Saturday, August 13, 2011

On Textual Criticism

People of faith don't like the term "Textual Criticism."  Perhaps to them it sounds as if people are criticizing the Bible.  Skeptics like the idea of textual criticism because to them it sounds as if the text of scripture is unreliably fallible.

A recent article on the internet was headlined, "In Jerusalem, scholars trace Bible's evolution."*  This is an article about the textual criticism of the Old Testament text of the Hebrew Bible, from the perspective of the secular skeptic.  You can almost hear the author of the article chortling over the "evolution" of the text.  You can certainly recognize the author's prejudice that the text has been fundamentally altered over time and cannot be trusted.

She points out three examples of textual differences that are being explored.
  1. From Malachi: "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.""
  2. From Deuteronomy: "In another example, this one from the Book of Deuteronomy, a passage referring to commandments given by God "to you" once read "to us," a significant change in meaning."
  3. From Jeremiah: "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."
It boggles her mind that the people engaged in this study are (and have been from the start) devout believers in the authority of the Biblical text - in this case Orthodox Jews.  She does not see (nor do many of the "KJV Only" persuasion) how textual criticism can be reconciled with faith.  "What we're doing here must be of interest for anyone interested in the Bible," said Michael Segal, the scholar who heads the project."  I agree completely.

The study of textual criticism is necessary because all manuscripts before AD 1450 (the printing press) were hand written and every single copy varied slightly from every other copy.  Since the Exodus was about 1450 BC, that leaves almost 3000 years of copying texts by hand.

The vast majority of the variations are going to be spelling differences.  There will also be some transpositions in word order (a difference that doesn't usually affect Hebrew meaning.)  But for about 98 or 99 percent of the text there will be no significant questions about the original reading. 

In the 2% or so where there are doubts about the original reading - the question is not the meaning of the text, but what exact words were used to communicate that meaning.  For example, "Those who swear falsely" are certainly swearing by God's name - so perhaps a scribe added the last part - or maybe left it out as redundant.  But the meaning is the same, regardless.  In her second example, whether the commandment was given "to you" or "to us," it was still given and you know what it is.  The meaning is unchanged.

As for correcting the book of Deuteronomy by the "2,000 year old manuscripts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls," it is not as impressive as it sounds since these scrolls were produced about 600 years after the original book was written.  What must be considered is that only "some" of these Scrolls include the shorter reading.  Older versions (e.g., the Greek translation called the Septuagint) contain the longer reading - so where did the shorter reading come from?  Were they shortened for some purpose - or were portions lost somehow?

 The study of textual criticism is not something that believers need to fear.  They should actually appreciate it.  Our confidence in the preservation of the text is not a blind leap of faith.  Our confidence in the text is solidly supported by the hard work of these devoted people who track down the original reading and root out even the minor differences that have been introduced over the years.  It is abundantly clear that the original meaning of the text is well preserved.  We know WHAT was said, even if 2% of the time there is debate over HOW it was said.


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