Biblical Textual criticism

In my spare moments over the Christmas season, I have been doing something that is quite appropriate to the time.  I have been reading a lot of textual criticism of the Bible, particularly the OT.

 Textual criticism arises because we do not have any of the original books of the Bible.  They have all been lost over the centuries and only copies remain.  And the copies do not all agree with one another.  So what to do?  Deciding what to do has generated the vast body of textual criticism

I should add the the various disagreements between the copies do not not affect the overall message.  The differences are mainly of detail.  But in a book as important as the Bible, even minor details are of interest.

As a general rule, the oldest MSS (copies) should be closest to the original.  Copying errors do creep in so they should accumulate over time.  So we are fortunate that some MSS that we have are quite old, dating to around 200BC.  I have taken a passing interest in textual criticism for many years so I knew that.  What I did not know was that the earliest copies of the Hebrew Bible (Codex Alexandrinus, Codex Vaticanus, Codex Sinaiticus) were in GREEK.  How come?

The Greek versions of the OT arose because there was a substantial number of Jews in Biblical times who did NOT live in Israel.  They lived in Alexandria in Egypt.  Alexandria was a great commercial centre so there were Jews in business even then.  And many were born in Egypt so spoke only the language of Alexandria at the time:  Commercial Greek.  They had "forgotten" Hebrew.  But they were still religious so wanted to hear the words of their scriptures. 

So they had their scriptures translated into a language they could understand:  Greek.  The Greek version of the OT that they produced is generally referred to as the Septuagint, abbreviated as LXX.  And it is that version that gives us the oldest form of the Bible texts.  The oldest Hebrew texts of the OT are many centuries later. When Jesus and the apostles quoted the OT, it was the LXX that they quoted

It is said that all translations are interpretations and that was certainly true of the LXX.  The first translation was rather unskilful in some ways so subsequent copyists tried to "tidy it up" as they copied.  Result:  There are no two copies of the LXX that are identical.  Additionally, some ancient copies of the LXX contain passages that are not in all of them and not in the Hebrew text (e.g.  Ezekiel 28:11-19)

So a great scholarly endeavour has arisen which aims to capture the "Old Greek", the Septuagint as it was originally written -- in the view that the Old Greek would be closest to the Hebrew text that the scribes were originally translating.

And a serious question is what do we do when the Hebrew text and the Greek text diverge.  Since the LXX is much more ancient than any surviving copy of the Hebrew OT, it is reasonable to say that the LXX is closest to the original and it is the LXX readings that should appear in our English versions of the Bible.  That has mostly not occurred. 

And the reason why is the Masoretes.  The Masoretes were Jews of around 1000AD who produced a text of the Hebrew Bible that they proclaimed as correct.  They claimed that as Jewish scribes copied and recopied the OT over the centuries, they had exercized extreme care not to change anything.  That was sufficiently impressive for Christian Protestants to adopt the Masoretic text as the basis of their translations into English.  The OT in the King James Bible is a translation of the Masoretic text

It was however something of an assertion and could be disbelieved.  Then an amazing thing happened.  The Dead Sea scrolls were discovered and dated to just before the time of Christ.  So at last we had some ancient Hebrew texts.  The texts were far from a complete copy of the OT but there were some fairly substantial bits of it.  And one scroll was of the Book of Isaiah.  So how close was the DSIA (Dead Sea scroll of Isaiah) to the Masoretic text?  It was virtually identical!  Those careful Jewish scribes had indeed copied the text of their Bible unaltered for over a thousand years!

It is clear however that there were variant versions of the Hebrew text available in ancient times -- as some of the Dead Sea scrolls were NOT identical to the Masoretic text.  The text we now know as Masoretic was probably in the mainstream but it was not the only Hebrew text in ancient times.  But we can't go back beyond the Dead Sea scrolls so we still have no real way of knowing whether a variant reading is right or wrong. 

Which is where the LXX comes in.  Some LXX copies are much more ancient than the Dead Sea scrolls and appear to be translated from much earlier Hebrew texts.  Even though it is a translation, the LXX may get us closer to the original Hebrew text.

And that is what textual criticism is all about.  Via big debates stretching over the last 200 years, scholars have come to tentative agreement over what is the original text of the OT.  There is still of course no perfect agreement but the various "recensions" produced by different scholars are in something like 99.0% agreement.  So we can be certain that modern scholarly translations into English are firmly founded in what was originally written.  What is amazing at the end of the day is how accurately the Bible has been transmitted to us over the centuries.

1 comment:

  1. So what to do? Read the New Testament instead.

    A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. John 13:34-35.

    It is a pity that wishing others well is often mistaken for believing one should like somebody. As a matter of fact, indulging in good will for others is as far as one can position oneself away from hatred (the root or leftism). At the end of the day, preference should be free to prefer or to not prefer, and love should be free to suffer the foolish restraints of preference.


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