Excerpt 1 - Genesis

Excerpt 2 - Isaiah

Excerpt 3 - Hebrew

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Related Topics - Old Testament Texts

This article briefly addresses the topic of the different Old Testament texts. The ancient texts of the Old Testament are:

  1. The Masoretic Text - This is a Hebrew text that has been standardized by a group of Jewish scribes called Masoretes.
  2. The Septuagint (often abbreviated as LXX based on a story about its origin)- This is an early Greek translation of the Old Testament.
  3. The Samaritan Pentateuch - This is a Hebrew version of Genesis - Deuteronomy only, maintained by the small Samaritan sect.
  4. Dead Sea Scrolls - These are biblical scrolls, mostly in Hebrew, found at Qumran by the Dead Sea in Israel. These scrolls include large portions the Old Testament, but not nearly all of it.
  5. Other texts - Targums, an interpretive Aramaic translation of the Hebrew originals; the Vulgate, an early translation, and a few others.

The Masoretic Text (MT) has the central position among Old Testament texts. The MT is the only Old Testament text we have in which the entire Old Testament is in the original language. Because the scribes, the Masoretes, worked to standardize the text, and because extreme care was taken in the copying process, there is little difference between any of the various hand-made copies of the MT. This text has been used in synagogues since antiquity, and the Bible for years has been translated into modern languages using the MT as the primary source.

In addition to extra-biblical texts, the Dead Sea Scrolls, collected and copied from 200 B.C. to 68 A.D., include fragments from 202 biblical scrolls. These texts have been categorized by Emmanuel Tov, Editor-in-Chief of the Dead Sea Scrolls Publication Project, as follows: [from Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, pp.114-116)

  1. Texts written in the special Qumran practice (that is, ones with the types of spelling, grammatical formation, and writing characteristics of the Qumran texts and no other group). These texts may in some cases have been copied from texts that resemble the MT. The manuscripts in this category constitute 20% of the Qumran biblical copies.
  2. Proto-Masoretic texts, which resemble very closely the consonants of the later MT (Today’s MT includes numerous aides such as pronunciation guides, footnotes, endnotes, etc.). The manuscripts in this category constitute 35% of theQumran biblical copies.
  3. Pre-Samaritan texts, which are similar to the later Samaritan Pentateuch. The manuscripts in this category constitute 5% of the Qumran biblical copies.
  4. Texts close to the presumed Hebrew source for the Septuagint - about 5% of the biblical copies.
  5. Nonaligned texts, which exhibit no consistent pattern of agreement or disagreement with other witnesses – the remaining 35%.
The first thing to note here is that the proto-Masoretic Texts seem to be a majority at the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and this is probably an argument in its favor. Here are some other more technical reasons to prefer the MT:
  1. The Samaritan Pentateuch shows evidence of tampering, done with the intent of supporting the Samaritan religion as opposed to Judaism. One example is Deut 14:23-24, where the place where God “chooses to establish his name” is explicitly called out as Mount Gerizim, where the Samaritans worship. The Samaritan Pentateuch throughout shows a tendency to clear up difficult passages in a way that leads one to believe a later Samaritan edited it substantially. This tends to detract from the value of the Samaritan Pentateuch, though it is still good to have an independent ancient version of the Pentateuch.
  2. The MT shows greater evidence of antiquity and care in the copying practice than any other textual strain. A text showing antiquity implies that it is close to the original, giving us greater confidence in the text. For example, the MT shows the oldest spelling pattern of any of the textual strains. The Hebrew alphabet is composed of all consonants with no vowels. During the biblical period, around 700 B.C., a gradual process began in which several consonants would serve double duty, acting in some cases as vowels. By the time the Dead Sea Scrolls were written, the practice in Hebrew had developed to use these “vowel letters” whenever possible. This practice with minor modifications continues to this day. As a result, the same Hebrew words can have different spellings. In the Masoretic Text, the name “David” is spelled with the Hebrew letters “DVD” in the earlier books of Samuel, Kings, and the early prophets. In the books written later, such as Chronicles, the spelling changed to “DVYD”. There are numerous such examples of words with multiple spellings in the Bible, all because the spelling practice changed during the biblical time period. Now a scribe who decided to copy a text could either copy it letter for letter, or he could update the spelling. It would not change the meaning to update the spelling of David’s name, nor would it even change the pronunciation. The only reason to leave it unchanged would be due to a great reverence for scripture, and a belief that it must be copied letter for letter. This is what has happened with the MT; it preserves old spellings. The other textual strains do not do this. For example, the MT of Isaiah spells David’s name in the old form all 15 times it appears. The Great Isaiah Scroll, the Dead Sea Scroll discovered at Qumran containing the entire book of Isaiah, is not a proto-Masoretic Text. In that scroll, the spelling of David’s name has been updated to the later spelling all 15 times. The implication is that the scribes who copied what is today the MT were more conservative and meticulous about accurately copying the scriptures than the scribes who produced the other textual strains. The later Masoretic scribes were so scrupulous that they even developed a mechanism, the “qire/kethiv”, which among other usages had the effect of preserving what looked like errors in the text rather than fixing them when they made a copy. The “qire” would be a marginal note saying how the written text, the “kethiv”, should be read. We are fortunate that they did this, because we now know of certain cases where what surely must have looked to the scribes like an error was actually not an error. This gives one a high level of confidence in the MT.
  3. The Septuagint (LXX) is a good Greek translation of the Old Testament, and an extremely early one. In most cases, it is a highly literal translation that essentially matches the MT. Sometimes it is clearly a little different, and different in a way that indicates not a translation variation, but rather that the translator was working from a different Hebrew original. It is also important to remember that the LXX was not all translated by one person, and that it was also probably not translated all at one time, so each book may show different elements of style, and certain books are not translated as literally as others. Much of the LXX was translated around 200 B.C., although scholars do not agree on an exact date. The LXX includes some apocryphal books not found in the MT. It is hard to explain individual cases where the LXX and MTT differ, and usually there is no definitive way of telling which is best. However, some of the differences appear to be cases where one can be confident that the MT is the more reliable text. For example, Gen 48:7 says that Rachel was buried a little way from Bethlehem. One of the Hebrew words in that phrase is very rare, and the LXX translator apparently did not know it. He did, however, know where Rachel was buried, and he wrote “by the hippodrome.” It is exceedingly unlikely that the hippodrome was in the original.

Still, there are some places where there is reason to prefer the Septuagint reading to the MT. One example is in the Proverbs 31 description of the virtuous woman. This is an acrostic in Hebrew, with each verse beginning with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The verses in the MT are ordered in the current Hebrew alphabetical order. However, there are multiple lines of evidence showing that very ancient Hebrew had a slightly different alphabetical order, in which the 16th and 17th letters of the alphabet, the Hebrew letters 'ayin' and 'pe', are reversed. In the LXX, Prov 31:25 and 31:26, which correspond the Hebrew letters 'ayin' and 'pe', are reversed. The LXX reading is more likely to be the original.

There are a few cases where a Dead Sea Scroll manuscript offers a reading that is now preferred over the MT and LXX. To continue with acrostic examples, Psalm 145 is also an acrostic, with each verse beginning with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet. However, the verse beginning with the Hebrew letter 'nun' is missing. Dead Sea Scroll 11Q5 supplies the missing verse: "The LORD is faithful to all His promises and loving toward all He has made." This verse is now included in the New International Version and some other newer translations as Ps 145:13b.

One example of a place where the MT appears to be corrupt and where other textual witnesses do not provide much help is 1 Sam 13:1, on the subject of the length of Saul’s reign. The MT for 1 Sam 13:1 appears to say “Saul was one year old when he began to reign, and he reigned two years over Israel.” The LXX leaves this verse out entirely. Acts 13:21, in the New Testament, says Saul reigned 40 years.

There is usually some interest in which texts are used in the New Testament, in those cases where the New Testament quotes from the Old Testament. The New Testament uses the LXX more than the MT, but not exclusively so. This is understandable, since the New Testament is a Greek work, and the LXX is a good Greek translation. The way the New Testament uses Old Testament texts can be categorized as follows:

  1. Cases where the New Testament reading matches the LXX, and the LXX is a close translation of the MT. In these cases, it is not possible to say whether the author was using the LXX or the MT, since both are close. An example is Matt: 5:21, "You shall not commit murder."
  2. Cases where the New Testament uses the LXX, and the LXX differs from the MT. An example is Matt 4:4, "Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God." This matches the LXX, while the MT says "mouth of the LORD" rather than "mouth of God."
  3. Cases where the New Testament quotes from the MT and clearly not the LXX. These are less common. An example would be Matt 2:15, "Out of Egypt I called my Son." This verse perfectly matches the MT of Hosea 11:1, but the LXX loses the key point, saying "I called his children out of Egypt."
  4. Cases where the New Testament seems to either paraphrase the Old Testament or use a text no longer available today. An example would be Matt 2:23, "He shall be called a Nazarene."

The MT is available online in many places. This site has it in Hebrew, with an English translation alongside: http://www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0.htm

The LXX is online in a number of places, including here: http://spindleworks.com/septuagint/septuagint.htm

An English translation of the LXX is available here: http://spindleworks.com/septuagint/septuagint.htm

The Samaritan Pentateuch is available in Hebrew here: http://rosetta.reltech.org/cgi-bin/Ebind2html/TC/vonGall