We begin by offering you what textual criticism is. It is the study of all the manuscript evidence and internal evidence (e.g., style of the author) in an attempt to ascertain the original wording of the original text. As Moses, Joshua, Samuel, Isaiah, Daniel, Micah, Ezra, Malachi or Nehemiah handed their authorized text off to be copied by others, i.e., published for private and public use, what would it have looked like? What is the process that the Old Testament authors would have followed to get their book ready to be published, that is, copied by others? Once they were prepared for publication, how would they be copied throughout the centuries, up until the time of the printing press of 1455 C.E.? As we open our Bible to the book of Genesis or the book Ezekiel or any of the 39 books of the Old Testament, how can we have confidence that what we are reading is a reflection of the original in our language? If we were to bring home from a bookstore a copy of the CSB, ESV, GNB, NLT, MSG, NASB, UASV or any of the other one hundred and fifty plus English translations, could we have confidence that what we are reading is, in fact, the Word of God? Some translations have footnotes throughout that say, “Other ancient MSS read …. What exactly does that mean, and which is the Word of God: the words in the main text of our Bible, or the others below in the footnote?
The science and art of textual criticism has answered these questions, and more. It is a science because there are rules and principles, as well as a method or process that is to be followed if the textual scholar is to get back to the original reading. It is an art because the human agent needs to be balanced with his use of those rules and principles. It is like driving a car. The driver needs to follow all driving rules as he stays between the lines of his side of the road to reach his destination. So too, the textual scholar needs to stay within the rules to reach his destination. However, the designers of the roads were not rigid to the point of making those two lines so narrow that there was no room for the driver to miss obstructions, which might be in his path. This extra room would help the driver to avoid objects that could result in a crash. The same holds true for the textual scholar having room within the lines of his field, to prevent a wreck, causing him not to be able to reach his desired destination, i.e., the original reading.
As is true of NT textual studies, Old Testament manuscripts are to be studied and assessed by the data obtained from the examination of manuscripts as well as internal evidence. The textual scholar is comparing the text of a manuscript to a standard text. Then, he will take note of how the manuscript differs from the standard text in each and every way, in the minutest way. When we find a difference in the manuscripts that differs from the standard text, we call that a textual variant, or a variant reading because it varies from the standard text. The primary goal and purpose of the textual scholar are to establish the original words as they would have been in the original text. It might be that the variant is, in fact, the original reading.
The textual scholar of the OT is concerned with more than the words in given texts. This is because our Hebrew manuscripts have marginal notes concern the text that contains them. In the Masoretic text margin, some notes read: “This is one of the eighteen emendations of the Sopherim” or similar words. The scribe who made these revisions had good intentions as he saw the original reading as though it showed a lack of respect for God or his people. These give us information on the transmission of the text and help the textual scholar in making a decision about which reading was in the original.
Both OT and NT textual scholars have rules and principles that are often referred to as “canons.” Those of the OT are a bit different than the of the NT. Almost all of the textual variants in the OT are insignificant details or some version taking liberties with the text to add details or correct what they perceived to be an error. Most are quite easily resolved. We do not count the number of manuscripts that have a particular reading so that the majority wins. The manuscripts are weighed, not counted. Weighing a manuscript is assessing its known trustworthiness or its importance. Internal evidence would be scribal tendencies, as well as, grammar, syntax, chiasmic structures, acrostic patterns, and does it fit the context. We might have a reading in 1 Samuel that has textual variants but that same reading is found in Kings or Chronicles where there are no textual issues. Another would be the text has a reading that was perceived as showing a lack of respect for God or his people, a later scriber altered the reading. External evidence would be the marginal notes within the Masoretic text, its relationship to other texts. The reading that likely led to the other readings is preferred. The harder reading, meaning hard to understand in one’s initial reading but upon further reflection, makes sense is preferred because a scribe is likely to make what he perceives to be a correction. The shorter reading is preferred because scribes tended to add material, not take away. Early translations of the Hebrew OT are very important to the textual scholar as well: the Greek Septuagint, Aramaic Targums, Syriac Peshitta, and Latin.
While there are not as many textual scholars of the OT as there are of the NT, there are far more today than ever before. The current standard text is the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS), which is based on the Leningrad Codex (1009 C.E.). It is currently being revised. The new edition is called the Biblia Hebraica Quinta (BHQ), which will be completed soon. The BHQ is the fifth edition of the Biblia Hebraica and when it has been completed, it will supersede the fourth edition BHS. As the third and fourth editions of the BHS, the BHQ uses a text that is based on the Leningrad Codex; the text has been corrected by using color photographs of the codex that were taken in the 1990s.
A very small number of textual scholars have favored the standard printed edition of the Hebrew Bible up unto the 19th century was the Second Rabbinic Bible of Jacob ben Chayyim Hebrew OT text that was published in 1524-25, viewing it like a textus receptus (received text; common text) of the OT. Their arguments do not hold up though. Jacob ben Chayim’s intention was to recover the Masoretic text of Aaron ben Moses ben Asher. Well, this is precisely what we have in the Leningrad and Aleppo Codex.
Textual criticism has been referred to as “lower criticism” to differentiate it from “higher criticism.” Since its purpose is to recover the original words of the original text of the Bible author, it is a constructive criticism rather than being destructive, as is true with “higher criticism.” Lower criticism is not less important, rather, it is the foundation study that makes wat for Bible translation, biblical interpretation, theology, and so on. How does one translate an Old Testament text, interpret it, and place it within some doctrinal view, if they do not have the actual original words? When we establish a word, phrase, sentence, verse, or a section of text as original; then, and only then can we wrangle over what the author meant by the words that he used. “Lower criticism” has done much to further our understanding of God’s Word, cutting out interpolations and providing us with a reliable critical text that gives us the basis for better translations of the Bible. On the other hand, higher criticism of the 18th/19th centuries, now referred to as biblical criticism (the historical-critical method or higher criticism) has opened the way for a flood of quasi-scholarly works whose result has been to undermine confidence in the Bible for an untold number of people.
We have two extremes when it comes to Old Testament Textual Criticism. First, we have those who would argue that the text of the Old Testament was copied so exactly, meticulously that there is no need for textual criticism. Some even going to the extreme that the copyists were under inspiration like the original authors. Second, at the other end of the spectrum, we have those skeptics, who argue that the text of the Hebrew Old Testament has been so corrupted that it is impossible to ever know the original wording of what any author wrote. In dealing with the first, the reality is imperfect humans made copyist errors and for a time, some scribes took liberties with the text. The Hebrew scriptures had the early sopherim (scribes) taking liberties with the text but not in extreme ways and yes some scribal errors slipt into the Hebrew text. Yet, this really never impacted anything.
No manuscript has the entirety of the original text, being error-free. What we have are thousands of Hebrew Old Testament manuscripts, over 2,000 classified manuscripts of the Septuagint, as well as many other languages. None of these manuscripts are without errors. However, there are some Hebrew manuscripts that are extremely important, like the renowned Leningrad Codex (B 19A). It dates to 1008 C.E. and is the oldest complete copy of the Hebrew Scriptures in the world. It is probably the single most significant manuscript of the Hebrew Bible. So, the first group of extremists thinking the Hebrew Old Testament was copied so carefully are wrong, as there are textual issues throughout the entire Old Testament. However, determining what the original reading was is quite easy on almost all of these. Briefly, below are a few examples.
The Hebrew has the reading “she lifted up her voice and wept” in verse 16 of Genesis chapter 21. On the other hand, the Greek Septuagint (LXX) has “and the child cried aloud and wept” (referring to Ishmael) in verse 16 of chapter 21. The next verse says, “And God heard the voice of the boy, and God’s angel called to Hagar from the heavens and said to her: “What is the matter with you, Hagar? Do not be afraid, for God has heard the voice of the boy there where he is.” Thus, it seems that the Septuagint (LXX) was taking liberties with the text, embellishing it to harmonize it, to specify that it was the boy’s cries that were being heard. In Genesis 25:18, the Hebrew Text has the reading “they settled” (וַיִּשְׁכְּנוּ, wayyiskenu). On the other hand, the LXX and VG, have “he settled” (Gr. κατῴκησεν, katokesen) in verse 18 of chapter 25, the latter translations being a reference to Ishmael for the sake of clarity.
The Masoretic Text has the reading “behind him” (אַחַר, ’akhar) in verse 13 of Genesis chapter 22. On the other hand, a number of Hebrew MSS, the Septuagint (LXX), Syriac (SYR), and Samaritan Pentateuch (SP) have “one” (Heb. אֶחָד, ’ekhad; Gr. εἷς, heis) in verse 13 of chapter 22. The Hebrew word (אַחַר, ’akhar) rendered “behind him” simply means “behind,” which is the difficult reading because “a ram behind caught” makes no sense. The ASV, RSV, ESV, NASB, and the UASV render it “behind him was a ram,” which explains where the ram was in relation to Abraham. Thus, it is likely that the copyists of the Hebrew manuscripts were moved to change the final “r” in the Hebrew word meaning behind (אַחַר, ’akhar) to a final “d” (אֶחָד, ’ekhad), as they are both very similar in shape. This Hebrew word with the final “d” would mean “a ram” was caught or “one ram” was caught in the thicket by the horns. (LEB, CSB) Thus, we can see why the copyist would go from the difficult reading to the easier reading but if it were the other way, there is no good explanation why a copyist would go from the easier reading to the more difficult one. The translators of Septuagint (LXX), Syriac (SYR), and Samaritan Pentateuch (SP) could have been similarly motivated.
The Masoretic Text has the reading “two souls” (נֶפֶשׁ שְׁנָיִם, šenǎ·yim ně·p̄ěš) in verse 27 of Genesis chapter 46. On the other hand, the Septuagint (LXX) has “nine souls” (ψυχαὶ ἐννέα, psychai ennea) in verse 27 of Genesis chapter 46. In addition, the Masoretic Text has the total reading “seventy souls” (שִׁבְעִים, šiḇ·ʿîm) in verse 27 of Genesis chapter 46. On the other hand, the Septuagint (LXX) has “seventy-five” (ἑβδομήκοντα πέντε hebdomēkonta pente) in verse 27 of Genesis chapter 46, which is the number given by Stephen as written by Luke in Acts 7:14.
DIFFICULTY: Stephen, in Acts 7:14, says that there were 75 souls in the household of Jacob when they moved into Egypt. However, Genesis 46:26 says that there were 66 persons and Genesis 46:27 mentions 70 persons? There seems to be a discrepancy here.
All of the major English Bible translations are primarily based on the Hebrew texts, not the versions. The versions primarily encompass the LXX: The Greek Septuagint (Greek Jewish OT Scriptures in general and specifically used during of Jesus and the apostles), QT: Qumran Texts (Dead Sea Scrolls), SP: Samaritan Pentateuch, SYR: Syriac Peshitta, TH: Greek translation of Hebrew Scriptures by Theodotion, second cent. C.E., and the VG: Latin Vulgate. This is because of the standardized and remarkably careful copying done by the scribes of the MT: The Masoretic Text, which comprises the Hebrew OT manuscripts from the second half of the first millennium C.E. However, the Hebrew text does not always have the original reading. For example, Judges 14:15 in the Hebrew text reads, “On the seventh day they said to Samson’s wife;” however, the Greek and Syriac version have “On the fourth day they said to Samson’s wife.” The English Standard Version (ESV), Lexham English Bible (LEB), Christian Standard Bible (CSB) New American Standard Bible (NASB), and the New International Version (NIV) all follow the versions over the Hebrew text with “On the fourth day they said to Samson’s wife.” See also OTTC GENESIS 4:8: “LET US GO OUT INTO THE FIELD”?
The primary weight of external evidence generally goes to the original language manuscripts. The Codex Leningrad B 19A and the Aleppo Codex are almost always preferred. In the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS; critical edition of the Hebrew Bible), 90 percent is without a significant variation. Of the 10 percent that does exist, a very small percentage of that has any impact on its meaning, and in almost all of these very limited textual variants, we can ascertain the original wording of the original text with certainty. Yes, it is rare to find a substantive variant among manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible. The Codex Leningrad B 19A dating to about (1008 C.E.) and the Aleppo Codex from about (930 C.E.) were produced by the Masoretes, who are the most by far extremely disciplined copyists of all time, whose scribal practices date back to about the year 500 C.E. In fact, by the second century C.E., a particular text entire Hebrew Bible became the generally accepted standard text, which is often referred to as the Proto-Masoretic text, as it preceded the work of the Masoretes and, it already had the basic form of the Masoretic text that was to come. These subtle differences in the Masoretic manuscripts are almost exclusively spelling differences, which also included vocalization, as well as the presence or absence of the conjunction wāw, in addition to other features that in no way impact the meaning of the text. In Old Testament Textual Criticism, the Masoretic text is our starting point and should only be abandoned as a last resort. While it is true that the Masoretic Text is not perfect, there needs to be a heavy burden of proof in we are to go with an alternative reading. All of the evidence needs to be examined before we conclude that a reading in the Masoretic Text is a corruption.
The Septuagint continues to be very much important today and is used by textual scholars to help uncover copyists’ errors that might have crept into the Hebrew manuscripts either intentionally or unintentionally. However, it cannot do it alone without the support of other sources. While the Septuagint is the second most important tool after the original language texts for ascertaining the original words of the original Hebrew text, it is also true that the LXX translators took liberties at times, embellishing the text, deliberate changes, harmonizations, and completing of details. Here we know that the translator was adding up the numbers in a different way than the author of the Hebrew text in the above difficulty. It should be noted that the Septuagint manuscripts are the second-weightiest tool in their effort to get back to the original.
If we are going to translate the Word of God into English and then follow the objective historical-grammatical approach of interpreting it, we need to first establish the original words of the original text. Therefore, there is no ignoring the field of Old Testament textual criticism. Of course, the textual scholars are going to practice textual criticism with ‘much perspective, background, and training as possible.” (Brotzman, 2016, p. 3) The textual student (churchgoer with deeper knowledge) will possibly be well informed but likely nowhere near the level of the textual scholar. The churchgoer should at a minimum study through one introductory level Old Testament Textual Criticism publication that may number no more than 250-350 pages. These are written on an 8th-9th-grade level. Nevertheless, they will possess some 50-100 technical terms that will be defined by the author. The same holds true for New Testament Textual Criticism.
It is only reasonable to assume that the original 39 books written first-hand by the Old Testament authors have not survived. Instead, we only have what we must consider being imperfect copies. Why the Holy Spirit would miraculously inspire 39 fully inerrant texts, and then allow human imperfection into the copies, is not explained for us in Scripture. We do know that imperfect humans have tended to worship relics that traditions hold to have been touched by the miraculous powers of God or to have been in direct contact with one of his special servants of old. Ultimately, though, all we know is that God had his reasons for allowing the Old Testament autographs to be worn out by repeated use. From time to time we hear of the discovery of a fragment possibly dated at the earliest ever discovered, but even if such a fragment is eventually verified, the dating alone can never serve as proof of an autograph; it will still be a copy in all likelihood.
As for errors in all the copies, we have, however, we can say is that the vast majority of the Hebrew text is not affected by errors at all. The errors occur in the form of variant readings, i.e., portions of the text where different manuscripts disagree. Of the small amount of the text that is affected by variant readings, the vast majority of these are minor slips of the pen, misspelled words, etc., or intentional but quickly analyzed changes, and we are certain what the original reading is in these places. A far smaller number of changes present challenges to establishing the original reading. It has always been said and remains true that no major doctrine is affected by a textual problem. Only rarely does a textual issue change the meaning of a verse. Still, establishing the original text wherever there are variant readings is vitally important. Every word matters!
 B.C.E. means “before the Common Era,” which is more accurate than B.C. (“before Christ”). C.E. denotes “Common Era,” often called A.D., for anno Domini, meaning “in the year of our Lord.”
 Manuscripts, MS would be singular manuscript
 When we use the term “original” reading or “original” text in this publication, it is a reference to the exemplar manuscript by the Old Testament author (e.g., Jeremiah) and his scribal secretary, if he used one (e.g., Baruch), from which other copies were made for publication and distribution to the Israelite nation.
 Brotzman, Ellis R.; Tully, Eric J. Old Testament Textual Criticism: A Practical Introduction (p. 78). Baker Publishing Group.
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