Sensing vulnerability, critics of the Bible continue to pound away at the anvil of skepticism. They deny the possibility of any knowledge of the original text of the Bible. They remind us that some literature (especially the Prophets) originated orally, and allege we cannot know how accurately it was written. We cannot know whether or not the Bible substantially changed over the course of its transmission through time. We cannot know whether some inspired books were lost (the Bible makes numerous references to books we no longer possess). Therefore, we cannot know what to believe. How do people of faith respond to such assertions?
Can we know with any degree of confidence that we have the Bible? Can we use the evidence available to reconstruct the text of the Old Testament? These simple questions involve complex answers. In this article we shall attempt to emphasize the challenges inherent in establishing the text of the Old Testament. We shall also argue that, despite these challenges, we can, indeed, have confidence in how we got the Old Testament.
The Manuscripts of the Old TestamentThe two great codices of the Hebrew Bible are the Aleppo Codex (10thcentury A.D.) and the Leningrad Codex (11th century A.D.). These both represent the Masoretic text type, and are excellent copies. The Masoretes were Jewish scholars and textual critics who sought to preserve the traditional pronunciation of the Hebrew text. This led them to develop a system of vowel “points” to assist in pronunciation. The value of their work is that they did not wish to change the consonantal writing of the text (Hebrew, even today, is not traditionally written with vowels). The system of ketiv (pronounced, k-TEEV) and qere (pronounced k-RAY), the former meaning “what is written” and the latter “what is read,” explains that the Masoretes recognized there were transcriptional errors in the Bible, but these were not to be read since most make no sense at all in Hebrew. The fact that the Masoretes were willing to preserve the text, even when they knew it contained copying mistakes, tells us how seriously they took their work. They viewed themselves as mere transmitters, like modern copy machines. They transmitted exactly what they received.
Although the Masoretes worked in the Middle Ages, most scholars believe the basic text with which the Masoretes worked had become standard by the first century A.D. In fact, of the biblical manuscripts discovered in the area of the Dead Sea (excluding the site of Qumran), all of them match the later Masoretic text. This should give us a great deal of confidence in the text of the Old Testament. At Qumran, the so-called “proto-Masoretic” text type is the most prominent, although a greater variation can be observed here than at other Judean desert sites. This points to the careful copying of the Hebrew Bible.
All English translations today are essentially reflections of the Masoretic Hebrew text, and, if the Dead Sea Scrolls are consulted at all, they are usually accounted for in the footnotes (see especially the RSV and ESV). This is due to the fragmentary nature of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the uncertainty of using the ancient translations (such as the Septuagint) as a means to reconstruct what the Hebrew might have said. While we would love to discover the original autograph of any biblical book, the closeness of most of our earliest biblical manuscripts to those of Medieval times furnishes us a reason to have confidence in the accuracy of the transmission of our Old Testament.
The Aleppo CodexThe Aleppo Codex has a fascinating history. It was carefully copied sometime in the early 10th century A.D., and contains what was then the recent refinement of Masoretic vowel points by Aaron ben Moses ben Asher (10th century A.D.), whom the Jews regard as the greatest of Masoretic grammarians. A book of great value, it was housed in Jerusalem during the First Crusade (A.D. 1096-1099) before it was taken by the Crusaders and held for ransom. Finally released undamaged, the Codex came to rest in Egypt for the next 200 years. After this it was apparently taken to Aleppo, Syria, where it was carefully guarded for the next 600 years. Even the great textual critic Paul Kahle, former editor of the standard academic edition, Biblia Hebraica, was denied access to the Codex.
After the United Nations resolved to form the modern State of Israel in 1947, anti-Jewish riots broke out in Syria, leading the Arab population of Aleppo to burn the Great Synagogue where the Codex was housed. After this point, the story becomes nebulous. What we know for certain is that the Codex was complete or nearly complete before the riot, and today, 196 of the original 491 pages are missing. Some allege that fire destroyed these pages, but those who have closely examined the Codex find little evidence of fire damage. Others allege that pages were intentionally torn from the Codex, perhaps in an effort to save as much as possible in the midst of a precarious situation. 118 of the 196 missing pages are from the Pentateuch (the oldest and holiest part of Scripture for the Jews), and a few individual leaves have emerged through the decades. This evidence suggests that concerned Jews did in fact tear pages from the Codex likely in an effort to save them. But whether these rescued pages will ever come to light is impossible to say.
The significance of the Aleppo Codex lies in its largely complete nature for many biblical books. 295 pages survive. Only 12 books are missing completely (Genesis–Numbers, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, Obadiah, Jonah and Haggai), although others are missing parts (Deuteronomy, 2 Kings, Psalms, Song of Songs, Jeremiah, Amos and Micah). Still, it is the best Masoretic manuscript in existence.
The Leningrad CodexThe early 11th century Leningrad Codex is today housed in St. Petersburg, Russia (“Leningrad” under the former Soviet Union). This copy, like the Aleppo Codex, belongs to the Ben Asher family of Masoretic Hebrew manuscripts, and serves as the basis for the standard Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia and the more recent Biblia Hebraica Quinta, the standard academic editions from which most modern Old Testament translations come. The Hebrew University Bible Project, on the other hand, has elected to utilize the Aleppo Codex as its primary base text. Although scholars generally regard the Aleppo Codex as more reliable, the two manuscripts are extremely similar. The Leningrad Codex holds the distinction of being the oldest complete Hebrew Bible known to exist, although it is not even 1,000 years old.
The Nash Papyrus
Figure 1. Nash Papyrus (late second century B.C.) (Wikimedia commons, public domain)We now turn from more or less complete copies of the Bible to fragments. Acquired in 1902, the Nash Papyrus (so named from Walter Llewellyn Nash who purchased it) dates to the late 2ndcentury B.C., and was the oldest copy of any part of the Old Testament text known before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The manuscript is small, being about 5.5 inches tall and a little over 2 inches wide (see Figure 1). Only 24 lines are legible, and these represent the Ten Commandments and part of the Shema‘ (pronounced sh-MAH) extracted from Deuteronomy 5 and 6. Some have suggested the text was a phylactery due to its size (cf. Matthew 23:5).
One interesting difference between the Nash Papyrus and the received Hebrew text is the former’s absence of “the house of slavery” in reference to Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:6). Some have alleged that, since the papyrus likely originated in Egypt, the scribe wished not to offend his homeland with such a reference, and so removed it. If the Nash Papyrus is a personal copy intended for private use, we might assume that the strict rules about the sanctity of every word of Scripture did not apply quite as strictly as it might for a synagogue copy (cf. Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 5:18). However, it is also possible (although less likely) that the parent-text (what the Germans call the Vorlage) did not contain these words and the scribe of the Nash Papyrus is copying what was in front of him.
The Silver Scrolls from Ketef HinnomIn 1979 two small, silver scrolls containing the Priestly Blessing (Numbers 6:23-26) were found in an excavation near Jerusalem. The larger of these texts measures just one inch in width and not quite four inches in length. The smaller is a half-inch in width and about an inch and a half in length. Despite their size, these texts, which date to the 7thcentury B.C., represent the oldest copies of any part of the biblical text we possess. Ironically, they seem to have been intended as amulets to ward off evil spirits (cf. Isaiah 3:20; Ezekiel 13:18,20).
The Dead Sea ScrollsThe oldest of the biblical manuscripts among the Dead Sea Scrolls date to the mid-3rd century B.C., and the latest date to the 1st century A.D. 4QExod–Levf (4Q17) and 4QSamb (4Q52) are the two oldest known to exist, and both date to the mid-3rd century B.C. The former probably once contained the entire Pentateuch, but now includes only five fragments totaling 259 words. The latter contains about 23 fragments and represents various sections of 1 Samuel 12-23. The Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa) is the only one of the biblical Dead Sea Scrolls to survive in its entirety. Because of the fragmentary nature of the evidence, it is impossible to compile a complete Hebrew Bible from the Dead Sea Scrolls. So, while of tremendous value, our ability to apply what we learn from the Dead Sea Scrolls is limited.
The fragments that do exist offer a number of variant readings. While none of these variants alters the theology of the Old Testament, many of them are noteworthy. For example, traditional English translations set the height of Goliath at six cubits and a span, following the Masoretic Hebrew Text (1 Samuel 17:4). But the oldest Hebrew copy of the Goliath story of Samuel, 4QSama, agrees with the Septuagint that Goliath’s height was four cubits and a span. This drops the height of Goliath from about nine and a half feet to about six and a half feet! The oldest reading is perhaps the original reading.
Another example can be provided from the Great Isaiah Scroll. In Isaiah 53:11 1QIsaa agrees with the Septuagint, reading, “From the anguish of his soul he shall see light and be satisfied.” The Masoretic Hebrew, represented in most English translations, does not have the word “light.” It is uncertain whether the word “light” has been inserted into the Isaiah Scroll or removed from the Masoretic Hebrew. So, in this case, we cannot be certain what the original reading was.
There are a few occasions in which we know material is missing in the Masoretic Hebrew text. For example, Psalm 145 is an acrostic Psalm in which each line begins with the succeeding letter of the Hebrew alphabet (ד ,ג ,ב ,א, etc.). The problem is that the line beginning with the letter nun(נ) is missing. 11QPsa, the only Dead Sea Scrolls Psalms manuscript to cover Psalm 145, has the nun verse: “God is faithful in his words and gracious in all his works.” It just so happens again that the missing verse matches what was already preserved in the Septuagint long ago. There is no question the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls preserve the original reading.
I do not wish to give the impression that the Dead Sea Scrolls always agree with the Septuagint. In fact, Emanuel Tov states that no single Qumran manuscript can be regarded as the parent text of any book translated into its Septuagint Greek form. Rather, Tov offers the following statistics: of the Pentateuch, only 46 manuscripts provide a sufficient basis for analysis. Of these manuscripts, 27 (nearly 60%) clearly anticipate the later Masoretic Text, while only one generally matches the Septuagint. The remaining 18 cannot be aligned with any known textual tradition (39%). Of the remaining books of Scripture, 75 manuscripts are sufficient for analysis. Of these, 33 anticipate the Masoretic Text (44%) while only five reflect the text represented by the Septuagint. Among these manuscripts Tov regards 37 as unaligned (49%). In other words, manuscripts matching the later Masoretic text are dominant.
Of course, the various textual traditions are not as divergent as one might be led to believe by these statistics. Textual criticism is concerned with minute details such as the presence or absence of letters or the division of words. For example, “valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4) assumes the Hebrew צל מות, but the Hebrew text actually has צלמות, meaning “deathly darkness.” The difference in definition hangs on a single space in a word, and not on a different text! Another example would be the spelling of Moses as משה or מושה, or David as דוד or דויד. These spelling differences count as variants, but in no way change the meaning. It should also be stressed that statistical analyses, such as those cited above, tend to be highly subjective, and many others are bound to disagree. Further discoveries could substantially alter what we think we now know. Humility is always appropriate in the field of textual criticism. Still, the plurality of various Old Testament texts at Qumran seems to match a similar variety with Old Testament quotations in the New Testament. There was no “authorized version” of the Bible at the time of Jesus.
Textual Plurality and New Testament QuotationsWe have striven thus far to show the Hebrew Bible did not exist in one pristine form at the time of the New Testament. Were the New Testament authors aware of this situation? If so, how do they handle the textual variety? It seems clear that the New Testament authors both respected and utilized the textual variety in existence. The New Testament quotations sometimes match the Masoretic Hebrew exactly (e.g., Mark 14:23 ~ Isaiah 53:12), sometimes match the Septuagint exactly (e.g., Mark 7:6–7 ~ Isaiah 29:13), sometimes agree more with the Dead Sea Scrolls (e.g., Romans 15:10 ~ Deuteronomy 32:43 [= 4QDeutq), and sometimes match nothing else known (i.e., they are “unaligned” in scholarly parlance; e.g., Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11 ~ Habakkuk 2:4).
There are times when the Greek translation is actually a clearer reflection of the Divine intent than the Hebrew original. For example, to refute the Sadducees, Jesus quotes the Septuagint form of Exodus 3:6: “‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ God is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Matthew 22:32). The Hebrew language has no present tense verb, and thus the “I am” verb is missing in the Hebrew text of Exodus 3:6 (note the NKJV italicizes the word “am” in Exodus 3:6, indicating its absence in the Hebrew text). In order to leave no doubt about the meaning, Jesus cites the Greek form of the verse (which specifies the present tense).
There are other occasions when the New Testament authors might generalize a verse by altering it slightly. Paul’s quotations of Habakkuk 2:4 could fall into this category. The Masoretic Hebrew reads, “The just shall live by his faith,” which can be understood either as the faithfulness of the just man or the faithfulness of God. The Septuagint clarifies, “The just shall live by my faith,” unambiguously referring to God. The difference between the possessive pronouns “his” and “my” is just one stroke of one letter in Hebrew (“his” = ו and “my” = י). These letters are often confused in Hebrew manuscripts (to the sympathetic comfort of many elementary Hebrew students!), and it appears Paul here wishes both to eliminate the textual confusion and generalize the truth of the verse with the more abstract, “The just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11).
The way the New Testament authors used the various versions of the Scriptures is not unlike the way many preachers use English translations. I have heard the sermons of several who prefer the King James Version but switch to the American Standard Version when preaching on Psalm 119:160a. The former reads, “Thy word is true from the beginning,” while the latter states, “The sum of thy word is truth.” Since the Hebrew is ambiguous (literally, “the head of your word is true [or truth]”), either translation can be regarded as possible. But most would opt for the passage that “preaches” better or makes a clearer point. In the absence of certainty, perhaps it is not foolish to follow such a course, even though modern translators (and preachers!) do not have the benefit of inspiration. The bottom line is this: despite minor differences across the manuscripts, the Old Testament is remarkably—one might say providentially—preserved and transmitted.
ConclusionThe text of the Old Testament was both confirmed and complicated by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Septuagint likewise supports the basic content of the traditional Hebrew, but also contains some differences that need not be overlooked. Modern translations of the Old Testament generally take into account all of the evidence, exercising their best judgment when it seems there may be a mistake in transmission of the Masoretic Hebrew. For example, Genesis 47:21 in the Masoretic text seems to have mistaken the letter daleth (ד) for resh (ר), an understandable mistake, as these letters are very similar in appearance. The RSV and ESV have elected to follow the ancient versions (Samaritan Pentateuch, Septuagint, and Latin Vulgate) while the KJV and ASV choose to translate the Masoretic Hebrew, in spite of its apparent mistake. Again, in 1 Samuel 1:24, almost all the modern versions read “three-year-old bull” as opposed to the KJV and NKJV which have “three bulls.” The KJV tradition follows the Masoretic Hebrew (even though it is difficult to imagine Hannah dragging three bulls to Shiloh!), while the modern versions follow 4QSama, the Septuagint, and the Syriac traditions. The oldest text makes better sense in this case.
The evidence suggests we should exercise good judgment in our reading of the Old Testament, as the New Testament authors seem to do. Only in a handful of cases are there differences in the textual traditions worth noting, and even then the differences concern minute details that, while important to textual critics, do not alter any major teaching of the Old Testament. It appears that God has provided us with an Old Testament text substantially accurate in all we need to know about His character and His will.
Critics who allege we cannot know the text of the Bible must resort to building mountains out of molehills. Let them produce one variant reading from the Old Testament that substantially alters a theological point affirmed by Jesus or the Apostles. The basic differences in the textual traditions of the Old Testament can be compared to the differences in English translations. While one person’s Bible might have a different word or phrase here and there, the substantial message of God’s Word remains the same.