Fox News Article Lacks Clarity in the Area of Textual Criticism

This morning I went to the Fox News homepage to look at the news, and I was immediately struck by this link. My concern in it is not so much the facts, but the way in which those facts are spun in this article. I have been well aware for a long time of the work that the Hebrew University Bible Project is doing. It is a very slow work. My professor said the work probably will not be finished in his lifetime nor in my lifetime. It is a huge work, and anyone who has seen their mammoth two volume edition of Isaiah knows the incredible amount of research these scholars are putting into the text of the Hebrew Bible. I remember, as part of my class in Textual Criticism, we had to translate all of the variants of a particular section of Isaiah from a page of the Hebrew University Bible Project. We also had to read articles by those are working on the project. Hence, although I am not the greatest expert in Old Testament Textual Criticism, I do know when something is being spun, and this article is a spin job.

Here are some examples:

An ancient version of one book has an extra phrase. Another appears to have been revised to retroactively insert a prophecy after the events happened.

First of all, yes, there are many examples where versions insert extra phrases. However, the nature of this is not told. For example, phrases can be left out in copying due to something called parablepsis. If one phrase ends or begins with the same set of letters that the next phrase does, a scribe’s eye will unintentionally skip from one set of letters to the next. For example:

Ruth 3:17
LXX: כִּי אָמַר אֵלַי אַל־תָּבוֹאִי
For he said to me, “Do not go…”
MT: כִּי אָמַר אַל־תָּבוֹאִי
For he said, “Do not go…”

What happened her was that a scribe wrote the first two letters of the אֵלַי, and then his eyes skipped to those same two letters [אל] at the beginning of אַל־תָּבוֹאִי/. Thus, he effectively left out the אֵלַי [“to me”][1]. As far as I know, this is something that is common in the copying of *any* ancient book.

Also, my concern with the second phrase is that it assumes that, if there is a prophecy, we must now suspect that it was inserted later, after the events happened. Yet, for the Christian, this is not a problem, since the great Isaiah scroll contains many of the prophecies from the book of Isaiah that Christians use, and it predates the time of Christ! Also, while the issue of the transmission of the Septuagint is a complicated one, I don’t know of anyone [other than Ecclesiastical Text Theorists] who argue that the entirety of the LXX postdates the New Testament. Hence, it is simply untrue to suggest that we must now doubt whether a prophecy was added after the Christian era in order to make Christianity look true.

In fact, Christianity started to grow in Jerusalem, in a Jewish context. It would have been shooting themselves in the foot to add entire prophecies to make Christianity look true, as the Jews would have seen through it immediately, and Christianity would have never been able to spread across the known world as quickly as it did.

Also, in reading the rest of this article, it appears that what he is trying to say is that some of the prophecies that are specifically fulfilled within the time period of the Hebrew Bible were written in afterward. That is something that we simply cannot say. We do not have manuscripts that go back to the time period in which the Hebrew text was being written. I suppose you might interpret some of the data in this why, but why would you, except out of antisupernaturalistic bias?

Scholars in this out-of-the-way corner of the Hebrew University campus have been quietly at work for 53 years on one of the most ambitious projects attempted in biblical studies — publishing the authoritative edition of the Old Testament, also known as the Hebrew Bible, and tracking every single evolution of the text over centuries and millennia.

And it has evolved, despite deeply held beliefs to the contrary.

I don’t know how quiet this project can be when I have heard about it, and almost everyone in the field of Old Testament Textual Criticism has heard of it. Also, what do we mean by “evolution?” Do we mean that copy errors were inserted into the text by human error? If this is the case, then it is certainly true that the text of the Hebrew Bible has evolved. However, so has every other text from antiquity, and conservative Christian and Jewish scholars have recognized this fact from the very beginning. Hence, it is hard to know what these “deeply held beliefs to the contrary” are. However, if what we mean is that the doctrines of the text we have today have been somehow changed or altered, that will require some proof. Now, it is certainly true that there are variants in doctrinally relevant passages, and yes, there are some variants where we do not know what the hyparchetype is. However, that is a far cry from saying that someone took out or added monotheism, took out the priesthood, or the sovereignty of God. I know that there are many critical theories [such as JEPD and others] that suggest such a thing, but there is no text critical evidence to suggest such a thing. We have clear, undisputed texts teaching these very things.

For many Jews and Christians, religion dictates that the words of the Bible in the original Hebrew are divine, unaltered and unalterable. For Orthodox Jews, the accuracy is considered so inviolable that if a synagogue’s Torah scroll is found to have a minute error in a single letter, the entire scroll is unusable.

But the ongoing work of the academic detectives of the Bible Project, as their undertaking is known, shows that this text at the root of Judaism, Christianity and Islam was somewhat fluid for long periods of its history, and that its transmission through the ages was messier and more human than most of us imagine.

First of all we must ask what the original is. There are some who would argue that what is inspired and inerrant is the state of the text at the close of the Old Testament canon. There are others who would argue that it goes back to the last edition of the original author. Either way, I don’t know of any Christian [outside of Ecclesiastical Text Theorists] who would argue that they text of the Hebrew Bible did not change as it was passed down over time, because that is the way it is with all books from antiquity.

But Segal and his colleagues toil in relative anonymity. Their undertaking is nearly unknown outside a circle of Bible experts numbering several hundred people at most, and a visitor asking directions to the Bible Project’s office on the university campus will find that many members of the university’s own staff have never heard of it.

This is an endeavor so meticulous, its pace so disconnected from that of the world outside, that in more than five decades of work the scholars have published a grand total of three of the Hebrew Bible’s 24 books. (Christians count the same books differently, for a total of 39.) A fourth is due out during the upcoming academic year.

The problem is, of course, that the Hebrew University does not just teach Hebrew Bible! Hence, it would not be surprising for staff members in other departments to have never heard of this. Also, again, what is with this “only a few hundred experts” have heard of this. Again, I have heard of it; most of the people involved in textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible that I talk to have heard of it. Many good, solid evangelical scholars such as my professor Dr. Magary have heard of it. It just causes one to shake their head wondering. If what they mean is that people outside the field of Old Testament Textual Criticism have never heard of it, then that is probably true. However, evangelicals are not surprised by this at all.

The verse in question, from the text we know today, makes reference to “those who swear falsely.” The scholars have found that in quotes from rabbinic writings around the 5th century A.D., the phrase was longer: “those who swear falsely in my name.”

What is annoying about this is that this reading was not unknown before this article came out. What I think they are referring to is Malachi 3:5, and the current critical edition of the Hebrew Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, says that the Septuagint has this reading, as do many other Hebrew manuscripts. What is interesting is that this is the exact phrase that is found in Leviticus 19:12. Hence, one could argue that a scribe inserted this in to make it match with the prohibition in Leviticus 19:12. However, even if the phrase “in my name” were original, we have that very phrase in Leviticus 19:12, and if anyone wonders whether swearing falsely in the name of God is something that God will be a witness against, we can simply turn to that passage! First, the reading was already known, and second, it makes no difference as the command to not swear falsely in God’s name is found in Leviticus 19:12.

The Book of Jeremiah is now one-seventh longer than the one that appears in some of the 2,000-year-old manuscripts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some verses, including ones containing a prophecy about the seizure and return of Temple implements by Babylonian soldiers, appear to have been added after the events happened.

First of all, there is some misinformation in this. It is true that the Septuagint rescention of Jeremiah is 1/7 shorter, and it is also true that two fragments of Jeremiah found at Qumran [4QJerb and 4QJerd] come from the Septuagint rescention. However, what is not said is that 4QJera and 4QJerc reflect the Masoretic text rescention[2]. What the Qumran scrolls proved is that, as early as the second century BC, both rescentions of Jeremiah were already in existence.

Also, I don’t know where he is getting the idea that the verses about the seizure and return of Temple implements by Babylonian soldiers were added after the events happened. That is speculation at best, since we do not know how the two rescentions of Jeremiah came about. There are some that have even suggested that the different rescentions came about as a result of the events described in Jeremiah 36. In other words, the first rescention was the one the king burned, and the second was the one Jeremiah wrote after that, which is certainly possible. However, right now the best we can say is that we don’t know how the two rescentions of Jeremiah came about, and any guess as to how it came about is going to reflect the presuppositions of the person making the argument [in this case, presuppositions of antisupernaturalism], rather than any proof.

Considering that the nature of their work would be considered controversial, if not offensive, by many religious people, it is perhaps surprising that most of the project’s scholars are themselves Orthodox Jews.

Again, it is hard to know why it would be “offensive” to evangelical Christians, as we have recognized the existence of textual variation from the very beginning. The only thing I find offensive is the way in which this article treats the field of Old Testament Textual Criticism as if the sky is falling. It is certainly true that the field of Old Testament Textual Criticism is messy. It is also true that it is complicated, and that you have to think through what you say. However, to present the Hebrew University Bible Project as if they are doing something that undercuts the Christian or Jewish faith is utter nonsense. In fact, the article ends with this quotation from this scholar:

“A believing Jew claims that the source of the Bible is prophecy,” said the project’s bearded academic secretary, Rafael Zer. “But as soon as the words are given to human beings — with God’s agreement, and at his initiative — the holiness of the biblical text remains, even if mistakes are made when the text is passed on.”

That is absolutely correct. The reason is that the there are no doctrines that depend upon a single individual variant. Yes, the Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible is messy; yes, you are dealing with manuscripts, translations, etc, paraphrases, etc. However, the message of the Hebrew Bible remains the same. Yes, it is important that we deal with the two different rescentions of Jeremiah, or the textual variant at Malachi 3:5. It is important that we keep finding manuscripts, and trying to solve variations where we are unsure. However, no matter which variant you choose, you will not get a different God, you will not get a different view of man, and you will not get a different view of sin, or salvation from sin.

[1]McCarter, Kyle P. Textual Criticism, Recovering the Text of the Hebrew Bible. Fortress Press. Minneapolis, Minnesota. 1986. p.42

[2]Silva, Moises. Jobes, Karen H. Invitation to the Septuagint. Baker Academic. Grand Rapids, Michigan. 2000. pgs.175-176.

Tov, Emmanuel. Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible Second Edition. Fortress Press. Minneapolis, Minnesota. p.51. Tov notes that the main difference between the MT and these two manuscripts are in the organization of the paragraphs, but, as far as the text goes they are “very close.”

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3 Responses to “Fox News Article Lacks Clarity in the Area of Textual Criticism”

  1. Luis Villalvazo Says:

    I am glad I found this article. If one is not careful, the internet can make your head spin.

  2. dawilson8655 Says:

    This was the only article I could find that analyzed that story. Thanks for your work!

  3. otrmin Says:

    Thanks Luis and dawilson8655!

    Ya, there is not too much out there on the Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible so, when someone posts something as biased as that article was, unfortunately, they usually get away with it.

    God Bless,
    Adam

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