Old Testament Textual Criticism

Contents: Introduction * The Materials of Old Testament Criticism * The Methods of Old Testament Criticism * Appendix: Textual Criticism of LXX


Trying to divide textual criticism into separate subdisciplines is not really a useful business (since all forms of TC have large areas in common), but if categories must be devised, the obvious categories would be New Testament criticism, Classical Textual criticism, and Old Testament criticism. And the division is justified, because the differences between the fields are significant. For reasons of space (plus the author's ignorance, plus the fact that criticism of the Hebrew Bible is an incredible mess with no signs of breakthrough), we can only touch briefly on OT criticism here.

In terms of materials, Old Testament criticism resembles New Testament criticism in about the eighteenth century: There are many manuscripts, but all of the same Majority recension, and there are a few versions, some of which differ significantly from the Hebrew, plus a handful of fragments of older materials. Since the manuscripts of the Majority recension appear not to preserve the original Hebrew and Aramaic with complete accuracy, there is an obvious need for textual criticism. This forces us to use rather different methods than we currently use in the New Testament.

To begin with, let us review the materials.

The Materials of Old Testament Criticism

The first and most important source is, of course, the Hebrew manuscripts. With a very few exceptions (which we shall treat separately), these were copied in the Middle Ages by scribes known as the Massoretes (hence the name Massoretic Text, frequently abbreviated MT or even M). The Massoretes were trained with exquisite care to preserve the text in all its details (down to such seeming minutae as the size of certain letters in the text and their position above or below the line). They also followed very exacting techniques of checking their manuscripts. The result is a text which shows almost no deviation, and manuscripts which reproduce it with incredible precision. Had such techniques been in use from the very beginning, textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible would be a trivial task.

The Massoretic Text contains a handful of carefully preserved variant readings, the Ketib and Qere. The Ketib ("written") are the readings of the text; the Qere are marginal readings which the reader is instructed to substitute for the text. Such noted variants are, however, relatively rare, and many of the Qere readings correct places where the text is so bad that it could hardly stand in any case. Thus the Ketib/Qere variants add very little to our knowledge of the ancient text, and the accidental variants of Massoretic copyists add even less. The latter should generally be treated not as authoritative variants but as conjectural emendations; they have no genetic significance.

Our earliest substantial MT manuscripts date from about the tenth century. Prior to this, we have only a handful of Hebrew manuscripts. The best-known of these are the Qumran manuscripts (the "Dead Sea Scrolls"), though there are others such as the relics from the Cairo Genizah. With only a handful of exceptions, such as the Qumran Isaiah scroll, these manuscripts are damaged and difficult to read, and the portions of the OT they contain are limited. In addition, many have texts very similar to the MT -- but a handful do not. Perhaps the most important of all are the Qumran scrolls of Samuel, 4QSama and 4QSamb, as they represent a tradition clearly independent from the MT, and apparently better (as the manuscripts lack many of the defects which afflict MT Samuel).

Also in Hebrew, but with differences in dialect, is the Samaritan Pentateuch. The production of a sect considered schismatic by the Jews, the text (which survives mostly in recent manuscripts, and in rather smaller numbers than Hebrew bibles, as the Samaritan sect is nearly extinct) shows definite signs of editing -- but also seems to be based on a Hebrew text which predates the Massoretic recension. This makes it potentially valuable for criticism of the Pentateuch (the Samaritans did not revere the other portions of the Hebrew Bible) -- as long as we remain aware that it has been edited to conform to Samaritan biases. (We should also allow the possibility that the MT has been edited to conform to Jewish biases.)

There are many ancient versions of the Old Testament. These fall largely into two categories: Those translated directly from the Hebrew, and those translated from Greek version. (There are, of course, versions which come from neither the Hebrew nor the Greek; examples include the various Western European versions translated from the Vulgate. These are, however, of almost no interest in textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible. If they have any significance at all, it is for Vulgate criticism.)

Setting aside the Greek version and its descendents for the moment, the most important versions descended from the Hebrew are the Latin and the Syriac/Aramaic. As in the New Testament, the Latin actually went through two stages: An Old Latin phase (these versions being translated from the Greek) and the Vulgate Revision. The Vulgate was translated by Jerome in the fourth century (just as is true of the New Testament vulgate) -- generally from the Hebrew, and with less attention to previous versions than Jerome showed in the gospels. The result is a text generally quite close to the Hebrew. It appears, however, that the MT was well evolved by this time; Jerome's translation rarely departs from the MT, and the differences we do see may be the result of attempts to clarify obscurities or simply alternate interpretations.

The Aramaic Targums also are translations from the Hebrew, and are generally believed to be older than the Vulgate. Ther are also the work of Jewish scholars. This does not, however, make them more valuable than the Vulgate. The Vulgate was translated by one man, Jerome; the Targums are multiple (e.g. the "Targum of Jonathan" and the "Targum of Onkelos"), making it harder to control for the translator's idiosyncracies. The most noteworthy characteristic of the Targums, however, is their freedom. Often they do not even qualify as translations. They paraphrase, they expand, they even include commentary. Thus it is better to treat the Targums as commentaries by Jewish Fathers than as actual translations.

The Syriac Peshitta is the final major version to derive from the Hebrew. Its history and origin is disputed, but it is clear that several hands were involved, and there are also indications of revisions from the Greek. This mixed text makes the use of the Peshitta somewhat problematic.

Which brings us to the earliest and greatest of the versions, the Greek. It should be noted that there is very little scholarly consensus on what follows; if there is any fact universally accepted about the Greek version (other than the bare fact of the existence of Greek translations), I don't know what it is. What follows is the most cautious of outlines, with conclusions postponed as best I can.

The Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible is often called the Septuagint, or LXX. This name derives from the so-called "Letter of Aristeas," which gives an official pedigree to the LXX. According to Aristeas, the LXX was prepared at the instigation of Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt (reigned 285-246 B.C.E.), who wanted a version of the Jewish scriptures for the Alexandrian library. Seventy (in some versions, seventy-two) scholars were commissioned to translate the Pentateuch, hence the name LXX.

The story of Aristeas is, obviously, legend (though not the most extreme legend; Philo had it that the translators all translated separately, then compared their work and found the separate translations identical!); while Ptolemy II probably would have liked a copy of the Jewish scriptures in the Alexandrian library, there is little chance he would have supplied the funds needed for the translation project described by Aristeas. If there is any truth in Aristeas, it is only this: That the Pentateuch was translated in Egypt, probably during early Ptolemaic times.

It is noteworthy that the LXX of the Pentateuch is a careful, skilled translation. It also conforms relatively closely to the Hebrew as we have it (there are exceptions, e.g. in the ages of the Patriarchs and in the order of a few chapters, but these are quite slight compared to what we see in the rest of the Old Testament). Thus it is possible that it was an official project of some kind. Still, it cannot be considered an official Jewish product, as the primary language of the translators appears to have been Greek.

And as we move away from the Pentateuch, the situation becomes much more complex. The LXX version of the Pentateuch seems to have been generally acceptable. The same cannot be said for the remaining books.

The term "LXX" is rather misleading, as it strongly implies that there was only one translation. This is simply not the case. The Greek Old Testament clearly circulated in multiple editions. It is not clear whether these were actually different translations (as a handful of scholars hold) or whether the text simply underwent a series of revisions. But that the "final" LXX text differed recensionally from the earliest is absolutely certain. This is perhaps most obvious in the Book of Judges, where Rahlfs (even though he is really citing only two manuscripts, the Alexandrinus/A and the Vaticanus/B) was forced to print two different texts. Few other books show such extreme variation (except in Daniel, where the version of Theodotian has replaced the original text of LXX), but all show signs of editorial work.

What's more, the direction of the recension is clear: The translation was made to conform more and more closely with the late Hebrew text. Secondarily, it was made to be smoother, more Greek, and possibly more Christian and theologically exact. (This process very likely was similar to that which produced the monolith of the Byzantine text of the New Testament.)

We cannot detain ourselves here with the various recensions of the LXX. A statement by Jerome has led many scholars to believe that there were recensions by Hesychius (associated with Egypt) and Lucian (associated with Constantinople). These recensions cannot, however, be identified. (There are manuscripts which contain the "Lucianic" text -- but there is good evidence that this type of text, or at least the majority of its characteristic readings, predate Lucian.) In Christian times, there was the "Hexaplar" recension of Origen, who placed in six columns the Hebrew text, a Greek transliteration, and the translations of Aquila (a woodenly literal Jewish translation said by Epiphanius to have dated from the second century though there are hints that portions of it are older; the translation of Ecclesiasticus, for instance, is Aquila-like), Symmachus (a late translator who provided a clear rendering), LXX, and Theodotian (also thought to be older than its historical second century date; it seems a revision of LXX which is freer in style but closer to the MT in text). Origin is known to have revised his LXX text to more nearly match the MT (while incorporating critical symbols to show what he had done), but later copyists simply took the text without copying the symbols. This seems to have been the last great revision of the Septuagint.

The question then arises, why did the LXX undergo such extreme revision? Why did later scholars see the need to revise, and even offer different translations? Why was this version different from all the other versions?

The answer: While there may have been many reasons, such as an uneven Greek style, or perhaps multiple translations of certain books which had to be reconciled, there seems to be only one basic one: Unlike the other versions, the early LXX does not agree entirely with the MT.

The nature of the difference between LXX and MT varies from book to book. In Isaiah, it may simply be the incompetence of the original translator. In Job and Jeremiah, however, the LXX is shorter than the MT by more than 10%. And while it is possible that LXX Job was reduced because of the damage to the Hebrew text, this cannot account for Jeremiah -- nor for the smaller reductions found in LXX Ezekiel and many of the minor prophets. In Samuel, on the other hand, the earliest LXX text is slighly longer (except that it omits a large portion of the story of David and Goliath; for a discussion of the folklore aspects, of this point, see the article on Oral Transmission), and in Kings we find many rearrangements of material. Lesser differences occur everywhere.

It is now fairly common to refer to an "Old Greek" edition of the LXX -- believed to be the earliest, and certainly the one made from the most divergent text. Although it is by no means universally true, the Old Greek is often represented by Codex Vaticanus (B). This early translation went through several later recensions ("kaige," "proto-Lucian," etc.), the nature of which is by no means agreed (frankly, the state of LXX studies is almost disgraceful; surely we could reach an agreement on something by now), but these, while interesting for LXX studies, are of little direct importance to OT criticism. The basic question is, How do we deal with the divergences between the MT and the Old Greek?

The Methods of Old Testament Criticism

At this point we need to step back a little and examine the situation at a higher level of abstraction. What are the basic materials for criticism of the Hebrew Bible? Throwing out all revisions and minor translations, we come down to three things:

  1. A "Majority Text" -- the Hebrew tradition of the MT, found primarily in late manuscripts but universal in those late manuscripts.
  2. The Old Greek -- a version, but made at a relatively early date, from materials clearly distinct from the MT, and surviving in manuscripts earlier than the oldest copies of the MT
  3. A handful of Hebrew fragments (e.g. the Dead Sea Scrolls), some of which agree with MT, some with the Old Greek, and some with neither.

Since in most places we are confronted with only two independent witnesses (MT and Old Greek), scholars have to decide what to do with them. Generally speaking, they choose one of two courses -- both of which, unfortunately, are logically flawed.

One course is to treat the MT as the basic text, preferring it at all points where it can be construed. The LXX is used only where the MT is corrupt. The logical fallacy with this is that makes no sense. If the LXX has value at all, it has value everywhere. If it is too faulty to consult for the ordinary run of the text, there is no reason to consult it where the MT is corrupt. We should simply resort to conjectural emendation. Housman, in his "Preface to Manilius" (I, p. 36) had this to say about this sort of reliance upon a single source (in this case, a single manuscript, but the principle applies well to OT criticism): "To believe that wherever a best MS gives possible readings it gives true readings, and only where it gives impossible readings does it give false readings, is to believe that an incompetent editor is the darling of Providence, which has given its angels charge over him."

The other course is to treat the MT and LXX exactly equally, as different witnesses to the original text. This, unfortunately, has the defect that it treats a version as a text in the original language. This can hardly be allowed; one must know the method and style of the translation.

The correct answer doubtless lies somewhere in between. The LXX must be consulted. From the standpoint of readings, it is as good and valuable as the MT (in some cases, such as Samuel, it is more valuable). But the form of the translation must be examined (e.g. an reading which would be accepted based on the Greek of the Pentateuch, which is carefully translated, might not be accepted for Isaiah, which is badly translated). Great care must be taken to be sure we know the Hebrew behind the LXX, and only then to compare it to the MT. The rules of NT criticism will generally apply at this point, but care must be taken to understand the peculiar circumstances of each section, each book, and even each part of a book (as some books seem to have been translated by more than one person). For details and examples, one must refer to specialized studies.

But let me give an analogy. I once had an argument with an Israeli who was convinced of the exact and literal truth of the MT Hebrew, who could not believe that the Greek could ever correct the Hebrew. I would agree with this if we had the original Hebrew -- but we clearly don't; the damage to Samuel and Job shows that there has not been some sort of providential preservation.

The analogy I would make is to an outdoor landscape. Suppose you had two people make images of it. One paints a painting, in colour; the other takes a black and white photograph. (Perhaps this was in the nineteenth century.) The painting preserves colours, but will probably oversimplify and make errors in detail. The photograph will be entirely accurate to the limits of its resolution, but won't show colour.

So suppose you wwant a fully detailed, colour image of the scene. How can you possibly get one? Answer: You must use both the painting and the photograph. The photograph preserves the exact details, but the painting supplies the colours.

Similarly, to get as close as possible to the original Hebrew, one must combine the extant Hebrew and the Greek. The Hebrew, in terms of the details of language, is of course closest to the original Hebrew -- it preserves nearly all the colour. But sometimes it is defective. At these times, we must take at least some details from the Greek. It lacks the colour, but it has the details. (Sometimes. At other times, of course, the Hebrew will preserve the colour and details.) Keeping this balance in mind almost certainly gives us the best chance to get back to the original Hebrew.

Appendix: Textual Criticism of LXX

Several times in the section above, I make disparaging reference to the textual criticism of LXX. This is a clear and necessary task, and it's being conducted very slowly.

Even the underlying assumptions are not entirely agreed. For example, most scholars believe that there was an "Old Greek" text of LXX, the true LXX translation and the one most divergent from the Hebrew. But not all! Paul Kahle argued that there were several independent translations.

Ironically, although most scholars disagree with Kahle, they spend a lot of time talking about his positions. There is no need for this. Whether Kahle is right or wrong, those alternate translations are mostly close to the Hebrew of the MT. From the standpoint of textual criticism, they don't matter. What matters is that one translation (which for purposes of convenience we can call LXX) which isn't translated from a text effectively identical to the MT.

Again, much attention has been given to a comment of Jerome's that there were recensions associated with Hesychius, Lucian, and Origen. This may be true, it may not. But there is no great value in naming text-types; what matters is finding them. Some editors have sought to do this. No one has really integrated the results.

There is also the complication that LXX, unlike most classical literature, is a translation. This poses an interesting dilemma for "users": should a Greek reader want a text of the Old Greek, or of the accepted text of the Orthodox church, or a text that is a good translation of the Hebrew? This admits of no answer -- but to one who wishes to reconstruct the original text, it doesn't matter. What matters is getting at a source of Hebrew variants. That's the Old Greek, plus just possibly the "Luxianic" recension of boe2e2.

We continue to see volumes of the Göttingen LXX. These give the raw material for a good textual history. But stopping with their texts, or Rahlfs, is not sufficient. LXX studies are in a state about equivalent to NT studies at the time of Tregelles: A lot of material, and no real organization of the texts or theory on how to use them.