I 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.