valued and sought to preserve this family above others.

The Predominance of the Masoretic Text
It is not because the Masoretic text is the smoothest or has the least problems that is has been valued since the days of the Dead Sea community as the text par excellence. In fact, the Masoretic text has many issues which other versions harmonize and resolve (especially the LXX).

Rather, it is perhaps because the Masoretic text seems more ancient and untouched by harmonizers that it appeared more genuine to the keepers of the text in antiquity.

There is further evidence, as Emmanuel Tov has written about, that the Old Greek versions over time came more and more to be corrected to and harmonized with the Masoretic text. A.S. van der Woude theorizes:

. . . there was always a relative uniformity of textual tradition in the religious circles around the Temple of Jerusalem . . . only the proto-Masoretic textual tradition was passed on in Jerusalem, where as elsewhere also biblical manuscripts circulated which bore close resemblance to the text of the Septuagint or the Samaritan Pentateuch . . .

Good News About the Masoretic Text We All Read From
All of this means that scholars are now more likely to accept the form of the Masoretic text, which our English Bibles are all based on, and much less likely to think that the LXX or other versions could provide a more authoritative reading.

This does not mean that we have a perfect text or that somehow we have the exact words penned by Moses or other authors (hardly anyone thinks Moses wrote much if any of the Torah in the academic world, though I continue to find Mosaic authorship viable).

What Should the Goal of Textual Criticism Be?
Every reader of the English Bible should appreciate the value of textual criticism. Readers of the New Testament in particular are familiar with advances that have clarified the position of some texts (John 8, the ending of Mark, etc.).

At the very least, we want to know if there is evidence that any passage of the Bible has been badly edited by a later scribe in a way that harms our understanding.

But exactly what should be the goal of textual criticism? Wolters lists five options:
(1) Restore the original composition (what I was trained to think best).
(2) Restore the final text (maybe in many cases we cannot get to the “original” but would want to get to the final stage of editing).
(3) Restore the earliest attested text (replacing Masoretic readings with older ones from the Dead Sea Scrolls).
(4) Restore accepted texts (finding forms supported in Jewish and Christian history).
(5) Reconstructing final texts (ending up with multiple versions that separate layers of editing).

The Bottom Line
We have to admit that our copies of the Hebrew Bible have problems. Things like numbers are questionable (600,000 Israelite men? Why then were they afraid of the Egyptians or Canaanites?).

Believing the Bible does not mean thinking with our head in the sand. We need to take into account uncertainty in our readings.

In the end, we find that these matters about variations and details do not affect much in the way of theology. Yet textual criticism is important work which clarifies details about history and chronology among other things.

God does not appear to have been hung up on preserving a verbatim text for us and I would venture to say we shouldn’t worry either.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Bible, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Textual Criticism and the Hebrew Bible

  1. mchuey says:

    Having released two survey workbooks (one on the Apostolic Scriptures and another on the Tanach), I am very pleased to see this subject matter being discussed in a Messianic context. Few in our faith community are informed as to how complicated the composition of various Biblical books can be, and most especially the debate over Mosaic authorship of the Torah. Moses obviously didn’t write about his own death, nor would he have called himself the most humble person who ever lived. But this does not mean that he did not oversee the principal composition of the Pentateuch.

    One of the things that not enough people observe in the Biblical text itself is that most of the (at least, traditional) Biblical authors did not actually “write” their own texts, but they had secretaries do it for them (i.e., Romans 16:22).

    I am encouraged to see that this subject matter will be moving more toward the Center, and away from some of the “jot and tittle” teachings that have taken us away from the larger message issues of Scripture. Likewise, to be emphasized there are more textual witnesses of the books of the Bible than any other ancient document(s) in world history. That is something we can praise God for!


  2. judahgabriel says:

    Hey guys.

    Great post.

    What do you say to people who are “100% Bible-only” thumpers? You know, the folks that say you should have only a Bible and skip all the stuff built around the Bible?

    I got an email from a dear Jewish friend (a Jewish Christian, not a Messianic), and he basically said we should drop our Judaisms and our Christianities and go just with the Bible. Here’s a snippet of what he said:

    “From what God has shown me, a gathering of followers of Yeshua Messiah should have in their possession:

    1. Bibles containing both Tanakh & Brit Chadasha

    From what God has shown me, as He has led me to seek out the origins of specific practices, a gathering of followers of Yeshua Messiah should not have in their possession the following. Please keep in mind, I have proof from the rabbis of Judaism who have presented where all this extra non-Biblical anti-Messiah deception comes from. Here you go:

    1. Six Pointed Star/Magen David/Jewish Star (Kabbalah & Free Masonry)
    2. Kippahs (Talmud)
    3. Tefilin (Talmud)
    4. Siddurs (Books of Rabbinic Liturgy)…figure it out
    5. Shabbat Candles (Kabbalah)
    6. Havdalah Candles (Kabbalah)
    7. Talmud
    8. Mishna
    9. Gemarah
    10. Kabbalah
    11. Chumash with Rabbinic interpretations of the Tanakh

    And so on.

    My question is, does textual criticism of the Bible play a role when talking to such people who are 100% Bible-only people? How do you guys handle such people?

    • Judah:

      The older I get, the less time I want to spend with people who pontificate like the guy you are talking about. Now, if we’re having a friendly conversation and someone brings such stuff up in a friendly way, fine. If they come to attack and say, “I’m more of a purist than you,” no way. Don’t let the door hit your tukhes too hard.

      If we’re having a friendly conversation, I might say: “Let’s consider your argument. All you need is a Bible, food, clothing, and shelter. Who needs money or toilet paper or linoleum? I thought you were a purist.” But seriously, I might say that the idea of traditionless religion is nonsense and even the plainest vanilla religious group has stuff besides the Bible. I mean, this guy is even against lighting candles. Is he against the extra-biblical notions of prayer common in evangelical Christian circles (bow, close eyes, every meeting must start and end with prayer, end all prayers with “in Jesus’ name,” etc.)?

      Furthermore, I would say to him: strictly speaking, I don’t need a Star of David or Talmud to worship God. But my life is poorer without them. What God provides I feel free to use in ways that honor and please him.


    • Judah:

      Also, textual criticism affects an argument like the one this guy put forward in this way: the Bible, even if you assume the King James English is perfect and without fault, has gaps. It does not tell us everything. Tradition fills in. If you are Christian: how are you going to have Communion (Lord’s Supper)? With just the Bible, you will have no idea.


  3. mchuey says:

    Textual criticism is a discipline that tries to determine, given the available data that we have, what the original reading of a Biblical text was. NT textual criticism follows similiar procedures that are used in determining what the reading of a Greek classical text was. (No other document in the history of the world is as widely attested for as the Greek Apostolic Scriptures.)

    The kinds of things your friend has listed seem to be more of an over-reaction to some errant streams found in Judaism. I do not know anyone outside of a “conspiracy” circle that legitimately argues the Star of David to be pagan. Similiarly, resources like the Mishnah and Talmud are most certainly used in Christian exegesis (just consult a technical commentary, and you’ll see the appropriate references) for us to understand the world of ancient Judaism.

    I may not be a fan of the Kaballah, but the individual above has just made some very broad strokes for a very diverse Judaism. Let us take some notes from this, and not draw similiar conclusions about the diversity of Christianity, the role the Church Fathers, or how Ancient Near Eastern history and/or classicism may similiarly factor into our understanding of theology and the diversity of the Biblical world.


  4. judahgabriel says:

    When I first read my friend’s email, I immediately thought back to your myth of tradition-less religion post, Derek. (However, I didn’t send him to that post because I think it would have only angered him.)

    I am trying to understand the tendency to throw off all traditions and go only with the Bible. It sounds right at first, but get right down to the details, and it’s not so clear cut. As you said, Derek, we end up creating our own traditions to fill the gap.

  5. judeoxian says:

    The canon of Scripture relies on tradition. The translation of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words relies on tradition. Historical context relies on tradition. Understanding English words relies on tradition. Having a Bible without an Apocrypha is itself a tradition.

    Thinking you can interpret the Bible free of tradition is itself a religious tradition (and a misguided one at that).

    Tradition is unavoidable. It’s not a matter of “if,” but “which one”?

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s