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Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible – An Introduction (TCHB 1)

19th June 2006

I fancy myself a wee bit of a textual critic, though through my studies with the likes of Bruce Waltke, E.J. Revel, Stan Walters, Al Pietersma, among others, I perhaps more than anything else recognize the hard work and commitment necessary to do textual criticism properly. Knowing something about how to do textual criticism is one thing, having the mastery in the requisite languages as well as a thorough understanding of the textual witnesses, including their predilections and tendencies, is a daunting task. That being said, I figured I would do a few posts on the textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible, including some discussion of method and manuscripts, some examples, and available resources to aid the student in doing some text criticism. These posts will be based on my research, some of my class lectures as well as an article I wrote with Bruce Waltke a number of years back.

Defining Textual Criticism

This first post will highlight the need for textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible. But before I get to that, I should perhaps define “textual criticism.” Textual criticism is the name given to the critical study of ancient manuscripts and versions of texts, usually for the purpose of restoring the original text (or the best/most reliable reading of a text), or as we will discuss later on, restoring the original edition of the ancient text. (I should note that some critics are not very optimistic about being able to restore the “original” texts or editions and are happy to just study the different manuscripts to see how texts changed over time and reflect their socio-linguistic contexts). Its technique involves an investigation of the textual witnesses to the Hebrew Bible, their histories, and evaluating variants in light of known scribal practices.

The Need for Textual Criticism

First and foremost, textual criticism is necessary because there are no error-free manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible. All the textual witnesses to the Hebrew Bible are the results of a long process of transmission. The text has been copied and re-copied by scribes of varying capabilities and ideologies through many centuries. No matter how good a scribe may have been, errors inevitably crept into his or her work. Even critical editions of the Hebrew Bible such as Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS), contain printing errors. While some of these errors reflect errors in the medieval manuscripts on which they are based, others were introduced with printing.

A second reason why textual criticism is necessary is the realization that the further back we go the greater the textual differences we will find between manuscripts. Variants in the medieval Hebrew manuscripts (dated ca. 1000 to 1500 CE) as collated by the likes of Kennicott and de Rossi are small in comparison to those found in the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS), which are more than a millennium older. In fact, the further back we go in the textual lineage the greater the textual differences we find between manuscripts.

Finally, in addition to these inevitable accidental errors there are intentional “errors” found in the texts. Scribes occasionally changed the text for linguistic and exegetical reasons, and, rarely, for theological reasons. I will talk about these sorts of “errors” or intentional changes in a future post.

All this means that if we are at all concerned about establishing an “original text” or an “original edition” of a textual tradition or at least concerned about weeding through and identifying some of the more obvious errors in whatever text we want to use (e.g., the Leningrad Codex), then we will need to do some textual criticism (or rely on the textual criticism of others). We will need to identify and sort through the variants and make some decisions on which reading is better. Even if you have no theological or ideological reasons for wanting to identify the “original text,” it is pretty much a practical necessity if you are going to do any translation or exposition as you will have to decide what text you are translating or expounding.

Implications and Conclusions

The simple fact that there are no error-free manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible troubles some people — typically those from more conservative backgrounds who hold a very high view of Scripture. But there is no getting around this reality. We have no pristine, error-free, originals of the Hebrew Bible (or the NT for that matter). That being said, one should not over-emphasize the significance of the differences between the manuscripts we do have.

First, a quick count of the textual variants in BHS shows that on average for every ten words there is a textual note — and many of these can be discounted. That leaves about 90% of the text with no variants. Because of the nature of textual criticism, however, the focus is on the relatively few variants, not on the many uncontested readings, and so it is easy to lose our sense of proportion.

Second, most of the textual variants are relatively insignificant. Most text critical work is boring because the differences are inconsequential (Al Pietersma has a saying about text critical work that reflects the tedious nature of the enterprise: bean by bean). Many variants are easily identified and corrected. A slip in the transcriptional process is normally subject to human correction. In the same way we correct errors in reading any book or manuscript, we can correct biblical texts. Even the great variety of text types attested in the DSS underscore their genetic relationships. Shemaryahu Talmon notes:

The scope of variation within all these textual traditions is relatively restricted. Major divergences which intrinsically affect the sense are extremely rare. A collation of variants extant, based on the synoptic study of the material available, either by a comparison of parallel passages within one Version, or of the major Versions with each other, results in the conclusion that the ancient authors, compilers, tradents and scribes enjoyed what may be termed a controlled freedom of textual variation (“Textual Study of the Bible — A New Outlook,” Qumran and the History of the Biblical Text [Harvard University Press, 1975] 326).

For those Christians who may be troubled by the textual variety surrounding the Hebrew Bible, all I will say is don’t worry! The same kind of variants and plurality we find in the DSS today, were around during the time of Jesus and the apostles — and they did not hesitate to rely on the authority of Scripture. Their citations agree with the varying text types found we find in the DSS. The record of Stephen’s speech before the Sanhedrin in Acts 7 employs a pre-Samaritan text, while the NT often quotes from the Septuagint textual tradition.

While the textual reality of the Hebrew Bible is not a hindrance to maintaining a high view of Scripture, it may have some implications to how we understand and formulate our view of Scripture, but I will leave those discussions for a later time. (In this regard you may want to check out Chris Heard’s post “What’s Wrong with Inerrancy.“)

Posted in Old Testament, Series, Text Criticism, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible | 8 Comments »

Revised Septuaginta Soon to be Published

9th June 2006

Wieland Willker on the Text Criticism list has alerted us to a revised edition of Rahlfs Septuagina to be published later this summer by the German Bible Society. The revision was done by Robert Hanhart and includes over a thousand minor corrrections and supplements to Rahlfs’ edition.

Rahlfs-Hanhart_LXX.jpgHere is the information from the German Bible Society:

Septuaginta (Das Alte Testament Griechisch)
Edited by Alfred Rahlfs
Editio altera (= 2., durchgesehene und verbesserte Auflage),
Edited by Robert Hanhart
12 x 18.4 cm
LXXIV + 2127 pages
ISBN 3438051192
€ 46.00

In an article published by Robert Hanhart last year (“Rechenschaftsbericht zur editio altera der Handausgabe der Septuaginta von Alfred Rahlfs” Vetus Testamentum 55 [2005] 450-60), it was made clear that this would only be a minor revision that will leave Rahlfs’ base text substantially intact.

This new “Rahlfs-Hanhart” edition will be out in July 2006.

Posted in Reviews & Notices, Septuagint, Text Criticism | Comments Off

New Septuagint Volume

2nd June 2006

Septuagint_Research.jpgWhen I was in Toronto for CSBS, I went to the annual Pietersma picnic and caught up with the likes of Claude Cox, Tony Michael, Cameron Boyd-Taylor, Paul McLean, Wade White, and, of course, Al Pietersma. We talked briefly about a recent volume on the Septuagint in which Pietersma, Boyd-Taylor, and White contributed:

Septuagint Research: Issues And Challenges in the Study of the Greek Jewish Scriptures, Wolfgang Kraus and R. Glenn Wooden, eds. (Septuagint and Cognate Studies Series 53; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2006; Buy from | Buy from

Here is the table of contents for the volume. As you can see, it covers a fair range of topics.


  • “Concerning the LXX as Translation and/or Interpretation Contemporary ‘Septuagint’ Research: Issues and Challenges in the Study of the Greek Jewish Scriptures” by Wolfgang Kraus and R. Glenn Wooden
  • “In a Mirror, Dimly- Reading the Septuagint as a Document of Its Times” by Cameron Boyd-Taylor
  • “Exegesis in the Septuagint: Possibilities and Limits (The Psalter as a Case in Point)” by Albert Pietersma
  • “Translation as Scripture: The Septuagint in Aristeas and Philo” by Benjamin G. Wright III
  • “Contemporary Translations of the Septuagint: Problems and Perspectives ” by Wolfgang Kraus

Issues Concerning Individual LXX Books

  • “The Hermeneutics of Translation in the Septuagint of Genesis” by Robert J. V. Hiebert
  • “Reconstructing the OG of Joshua” by Kristin de Troyer
  • “Interlinearity in 2 Esdras: A Test Case” by R. Glenn Wooden
  • “A Devil in the Making: Isomorphism and Exegesis in OG Job 1:8b” by Wade Albert White
  • “The Jewish and the Christian Greek Versions of Amos” by Aaron Schart
  • LXX/OG Zechariah 1-6 and the Portrayal of Joshua Centuries after the Restoration of the Temple” by Patricia Ahearne-Kroll

Comprehensive Issues and Problems Concerning Several LXX Books

  • “Messianism in the Septuagint” by Heinz-Josef Fabry
  • “Idol Worship in Bel and the Dragon and Other Jewish Literature from the Second Temple Period” by Claudia Bergmann
  • “From ‘Old Greek’ to the Recensions: Who and What Caused the Change of the Hebrew Reference Text of the Septuagint?” by Siegfried Kreuzer
  • “Towards a Theology of the Septuagint” by Martin Roesel

Reception History of the LXX in Early Judaism and Christianity

  • “The Letters of Paul as Witnesses to and for the Septuagint Text” by Florian Wilk
  • “Flourishing Bones — The Minor Prophets in the New Testament” by Helmut Utzschneider
  • “Abandonment and Suffering” by Stephen Ahearne-Kroll
  • “The Septuagint Textual Tradition in 1 Peter” by Karen H. Jobes
  • “The Epistle to the Hebrews and the Septuagint” by Martin Karrer
  • “Observations on the Wirkungsgeschichte of the Septuagint Psalms in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity” by Ralph Brucker
  • “Textual Variants as a Result of Enculturation: The Banishment of the Demon in Tobit” by Beate Ego

UPDATE: I just noticed the Evangelical Text Criticism blog has a notice of this work as well (without the table of contents, but with a blurb).

Posted in Reviews & Notices, Septuagint, Text Criticism | Comments Off

Tendenz and Translation: The Importance of Knowing the Character of a Manuscript for Textual Criticism

20th August 2005

One of the toughest jobs for textual critics is knowing the tendenz or proclivities of the manuscripts or versions they are using for textual reconstruction. This step requires an enormous amount of work that entails an intensive study of a manuscript. Often, I fear, this work is not done and variants are studies in isolation without a sufficient knowledge of the manuscripts themselves. One of the reasons it is not done is that it is a daunting task that few can accomplish. So when someone does this work, it is a great service to the scholarly community (We should thank God for the Kittels, Wevers, Alands, Metzgers of the world!).

This sort of painstaking text critical work has now been done on the Qumran Psalms Scroll (11QPsa). As I mentioned in a previous post, I am working through Ulrich Dahmen’s Psalmen- und Psalter-Rezeption im Fruehjudentum: Rekonstrucktion, Textbestand, Sturktur und Pragmatik der Psalmen Rolle 11QPsa aus Qumran (Brill, 2003; Buy from or

In this third chapter, Dahmen works through all of the variants between 11QPsa and the Masoretic Book of Psalms. From this analysis he draws a number of conclusions. First, he concludes that 11QPsa is clearly dependent on and secondary to the proto-Masoretic Psalter (Something which I have been arguing for many years). That is, almost all of the places where 11QPsa has an alternative reading compared to the MT Psalter, the reading in 11QPsa is later. What is more, Dahmen argues that when all of the variants are considered together (and this is the crucial step of gaining the big picture) some patterns begin to appear. While I will not bore you with the details (and Dahmen notes many details), the most important characteristic are the number of features which connect the scroll with the other texts and themes common to the Qumran community. This is one of the things that is meant when taking about a manuscript’s tendenz.

Knowing the tendenz of 11QPsa provides some critical purchase when making text-criticical decisions. What Dahmen’s research means in practical terms is that 11QPsa is of limited use for textual criticism of the MT book of Psalms. That doesn’t mean it is of no value. Dahmen highlights a couple places where 11QPsa preserves a better reading than the MT. The best example is with the missing nun verse in the acrostic Psalm 145 (an acrostic is a poem that is organized according to the alphabet). In the MT tradition the psalm is clearly missing a verse because its acrostic skips from mem to samech (between vv. 13-14). Well, before 11QPsa was discovered scholars knew something was up and often used the LXX to reconstruct the missing verse. When the Psalms Scroll was discovered, lo and behold, the nun verse was recovered. As it turns out, the two texts (LXX and 11QPsa) preserved similar readings:
πιστὸς κύριος ἐν τοῖς λόγοις αὐτοῦ καὶ ὅσιος ἐν πᾶσι τοῖς ἔργοις αὐτοῦ
The Lord is faithful in all his words, and devout in all his deeds

× ×?מן ×?לוהי×? בדבריו וחסיד בכול מעשיו
God is faithful in his words, and gracious in all his deeds

You’ll notice a slight difference between the LXX use of “Lord” while 11QPsa employs “God.” A number of factors suggest that the LXX preserves the better reading. First, when looking at the rest of Psalm, it almost exclusively employs Yahweh. Second, one of the things that Dahmen uncovered in his analysis is that 11QPsa tends to substitute other terms for Yahweh. What evidently happened is that some time in the transmission of the Masoretic text of the book of Psalms, this verse dropped out. The LXX and 11QPsa both preserved the original line, though the LXX preserved the better text in regards to the name used for God.

The moral of this story is that before you can evaluate a textual variant, you need to know the tendenz of the text. Otherwise you’ll miss the forest for the trees.

Posted in Dead Sea Scrolls, Psalms, Reviews & Notices, Septuagint, Text Criticism, Translation Theory | Comments Off

Sinaiticus to Enter the Digital World

3rd August 2005

BBC News has an article on the digitizing of Codex Sinaiticus (the image to the right is the beginning of Matthew in the codex). This isn’t ground-breaking news (see below), though I have been watching for any stories on Sinaiticus since I am writing a dictionary entry on the codex for The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible.The BBC article has a number of errors. For instance, the tag line indicates that Sinaiticus is “the oldest known Biblical New Testament in the world” which it isn’t. Further down in the article they are correct when they say “it has the oldest complete copy of the New Testament.” Here’s another error: “It is named after the place it was written, the monastery of Saint Catherine in Sinai, Egypt.” More properly it should say that it was named after the place it was discovered. It may have been copied there, but it more likely was produced in Rome, Caesarea, or Alexandria.

I am surprised that BBC picked up the story when it did. Reuters published a similar story by Tim Perry early in July (it is still available here).

Posted in Septuagint, Sinaiticus, Text Criticism | Comments Off

Masoretes, Messianism, and Textual Criticism

7th July 2005

I came accross a news article entitled “Rabbinic bias obscures Messianic message of Old Testament, Prof says” (It is also reproduced as “Messianic hope ‘shines’ in Hebrew Bible“). The article reports on Michael Rydelnick, a Jewish studies professor at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, who argues that the Hebrew Bible is biased against Christianity. Here are some extended quotes from the article:

Just as today there are many versions of the Christian Bible — each choosing different words to translate the Scripture for diverse audiences — there were different versions of the Hebrew Bible in the three centuries before Christ, Rydelnick said. However, when Protestant reformers turned away from the Latin Bible of the Roman Catholic Church to re-translate the Old Testament, Rydelnick noted that they accepted a Masoretic version of the Hebrew Bible that had been influenced for centuries by rabbis who wanted to obscure the Messianic message in the Scripture.
In fact, centuries ago when the Hebrew scriptures were being consolidated, Jewish scholars agreed they would only include a book in their canon if it carried a theme of Messianic hope, Rydelnick said. In the Middle Ages, however, when Jews were being pressured to convert to Christianity, Jewish scholars began to emphasize King David as the fulfillment of prophecy. The Protestant reformers — and subsequent generations of Christian scholars — based their work on Hebrew texts and commentaries that reflected a bias against Christ, Rydelnick said.

There are a number of assertions in this article which I question, though what I want to focus on is his text-critical practice. The article provides a couple of examples where the MT allegedly obscures such messianic readings. The first example is from Numbers 24:7 where the MT reads as follows:

‏יִֽזַּל־מַ֙יִם֙ מִדָּ֣לְיָ֔ו וְזַרְע֖וֹ בְּמַ֣יִם רַבִּ֑ים וְיָרֹ֤ם מֵֽאֲגַג֙ מַלְכּ֔וֹ וְתִנַּשֵּׂ֖א מַלְכֻתֽוֹ׃
Water shall flow from his buckets,and his seed shall have abundant water, his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted (NRSV).

Rydelnick reportedly argued that the reference to Agag, the Amalekite king from the time of King Saul (1Samuel 15), has no messianic connotations since it has been fulfilled historically by David. “Other versions of the Hebrew Bible” however, have the word “Gog” instead of “Agag,” and that this “Gog” is, according to Rydelnick, “the end-times enemy of the returning Christ (Revelation 20:8) – a prophecy David could not fulfill.”

On one level the report is accurate insofar that the Samaritan Pentateuch (which I assume is on of the “other versions of the Hebrew Bible” he refers to) reads מִגּוֹג “…than Gog.” In addition, the LXX and its revisers also have Γωγ “Gog.” What other version of the Hebrew Bible he is referring to is not clear. He may be referring to 4QNumb, though while part of the verse is preserved in fragment 24ii, 27-30, the text is not extant at this precise point. (As an aside, I found it interesting that DJD 12 [see pp. 235-237] reconstructed the text with מגוג, presumably because the rest of the scroll contains slightly more secondary readings in agreement with the Samaritan Pentateuch and LXX, than with the MT. The editor, however, did not feel confident enough to include it in his list of reconstructed variants.)

While the reading “Gog,” the future antagonist of Israel referred to in Ezekiel 38-39, does put a more eschatological spin on the text, a glimpse at older and more conservative commentaries illustrate that the Masoretic text as it stands has provided much fodder for messianic interpretations.

The other passage that is mentioned in the article is Genesis 49:10, where the MT has a difficult reading (which incidentally has been called the “most famous crux interpretum in the entire OT” by Moran in Biblica 39 [1958] 405). The MT reads עד כי־יב×? ש×?ילה which could be translated literally as “until Shiloh comes” (see the NASB, KJV, NKJV). Most modern translations at this point prefer to either re-divide the word and take it as ש×?Ö¶ + לה “which is to him” (as apparently the LXX and other Greek versions take it; see NIV), or repoint it as ש×?Ö·×™ לה “until tribute comes to him” (see NRSV, NJPS, NJB, as well as the Qere). Rydelnick prefers the second option and sees the passage as “a prophecy that was fulfilled in Jesus’ era, when Rome assumed judicial power over Israel (7 A.D.) and the Temple was destroyed (70 A.D.).”

I do not want to enter into the debate on the validity of messianic interpretations of the Hebrew Bible. What I find troubling is the fact the apparent mining of textual variants to find those readings which fit one’s preconceived ideological or theological views. If you wanted to look for variant readings that would lend themselves to messianic interpretations in the various texts and versions of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament you could have a field day. And the result would be a fascinating study of the early interpretation of the Hebrew Bible (see, for example, Joachim Schaper’s Eschatology in the Greek Psalter [Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1995] which attempts to find eschatological and messianic readings in the Greek translation). To use that goal, however, as the basis for determining the best text seems to me questionable. It reminds me of a recent post on the Biblical Studies discussion list where an individual preferred a reading of Ezekiel 34:29 because it supported a messianic reference to Jesus (incidentally, in this case it was the MT’s מַטָּע לְש×?Öµ×? “planting of renown” which supported the messianic interpretation of the text, not the LXX’s φυτὸν εἰÏ?ήνης). In my opinion the MT likely preserves the best text, however, my reasons have nothing to do with its potential messianic interpretation.

To be sure, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has complicated the picture of the textual transmission of the Hebrew Bible to the degree that textual criticism becomes an even more challenging if not impossible task. That being said, it does not give us warrant to pick and choose readings willy-nilly according to our presuppositions and biases. Instead, it is even more important to study the different texts and versions all the more carefully so as to discern their genetic relationships as well as their tendencies before we employ them to text-critical ends. This is a task to which few are called and perhaps even fewer are gifted.

Posted in Text Criticism | Comments Off