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More on the Qumran Latrines

22nd December 2006

Ha’aretz has an article on the Qumran Latrines by Ran Shapira (“The hidden latrines of the Essenes“) that is worth a gander. Here is an excerpt:

Anthropologist Joe Zias, of the Hebrew University Science and Archaeology Department, recently found positive evidence of the Essenes’ adherence to these rituals. Together with Dr. James Tabor, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina and parasitologist Stephanie Harter-Lailheugue of the CNRS Laboratory for Anthropology in Marseilles, France, Zias found the latrines that were used by the Essenes in Qumran. The three researchers say that, in addition to shedding a great deal of light on the unique culture of the Essenes in Qumran, the discovery represents an archaeological bonanza: Additional proof that the Essenes wrote the scrolls. Zias explains that when feces are left on the desert floor, exposure to sun and wind quickly annihilates intestinal parasites. But when feces are buried in the earth, intestinal parasites may survive for many months and their eggs may be preserved for as long as 2,000 years, as in the case of Qumran.

The presence of the eggs of intestinal parasites, typically present in human intestines, in a relatively limited area, in the place described in the scrolls and by Josephus, led researchers to conclude that they discovered the bathroom of Qumran’s ancient residents. “Only ascetic members of a sect that paid such close attention to hygiene would bother to walk hundreds of meters beyond their camp to relieve themselves, and invest the necessary energy to dig a pit in which to bury their waste,” Zias concludes.

For what it is worth, I agree with Joe Zias. I find the non-Essene hypotheses that disconnect the scrolls from the community not as plausible as a modified Essene hypothesis. See here and here for other posts on this discovery.

Posted in Ancient Potties, Archaeology, Dead Sea Scrolls, Discoveries, News, Qumran | Comments Off

Dead Sea Scrolls in Canada? I Hope So!

6th December 2006

When the travelling Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit was beginning its rounds in the United States, I emailed the curator of the Royal Alberta Museum here in Edmonton about trying to get the exhibit up here in Canada. I received in reply a very polite letter indicating that with the major renovations happening … this wouldn’t be possible for a number of years. Bummer.
Well, it now looks like bringing the Scrolls exhibit to Canada may be in the works! I just read a news column in the Canadian Jewish News by Alex Gropper in which he notes the following:

Now that we’ve talked about the past, let’s move forward into the future. The Israeli Antiquities Authority has just been registered as a Canadian charity and has approached me for help in bringing the Dead Sea Scrolls to Canada, starting with a blockbuster exhibit at the new addition to the Royal Ontario Museum. Negotiations have begun. Stay tuned to this column for more information.

This is exciting news. Now I just have to work on getting the exhibit to come to Edmonton!

Posted in Dead Sea Scrolls, News | Comments Off

A Step-by-Step Reconstruction of the New Leviticus Fragments (Best of Codex)

18th November 2006

[Originally Posted 18th July 2005]

Tim Bulkeley over at SansBlog asked me to expand my analysis of the newly-discovered fragments of Leviticus by describing a bit of the processes involved in identifying and reconstructing the fragments. I thought that I would entertain his request, though I should note up front that I am by no means an expert in this! My interest in the reconstruction of Dead Sea Scroll fragments is a tangent of my work on the so-called Qumran Psalms scrolls for my dissertation that combines my interest in computer technology and really old stuff!

At any rate, I thought I would outline some of the steps in identifying, reconstructing, and analyzing scroll fragments using the Leviticus fragments by way of illustration. (Since I am not an expert at this, I would love to get feedback from those who are!)

STEP 1: Identification

The first (obvious) step in reconstructing a fragment is figuring out what it is a fragment from! This is done by identifying some of the extant letters and words on the fragment and then performing some searches with various computer software to see if you can locate the text.

Image Adjustment
Before you can identify some of the letters it may be necessary to make some adjustments to the image to bring the letters into sharper relief or even to make the fragment readable in the first place! Note that I am dealing with working with images and not the actual original fragments. This is preferable in most cases as the originals may not be readable and (more significantly) they are likely not accessible! High resolution images may be obtained from various sources, including the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center at Claremont.

I prefer to do my work on the images with Adobe Photoshop. Within Photoshop you can adjust the input and output levels (using the histogram feature), brightness/contrast, among other things to make the text more readable. While the low resolution images of the Leviticus fragments I tracked down on the web are pretty clear, they can be made even clearer by adjusting them slightly:

The adjusted image is a bit easier to read. At times the difference may be dramatic. Compare the two images of PAM 42.141 where the text becomes readable only by adjusting the original image:

Identifying the Text
Once you can read the fragment — or at least some of the fragment — then you can start the process of identification. This is a bit easier for biblical fragments since there are a number of excellent databases of the Hebrew Bible to begin the identification process. I prefer to use Accordance Bible Software for my searches, though Logos Bible Software and BibleWorks, among others, are more than adequate (see my Software for Biblical Studies Pages for descriptions of these and other biblical studies software programs).

With the small Leviticus fragment I did a search for כל נדרי×? “all your votive offerings” which is easily readable in the first line of the fragment. This search discovers that Lev 23:38 is the only occurrence of this phrase in the Hebrew Bible (I also searched a Qumran database with no matches). At that point the rest of the readable words can be checked in the context to see if you have found a match. In the case of the small Leviticus fragment, the other readable words from it easily fit the context of Lev 23:38-39. The same was the case for the larger Leviticus fragment (it is actually two fragments that have been joined), since there were quite a few readable words to make a certain identification with Lev 23:40-44; 24:16-18. You often don’t have as much to work with, however! In my work on 1Q12 (1QPsc) I identified a fragment 8 based on two readable letters and portions of another letter (see my Proposed Reconstruction).

STEP 2: Reconstruction

Once you have the text identified, the next step is to reconstruct it so that you may confirm your identification and ascertain other things about the fragment such as its original size. In order to do this I use Microsoft Word and/or Photoshop (I have also used Quark XPress for this step) to see how the text lines up with the fragment. So, for example, with the smaller Leviticus fragment I imported Hebrew text of Lev 23:38-39 (without pointing) into Word and then adjusted the right-hand margin until the text lined up in accordance with the fragment. In the case of the smaller fragment, the text lined up quite nicely, producing lines of ca. 22-28 letterspaces:

My reconstruction shows the extant Leviticus 23:38 and 39 in bold black type with an outline of the fragment placement. The space at the top of the fragment preserves part of the top margin of the scroll (the dark spot near the top of the fragment is likely an ink dot or a blemish on the leather).

Here is a translation with the extant words in bold:

38 …and apart from all your votive offerings, and apart from all your freewill offerings, which you give to the Lord. 39 Now, the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the produce of the land, you shall keep the festival of the Lord, lasting seven days; a complete rest on the first day, and a complete rest on the eighth day.

For the larger fragment, it was a bit more complicated since I was dealing with two columns. But once again, the text lined up very nicely producing lines of ca. 22-28 letterspaces for the right column and 20-25 for the left column, and a column height of ca. 33 lines.

Here is an image of the large fragment:

Here is my reconstruction of the columns:

My reconstruction shows the extant Leviticus 23:40-44 (middle of the right column) and 24:16-18 (left column) in bold black type with an outline of the fragment placement. Note that the smaller fragment also nicely fits at the top of the right column.

The one variant from the MT (as represented by BHS) is the plene spelling of בסכת at the end of verse 42 (the vav is in red). (click for larger image)

Here is a translation with the extant words in bold:

38 …and apart from all your votive offerings, and apart from all your freewill offerings, which you give to the Lord. 39 Now, the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the produce of the land, you shall keep the festival of the Lord, lasting seven days; a complete rest on the first day, and a complete rest on the eighth day.

41You shall keep it as a festival to the Lord seven days in the year; you shall keep it in the seventh month as a statute forever throughout your generations. 42 You shall live in booths for seven days; all that are citizens in Israel shall live in booths, 43 so that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. 44 Thus Moses declared to the people of Israel the appointed festivals of the Lord.

16One who blasphemes the name of the Lord shall be put to death; the whole congregation shall stone the blasphemer. Aliens as well as citizens, when they blaspheme the Name, shall be put to death. 17 Anyone who kills a human being shall be put to death. 18

Anyone who kills an animal shall make restitution for it, life for life.

N.B. For a detailed reconstruction, you would have to do much more than just count letters. You would need to consider the widths of different letters in the scroll’s script. For example, even on these fragments it is clear that the ×™ yods and ו vavs take much less space than the ש sins and ב bets. For more detail on calculating letter widths and scroll reconstruction in general, see Edward D. Herbert, Reconstructing Biblical Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Method Applied to the Reconstruction of 4QSama (Brill, 1997; Buy from Amazon.caBuy from You would also need to check to see if these verses are extant in any other scrolls from Qumran; in this case you would want to double check your text with 4QLevb (as it turns out these particular words are not found in 1QLevb).

STEP 3: Description

The third step is to describe your findings and if you were working with the original fragments, you would also provide a physical description. In this case, if the reconstruction is correct, the larger fragment would have been part of a scroll that was quite large. Based on this height and the number of lines per column, the scroll itself would have been on the large size for scrolls found at Qumran and likely contained the complete book of Leviticus, if not the entire Torah/Pentateuch (see Emanuel Tov, “Scribal Practices and the Physical Aspects of the Dead Sea Scrolls” in The Bible as Book: The Manuscript Tradition [John L. Sharpe and Kimberly Van Kampen, eds.; 1998] 9-33; Buy from Amazon.caBuy from

The nature and type of the leather would also have to be ascertained. While one news report identified the material as “deer hide,” most other authentic scrolls were made from the skins of sheep and goats. While the fragments were not tested, Eshel himself was pretty sure that they were either goat or sheep skin.

An examination of the paleography (the style of writing) is consistent with post-Herodian scripts (end of the first century C.E.), including other scrolls from the Bar Kokhba era, such as the Psalms scroll from the Cave of Letters.

The fragments do not give us much in terms of variant readings. The fragments follow the Masoretic text with one exception: at the end of v. 42 the larger fragment has בסכות instead of בסכת, both “booths” (indicated in red type on the larger reconstruction). This is a minor spelling difference, much like the difference between the Canadian spelling of “honour” and the American “honor.” (The fact that the Samaritan Pentateuch also reads בסכות is inconsenquential as it consistently uses the plene spelling throughout).


Reconstructing scrolls with biblical studies software and imaging programs takes a considerable amount of work. I personally find the work interesting (even fascinating), which explains why I bothered to write up this analysis! What I find amazing is how the first generation of scroll scholars did so much ground-breaking work without this technology!

In regards to the two Leviticus fragments, my hunch is that they are authentic. If not, then my hat goes off to the person or persons who produced such fine forgeries!

Posted in Best of Codex, Dead Sea Scrolls, Hanan Eshel, Leviticus Scroll | 2 Comments »

More on Potties: Qumran, World Toilet Expo, and Princess Diana

16th November 2006

I bet you’re wondering what could Qumran, Expos, and Princess Diana possibly have in common?! Well, a Google search on the “Dead Sea Scrolls” brings up the following:

  • More information available on the latrines found at Khirbet Qumran is provided by James Tabor at his Jesus Dynasty blog — including a number of pictures that show the latrine’s location.
  • Reuters has a new piece on the The World Toilet Expo and Forum just got underway in Bangkok. — gee, and I have to go to Washington for the SBL. Bummer! (haha! so punny)
  • The has a — you guessed it — spoof on the whole Qumran latrine business the connects it with Princess Diana: “Diana Fountain ‘modelled on Dead Sea Scrolls latrine’” — is nothing sacred?! (I mean poking fun at Qumran, not Diana).

Posted in Ancient Potties, Dead Sea Scrolls, Humour, Qumran | 1 Comment »

Going Potty at Qumran: Evidence of Latrines Discovered (GPAT 4)

13th November 2006

A recent news release on Eureka Alert summarizes a forthcoming article in Revue de Qumran on a remote latrine site discovered at Khirbet Qumran.

This is the fifth in a series of posts (some more serious than others) on “Going Potty in the Ancient World.� My other posts include:

All posts in this series may be viewed here.

The international team of scholars, including James Tabor, Joe Zias, and Stephainie Harter-Lailheugue, did a number of soil samples outside of the Qumran settlement and discovered a latrine site.

Here is an excerpt:

Visiting Qumran, Tabor noted an area approximately 500 meters to the northwest of the settlement which seemed likely because it was sheltered from view by a bluff. Tabor also noted that the soil in the area appeared to have a significantly different coloration from other soils in the Qumran environs, a fact which was subsequently confirmed by Zias using high-resolution aerial photographs.

“I started thinking that in the scrolls they have these very explicit descriptions of where the latrines have to be,” Tabor explained. “It has to do with religious ritual purity — the latrines have to be located in a place that the ancient texts designate as ‘outside the camp’. That’s a phrase used in the Torah, where Moses tells the ancient Israelites ‘build your latrines outside the camp.’ When you go to the toilet, take a paddle or a shovel with you and use the toilet and then cover it up,” he said, explaining that the ancient practice appears to have been revived at Qumran.

“This group is very strict and they observe this practice rigorously — in one text it says go 1000 cubits, and in another text, 2000 cubits — and they specifically state ‘northwest’ in the scrolls. Josephus, in talking about the Essenes, mentions it as a point of admiration or piety – he says that these people are so holy, that on the Sabbath day they won’t even use the toilet, because on the Sabbath one can’t go outside the settlement,” he said.

“It turns out, if you go northwest from Qumran you get to this bluff – a large natural plateau separated from further cliffs – and if you go around it, it hides you from the camp. One of the things Josephus says is that they also believe that their latrines should shield them from view of the camp, so I thought ‘this is getting really good, if I can just find some evidence for toilet practices.’”

Tabor suggested investigating the area to Zias, who took four random soil samples at the site as well as six other samples for control — 4 from surrounding desert areas, one from an area that was known to be Qumran’s stable (to test for animal parasites), and one from an area on the opposite side of the city, essentially covering other outside-the-settlement areas that could have been used as latrines.

On the basis of earlier research that has shown that intestinal parasites can be preserved in arid, sub-surface conditions, Zias sent the samples to Harter-Lailheugue at CNRS for analysis. Three of the four samples from the suspected latrine area yielded four species of preserved worm eggs and embryophores that were all identified as human intestinal parasites – Ascaris SP. (human roundworm), Taenia SP. (a human tapeworm), Trichuris SP. (a human whipworm) and a human pinworm, Enterobius vermicularis, that had not previously been reported in the ancient Near East. The soil sample from the stable contained the eggs of Dricrocoelium SP., a common parasites of ungulates. The control samples from the surrounding desert areas contained no parasites, human or animal.

“Frankly, I was surprised,” said Zias. “A parasitologist I talked to told me that my chances of finding something were just about nil. Finding evidence of parasites would be easy in a latrine, but in the middle of the desert… But small things like parasite eggs in feces can hang around for thousands of years. At the Dead Sea, we have hair and hair combs with desiccated lice in them because of the dryness.”

“The evidence shows conclusively that the area was a toilet,” Zias noted. “The samples contained eggs from intestinal worms that are specific to humans. These things had to come from human feces. The presence of eggs in three out of four 100-gram samples indicates heavy and continual use of the specific site suggested by Tabor.”

Since the other sites did not yield human parasites, the team concluded that the latrine site was most likely the area specified in the Scroll passages. Because of the remoteness of the Qumran environs, they concluded that the latrine could only be associated with Qumran, the only settlement in the area.

The scroll texts that provide the directives for going potty at Qumran which the article alludes to are found in the War Scroll and the Temple Scroll. The latter scroll contains the directives to build the latrines “outside the city” חוץ מן העיר (see 11QT 46.13), while the former gives further directions about the latrines and that they should be in discrete and private locations (1QM 7.7; see also 4Q491 frg 1, 3.7) (see also Deut 23:12-13).

This discovery accords well with the reported bathroom habits of the ancient Essenes and may be another piece of evidence supporting the Essene hypothesis, which has come under attack in recent years (see, for instance, my post Khirbet Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls). The discovery of a latrine site also makes sense of the fact that only one toilet was found in the actual Qumran site (see my initial post on the Qumran toilet in GPAT 1).

The rest of the press release goes on to highlight some of the implications about the unsanitary conditions at Qumran on the health of the inhabitants and their apparent short lifespan as illustrated by the remains at the cemetery.

I am looking forward to the full article in Revue de Qumran. In the meantime, take a gander at the news report.

This discovery has also hit the major internet news sources, including the NY Times, MSNBC, the Jerusalem Post,, among others.
(HT Archaeologica News)

Posted in Ancient Potties, Archaeology, Dead Sea Scrolls, Discoveries, Qumran | Comments Off

Large Isaiah Scroll Online

3rd November 2006

This is a very slick online resource: The Dorot Foundation has made available an online version of the large Isaiah Scroll from Qumran (1QIsa-a).

This online image of the scroll is interactive; you can “unroll” the scroll via the slider at the bottom left and zoom in on portions of the scroll using the magnifying glass icon at the bottom right (click for larger image).


The zoom feature doesn’t magnify the image quite enough for serious research, but it is still a very useful online resource.

(HT ANE-2 List)

Posted in Bible, Dead Sea Scrolls, Isaiah, Isaiah Scroll | 2 Comments »

Dead Sea Scrolls Confirm Bible?

26th October 2006

According to Billy Graham, the Dead Sea Scrolls “repeatedly confirm the accuracy of the Bible.” In his Q&A column in the Kansas City Star and elsewhere, Graham gave the latter answer to an inquirer who told about a friend “who says that the Dead Sea Scrolls disprove Christianity.”

While I certainly agree that it is utter nonsense to argue that the scrolls somehow disprove Christianity, I found Graham’s comment on the reliability of the texts of the Hebrew Bible a bit misleading. Here’s an excerpt:

Many contain books of the Old Testament and have repeatedly confirmed the accuracy of the texts of our Bibles. Other scrolls show that many people were eagerly looking for the coming of the Messiah.

While the largest group of biblical manuscripts found at Qumran are proto-Masoretic (i.e., they are of the same tradition as the modern text of Hebrew Bible) and in this sense they underscore the antiquity of our biblical text, the Dead Sea Scrolls also give witness to a significant textual plurality. They also raise many issues about the nature of the biblical “canon” (to use the term anachronistically) before the time of Jesus. That being said, I don’t think this new understanding of the development of the biblical text has many implications to the authority of the biblical text, it does complicate things dramatically.

For more discussion of the text of the Hebrew Bible, see my series of posts on the Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, especially the one on the Dead Sea Scrolls. You may also want to check out my Dead Sea Scrolls Resource pages.

On another related note, there is an article in the Chicago Tribune about Norman Golb‘s theories separating the scrolls from the remains at Khirbet Qumran. The article doesn’t really provide any new evidence; it just refers to an article in the September 2006 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review that I had already blogged on here. See Jim Davila’s comments on this most recent article here.

Posted in Archaeology, Dead Sea Scrolls, Qumran | 8 Comments »

Latest in the Dead Sea Discoveries

13th September 2006

I just had a chance to see the July 2006 volume of Dead Sea Discoveries (Volume 13, Issue 2). There are a number of interesting articles in it, especially the ones on “David’s Compositions” and the Qumran cemetery. The contents are as follows:

  • Halpern-Amaru, Betsy. “A Note on Isaac as First-born in Jubilees and Only Son in 4Q225″ (pp. 127-133).
  • Noam, Vered. “The Origin of the List of David’s Songs in ‘David’s Compositions’” (pp. 134-149).
  • Popovic, Mladen. “Physiognomic Knowledge in Qumran and Babylonia: Form, Interdisciplinarity, and Secrecy” (pp. 150-176).
  • Reymond, Eric D. “The Poetry of 4Q416 2 III 15-19″ (pp. 177-193).
  • Schultz, Brian. “The Qumran Cemetery: 150 Years of Research” (pp. 194-228).
  • Werman, Cana. “Epochs and End-Time: The 490-Year Scheme In Second Temple Literature” (pp. 229-56).

Posted in Dead Sea Scrolls, DSD, Reviews & Notices | Comments Off

Khirbet Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls

15th August 2006

The New York Times has an article (based on a BAR article) that challenges the connection between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Qumran settlement entitled, “Archaeologists Challenge Link Between Dead Sea Scrolls and Ancient Sect.” Chris Weimer has also posted on this news article over at Thoughts on Antiquity, as has Jim Davila at PaleoJudaica; I thought I’d throw in my two cents worth as well.
Here is an excerpt from the article:

But two Israeli archaeologists who have excavated the site on and off for more than 10 years now assert that Qumran had nothing to do with the Essenes or a monastery or the scrolls. It had been a pottery factory.

The archaeologists, Yizhak Magen and Yuval Peleg of the Israel Antiquities Authority, reported in a book and a related magazine article that their extensive excavations turned up pottery kilns, whole vessels, production rejects and thousands of clay fragments. Derelict water reservoirs held thick deposits of fine potters’ clay.

Dr. Magen and Dr. Peleg said that, indeed, the elaborate water system at Qumran appeared to be designed to bring the clay-laced water into the site for the purposes of the pottery industry. No other site in the region has been found to have such a water system.

By the time the Romans destroyed Qumran in A.D. 68 in the Jewish revolt, the archaeologists concluded, the settlement had been a center of the pottery industry for at least a century. Before that, the site apparently was an outpost in a chain of fortresses along the Israelites’ eastern frontier.

While it is difficult to assess the strengths of their arguments based on a newspaper article, I’m not quite sure how finding significant pottery fabricating remains leads to the conclusion that the scrolls are not related to the site as well — especially considering that Magen himself thinks that the pottery associated with the scrolls came from Qumran.

The article’s conclusion is also a bit overstated:

Despite the rising tide of revisionist thinking, other scholars of the Dead Sea scrolls continue to defend the Essene hypothesis, though with some modifications and diminishing conviction.

If you want to read further, you can check out the BAR article here (subscription required to read the full article) or read Magen and Peleg’s more detailed essay in The Site of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Archaeological Interpretations and Debates, edited by Katharina Galor, Jean-baptiste Humbert, and Jürgen Zangenberg (Studies on the Texts of the Desert of Judah 57; Brill, 2006; Buy from | Buy from

For more reseources on the Dead Sea Scrolls, you may want to check out my resource pages.

Posted in Archaeology, Dead Sea Scrolls, News, Qumran | 2 Comments »

The Practice of Textual Criticism (TCHB 8)

30th July 2006

With some of the theory surrounding textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible behind us, with this post I am going to discuss how to actually go about text criticism.

This is the eighth 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.

More specifically, in this post I will discuss how to identify and evaluate variants for the reconstruction of this Ur-edition. In the practice of textual criticism, critics traditionally distinguish between external criticism (i.e., the evaluation of the textual witnesses), and internal criticism (i.e., the transcriptional and intrinsic probability of the readings). For the former, critics need to know the textual witnesses and their history; for the latter, they need to be aware of the kinds of errors scribes made and have sensitivity to the context and inner clarity of the text itself.

The Preliminary Task: Collect the Variants

Before the variants can be evaluated, they need to be collected. They should be first collected from the textual witnesses and then compared with the MT, more specifically with the Leningrad Codex (L) as found in BHS. Even if you do not know Hebrew, you can identify the most significant variants in the text notes to most modern English translations (e.g., NIV, NRSV) and may even be able to detect others in differences between the English versions. For instance, Psalm 19:4 [19:5 in BHS] in the NIV reads “Their voiceb goes out into all the earth.” The superscript “b” leads the reader to the footnote, which reads: “b4″ Septuagint, Jerome and Syriac; Hebrew line.” By this note the translators are informing the reader that the variant reading of the text, “voice,” (which they used in the translation) is found in the Septuagint, Jerome’s Juxta Hebraica, and the Syriac Peshitta; while the MT variant is “line.”

As far as what English translations to use, the best translations, from the standpoint of OT textual criticism are: NRSV, NIV, TEV, NASB, NEB, and NJB. All of these translations carefully considered the available evidence when making their textual decisions (in addition, the NJPS will provide a good translation of the MT). Exegetes should avoid using paraphrases like the Living Bible, as it is primarily based on other English translations, as well as old translations such as the KJV, which is about four centuries out of date when it comes to text critical matters.

Exegetes using BHS (or BHQ) will find significant variants in its apparatus. Unfortunately, the apparatus is not the easiest to decipher. In this regard you may want to get yourself a copy of one of these two guides to BHS:

  • William R. Scott, A Simplified Guide to BHS: Critical Apparatus, Masora, Accents, Unusual Letters & Other Markings (3rd ed.; Bibal Press, 1995). Buy from | Buy from
  • Reinhard Wonneberger, Understanding BHS: A Manual for the Users of Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (2nd. revised ed.; trans. D. R. Daniels; Pontifical Institute, 1990). Buy from | Buy from

Since the apparatus of BHS, however, contains errors of commissions and omissions with respect to the Versions and the DSS, the advanced exegete will appeal to the critical editions of the ancient Versions and to the DSS themselves (see my posts on the Versions and DSS for more information on critical editions).

Another great resource that I will be posting on in the near future is the massive multi-volume Critique textuelle de l’Ancien Testament edited by Dominique Barthélemy. This is a truly massive undertaking that collates, discusses, and evaluates all of the variants in the Hebrew Bible.

External Criticism: The Evaluation of Textual Witnesses

As noted above, external criticism involves an examination of the textual witness themselves. This primarily entails evaluating the variant in relation to the “original edition” of the MT.

1. Evaluate Relationship to “Original Edition”
“True” variants are restricted to those that arose in the transmission of the “original edition” behind the MT. Before selecting any variant for further evaluation, the critic needs first to determine whether or not it is the product of a tendency within one of the primary text types (e.g., MT, LXX, SP, and unaligned). For example, on the one hand, the shorter variants of Jeremiah should be passed over if they belong to the text’s earlier literary development. On the other hand, the longer variants in the Torah of the pre-Samaritan text, such as an interpolation of Deuteronomy into Exodus, should also be passed-by because they represent a later stage of the text than the “original edition.” When the critic has excluded variants that stand apart from that Ur-edition, he or she will then proceed to evaluate the variant by internal criticism. But before turning to internal criticism, we need to rule out the traditional approach to external criticism.

2. Reject Traditional External Criticism
Sometimes text critics evaluate variants on the basis of the textual witness in which it is found. Some critics prefer a variant in the MT over the SP, or a variant in the LXX over the Tgs., because normally the MT and the LXX are superior to the other two. For example, E. Würthwein notes: “The various witnesses to the text should be examined, beginning with MT, and continuing with the rest in roughly the order of their significance for textual criticism, e.g., SP, LXX, Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion, Syriac Peshitta, Aramaic Targums, ….” (The Text of the Old Testament, 112). Then too, some think that a variant in an early text has a prior claim over a variant in a later one, or that a variant in the majority of texts should be preferred.

Such external criteria should be ruled out, however, for four reasons. First, the fact that early corruptions obviously affected all our witnesses, requiring conjectural emendations, shows that one bad “gene” early on could have corrupted numbers of MSS. Second, the Qumran scrolls show an intricate web of relationships, so that one cannot predict a corruption in any given MS. Third, scribes tend to commit the same sort of errors, and therefore the same error could have arisen independently in several sources. Finally, the simple fact is that the Qumran scrolls, though a millennium earlier, do not normally contain better variants than the MT because the scribes in the later tradition tried harder to preserve the original than those at Qumran.

In sum, because we do not know the genetic relationship of any MS to the original edition, in principle a variant in the MT and/or in many witnesses has no prior claim as the better variant; and a variant in an otherwise poor witness, or in only a few, cannot be ruled out.

Internal Criticism: Transcriptional and Intrinsic Probability

Having decided that a variant may stem from the original text, the critic should not evaluate it further on the basis of the textual witness but on its own merits. There are two facets to internal criticism: transcription probability and intrinsic probability.

The task of evaluating a reading on its intrinsic and transcriptional probabilities is both an objective science and a subjective art. The basic rule of thumb is: “that reading is preferable which would have been more likely to give rise to the other”; or, turning that around, “the variant that cannot be explained away is more probably the original.” To explain away a variant, however, demands a firm grasp on the manuscripts, scribal practices, and a lot of exegetical knowledge and of common sense (this is why I believe while many aspire to be textual critics, few can gain enough mastery to actually do it well). Unfortunately, there are no simple rules. Some have likened textual criticism to a dog catching flees. As a dog catches flees not by following rules but by treating each flee individually, so also the text critic must address each variant individually, deftly, and reasonably.

1. Intrinsic Probability
Evaluating a textual variant according to its intrinsic probability involves taking the author’s style and the immediate context into consideration. Inasmuch as the inner clarity of the passage itself is the standard for evaluation, this is a subjective enterprise. It is sometimes difficult to determine what the author’s style or particular vocabulary is, as well as what fits the immediate context best. Nevertheless, while difficult, this is one of the major procedures of OT textual criticism.

2. Transcriptional Probability
Here the text critic needs to keep in mind the kinds of errors scribes committed either unintentionally or intentionally during the transmission of the text.

Unintentional Errors. Within the restraints of this post, I am only able to mention the most common types of unintentional scribal errors.

a. Confusion of similar consonants. Sometimes scribes confuse consonants that are similarly formed, depending on the script, or similarly sounded, such as the gutturals. For example, ד (d) and ר (r) are readily confused both in the Hebrew angular and square script. This is apparently what happened with the name of one of Javan’s sons. Sometimes he is called דדני×? (ddnym), “Dodanim” (Gen 10:4, MT), and other times רדני×? (rdnym), “Rodanim” (1 Chr 1:7, MT; Gen 10:4, SP, LXX). Other consonants that often are confused in the square script are: ב / ×›, ב/ מ, ב / × , ×’ / ו, ×’ / ×™, ×” / ×—, ו / ×–, ו / ר, ×› / × , מ / ס, and ×¢ / צ.

b. Haplography (“writing once”). Due to homoioteleuton, words with similar endings, or, homoiarcton, words with similar beginnings, sometimes a letter or group of letters accidentally drops out of the text. Compare the following readings of Gen 47:16:

  • MT: ו×?תנה לכ×? במקניכ×?
    I will give you for your cattle (cf. KJV)
  • SP, LXX: ו×?תנה לכ×? לח×? במקניכ×?
    I will sell you food… for your livestock (cf. NIV, NRSV)

“Food,” לח×? (lhm), comes after the similarly sounding and appearing “you,” לכ×? (lkm). The scribe likely skipped over “food” when copying the text. Another example comes from Judges 20:13 where the MT refers to the tribe of Benjamin as only בנימן  “Benjamin” instead of the expected בני בנימן  “sons of Benjamin.” The LXX reads “sons of Benjamin” and the Masoretes evidently thought that a scribe must have skipped over בני “sons of”, since they included the vowel pointing for בני even though the consonants are lacking.

c. Dittography (“writing twice”). Sometimes scribes accidentally repeated letters, a word or a phrase. For example, Isa 30:30 in the MT, LXX, Tgs., Syr., and Vulg. all read: הש×?מיע יהוה  “The Lord shall make heard,” while 1QIsa reads: הש×?מיע הש×?מיע יהוה  “The Lord shall make heard, shall make heard.” Apparently the scribe inadvertently repeated הש×?מיע “make heard.”

d. Doublets. This is the conflation of two or more readings, either consciously or unconsciously. For example, the LXX and 1QIsaa of Isa 37:9 conflate the accounts of Hezekiah’s consultation of Isaiah in the MT of Isa 37:9 and 2 Kgs 19:9. Compare the following:

  • MT : ויש×?ב ויש×?לח מל×?×›×™×?
    he again sent messengers (2 Kgs 19:9)
  • MT : ויש×?מע ויש×?לח מל×?×›×™×?
    and when he heard it, he sent messengers (Isa 37:9)
  • LXX, 1QIsa: ויש×?מע ויש×?ב ויש×?לח מל×?×›×™×?
    and when he heard it, he again sent messengers (Isa 37:9)

e. Metathesis. This is the accidental exchange or transposition of two adjacent letters within a word. For instance, Deut 31:1 reads:

  • MT : וילך מש×?×” וידבר ×?ת־הדברי×? ×”×?לה
    And Moses went [vylk] and spoke these words (cf. NIV)
  • 4QDeut, LXX : ויכל מש×?×” וידבר ×?ת־הדברי×? ×”×?לה
    And Moses finished [vykl] speaking these words (cf. NRSV).

The scribe evidently miscopied and reversed the order of ל (l) and כ (k) . The NRSV follows the reading in 4QDeut and the LXX, while the NIV opted for the MT.

f. Different concepts of word and verse divisions. Sometimes scribes, for unknown reasons, divided words and verses differently. For example, a scribe evidently divided the words in Hos 6:5 incorrectly:

  • MT : ומש×?פטיך ×?ור יצ×?
    And your judgments, light goes forth (cf. NASB, KJV).
  • LXX : καὶ τὸ κÏ?ίμα μου ὡς φῶς á¼?ξελεÏ?σεται
    = ומש×?פטי ×›×?ור יצ×?
    And my judgment goes forth as light (cf. NIV, NRSV).

The copyist of the MT evidently attached the ×› (k), of ×›×?ור (k’vr), “as light,” to the preceding word. Compare the following variants in Ps 102:[101 LXX]:24-25a involving different vocalization and misdivision of the verses:

  • MT : עִנָּה בדבך כחו קצר ימי ×?מר ×?לי (The Qere reads ×›×—×™ “my strength”)
    He broke my strength on the way, he cut short my days. 25 I said, “My God….”
  • LXX : ἀπεκÏ?ίθη αá½?Ï„á¿· á¼?ν á½?δῷ ἰσχÏ?ος αá½?τοῦ Τὴν ὀλιγότητα τῶν ἡμεÏ?ῶν μου ἀνάγγειλόν μοι
    = עָנָהוּ בדרך כחו ימי ×?מר ×?לי
    He answered him in the way of his strength: The fewness of my days report to me.

The LXX is different from the MT in reading ×¢× ×” (‘nh), as (Qal) “to answer,” rather than (Piel) “to humble”; taking בדרך כחו (bdrk khv), as a construct; and besides other vocalization changes, it also does not divide the verse in the same place.

Intentional Errors. Sometimes the scribes took liberty to change the text deliberately. Four different types of intentional changes can be noted.

a. Linguistic changes. Scribes often modernized archaic features of a verse, primarily in relation to spelling and grammar. For example, the SP replaces the old infinitive absolute construction of the MT with an imperative or finite verb form. In Num 15:35, the MT reads רָגוֹ×? (ragom), but the SP reads רִגמוּ (rigmu).

b. Contextual changes. Sometimes scribes change the text in order to harmonize certain passages. For instance, in Genesis 2:2, according to the MT, the Tgs., and the Vg, God completed his work on the seventh day, but according to the SP, LXX, and Syr (perhaps independently of each other), he completed it on the sixth day. The scribe(s) evidently changed the text to avoid the possible inference that God worked on the Sabbath.

c. Euphemistic changes. Sometimes scribes changed the text for euphemistic reasons. In Gen 50:23 the SP changes the phrase על־ברכי יוסף (‘l-brky yvsp), “upon the knees of Joseph” into על־נימי יוסף (‘l-bymy yvsp), “in the days of Joseph” because it seemed improper that Joseph’s grandchildren should be born upon his knees. In Deut 25:11 בִּמְבֻש×?ָֽיו (bmbshyv), “his private parts” is changed to בִּבְשָׂרוֹ (bbsrv), “his flesh,” because it seemed too obscene to mention that in a fight a woman would grab a man’s genitals. Similarly, in Deut 28:30 ש×?גל (shgl), “rape, have sex (?)” was deemed way too obscene for public use and so it was changed to ש×?כב (shkb), “sleep,” in both the SP and the MT-Qere. (Perhaps the equivalent of the ancient Hebrew f-word!).

d. Theological changes. We noted above how the Samaritans altered the pre-Samaritan text to defend Mount Gerizim as God’s place of worship. Theological changes also occur in the MT. Compare the following renditions of Prov 14:32:

  • MT: וחסד במותו צדיק
    But a righteous man in his death finds a refuge (cf. NIV).
  • LXX: á½? δὲ πεποιθὼς τῇ ἑαυτοῦ á½?σιότητι δίκαιος
    = וחסד בתומו צידק
    But the righteous man in his integrity finds a refuge (cf. NRSV).

The change from בתומו (btvmv), “integrity” in the LXX to במותו (bmvtv), “death” in the MT could be a case of simple transposition of מ (b) and ת (t). But some scholars think the change in the MT was intentional and reflects an anti-Sadducean point of view. Better known are the changes of early names with the theophoric element בעל (b’l), “Baal,” by the derogatory element בש×?ת (bsht), “shame.” For example, Esh-Baal (“man of Baal”), the name of Saul’s fourth son, in 1 Chr 8:33 is changed to Ish-Bosheth (“man of shame”) in 2 Sam 2:8.

On the whole, however, theological changes are rare in the MT. G. R. Driver notes: “Theological glosses [in our terminology, interpolations] are surprisingly few, and most are enshrined in the tiqqune sopherim [scribal changes], which are corrections of the text aimed chiefly at softening anthropomorphisms and eliminating the attribution of any sort of impropriety to God.”


Sometimes none of the transmitted variants satisfy exegetical expectations. In cases where all witnesses seem “hopelessly corrupt” the text critic may find emendation (a conjectured variant based on the known variants) necessary. Qumran scrolls have now validated this procedure in some cases. F. M. Cross comments: “No headier feeling can be experienced by a humanistic scholar, perhaps, than that which comes when an original reading, won by his brilliant emendation, is subsequently confirmed in a newly-found MS.”

Emendations must satisfy the same criteria by which known variants are evaluated. That is, they must be plausible. There are many emendations proposed where it is very difficult to see how the purported error took place. That being said, there are a number of places where emendation appears to be the best alternative. For example, there seems to have been a confusion of consonants in the angular script in Ezek 3:12.

  • All texts; ברוך כבוד־יהוה ממקומו
    May the glory of YHWH be praised in his dwelling place (cf. NIV).
  • Emendation: ברו×? כבוד־יהוה ממקומו
    As the glory of YHWH arose from its place (cf. NRSV).

The NIV’s “be praised” is based on ברוך (brvk), “be praised,” which is attested in all textual witnesses. The clause, however, is unique, awkward and contextless. Scholars salvage the line by emending ברוך (brvk) to ברו×? (brvm), “when [it] arose.” In the angular script ך (k) and ×? (m) are easily confounded. This emendation nicely satisfies exegetical expectations, Hebrew syntax, and the context of the verse (cf. Ezek 10:4, 15-18).

In sum, McCarter wisely counsels that a text critic should keep the image of a scribe clearly in mind, look first for conscious errors, know the personalities of your witnesses, treat each case as if it were unique, and beware of prejudices

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