The Goal(s) of Textual Criticism (TCHB 7)

In recent years there has been significant debate surrounding the ultimate goal of textual criticism. Traditionally the goal was simply to reconstruct the original text of the Old Testament. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, it has become apparent that this goal is not as simple as it used to be. This post will explore the goal — or perhaps the goals — of textual criticism.

This is the seventh post in a series on the textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. Other posts include:

All posts in this series may be viewed here.

The concept of an Urtext, the putative original text, depends partially on how we understand the origins of the five text types found at Qumran and their relationships to it (see my previous post on the Hebrew Witnesses here). There have been three primary models proposed to answer these questions. In spite of the importance attached to this issue, no conclusive answer is possible because of a lack of solid evidence from the time of their origins.

Lagarde’s Model: An Archetypical Urtext

Paul de Lagarde‘s model, historically embraced by the majority of text critics, presupposes one original text of a biblical book and that all textual witnesses derived from it. In practice, the majority of critics first collect the texts into text types, the MT, the LXX, and the SP, and from them reconstruct the eclectic Urtext.

F. M. Cross refined this process by his widely influential theory of “local texts.” In his view the texts developed in geographical isolation: Babylon for the proto-MT of the Torah, Egypt for the Septuagintal texts, and Palestine for the pre-Samaritan Torah and for the proto-MT in the Prophets and Hagiographa (see Frank Moore Cross and Shemaryahu Talmon, eds., Qumran and the History of the Biblical Text [Harvard University Press, 1975] 37; Buy from | Buy from Furthermore, in his view, while the proto-MT preserved the Torah in a superb, pristine state, elsewhere it conserved the expansionistic Palestinian text type (Ibid, 307-308).


Cross’s local text theory, however, does not adequately account for the network of agreements and disagreements among the texts and for the “non-aligned texts,” and no compelling evidence exists for the proposed provinces of the developing text types. For example, the paleo-Hebrew script, which Cross thought secured the pre-Samaritan text in Palestine, was later found in other text types. For example, 11QpaleoLev is written in paleo-Hebrew and sometimes aligns itself with all three text types and other times stands apart (see K. Mathews, “The Leviticus Scrolls (11QpaleoLev) and the Text of the Hebrew Bible,” CBQ 48 [1986] 171-207). Talmon modified Cross’s local text theory by pointing to three socio-political groups: Judaism and the proto-MT, the Samaritans and the SP, and the Christians and the LXX (Shemaryahu Talmon, “Aspects of the Textual Transmission of the Bible in Light of Qumran Manuscripts,” in The World of the Qumran from Within [Magnes, 1989] 71-116; Buy from | Buy from

Kahle’s Model: From Plurality into Unity

In contrast to Lagarde’s Urtext theory, Paul Kahle argued for a multiplicity of texts from which a standard text emerged (See his Cairo Geniza [Clarendon, 1951]). Basing himself on an analogy with the Aramaic Targums, he presupposed the same development from independent, vulgar texts to the final forms of the MT, the LXX of Ezekiel, the SP, and to certain extent of the biblical text as a whole.


Other scholars also hold to a number of pristine originals for certain biblical books. For instance, S. Talmon, makes his case for multiple “original” texts on the basis of synonymous pairs of parallel readings (“The OT Text,” The Cambridge History of the Bible I [ed. R. P. Ackroyd & C. F. Evans; Cambridge University Press, 1970] 1-41; Buy from | Buy from Similarly, M. Greenberg, makes his arguments for equally valid MT and LXX from an exegetical viewpoint (“The Use of Ancient Versions for Interpreting the Hebrew Text,” Congress Volume: Göttingen 1977 [VTSup 29; Brill, 1978] 131-148); while Peter Walters bases his arguments on parallel stories in 1 Samuel (The Text of the Septuagint: Its Corruptions and their Emendation (Cambridge University Press, 1973; Buy from | Buy from Eugene Ulrich, in a number of publications, has perhaps been the most recent scholar to champion this perspective.

According to this view, the varying text types of certain books, such as Samuel, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Esther, call into question the notion of an original text and suggests instead a multiplicity of original, pristine texts. Text critics, so the argument runs, should aim to recreate these original texts, not one eclectic, archetypical text that may have never existed. This view may find support in the parallel synoptic texts in the Bible itself.

Tov, however, criticises this theory since it is so vague about the origin and relationship of these independent texts (Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, 184-185; Buy from | Buy from It also underestimates the capability of detecting secondary readings within the textual witnesses. Moreover, because the text critic cannot decide the priority of one reading over another, it does not necessarily follow that both are original; one may still be secondary. In addition, Waltke has noted that when the theory of independent texts of equal textual status is extended to the view that they also enjoy equal canonical status, it is not satisfying from both a historian’s and theologian’s point of view. Most theologians will want to know whether the tenth commandment prescribes worship on Mount Gerizim and most historians would want to know whether the biblical historian recorded in Exod 12:40 that Israel spent 430 years before the exodus in just Egypt (MT) or in Egypt and Canaan (LXX, SP). Finally, the evidence of synoptic texts does not prove the existence of parallel texts. The differences between these texts may be due to a linear development within the texts where they are now embedded.

Tov’s Model: Original Editions

Tov more plausibly supposes that certain biblical books such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel experienced more than one stage in their literary development, at least one early short edition and a later expanded final edition. Before the later, final form was produced, the earlier forms were considered the original and copied. According to this argument some of the Qumran scrolls and the versions preserve these earlier literary stages as well as the final edition behind the proto-MT. Other biblical material, such as the different edition of the LXX versus the MT, the Targums, the Syriac Peshitta, the Vulgate of Proverbs and of Exodus 35-40 reflect different parallel editions. The date of the final stages differs from book to book and remains undetermined because it antedates the DSS. Tov explains his view: “Large-scale differences between the textual witnesses show that a few books and parts of books were once circulated in different formulations representing different literary stages, as a rule one after the other, but possibly also parallel to each other” (Textual Criticism). While Tov basically agrees with de Lagarde’s thesis that all texts ultimately go back to an original text, he nevertheless believes that it is “almost impossible to reconstruct the original form.”In Tov’s view the text critic ought not necessarily to reconstruct the earlier stages, such as the shorter Septuagintal text in the Prophets — that is the task of literary criticism — but the final edition, such as the fully developed proto-MT in Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Tov further explains: “This formulation thus gives a certain twist to the assumption of one original text as described in the scholarly literature. We do not refer to the original text in the usual sense of the word, since the copy with which our definition is concerned was actually preceded by written stages. Reconstructing elements of this copy (or tradition) is one of the aims of textual scholars, and usually they do not attempt to go beyond this stage” (Textual Criticism, 171).

All in all, Tov’s theory best fits the data. The final edited text is the end of the literary process and, at the same time, the starting point of the transmission of the text. Tov has put a new twist on the meaning of the “original” text. It now means “original edition,” a view that mediates between Lagarde and Kahle. This fits with evidence from the ancient Near East where texts developed by supplementing earlier sources with later material (see J. H. Tigay, ed., Empirical Models for Biblical Criticism [Fortress, 1985]). Scribes in the pre-Samaritan tradition added material from Deuteronomy into Exodus. While this is a much larger topic than I can cover here, it seems most plausible to me that the Pentateuch developed in a supplemental fashion, with earlier sources being expanded and edited over time. Likewise, in the exile the so-called Deuteronomist re-worked earlier books of the Former Prophets by supplementing them with a distinctive theology. This process of literary development can still be observed in the Qumran scrolls and in the ancient versions of certain biblical texts.

Tov wisely stops the process with the proto-MT for socio-religious and historical reasons. That text, he argues, became the authoritative text within Judaism. For that reason, he excludes the later midrashic literary compilations such as the Hebrew behind several sections in the LXX, namely, sections in 1-2 Kings, Esther and Daniel. In short, text critics should aim to recover the original edition behind the MT.

The church as well as the synagogue both accepted the edition behind the MT as authoritative. Both Origen and Jerome conformed the Septuagint and the Vulgate (respectively) to the proto-MT, so that the MT essentially became the standard text of the OT within the Church. Our modern English versions are based on the MT. That history should not be underestimated in deciding the question of “what is the original text?” The MT inherently commended itself to both the Synagogue and the Church as “the best text.” As the canon of the OT emerged in the historical process, so also the MT surfaced as “the best text” of that canon.


It should be noted however that when the canon was discussed, there were not discussions of which version of a biblical book should be considered canonical. This realization leads to one caveat. While I agree that from my community of faith (Protestant evangelical Christianity) the goal of textual criticism is best conceived of as recovering the original edition behind the MT, I still see immense value in exploring the different texts and versions of the Old Testament. This is especially the case for the Septuagint considering the historical and theological significance it has had for the Christian church. Thus, while I agree with Tov in regards to the goal of textual criticism, I think it is also valuable to balance his views with those of Eugene Ulrich who argues for multiple texts as the goal. He argues, “the goal of ‘textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible’ is not a single text. The purpose of function of textual criticism is to reconstruct the history of the texts that eventually become the biblical collection in both its literary growth and its scribal transmission; it is not just to judge individual variants in order to determine which were ‘superior’ or ‘original'”(“Multiple Literary Editions: Reflections Towards a Theory of the History of the Biblical Text,” in Current Research and Technological Developments on the Dead Sea Scrolls: Conference on the Texts from the Judean Desert, Jerusalem, 30 April 1995 [Donald W. Parry and Stephen D. Ricks, eds.; Brill, 1996] 98-99; Buy from | Buy from While Ulrich clearly takes his observations too far, he does remind us of the richness in the textual witnesses to the text of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.

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2 Responses to The Goal(s) of Textual Criticism (TCHB 7)

  1. Tov’s textual conclusions seem close to Brevard S. Child’s emphasis on the final, canonical text as authoritative for the religious community,i.e. not the original text but the text that ultimately finds a final form after it has undergone its oral, literary, compositional, and redactional forming.

  2. Pingback: biblicalia » Blog Archive » Biblical Studies Carnival VIII

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