by Thandazani Mhlanga | 27 July 2023 |
I once knew some folks who believed—a belief they held quite militantly—that the King James translation of the Greek and Hebrew scriptures was holy and uncorrupted, unlike all other translations.
For them, acceptable public prayers and presentations had to reflect the holiness of God’s word; thus, they insisted on “thee and thou” instead of you, “thine” instead of your, and “ye” instead of you. They were annoyed whenever anyone read or preached from different versions of the Bible, and they made it their moral responsibility to point out the error.
One day, after they had taken it upon themselves to scold a visitor for the dual sin of reading the Bible from his phone and for using the Bible in Basic English translation, I asked what proof they had to argue that the ancients had one consistent version of the biblical text?
The response was: “We prayed about it, and God revealed it to us.”
That’s a statement whose goal, intended or unintended, is to eliminate all additional discussion.
They did not understand that all biblical books result from a lengthy compositional process, much of which began as oral literature and developed over centuries at the hands of multiple authors, creative scribes, redactors, and editors.
Let’s look at some examples in the Hebrew text.
The Masoretic Text—and the others
6th-to-10th-century CE Jewish schoolers in Babylonia and Palestine undertook the enormous task of assembling, codifying, and inserting diacritical markers into their preferred version of the Hebrew scriptures. Their goal was to give future generations an authentic scriptural foundation to construct their religious identity, thereby preserving their favored expression of Judaism.
The outcome of that epoch-making event is the Masoretic text of the Hebrew scriptures. All the Bibles used by mainstream Christianity are based on the Masoretic Text. Non-academic readers construct biblical faith based on translations of the Masoretic text because that is what is in our Bibles, and our faith traditions are largely based on the readings from this Hebrew text.
Academic readers have other options; they may use Tiberian Hebrew (the form that the Masoretes solidified) to teach biblical Hebrew. And may also reach back to the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS) or Biblia Hebraica Quinta (BHQ), both of which are transcriptions of Codex Leningradensis, an older Masoretic manuscript of the Hebrew Bible.
But, as you have probably guessed, even more biblical texts were in circulation in the ancient world, and some contained different readings from those found in these Masoretic-based texts. Have you read passages in the New Testament citing the Old Testament, where the quoted text doesn’t read quite the same way? The writer may have been quoting a different text. The same is true of biblical citations from Pseudo-Philo and Josephus and several of the early church fathers, say historians of early Christianity: they don’t quite match what we have in our Bibles, because they too may have used a different text of the Hebrew Bible.
What happened is that over the course of history, sects in the ancient world, Jewish or otherwise, favored a collection of authoritative texts which reflected the shared beliefs and values of their faith community. As theological positions shifted over time, scribes edited authoritative texts to reflect their immediate communities’ current beliefs.
Differences in chrono-genealogy
To illustrate, let me contrast and compare a few examples from the “chrono-genealogical” (genealogy joined with chronological information) lists from Adam to Abraham (Genesis 5:3-32 and Genesis 11:10-26).
I will compare three—and it will help you understand what follows to learn their common acronyms:
- The Masoretic text (MT), which I described above
- The Septuagint (LXX), a Greek form of what we call the Old Testament
- The Samaritan Pentateuch (SP).
Both the LXX and the SP are arguably older (and therefore presumably closer to the original source) than the MT. (These comparisons are illustrated here in visual form, should you want to study it more deeply.)
Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, several of these texts were categorized as sectarian, “vulgar,” or non biblical—that is, until some biblical texts from the Dead Sea scrolls agreed with them against the Masoretic text, which solidified their legitimacy.
Chrono-genealogical up to the flood (Genesis 5)
Scholars have long recognized that the difference in numbers between these three textual sources is anything but coincidental. There is a clear pattern that the editors of these texts were following.
If one uses the Masoretic Text (MT) as a point of reference, the data express a tendency to increase numbers in the LXX and decrease them in the SP. Take Adam, for example; the LXX added 100 years, making Adam 230 years old when Seth was born, while the SP says he was 130 years old.
The MT, SP, and LXX are likely all editions of an older text, since the redactors’ concerns were primarily the flood and genealogical data. The interpretive scribal community behind the LXX was concerned with flood dating, unlike the scribal interpretive community behind the MT and the SP, whose primary concern was genealogical data, possibly because it helped to establish national legitimacy.
The LXX places the flood in 2242, delaying the onset of the flood so that most of Noah’s ancestors are dead before the flood, with the curious exception of Methuselah, who outlives the flood by 14 years.
In the curious case of Methuselah, Ronald S. Hendel pointed out that Josephus, in his antiquities, likely used a revised Greek text more similar to the LXX than the MT. In it, he argued that Methuselah fathered Lamech when he was 187 years old, unlike the LXX, which says he was 167 years old. But, Josephus then aligned with all the other witnesses in suggesting that Methuselah lived to 969 years of age, which doesn’t help us resolve the issue of Methuselah.
The point here is that all these religious communities had differing texts, due to their differing theological positions.
While we might have enough editorial evidence to suggest that the flood was the primary theological concern, we do not have enough to explain why Methuselah was the exception. As the reference charts demonstrate, the SP and the MT do not have the same issues as the LXX: all the patriarchs, i.e., Adam to Lamech, are deceased before the flood.
Chrono-genealogical problems with Abraham
In the case of Genesis 11:10-26, it is evident among other things that the chronological differences are addressing the problem of the beginning of the cycle of events surrounding Abraham. The lifespan of Terah in the MT creates a problem in the Genesis narrative. Genesis 11:32 relates that “Terah died in Haran.”
Immediately after that, Yahweh calls Abraham to the promised land (12:1-4). The narrative sequence implies that Terah died before Abraham’s call and journey. But Gen 12:4 states that Abraham was 75 when he left Haran, in which case Terah was still alive, according to the MT, being only 145 at the time.
The scribal community behind the MT also had no issue with the discrepancy of having Shem, Shelah, and Eber outlive Abraham. But the scribes behind the SP and the LXX did. To add to this, the LXX even has an extra patriarch, Kenan II, who was added, possibly to create a uniform list of ten patriarchs before the flood and ten after the flood.
Again, each religious community appears to have had differing texts, due to differing theological positions.
What does this tell us about scripture?
Whenever such topics are discussed, the question of inspiration is unavoidable. What is inspiration, and how do you quantify it? Are the SP, LXX, Targumim, and Peshitta equally inspired as the MT. though they all show signs of scribal tinkering? What makes a set of writings authoritative, since all these faith communities of old had sacred texts that were arguably contextualized to their communities?
I understand these are big questions without easy answers. I offer the following as a starting point for this difficult conversation.
I think the Jews of old understood something that Christian textual tradition has neglected: that scripture is alive. It is not an ancient relic. Because it is alive, it changes and adapts to its surrounding environment without losing its core identity.
As an authoritative text of our time, the Bible ought to be meaningful and relevant to modernity without losing its main message. Varying biblical interpretations are acceptable, because God’s character of love should shine through, regardless of the interpretation or language one desires to use to engage the text.
What do you think? What is scripture?
Ronald S. Hendel, The Text of Genesis 1-11: Textual Studies and Critical Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 64.
Thandazani Mhlanga is a pastor, educator, speaker, and author who is currently studying ancient Near Eastern civilizations at the University of Toronto. Pastor Thandazani and his wife, Matilda, have three girls who are the joy of their lives. His website is themscproject.com.