What is an original when it comes to the Bible, Part Deux

Aleppo Codex
Aleppo Codex – Courtesy WikiCommons

Last week, we briefly looked at some of the textual difficulties with the Book of Acts and the fact that the early church essentially considered two distinct versions as canonical.  If this was case, how does one decide which recension is the actual inerrant version? This question is frequently answered by saying something to the effect that the differences don’t make any real difference in the meaning. That may or may not be the case and unfortunately, we’ll have to hold off dealing with that until later. Suffice it for now to point out that if it is “the very words,” as stated in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, that are inspired, then the differences do matter. But again, we must hold off dealing with that for a bit.  This week and next we will turn our attention to the Hebrew Scriptures and the difficulties they display in determining an original. Today we will begin by focusing on a brief overview of the earliest groups of textual witnesses.

Methodologically, the problem of determining an original text of the Hebrew Scriptures is distinctly different from that of the New Testament. With the NT, we have many manuscripts (relatively speaking) and fragments of manuscripts written in Greek, sometimes going as far back as the second century. We also have citations from many early Christians to compare to.  With the Hebrew Scriptures, however, outside the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS), we have almost nothing older than the 10th century AD (almost 1000 years after Christ!) written in Hebrew.  Two of the oldest relatively complete Hebrew manuscripts we have are Codex Leningradensis and the Aleppo Codex. Both of these come out of what is called the Masoretic tradition, which is the scribal tradition that added vowel points to help with vocalization. (And for whom I and seminary students everywhere are eternally grateful, since without them, learning Hebrew would be extraordinarily more difficult!) These medieval texts are collectively referred to as the Masoretic Text (MT), which is the basis for virtually every English language translation.

Now, we do have manuscripts from much earlier written in Greek, such as those that are part the great uncials, Vaticanus (B) and Sinainiticus (א), dating back to the third or fourth centuries after Christ. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures is usually referred to as the Septuagint (LXX), although technically, the LXX is only the translation of the Pentateuch. However, these are translations, which according to the CSBI, are ruled out, a priori, from being inspired even though they appeared to be treated that way by the NT writers. In fact, it brings up an interesting question in that, how can translations not be inspired when the inspired NT writers relied upon them? A sticky issue for sure! For our purposes, though, what is interesting is that they show clear evidence that the texts have indeed changed, often in small ways, but not always. In fact, there are times where these changes are indicative of distinct versions. And sometimes the small changes end up having profound ramifications. More on that next week.

A final witness to the Hebrew Scriptures is what is known as the Samaritan Pentateuch (SP). While the textual tradition is not so well known, many may be familiar with the Samaritans from the references in the Gospels such as the famous parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30) or story of the Samaritan Woman (John 4:4).  They were (and still are) a branch of ancient Israelite religion. The most well known divergence between the them and the Jews regards the location of the Temple, which the Samaritans believe God ordained to be on Mount Gerizim (Dt 11:29) as read in their textual tradition. The SP is written in a descendant of paleo-Hebrew script instead of the square script of the MT and is vocalized quite differently than is the Hebrew of the Masoretic tradition as well (although vowel points were not added to the SP tradition). Neither Christians nor Jews have recognized the SP as canonical.

Up until the middle of the last century, the LXX manuscripts were our oldest witnesses to the Old Testament. However, the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran in the 1940s and 50s gave us access to much older witnesses to the Hebrew Scriptures than we’d previously had and many of these were not translations, but written in Hebrew. The discovery literally revolutionized our understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures. Additionally, there was a treasure trove of sectarian writings in Aramaic and a few Greek Old Testament manuscripts giving us insights into the theology and culture of the Qumran community. After the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls a more methodical search of caves and excavations was commenced. Excavations at Masada, although much less well known, subsequently uncovered more scrolls (or at least scroll fragments) that can be dated to no later than the fall of Masada in 70AD.

That’s a summary of the main witnesses to what Christians call the Old Testament. Our next post will look at how the text critical issues presented by such diverse witnesses affect how we understand the complications of determining an purported original text.

What are your thoughts about the different manuscript traditions? How does the wide variety of textual witnesses affect your understanding of what Scripture is?

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