Textual Criticism In Action (TCHB 9)

In this post I will demonstrate the practice of textual criticism with two examples, Joshua 1:1 and Psalm 73:7, which highlight the practice of external and internal textual criticism, respectively.

This is the ninth 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.

External Criticism: Joshua 1:1

External criticism, as noted in a previous post, involves the evaluation of a variant in relation to the “original edition” of the MT. This means that if a variant reflects an earlier stage in the literary development of a book, rather than a corruption during the course of its textual transmission, it should be disregarded by the text critic. Because these variants typically do not come to bear on text critical decisions, they are difficult to spot in English translations. Therefore, for this example we have to proceed directly to the Hebrew text. Compare the following readings of Josh 1:1 in the MT and LXX:

  • MT: ויהי ×?חרי מות מש×?×” עבד יהוה
    And it was after the death of Moses the servant of Yahweh… (cf. NIV, NRSV, etc.)
  • LXX: Καὶ á¼?γένετο μετὰ τὴν τελευτὴν Μωυσῆ
    And it was after the death of Moses…

In this example the MT refers to Moses as עבד יהוה (‘bd yhwh), “the servant of Yahweh.” This phrase is missing in the LXX. In fact, the MT of Joshua 1 has more than twelve additional words or phrases that are not found in the LXX. Further, the LXX of the book of Joshua is about 4-5 percent shorter than the MT. This leads one to posit that these differences in the LXX version of Joshua probably represent an earlier edition of that book. Therefore, because this variant in the LXX stands apart from the “original edition” behind the MT, there is no need to evaluate it by internal criticism. It should be ignored.

Internal Criticism: Psalm 73:7

The first example demonstrated the procedure involved when a variant is the result of a separate literary tradition. Psalm 73:7, in contrast, will provide an example of a variant that arose in the transmission of the “original edition” of the MT

An examination of a few English versions of Ps 73:7a reveals a significant textual problem. Compare the following translations:

  • NIV: From their callous hearts comes iniquity (cf. NAB).
  • NRSV: Their eyes swell out with fatness (cf. RSV, NEB, KJV).

In this verse there are two apparent divergences between the English translations, though only one of them reflects a textual difference. The NIV’s reading of “callous hearts” reflects an idiomatic translation of “fat” rather than a variant reading. “Fat,” it is assumed, is a figure for stubbornness and the translators took the liberty of interpreting the figure for the reader so that it makes sense, as modern readers do not think iniquity comes out of “fat” (cf. “crassness” in the NAB).

In this passage the textual variant pertains to “eyes” and “iniquity.” This is indicated by the footnote in the NIV, which indicates that they have followed the Syriac reading of the text rather than the MT, which the NRSV followed.

Now that the textual problem has been discovered, the preliminary step is to collect the variants. While this can be partially done by referring to the notes in the English translations, as noted above, exegetes should look to BHS to discover the exact nature of the textual problem. The verse in BHS reads:

  • יָ֭צָ×? מֵחֵ֣לֶב עֵינֵ֑מוֹ (BHS)
    Lit., “Their eyes come out from fat”

There is a superscript “a” after this line which leads to the second level of apparatus which reads: || 7 a l frt עֲוֹנָמוֹ cf G S ||. This “translates” as, lege(ndum) “to read” fortasse “perhaps” עֲוֹנָמוֹ (eonamo), “their iniquity” instead of the reading in the MT, and then asks us to compare with the LXX and the Syriac Peshitta. The LXX (= Ps 72:7) reads: ἡ ἀδικία αá½?τῶν, “their injustice,” while the Peshitta reads similarly.

Now the variant can be evaluated on its transcriptional probability. The word in the MT for “eyes” is עין (‘yn), while the variant suggested by BHS, and adopted by the NIV, is based on the LXX ἀδικία, retroverted to עון (‘vn), “iniquity.” The difference between these Hebrew variants is very slight as in the square script ו and ×™ are easily confused, especially in the DSS. Therefore the variant could be a result of the scribe confusing similar consonants. A major problem with this proposal, however, is that the LXX Psalms never translates עון with ἀδικία, “injustice”; either uses á¼?μαÏ?τία “sin” or ἀνομία “lawlessness” (30+ times). Better retrovert it to ×?ון “wickedness” and see an additional confusion between the aleph and ayin.

In relation to intrinsic probability, the MT makes little sense. The truth is that “their eyes come out with fatness” is incoherent. The NRSV’s “swell out” is an unattested extension of the meaning of the verb יצ×? (yts’) — especially with the preposition “from.” In contrast, the idea of iniquity or wickedness coming out of fatness, understood as a figure of speech for stubbornness, makes sense.

Therefore, in light of internal criticism, “their iniquity” — or better “their wickedness” — appears to be the most plausible. First, the error in the MT can be easily explained away by some common scribal confusions. Second, the MT is unintelligible: How do “eyes come out of fat”?, whereas “wickedness coming out of fat” is understandable once the metonymy of “fat” for “crassness” is understood.

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