Old Testament Criticism
This week we begin shifting the focus to a study of the Old Testament. Many of the basic methods of critical analysis for the New Testament (introduced and demonstrated in the recent studies in the Gospel of John)—and of textual criticism, in particular—apply equally to the Old Testament. For the terminology and principles of New Testament textual criticism, see the article “Learning the Language”. However, there are some difficulties and challenges which are specific to a critical study of the Old Testament Scriptures; among these are:
1. The lack of manuscripts. Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the middle of the 20th century, there were no manuscripts or copies of the Old Testament, to speak of, any earlier than the 10th century A.D. This meant our earliest copies were, in most instances, at least 1,500 years later than the original composition (autograph) of the books in question. The Qumran and other Dead Sea Scripture scrolls (around 200, from the 1st centuries B.C./A.D.) have been immensely valuable in bridging this gap. However, even so, the Dead Sea manuscripts are still 500 or more years later in time than the original copies of most of the books. Scholars rely on the Greek versions (the Septuagint [LXX] and other Old Greek) to fill in some of the remaining gaps. The relative paucity of early and reliable manuscripts, compared with the situation for the New Testament with its wealth of MSS, makes it quite difficult, at times, to judge what the most likely original reading of passage might be.
2. The lack of extra-biblical Hebrew. Very little written Hebrew survives from the Old Testament period, covering the time when most of the Scripture texts were written (c. 1200-450 B.C.), and no literary products at all comparable to the Old Testament books. Even if we extend this to texts and inscriptions written in the related Canaanite languages and dialects (Phoenician, Moabite, early Aramaic, etc), the evidence is scant indeed. This means that, when there are difficult passages involving rare words or unusual phrasing, there is often little help to be found from contemporary extra-Biblical writing to decipher the meaning. By contrast, there are literally thousands of Hellenistic and Koine Greek texts from the 1st centuries B.C./A.D. to aid us in understanding the Greek of the New Testament. Old Testament scholars are often forced to look further afield to earlier (and more distant) examples from Canaan and Mesopotamia, or to the considerably later Hebrew and Aramaic of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Mishnah, and Targums, as well as examples from Arabic, etc. For the earliest Hebrew (c. 1200-950 B.C.), perhaps the best comparative evidence comes from the many valuable texts discovered at Ugarit (Ras Shamra) in Syria. Even so, in certain difficult passages, it can be difficult to decide whether an apparent peculiarity is the result of textual corruption or reflects a rare/unusual word for which there is little surviving evidence to make a comparison.
3. The position of the Masoretic Text. Before the Dead Sea Scrolls came to light, scholars, as a practical necessity, were forced to work almost entirely with the so-called “Masoretic Text” (MT). This refers to the textual tradition preserved by generations of Jewish scholars and copyists (Masoretes) in the Middle Ages. It was enshrined as the “Received Text” (Textus Receptus) in the great Rabbinic Bibles printed and published in the 16th century, much as similar “Textus Receptus” editions of the New Testament began to be published by Christians around the same time. This Masoretic Text was the basis for later critical editions, such as the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS), Westminster Leningrad Codex (WLC), and the Hebrew University Bible Project (HUBP). However, as noted above, these medieval manuscripts are about a thousand years later in time than the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Practical and doctrinal considerations have given an overly-exalted position to the Masoretic Text. Even critical scholars tended to regard differences between the MT and the Old Greek versions as examples of aberrant or “free” translation by the latter. Yet, as the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) have made clear, the Septuagint (LXX) and other Old Greek versions often reflect an underlying Hebrew text which differs in certain ways from the MT. In fact, the DSS demonstrate considerable textual diversity in the Scriptures during the 1st century B.C./A.D.—a point which could be confirmed by the various forms of the Old Testament cited in the New Testament. At the same time, the Scrolls have also established the general accuracy and reliability of the Masoretic text tradition. These two factors must be held in balance. In recent decades, scholars and textual critics have focused more on the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves, rather than simply in relation to the MT as a ‘baseline’, attempting to form new models for analyzing the relationships between the various texts. In many ways, compared with the situation for the New Testament, textual criticism of the Old Testament is still in its infancy. This means that judgments regarding the “original” reading or form of the text must be made with considerable caution.
The Dead Sea Scrolls
The label “Dead Sea Scrolls” applies, not only to the texts discovered in the caves near the site of Khirbet Qumrân, but also to the less well-known (and somewhat later) scrolls from the sites of Masada, the wadi Murabba±at, and Naµal „ever. There are around 200 distinct Old Testament manuscripts from the Qumran caves, in addition to copies of other extra-canonical writings which the Qumran Community seem to have regarded as authoritative Scripture (Book of Enoch, Jubilees, etc), at least at points in their history. Nearly all of the MSS are quite fragmentary, sometimes consisting only of tiny fragments of an individual book. This makes textual evaluation of the different copies of Scripture quite difficult, but there is enough evidence to allow scholars to make at least preliminary determinations about textual relationships and text-groupings. One finds, for example, MSS which reflect a Hebrew text that agrees with the Septuagint or the Samaritan Pentateuch against the Masoretic Text, at least at certain points. With other MSS or portions, the reverse is true.
This degree of fluidity can be disconcerting for Jews and Christians who prefer to think of a fixed and reliable line of text stretching from the original copies, down to the modern printed editions of the Masoretic Text. It is also uncertain the extent to which the texts in the Qumran “library” are standard for Judaism of the period, or reflect the sectarian interests of the Qumran Community. In the case of the Old Testament scrolls, the Qumran copies are probably representative of the various forms of the text which might have been accessible by Jews (and Christians) in the 1st century B.C./A.D. Generally speaking, the Scripture texts from Masada, Murabba±at and Naµal „ever (late 1st/early 2nd century) are consistently much closer to the Masoretic Text than are those from Qumran, but it is not clear whether this reflects development and standardization (toward the MT) or is simply an accident of survival.
In the upcoming studies in this series, we will be looking at selected passages as a way of seeing how Old Testament criticism (and textual criticism) works in action, and in the context of the Scriptures. Along the way, we will frequently be calling upon the evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls.
By way of introduction, I wish to look briefly at the beginning of the book of the Old Testament entitled “In the beginning…” (B®r¢°šî¾, Bereshith, i.e. “Genesis”). We find difficulties of interpretation already in the very first words (and word) of Genesis. Let us examine these in turn.
[In the beginning of]—The Hebrew word is r¢°šî¾, related to rœ°š (“head”), understood in the more abstract sense of “top” or “start, beginning”. The temporal sense of the latter fits best here (i.e., “beginning”). The preposition b®– (B=), usually translated “with” or “in”, is prefixed to the noun—b®r¢°šî¾, “in the beginning” or “at the start”, etc. There is a grammatical difficulty here, in that the word is in the construct state—that is, it is connected to the word which follows as a sequence chain. In English, we would render this as “in the beginning of…”. However, this results in an awkward sequence with the verb which follows—i.e., “In the beginning of God created…”
[created]—The consonants of this Hebrew verb are arb (br°). A special problem related to ancient Hebrew (and other Semitic languages) is that it was typically transmitted without vocalization—that is, without indication of vowels. Scribes and readers, through basic use and practice, would have been able to recognize, in context, how a particular word should be pronounced. In Hebrew, however, the same letters, pronounced differently (i.e. with different vowels) can have a very different meaning or emphasis, sometimes indicating an entirely different word. The Masoretic tradition attempted to preserve the proper vocalization of the (consonantal) Hebrew text; but their work is not infallible, and many scholars today disagree with their vowel pointing in a number of places. We typically understand the verb here in Gen 1:1 to be vocalized as ar*b* (b¹r¹°, “he created”), following the Masoretic pointing. However, given the grammatical situation with the first word, noted above, some scholars over the years have felt the verb should be vocalized as an infinitive—ar)B= (b®rœ°, “[to] create, creating”). This would result in the following translation of vv. 1ff:
“In the beginning of God(‘s) creating the heavens and the earth, the earth was…”
According to this view, verses 1-3 essentially form a single statement, with vv. 1-2 serving as preliminary clauses which lead to “…and God said…” On the other hand, there are parallels in the Old Testament for keeping the traditional vocalization, and reading the construct form of the first word as a temporal phrase: “In the beginning of [i.e. of his creating], God created…” On this, see Leviticus 14:46; Isaiah 29:1; Hosea 1:2, and note Jeremiah 26:1; 27:1; 28:1.
[God]—This is one of the three primary “names” of God in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is <yh!ýa$ (°§lœhîm), presumably related to la@ (°¢l), an ancient and fundamental Semitic word which was used both to indicate deity (“God”) generally and also as the principal name of the Creator God (for more on this, see my article in the Christmas series “And you shall call his name…”). Its etymology remains uncertain, but it would appear to have the basic meaning “mighty, great”; thus the name/title would be something like “Mighty (One)”. The form °§lœhîm is a plural form, adapted it would seem, to a three-consonant pattern; it is essentially equivalent to °¢lîm (retaining the older, two-consonant pattern of °l). Based on the etymology assumed above, the word would mean, literally, “mighty ones”. The use of this plural form as a title for the one Creator God of ancient Israel has never been entirely explained. I will be discussing this point further in next week’s study. Suffice it to say that the distinctive use of different “names” for God in the Scriptures—El, Elohim, Yahweh, etc—has proven to be of considerable importance for Old Testament criticism.
[the heavens and the earth]—This expression is usually regarded as a hendiadys (two terms representing one thing) or a merism (two parts making up the whole)—that is, referring to the entire created universe. The noun š¹may (Akkadian šamû) represents the sky above the earth, particularly in relation to water (the rain, etc). The regular plural form š¹mayim (usually translated “heaven[s]”) perhaps reflects the ancient cosmology which viewed the ‘universe’ as a sphere, or hemisphere, surrounded by water (in the beginning, there was a great mass of water, as indicated here in v. 2). According to a developed form of this cosmology, there were at least two heavens—(1) the visible sky (underneath the “water above”), and (2) a realm above the water, which was the dwelling place of God. Similarly, I believe we can understand two aspects of “earth” (°ereƒ) here as well: (1) as the dwelling place of humankind, under God’s heaven, and (2) as the earth/ground, properly speaking, as a fundamental component of the created universe. The creation account which follows in vv. 2ff focuses on the “earth”, primarily, in the former cosmic sense (1) as the created universe. This is indicated by the initial wording of verse 2: “And (as for) the earth, it was…” Here earth does not refer to the ground, but to the physical universe. It is important to realize that the Scriptures are addressed primarily to the people at the time and make use of the language, ideas, and conceptions of the ancient Near East. This means that the creation account in Genesis must be read and understood first according to the ancient cosmology of the time, and not according to our modern views of cosmology. The Old Testament Scriptures derive from an older and more distant culture than, for example, the world of the New Testament and early Christianity, and also employ languages (Semitic: Hebrew/Aramaic) even more foreign to us than ancient Greek. This requires especially careful study for us today.
This is just a sample of the approach one might take in a critical study of the Old Testament. In the weeks that follow, I will be introducing and utilizing other examples—first, with selected verses from the Pentateuch, and then an examination of some key passages in the book of Isaiah.
For next week, I would ask that you read the Creation narrative(s) in chapters 1-2 closely. If you have knowledge of Hebrew, or can access tools to help you examine the original text (such as available to you in Biblesoft’s PC Study Bible), you will want to focus on two verses in particular: (a) the famous divine declaration, regarding the creation of humankind, in 1:26, and (b) the transitional narrative join in 2:4. Think and meditate on these carefully, noting any questions or thoughts you might have…and I will see you next Saturday.