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Textual Studies of the Bible
The task of reconstructing the original text of the Bible with as great a degree of accuracy as the available materials permit. Textual criticism is sometimes designated as lower criticism to distinguish it from the destructive higher criticism, which is an analysis of the date, unity, and authorship of the biblical writings.
The task of the textual critic is divided into four major stages: (1) collection and collation of the materials from existing manuscripts, translations, and quotations; (2) development of theory and methodology that will enable the critic to use the gathered information to reconstruct the most accurate text of the biblical materials; (3) reconstruction of the history of the transmission of the text in order to identify the various influences affecting the text; (4) evaluation of specific variant readings in light of textual evidence, theology, and church history.
Sources. The initial task is collection of all possible records of the biblical writings, since the originals (called autographs) no longer exist. The primary sources are manuscripts (hand-written copies). Manuscripts were usually written on animal skins, papyrus, or even metal. Secondary sources include translations into other languages, quotations used by both protagonists and antagonists of biblical religion, and evidence from early printed texts. The comparison and careful listing of the variant readings thus uncovered is known as collation.
Old Testament. Most medieval manuscripts of the OT reflect a fairly standardized form of the Hebrew text. The standardization reflects the work of medieval scribes known as Masoretes (ad 500–900); the text that resulted from their work is called the Masoretic text. Of one scholar’s list of 60 important manuscripts dated from the 11th century or later, all reflect the same basic textual tradition.
The evidence or “witness” of the medieval manuscripts has been supplemented by other discoveries in recent years. The most famous discovery (or series of discoveries) was that of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Wadi Qumran in 1947. The Isaiah scroll has received the most publicity, although the scrolls contained fragments of all the books in the Hebrew Bible with the exception of Esther. The great significance of the discovery is the fact that the Dead Sea scrolls antedate the oldest Masoretic manuscripts by over a millennium. The texts found at Wadi Qumran were completed before the Roman conquest of Palestine in ad 70.
Additional evidence comes from Wadi Murabba ’at, also on the Dead Sea, from the period of the Bar Kochba revolt in ad 132–135. The biblical material found there includes fragments of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the OT) and Isaiah, and a leather scroll in Greek containing fragments of the Minor Prophets. Additional information on the transmission history of the Hebrew text is provided by a great number of biblical fragments discovered at a Cairo genizah dated ad 882. (A genizah is a room in a synagogue used to store worn or erroneous manuscripts.)
The Samaritan Pentateuch and the Septuagint are the most important translations that bear witness to the text of the Hebrew Bible. The Samaritan Pentateuch is a version of the five books of Moses written in a rounded form of Hebrew letters in contrast with the more standard square (Aramaic) form. The Samaritans accepted only the Pentateuch as canonical. A copy of the Samaritan Pentateuch came to the attention of scholars in ad 1616; it is presumably a descendant of the Hebrew text used by the Samaritans after their break with the Jews.
The Septuagint (often designated LXX, Roman numerals for 70) is the oldest Greek translation of the OT. According to tradition it was translated by a team of 70 scholars (hence LXX) in Alexandria (Egypt). The exact date of translation is not ascertainable. Evidence indicates that the Septuagint Pentateuch was completed in the 3rd century bc. Aramaic Targums (translations) and commentaries on the Hebrew Bible, the Peshitta (a Syriac translation), Old Latin, Vulgate, and Arabic translations provide additional evidence of the original Hebrew text.
Quotations and allusions from a vast amount of rabbinic commentary on the OT add to the welter of evidence collected and collated in order to reconstruct the OT text.
History of Transmission. Reconstruction of the history of the transmission of the text is an important element in evaluating variant readings. Material from a wide variety of sources must be combined in order to arrive at even a tentative reconstruction of the text. A brief sketch of scholarly opinion for each Testament follows.
Old Testament. The early history of the text as reflected in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Septuagint, and the ancient Hebrew text shows a remarkable fluidity and diversity. Evidently the standardizing process did not begin at the earliest stages. For example, the materials from the Qumran community where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, do not reflect any frustration with varying texts within that community. Scholars have attempted to account for such diversity by theories of local texts (that various localities had differing text types) and precanonical fluidity (that until the process of canonization was complete, accurate reproduction of the manuscripts was not viewed as very important). It should be noted, however, that the basic text modern scholarship has identified as closest to the original was among the Dead Sea texts (e.g., the large Isaiah scroll).
Destruction of the temple in ad 70 provided an impetus for standardization of the consonantal text. The texts found at Wadi Murabba ’at reflect the new stage. The scholars initially reporting on the discovery were disappointed to find so few variations from the standard Masoretic text. To scholars, the very early texts from the Dead Sea discoveries had become the standard consonantal text to the exclusion of other variants. Scholars have gone so far as to identify the only slightly later Wadi Murabba ’at texts as “Proto-Masoretic.”
Standardization as practiced by the Masoretes meant identifying one text as normative and copying carefully from that text. It also meant correcting existing texts by the normative text. The Hebrew text, of course, was written with consonants alone, not with consonants and vowels as we write English.
The next stage in the transmission of the OT text was standardization of punctuation and vowel patterns. That process, begun fairly early in the NT period, extended over 1000 years. A long series of Masoretes provided annotations known as Masora (Hebrew for “tradition”). Two different motivations are evident in their work. One was their concern for accurate reproduction of the consonantal text. For that purpose a collection of annotations (on irregular forms, abnormal patterns, the number of times a form or word was used, the enlarged letters in the middle of words that had enumerative significance, and other matters) was gathered and inserted in the margins or at the end of the text. A second concern of the Masoretes was for vocalization of the consonantal text for reading purposes. Prohibition against inserting vocalization into the text itself had required oral tradition for transmission. The origins of vocalization reflect differences from Babylon and Palestine. The Tiberian Masoretes (scholars working in Tiberias in Palestine) provided the most complete and exact system of vocalization. The earliest dated manuscript from that tradition is a codex of the Prophets from the Karaite synagogue of Cairo dated ad 896. Today the standard Hebrew text of the OT, Kittel’s Biblia Hebraica (3rd ed and later), is constructed on the basis of the Tiberian Masoretic tradition.
Standardization of both the consonantal text and vocalization succeeded so well that the manuscripts that have survived display a remarkable agreement. Most of the variants, being minor and attributable to scribal error, do not affect interpretation.
Principles of Methodology. Through the work of textual critics in the last several centuries, certain basic principles have evolved. The primary principles for each of the Testaments can be briefly summarized.
OT. (1) The basic text for primary consideration is the Masoretic text because of the careful standardization it represents. That text is compared with the testimony of the ancient versions. The Septuagint, by reason of age and basic faithfulness to the Hebrew text, carries much weight in all decisions. The Targums (Aramaic translations) also reflect the Hebrew base, but they exhibit a tendency to expansion and paraphrase. The Peshitta (Syriac), Vulgate (Latin), Old Latin, and Coptic versions add indirect evidence, although translations are not always clear witnesses in technical details. Use of such versions does enable scholars to employ comparative philology in textual decisions and thus expose early errors for which the original reading probably has not survived.
(2) The reading that best explains the origin of other variants is preferable. Information from reconstruction of the history of transmission often provides additional insight. Knowledge of typical scribal errors enables the critic to make an educated decision on the sequence of variants.
(3) The shorter reading is preferable. The scribes frequently added material in order to solve style or syntax problems and seldom abridged or condensed material.
(4) The more difficult reading is more likely to be the original one. This principle is closely related to the third. Scribes did not intentionally create more complex readings. Unintentional errors are usually easy to identify. Thus the easier reading is normally suspect as a scribal alteration.
(5) Readings that are not harmonized or assimilated to similar passages are preferable. Copyists had a tendency to correct material on the basis of similar material elsewhere (sometimes even unconsciously).
(6) When all else fails, the textual critic must resort to conjectural emendation. To make an “educated guess” requires intimate acquaintance with the Hebrew language, familiarity with the author’s style, and an understanding of culture, customs, and theology that might color the passage. Use of conjecture must be limited to those passages in which the original reading has definitely not been transmitted to us.
Morris A. Weigelt; Updated by Edward D. Andrews
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