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


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Previously we looked at some of the main textual traditions for the Old Testament: The Masoretic Text (MT), composed in the middle ages and exemplified by Codex Leningradensis and the Aleppo Codex; the Septuagint (LXX) text, which is the Greek translation(s) of the Old Testament books (defined loosely); and the Samaritan Pentateuch (SP), the textual tradition of the Samaritans containing the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. The manuscripts of the Dead Sea Scroll (DSS) found at Qumran, although not actually a textual tradition, give us a glimpse into relatively early forms of the text, with individual scrolls witnessing to each of the main textual traditions and possibly others that are no longer  extant.  This week, we will look at a handful of examples of how the manuscript evidence points to a much more complicated situation when it comes to the idea of an autographic, or original, text.

First, though, a brief reminder that the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy says about the transmission of the biblical texts.

Since God has nowhere promised an inerrant transmission of Scripture, it is necessary to affirm that only the autographic text of the original documents was inspired and to maintain the need of textual criticism as a means of detecting any slips that may have crept into the text in the course of its transmission. The verdict of this science, however, is that the Hebrew and Greek text appear to be amazingly well preserved, so that we are amply justified in affirming, with the Westminster Confession, a singular providence of God in this matter and in declaring that the authority of Scripture is in no way jeopardized by the fact that the copies we possess are not entirely error-free.

We will save a more detailed analysis of this particular paragraph for later. For now, what’s important to note is how favorably the CSBI understands the “science” of text criticism. It is, in fact, necessary for their project, since they acknowledge the obvious fact that there are variants in the manuscripts.

The question for our purposes is, what do these variants tell us?  How well do these manuscripts agree and how do they reflect on our understanding of a purported original? In this post, we will look at four different examples: Judges 6, which shows evidence of late textual additions, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, both of which show evidence of multiple editions, and finally, a comparison between Stephen’s martyrdom speech in Acts 7:4 with the texts of Genesis 11 and 12.

Judges 6.

Going back at least as far as Wellhausen (Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel, 234), verses 7-10 have been thought to be a late addition, with the original going directly from verses 2-6 to 11-13. The ostensibly added verses here serve as an apologetic for why the Medianites were able to oppress the Israelites. The suspicion that these verses were late additions was confirmed with the discovery of the manuscript 4QJudgesa (4Q49). While fragmentary, this document does not have space to have contained the verses in question.  Line 5 has the end of verse 6 and line 6 of the manuscript contains the last view words of the first half of verse 11 (אשר ליואש האביעזרי), so it is clear that there isn’t space for the additional verses found in the MT.  This evidence not only tells us that the text we have in the MT has changed, but that it was changed relatively late in the transmission process.


The MT of Jeremiah is roughly 1/6 longer than the LXX. But not only is the LXX shorter, leaving out passages in places, it also presents the narrative of the book in a different order. For instance the MT Jeremiah 25:15 – 26:24 show up in chapters 32 and 33 in the LXX whereas chapter 46 shows up in the Chapter 26 in the LXX. Passages that are missing in the LXX include verses 39:4-13, 48:45-47 and 49:7-22, just to name a few. The generally accepted conclusion based on text critical criteria (remember, text criticism is understood as necessary and good by the CSBI) is that the numerous additions and alterations in the MT compared to the LXX point to the book of Jeremiah circulating in multiple editions from a very early time, with the Greek being based off a now lost Hebrew edition (or vorlage). Esteemed DSS scholar Eugene Ulrich (c.f. “The Evolutionary Composition of the Hebrew Bible” in Editing the Bible, eds. John S. Kloppenborg, Judith H. Newman, 36) believes that the fragment(s) 4QJerb shows strong evidence of this Hebrew vorlage. However, Karen Jobes (Introduction to the Septuagint, 173-77) points out the tentativeness of this conclusion, given the fact that this fragment contains only around 300 Hebrew letters and that the eminent DSS scholar Emanual Tov concludes that these fragments didn’t even come from the same scroll. So we are left without any direct evidence for the Hebrew vorlage of the Greek version of Jeremiah, but nonetheless, clear evidence that there were at least two distinct editions.

It is possible that the book of Jeremiah itself evidences an early tradition acknowledging multiple editions. In Jeremiah 36 (MT, LXX 43) Baruch is told to write all the words of Jeremiah on a scroll.  This scroll is eventually read to king Jehoiakim, who cuts it up and burns it. Afterwards, Baruch is told to rewrite the scroll and does so (36:32), adding many words to the text (וְע֨וֹד נוֹסַ֧ף עֲלֵיהֶ֛ם דְּבָרִ֥ים רַבִּ֖ים כָּהֵֽמָּה), demonstrating that the new scroll was an expansion of the original. Of course, in Jeremiah 36, the original scroll was burned up. But it may be possible by implication that it had been secretly copied by Elishama the scribe when it was in his possession (36:20) prior to it being read to the king and subsequently destroyed.  Either way, we are left with possible evidence supporting multiple text forms, which does not fit neatly into the category of a single original.


The book of Ezekiel also shows evidence of having circulated in multiple editions. Our earliest, nearly complete manuscript of Ezekiel is papyrus 967, which dates back possibly as far as the second century AD. This predates our Hebrew editions by around 700-800 years.  While there are fewer discrepancies between the Greek and the Hebrew editions than we find in Jeremiah, the ones that are there are very instructive. In P967, the end of chapter 36 (17b-35) is missing (this is an Eden text in the MT). In addition, chapter 37 has been moved to after chapters 38 and 39 relative to the MT. Chapter 37 is the famous dry bones chapter and chapters 38 and 39 contain the narrative about Gog and Magog. The belief is that by moving chapter 37 before chapters 38 and 39, as we have in the MT, the revivifying of the bones signifies an historical horizon for the restoration of Israel, one in which they are currently in the land, albeit oppressed on all sides and looking for a Davidic ruler to rise up militarily, whereas the Greek text of P967, with the dry bones coming after Gog-Magog, posits an eschatological horizon, without the need for the Davidic ruler to be a military champion (c.f. Ashley S. Crane, Israel’s Restoration, 250-257). The meaning, then, changes rather dramatically depending on which version you read.

It’s not, however, entirely clear anymore whether the version in P967 is actually earlier than the edition represented in the MT. For years, scholars have treated the Greek P967 as the primary text of Ezekiel, representing the earliest version of the book. But with the publishing of the Masada Ezekiel fragments, which as we saw above, date to no later than 70AD and are probably at least several decades older, the conclusion that P967 represents an older form of the text is no longer beyond question. This is because the Masada Ezekiel fragments contain chapters 36-39 in the MT order. Since we clearly have an older manuscript that supports the MT, it makes it difficult to conclude with any level of certainty that P967 represents an older text form of Ezekiel. Not that it’s impossible; it’s just much more difficult to assert.

These differences, do however, support the conclusion that two distinct editions of Ezekiel circulated from an early date, both of which likely preceded the Christian era. (See Ingrid A. Lilly’s published dissertation, The Two Books of Ezekiel, for a well argued and detailed look at the broader reasons for considering P967 and the MT as representing two distinct editions.)

Acts 7:4 and Genesis 11:26 – 12:4:

In Stephen’s martyrdom speech in Acts 7:4, he says “So Abraham left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. After Abraham’s father died, God had him resettle in this land where you now live” (CEB, emphasis added). Why is this interesting in terms of the Hebrew Scriptures? Well, it turns out that a minor discrepancy with Gen 11 and 12 points to the idea that Stephen used a different version of the Genesis account than what modern Christians consider canonical. In Genesis 11:26, we read that Terah was 70 years old when Abraham was born. And in 11:32, we read that Terah died when when he was 205 years old. Now note that Stephen says that after Abraham’s father died, he left Haran to settle in Canaan. So that would mean that Abraham was at least 130 years old when he left Haran (205 – 75). However, Genesis 12:4 says that Abraham was 75 when he left Haran. So how do we reconcile these two different chronologies?

The short answer is, we don’t! At least not in the traditional sense. This is a definitely a case where it doesn’t seem to make a difference to the meaning of the narrative. After all, Stephen was in the process of being martyred for his faith, so we might not expect him to have gotten every detail right in the heat of the moment. Some, then, say that Luke inerrantly recorded Stephen’s errant speech.  However, there’s a much more reasonable explanation, although one with significant theological ramifications. It turns out the Samaritan Pentateuch matches Stephen’s narrative. The SP records Tarah’s age as 145 in verse 11:32 instead of 205, as in the MT. This matches up perfectly with Stephen’s narrative (70+75). But it causes problems for the doctrine of inerrancy since it implies that Stephen accepted the SP, a textual tradition that is not considered canonical by Christians. Yet if it was apparently considered sacred scripture to Stephen (and presumably Luke didn’t see it as a problem, either), how can adherents of inerrancy logically reject it? What if it turns out that the SP is actually a better exemplar of the supposed original?


This post has already gone on quite long enough. We have seen that the idea of an original, or autographic, text is difficult if not impossible to sustain in light of the evidence. In fact, using the very techniques of textual criticism that the CSBI relies upon, we find the idea of an original likely cannot mean what the authors of the CSBI need it to mean. As Eugene Ulrich notes, “everything we know about the biblical text prior to the end of the first century C.E. … indicates that the text was pluriform” (The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Origin of the Bible, 9). He goes on to point out that

The principal evidence we have for confirming that the texts of the books as found in the medieval manuscripts of the Masoretic Bible are closely faithful to the ancient texts is the evidence from Qumran. And that evidence from Qumran, when seen in perspective, demonstrates that there were multiple editions of the biblical books in antiquity” (11).

What gets even more intriguing is that with the book of Jeremiah, we may have support within the canon itself for textual diversity. If this is the case, then I do not see how the kind of verbal, plenary inspiration based on a putative original in the CSBI could be maintained, since the textual traditions themselves would not support it.

We have seen from our examples four things. One, that texts assumed to be canonical have clearly been changed and updated, throwing the idea of an original into confusion since texts considered canonical end up having been updated from earlier versions. Two, that translations were considered inspired by the NT authors, as opposed to how the CSBI understands inspiration. Three, that in some cases the editions that the NT authors apparently considered inspired would be rejected by the authors of the CSBI. And four, that several of the Old Testament books circulated in multiple forms and that this plurality of texts was not considered a problem. In fact, we have almost the opposite situation where Jeremiah may provide validation for differing textual versions. So, the foundation for our understanding of what the Bible is and its authority cannot rest on the concept of a single, inerrant original when the phenomena of the Bible strongly mitigates against it. Not only that, but if the very books that must be inerrant do not support the foundational assumptions of inerrancy, then inerrancy in this form is incoherent.

If this is the case, how does it affect your faith?  Is there a way for the Christian to understand their faith apart from an inerrant Bible?

Next week we will look at the idea that scripture never contradicts itself, which is a logical consequence of the CSBI, but actually ends up constraining the diverse voices within the canon.

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