The Old Testament

Aractus 27, August, 2012

One of the arguments we often see placed to Christians, and to Jews, is that the Old Testament books have been altered over time, and so we no longer have “original” copies of the works, but rather copies of copies of copies riddled with errors. In fact even some Jews believed that the Isaiah prophecies relating to Jesus were too specific to be an original part of the work, and that they were an alteration to the text.

Almost all English translations of the Holy Bible, going back to Tyndale’s Bible, primarily use the Masoretic Text (MT), with the exception of most Catholic translations. The MT is the authoritative Jewish version of the Old Testament (OT) in Hebrew, it was created by the Masoretes from the 7th to 11th centuries. It was a full preservation of the Hebrew text rendered into the most modern version of Hebrew available. Without modifying the underlying text it involved separation of Hebrew words, insertion of vowel markings, and ultimately, eradication of copyist errors.

Now we have to address two questions critics often pose: 1. Why is the authoritative copy only 1000 years old when it should be much older, and 2. Why aren’t older surviving copies more reliable than the MT?

So what happened to the original authoritative copy then? The simplest answer is that it was either destroyed, or it was believed to be destroyed in 586 BC, with the destruction of the First Temple. For this reason we would not expect any existing Hebrew copy of the OT older than this to be more authoritative than the MT. None exist anyway.

The authoritative text was always kept in the temple, Rabbis and Scribes were allowed to consult it in order to compare against, and correct copies they had in their possession. With the destruction of the temple in 586 BC this means that now no single text dating from before that time can ever be considered to be authoritative, since it could have contained errors. This is one reason why the Qumran Text (DSS) discovered from 1946-1956 can’t be relied upon for absolute accuracy. The DSS represents a different textual tradition, and comes from a sect. The DSS are very important in proving the case for the reliability of the MT. They date from around 150 BC.

This isn’t to say that the MT is perfect, because it’s not. But it does represent the authoritative textual tradition where others do not. Most of the text “missing” from it that is found in the DSS or other documents is gone intentionally because it was believed to be a latter addition. That said, there are clear instances of missing text in a small handful of places. Also the vowel points were not well understood when the scholars inserted them, which wasn’t a problem for the MT as such, but copies made by other scholars who didn’t understand them contain extensive errors regarding these. This isn’t a huge problem since it’s only for pronunciation and not meaning. The biggest change in the MT is the spacing of individual words. All older manuscripts of the OT did not have spaces between words, you can imagine how beneficial this change was.

So would we expect to find older versions based on the authoritative tradition? Older copies of the text were retired and replaced with newer ones once they were well worn. So we would never expect to find the original manuscripts of the OT books, or in fact significantly older ones then already discovered.

This now brings us to the Septuagint (LXX). Many scholars point out that this is the oldest known extant version of the Old Testament. It dates to about the 4th century BC. Those who defend its continued usage as an authoritative work, (Eastern Orthodox, etc) feel that the validity is vindicated by the DSS which they say share more in common with the LXX than with the MT. Some even claim that Jesus himself studied from the LXX.

Let’s address this issue first. There is no evidence, whatsoever, that Jesus ever read from the LXX or for that matter, any Greek translation. While the New Testament (NT) does indeed quote from the LXX, and quote Jesus as quoting according to the LXX, this is only evidence of the NT writer’s use of the LXX, and not Jesus’ use.

The Samaritan Pentateuch (SP) is the other OT text that exists in Hebrew (albeit a different alphabet) from before Christ. The LXX and the SP, both predating Christ, agree amongst themselves against the MT some 1900 times. And the LXX and the DSS also have similar agreements against the MT. However, majority doesn’t rule here. The MT was a carefully made preservation which took into consideration all known existing Hebrew manuscripts of the OT books, which were then retired (which is why we don’t have them now), and most importantly, careful consideration was given as to which were the most authoritative of them, and which were not. The DSS and SP on the other hand are just two copies. They both represent a valid textual tradition, texts that were owned by sects which did not have access to the authoritative version. Neither can be said to represent a careful preservation of the authoritative textual tradition.

In this sense we also do not know what version of the Hebrew textual tradition the LXX is based on, let alone the oral tradition. It was not the authoritative textual tradition. Much of the “inserted” material is believed to be an oral tradition, but it only represents what was made apparent to the translators. And as the translators were not Jewish, their intentions of preserving or copying the text would be different to a Rabbi who would have held the original work to be Holy. Suffice to say that even with extensive oral tradition passed to the translators from Jewish people, if the manuscripts represent a textual tradition of a particular sect then so would the oral tradition, which would indeed mean that the LXX in no way can be considered an authoritative work which was produced with the careful intention of faithful preservation of the Hebrew text.

Even today there are Christians who claim that the Jews altered the Hebrew text intentionally, and that the result is the Masoretic Text. These people are mistaken. For instance, one of the most important claims is that the verse Isaiah 7:14 which reads in the LXX “virgin” also originally read as “virgin” in the Hebrew and the Jews intentionally changed their authoritative version (the MT) to “young girl”. The most obvious problem with this argument is that the DSS contained a complete Isaiah scroll, and its word is identical to the MT and reads “young girl” and not “virgin”. So if anything it is possible that Christians altered the LXX, but it is not the case that Jews altered the MT. By the way, I do believe that every translation of Isaiah 7:14 which reads “virgin” is wrong, because it takes into account the oral tradition of an unknown Jewish sect embedded in the LXX as authoritative over the original Hebrew text.

The Masoretic Text is the oldest known complete copy of the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. It is very reliable, and although it can be proven to contain some errors, it is very well preserved. Should an older version of the OT be discovered, it is unlikely to represent a more definitive (and less derivative) work.

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