Brian W. Davidson

teacher @highlandslatin,

PhD candidate @sbts,

research expert @sbtslibrary

The Early History of OT Textual Criticism

This post provides some reading notes on chapter 1 of on Dominique Barthélemy's Studies in the Text of the Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Old Testament Text Project, trans. Stephen Pisano et al., Textual Criticism and the Translator 3 (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2012).

An earlier post provides notes on the Introduction.

Chapter 1 surveys the history of OT textual criticism from its origin in the Early Middle Ages to J. D. Michaelis. Barthélemy states that most scholars know hardly anything about textual criticism prior to the advent of modern critical studies. The chapter is intended to fill this information gap.

The status of the vowel points in the 16th–17th centuries

Barthélemy begins by surveying the debates among sixteenth and seventeenth century scholars concerning the antiquity of the vowel points. Two works were at the center of the debate: Louis Cappel’s Arcanum and Critica Sacra, both of which argued against to J. Buxtorf’s Tiberias. Buxtorf argued that the accents preceded the Masoretes. In Aracanum Cappel argued that the Masorah was a highly composite work compiled over the centuries and the vowel points were a relatively recent addition. Concerning the validity of Cappel’s arguments, Barthélemy states, “They reveal a well-informed and quasi-prophetic understanding for his time of the progressive development of vocalization” (16). According to Cappel, the vowel points were not necessary to maintain a stable text.

Though Buxtorf read Cappel’s work, neither he nor anyone else responded to Cappel for nearly 20 years. After Buxtorf died, his son wrote a response to Cappel, but at this point Cappel’s arguments had won the day. Cappel further developed his approach to the text of the Old Testament, when in 1650 he published his Critica Sacra. Barthélemy writes, “This work definitively established the legitimacy and necessity of submitting the Hebrew test of the Old Testament to a criticism analogous to that used for any ancient secular literature."

At the end of the seventeenth century critics were in agreement on two things:

1. The available Hebrew witnesses to the text of the Old Testament were remarkably unified.

2. If the autographs of the biblical books were accessible, these would have been considered normative (29).

Kennicott and de Rossi

The first conviction was tested and proven true by work of Benjamin Kennicott and Giovanni Bernardo de Rossi. Kennicott raised funds and organized a team of 315 people throughout Great Britain to collate hundreds of medieval Hebrew manuscripts. The project even gained financial support from King George III. The second and last volume was published in 1780. The methodology and execution of the work was criticized by J. D. Michaelis and many others, but all were, nonetheless, supportive of Kennicott’s massive endeavor.

De Rossi was a wealthy priest who was able to greatly enhance Kennicott’s collations, and unlike Kennicott, de Rossi did all of his additional collations himself. The final verdict on the work of Kennicott and de Rossi was less then sensational: The medieval manuscripts contain variants attributable almost exclusively to scribal error. The status of the Hebrew text of the Old Testament was not further developed until the work of Paul Kahle in the middle of the twentieth century. 

… With regard to [MT] manuscripts, it is often stated that there are this many Kennicott manuscripts and that many de Rossi manuscripts, even though serious confusion exists regarding the identification of these manuscripts. What, in fact, was Kennicott’s work and what was de Rossi’s? It seems that much is obscure when one attempts to look back before the end of the eighteenth century outside of Germany (2).


The second conviction of seventeenth century critics was taken to task by the work of Spinoza. The stage was set by Thomas Hobbes and Isaac de La Peyrère. These authors demonstrated that portions of the Pentateuch showed signs of editorial activity that could not be attributed to Moses. Spinoza’s Tractatus developed this stream of thought into a systematic approach to biblical criticism. In order to properly interpret Scripture, one must first understand the Hebrew language and have a proper understanding of the situation in which each biblical book was originally written. Neither of these these are completely attainable therefore, according to Spinoza, the “author’s intention” concerning every detail is beyond our grasp. Spinoza believed that the big ideas concerning morality and salvation are plain enough in the text itself; the deficiency in our knowledge of Hebrew and the history of the biblical books only called into question "matters beyond normal comprehension, which can merely be imagined.”[1]

Spinoza was excommunicated and his views denounced, but his ideas were carried forward by Richard Simon. Simon took Spinoza’s questions seriously and attempted to write the literary history of the Old Testament Spinoza required. In 1678 Simon published Histoire Critique du Vieux Testament. Barthélemy Argues persuasively that Richard Simon was dependent on Spinoza in the first nine chapters of his Histoire Critique, the portion that proved to be foundational for the development of higher criticism. Simon deliberately concealed his dependence on Spinoza because  he wanted to avoid being criticized simply for his work’s association with Spinoza (60–62).

Spinoza’s argument that the Old Testament as we have it is not equal to the autographs made a lasting impact.  Simon argued that Jesus’ and the apostles’ interpretation of the Old Testament was in line with Jewish hermeneutics. Barthélemy notes that Simon "had no idea that pesharim of Qumran would one day provide us with re-readings in an eschatological vein which clearly predated our own era” (74).

Simon considered a prophet “any person appointed by the leaders of the ‘Hebrew Republic’ who carries out a redactional role with regard to the sacred books and who, because of that, possesses an inspired authority which enables him to fulfill it…” (75). He called them “public scribes.” Because these public scribes were inspired, it is a waste of time to search for the “authors” of each book. Regarding the Pentateuch, Simon considered Moses the author, but he recognized that changes and additions had been made to the book after the time of Moses. The historical books are summaries and compilations of ancient memoirs. The people who compiled these memoirs sometimes left in their composite products discrepancies found in their sources. They left these discrepancies because they were insignificant — for example discrepancies in the lists found in Nehemiah 7 and Ezra 2 (78). This perspective opens the door for Jean Astruc and the development of source and redaction criticism.

The “final form”

The only valid response to Spinoza’s sharp criticism is the one which Simon’s hermeneutic contributes to orienting prophecy … Spinoza, in fact, made the possibility or impossibility of interpreting prophecy authentically entirely dependent upon our capacity or incapacity to reconstitute the contents of the prophet’s thought, and to identify the circumstances and hearers  of his word. For Simon, none of that was of any importance … The most important thing is to be able to arrive at the second meaning principally intended by the prophetic Spirit, beyond the historical meaning which criticism helps to determine … Thus the contemporaries of the fulfillment as opposed to those of the prophet, find themselves in a privileged position for interpreting the prophecies. It is clear that this revolution had important consequences for the textual criticism of the Old Testament. The textual form which must serve as a point of reference is not the one constituted by ‘the autographs of Moses and the Prophets,’ but is constituted rather by the state of divinely guided maturation in which the books of Scripture are found at the time of the fulfillment, that is, at the time when the Messiah reveals himself in order to renew all things (80–81).

  1. 57, taken from Barthélemy’s quotation of Spinoza’s Tractatus in his Complete Works pp. 465–467.  ↩

The Committee's Goal & Guiding Principles

Overview of the Hebrew Old Testament Text Project