Observing the relationship between textual criticism, biblical inerrancy and the study of Old Testament manuscripts

Introduction and review: In the last post we considered the relationship between textual criticism, biblical inerrancy and the study of the New Testament manuscripts (see: https://biblicalexegete.wordpress.com/2015/09/14/observing-the-relationship-between-textual-criticism-biblical-inerrancy-and-the-study-of-new-testament-manuscripts/). We labored to show through real world examples that textual criticism (the science that attempts to reconstruct the original text out of currently existing copies) does not dismiss the theological assertion of Biblical inerrancy in the originals. If anything, textual criticism serves the need of the church in showing how God’s words are still available in current translations of both Old and New Testaments.

Main point of today’s post: Today’s post will aim to observe the relationship between textual crticism, biblical inerrancy and the study of Old Testament manuscripts. Throughout this introductory treatment on how these matters relate to the Old Testament text, the reader will be alerted to the distinct ways in which Old Testament textual criticism proceeds in comparison to its New Testament counterpart.

1. Getting a “lay of the land” regarding the Old Testament text

The Old Testament (or as it is sometimes called “Old Covenant”) was revealed by God over a period of 1,000 years, beginning with Moses in 1445 b.c and ending with Malachi in roughly 396 b.c. 98% of the text was revealed originally in Hebrew, with roughly 2% composed in Aramaic (in major portions of Daniel, some parts of Ezra, one verse in Jeremiah and a couple of words in Genesis). In the first several centuries of the Hebrew text, the so-called “Paleo-Hebrew” script would had been used, and looked something akin to the following photograph (from “halleluyahscriptures.com):

When the Jews went into exile to Babylon beginning in 605 b.c, they spent 70 years being immersed in the language of Babylon – Aramaic. Once the Jews returned back to Jerusalem under Zerubbabel (516 b.c), Ezra (458 b.c) and Nehemiah (445 b.c), the Hebrew lettering or script changed to what is today called “The Aramaic Square Script”. The world famous Dead Sea scrolls (dated between the Old and New Testaments) exhibit the Aramaic Square script as seen in the photo below (from the website: http://www.bl.uk)

 All of the Hebrew Manuscripts copied in the Medieval period by the Masorete scribes (hence “The Masoretic Text) exist in this beautiful type of Hebrew lettering, with vowel points introduced sometime after the fifth century A.D. A sample of one of these Hebrew manuscripts, the Aleppo Codex of the 9th century, is depicted below (from wikipedia article on the Aleppo Codex):

In virtually all Hebrew Bibles today, one will find three major divisions of the biblical material:

a. Torah. Torah means “that which guides, teaches”. Contents: (Genesis-Deuteronomy)

b. Neviim.  Neviim is the Hebrew term for “Prophets”. Contents: (Joshua-Ezekiel called “The Former Prophets” and Hosea-Malachi called “The Twelve”)

c. Ketuviim. Ketuviim means “The Writings”. Contents (Poetry being Psalms, Job, Proverbs; Megilloth being Ruth, Songs, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations & Esther) and the three final books of Daniel and 1 & 2 Chronicles.

All three major sections comprise the Hebrew Bible, which based upon the first letters of each section is sometimes referred to as the TaNaK (Torah and Neviim and Ketuviim). The Hebrew Masoretic Text found in all Hebrew Bibles today weighs in at 419,687 words, representing 8,679 different vocabulary words used by God to express His revelation to His people.

2. The major Old Testament translations used in discerning the original text of the Old Testament

In Ellis R. Brotzman’s work, “Old Testament Textual Criticism”, as well as other standard reference works on the subject (such as Ernst Wuerthwein’s “The Text of the Old Testament”), four major groups of witnesses of the Old Testament text are consulted when performing Old Testament textual criticism. 

The first grouping has already been mentioned – namely the so-called “Masoretic Hebrew text”. This first branch represents a very stable form of the Hebrew text that although represented in Medeival Hebrew manuscripts copied and standardized in the 8th to 11th centuries A.D, represents (according to Brotzman) a Hebrew manuscript stream going back as far as at least 500 b.c.  The amazing fact that is often cited about the Hebrew Masoretic text is that when compared to the much older Dead Sea Scrolls, virtual 95% agreement exists. 

The second grouping of witnesses is the Greek Old Testament, represented chiefly by what is known as the Septuagint. Sometimes symbolized by the Roman numeral “LXX” (meaning “70” with reference to the traditional view of 70 scribes copying the Septuagint’s version of the Torah beginning in 275 b.c), the transmission history of the Greek Old Testament text is complex and unique in its own right. For reference sake, other Greek versions of the Old Testament arose and became available throughout the Medditeranean world and came to co-exist with the earlier manuscripts of the LXX text. What makes the Greek text of the Old Testament valuable for discerning the original text of the Old Testament is that occassionally, readings from the LXX may prove to be the autographic or original moreso than the Masoretic text. Below is a closeup view of a page from Joshua in an ancient Greek manuscript (picture is from bibleodyssey.com)

The third branch or stream used in textual criticism or discerning the wording of the Old Testament text is a version of the Pentateuch called “The Samaritan Pentateuch”. Ernst Wurthwein’s seminal work: “The Text of the Old Testament”, page 42, summarizes the origin of the Samaritan Pentateuch: “The separation of the Samaritans from the Jews was aadaismrtant event in the history of post-exilic Judaism. We do not know precisely when it was that the Samaritan community made the final break from Jerusalem.” As Wurthwein comments further about the Samaritans trek through the time between the Old and New Testament eras, he then notes: “The Samaritans took the Pentateuch with them when they went into schism.” The text of the Samaritan Pentateuch was copied in a script resembling the Paleo-Hebrew script (see above) and has readings found on occassion among the famous Dead Sea Scrolls. Below is a sample photograph of the Samaritan Pentateuch (picture derived from yiddishkeit.wordpress.com)


These three branches that we have considered thus far: the Masoretic Text, the Greek Old Testament (represented chiefly by the Septuagint) and the Samaritan Pentateuch, representing thousands of textual witnesses of the Old Testament text.

The fourth set of witnesses that round out the entire mass of textual evidence for the Old Testament text are the ancient translations and versions deriving mainly from the Masoretic text and occassionally the Greek Old Testament. Dr. Randall Price, Distinguished Professor of Jewish Studies at Liberty University, metnions several of these ancient translations and versions of the Old Testament text. For brevity’s sake, I will elaborate on a couple of them.

a. Aramaic Targums. Dr. Price notes on page 73 of his book “Searching for the Original Bible”: “The pervasive influence of the Babylonian empire on the Near East raised its language, Aramaic, to the level of an international language. Living in a world dominated by this influence, as well as spending 70 years in captivity in Babylon, the Jewish people adopted Aramaic and used it alongside Hebrew in their daily discources and written works. One of these works was a translation of the Hebrew Bible into Aramaic called the Targum Isingular) with its Targumim (plural), meaning ‘explanations’ or ‘commentary’. This Aramaic translation used to accompnay the reading in the synagogue (and still does in Yeminite Synagogues). Outside the synagogue, it acquired significant literary additions.” 

This blogger has noted in recent years an increased availability of language courses in Biblical Aramaic and the Aramaic language in general. Even major publishers like Zondervan have teamed up with Bible Scholars such as Dr. Miles Van Pelt to produce an excellent 22 lecture series entitled: “Basics of Biblical Aramaic”. As noted above at the beginning of this post, some portions of the books of Daniel and Ezra were written in Aramaic. As the digital age continues to make accessibility to such languages and documents possible, the ability to evaluate the manuscript evidence for the scriptures will also increase. Below is a sample picture of an Aramaic Targum (from blog.logos.com):

b. Syriac Peshitta. Once more we trun to Dr. Randall Price’s book “Searching for the Original Bible”, wherein he writes on page 74 regarding this major ancient translation: “The Peshitta Old Testament originated in the first-second centuries AD either in Jewish or Christian circles as a translation in Syriac, an Aramaic language, from the Hebrew text.” Price then notes that the “Syriac” (meaning “common version”) had as its underlying Hebrew text: “similar to the Masoretic Text, although it is certain that translators (different people in different times in different places) compared thier work to the Septuagint). This blogger finds the Syriac version among the most beautiful of the ancient translations of the Old Testament. Below is a sample photograph from a page of the Syriac Old Testament (from the website: http://www.bible-researcher.com):

The point in mentioning some of these ancient translations is to show that in working with the textual history of the Old Testament, scholars can on occassion find readings that reach back into the centuries where we may not even have Hebrew manuscripts from those eras. Although the Hebrew text shows remarkable reliability, the other streams and witnesses to the Old Testament text only add to reinforce the richness and reliability of the Old Testament text. Thus these represent the witnesses that scholars use in aiming for understanding as close as possible the original wording of the Old Testament text.

3. The relationship of Old Testament textual criticism and study of manuscripts to the question of inerrancy

We have thus far considered the overall “lay of the land” of the Hebrew Old Testament, as well as a summary of some of the major streams and witnesses to the Old Testament text. Both of these areas serve in approaching the discipline of textual criticism in the Old Testament. As we noted at the beginning of this post, though there are similarities between textual criticism of the Old and New Testaments (chiefly with the aim of identifying what comprises the wording of the autographs or “original text”), there are yet distinctions to note when dealing with the Old Testament.

Ellis R. Brotzman in his seminal book: “Old Testament Textual Criticism” (page 123), notes the following observation about Old Testament textual criticism in comparison to its New Testament counterpart: “the focus of Old Testament text criticism is different from the practice of text criticism of the New Testament or of classical Greek or Roman authors. In the New Testament the emphasis is on the study of variant readings, but Old Testament text criticism deals principally with perceived textual difficulties.” 

Two important doctrines supply the cornerstone for any high view of scripture: inerrancy in the originals and preservation in the copies and subsequent translations. The first truth, inerrancy, can be stated positively as simply asserting that all the words revealed to and written down by the Apostles were completely true and accurate.

The second truth, preservation, contends for the continuing authority of God’s word with two fronts contended for under its subject-matter. The one front is that every New or Old Testament manuscript copy or translation will not be immune from scribal errors in copying nor difficulties in rendering the source language of either testament into any receptor language.  Hence, even in the best examples of our New Testament Greek manuscripts (such as the mid-4th century Codex Siniaticus), there are notes indicating corrections. The second front contended for by the doctrine of preservation is that the original words of God revealed to the prophets and apostles are present in every manuscript, translation and version.

These two major doctrines must be kept in mind when dealing with the Old Testament text. God’s preservation of His word among the manuscripts does not prevent differences and alterations from occuring among those copies. So often critics will focus on the differences without taking into consideration that in our Old Testament manuscripts, over 95% – 100% confidence exists regarding the original wording. When this blogger reads a given Old Testament text in the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint, there will be of course found differences. Nevertheless, though the amount of witnesses for the Old Testament versus the New Testament may be less, the textual history of the former is longer by several centuries. Amazingly, just as we see in the New Testament, the variations among the Old Testament manuscripts do not affect one major doctrine nor any significant point or detail of the Old Testament.

Closing thoughts

By holding to the preservation of the wording of the original text among the sea of variants spread across our manuscript witnesses, we can say like we did in the last post on the New Testament – we have in effect the original wording of the Old Testament. We considered in today’s post “the lay of the land” of the Old Testament and the major Old Testament translations and witnesses that are used in discerning the original wording of the Old Testament text. By understanding the distinctions between the doctrines of inerrancy and preservation, the student of scripture has nothing to fear from the science of textual critcism as it relates to holding a high view of scripture. This blogger asserts inerrancy in the originals as given by God to the prophets – with such authority carrying through to manuscripts, translations and versions that stay faithful to the wording and intent of those originals. When any preacher preaches forth from the Old Testament, they can say with utmost certainty that they are expounding God’s words.  It is those words that are without error – given to God’s people and to a world in need of salvation.

Works Cited:

Brotzman, Ellis R. Old Testament Textual Criticism. Baker Books. 1994

Price, Randall. Searching for the Original Bible. Harvest House. 2007

Wurthwein, Ernst. The Text of the Old Testament. Eerdmans. 1981


About pastormahlon

By the grace of God I was converted to saving faith in Jesus Christ at the age of 10 and called into the Gospel ministry by age 17. Through the Lord's grace I completed a Bachelors in Bible at Lancaster Bible College in 1996 and have been married to my beautiful wife since that same year. We have been blessed with four children, ranging from 7-18 years of age. In 2002 the Lord enabled me to complete a Master of Arts in Christian Thought at Biblical Theological Seminary, Hatfield PA. For nearly 25 years I have been preaching and teaching God's Word and have been studying the original languages since 1994. In 2016 God called my family and me to move to begin a pastorate at a wonderful Southern Baptist Congregation here in Northern New York.
This entry was posted in Apologetics, Biblical Aramaic, Biblical Inerrancy, Biblical Infallibility, Divine Inspiration, Hebrew Text/Translation, Preservation of the Biblical Text, Textual Criticism. Bookmark the permalink.

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