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The Committee's Goal & Guiding Principles

This post provides some reading notes on chapter 2 of 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). Earlier posts provide notes on the Introduction and part 1, chapter 1.

Chapter 2 of part 1 overviews the committee’s understanding of the goal of textual criticism and the guiding principles with which they worked. Finally, Barthélemy surveys the committee’s understanding of how the Old Testament canon developed.

J. D. Michaelis had planned to gather a committee of scholars to assess all the textual difficulties in the Bible, but this plan was never brought to fruition. The Seven Years’ War intervened. In 1935 Paul Volz, who had recently done work on the text of Jeremiah, expressed the desire to carry Michaelis’ vision forward. World War II intervened. The need for a thorough study of textual variants in the Old Testament became even more pressing after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In 1969 the United Bible Societies successfully gathered a world-renown committee, and they began to meet annually for four week sessions.

The goal of textual criticism

In recent years, the goal of textual criticism has been a hot topic of debate. There is plenty of talk in print and at the annual meetings about theories of textual criticism so this comment from Barthélemy is especially interesting: “Rather than debating theoretical positions, they [the committee] deemed it more worthwhile to focus on the critical task itself, and only thereafter to analyze the methodological implications of their common work” (84).

The committee sought to reconstruct the earliest attested text, a text that might be dated to roughly 300 BC. They worked with the presupposition that they could “on the basis of extant textual witnesses recover that text type which lay behind all the ancient variations,” and according to Barthélemy, this belief rested “in part on the hypothesis that the various textual traditions had not begun to diverge until after their content had come to be recognized as sacred, or — to use a convenient phrase, albeit ambiguous — until after they had become canonical” (87). The earliest attested text is that phase in the literary development of a biblical book that marked “the end of its literary development and the beginning of its textual history” (88).

Exceptions to the rule

The committee recognized in the course of its work that Proverbs, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel were exceptions to the rule. In these cases, they decided to follow MT, wherever it differed from the OG at a literary level. They committee regarded textual emendation outside the bounds of textual criticism primarily because their goal was to recover “the earliest attested text” — the second phase of the text’s development. Contextual emendation aims at recovering a pristine original (1st phase) reading.

Guiding principles

Barthélemy summarizes 15 factors the committee turned to as causes of textual corruption. He also discusses the way in which the committee handled inner biblical reworkings of earlier material, euphemisms, tiqqune sopherim, kethiv-qere readings, and the weight given by the committee to other scribal marks. These principles guided the committee’s evaluation of over 5,000 variants:

  1. Narrow basis for a variant form of the text: If a variant occurs in only one textual tradition, this should be a red flag, but one must weigh the witnesses, not just count them.
  2. Deceptively broad basis fora variant form of the text tradition: One can have several witnesses to a reading, but all of them could be dependent on an early interpretation of an obscure textual difficulty.
  3. Dependence of a variety of text forms upon one earlier form: Sometimes several variant readings can be explained as various scribal responses to an obscure textual problem.
  4. Simplification of the text (easier reading): The tendency of scribes is to simply the text, not make it more difficult.
  5. Assimilation to parallel passages: Some variants arose because scribes or translators made the passage more clear or detailed based on similar biblical passages. In these cases, the unassimilated form is, presumably, earlier.
  6. Translational adjustments to the text: Some variants arise based on the linguistic requirements of languages into which the text was translated. This factor is important in assessing whether or not a variant is based on different Hebrew Vorlage.
  7. Interpretive modifications: Variants can be due to theological interpretation on the part of a translator.
  8. Misunderstanding of linguistic data: Variants can arise do to a scribe’s or translator’s misunderstanding of biblical grammar and lexicography.
  9. Misunderstanding of historical data: Knowledge of a text’s historical and cultural setting disappeared, and therefore a scribe adjusted the text to make it more clear.
  10. Accidental omission of similar letters, words, or sentences: For example, ד or י can be confused with ר or ו.
  11. Accidental repetition of identical sequences: Sometimes a word or phrase or letter is accidentally written twice.
  12. Other scribal errors: This is the catch-all-the-rest category.
  13. Conflated readings or doublets: Short explanatory notes — written in the margin or above or below the line — were sometimes incorporated into the text itself.
  14. Conjectural emendation doesn’t fit with the committee’s understanding of the goal of textual criticism.
  15. Later, corrupt readings are better than a conjectured forms.

The developing “canon”

Finally, Barthélemy lays out the perspective on the process of OT canonization with which the committee worked. A few key quotes:

As we will see, the direction and extent of dispersion of textual forms varies from book to book. It is remarkable that at Qumran, as in the Christian church before Origen, this pluralism within which the sacred books were read seems to have been accepted without difficulty (128).

We have had to conclude from this that the stable point which we had believed (with Kittel) could be fixed around 300 B.C. continues to elude our grasp. In that era, certain portions of the Joshua-Judges-Samuel-Kings corpus were already transmitted in several distinct textual forms, and these continued to undergo literary innovations of limited extent throughout their transmission in Hebrew … In fact, the mirage of a text that was stable and unified (because of its canonical function) before the intervention of the Greek translators vanished before the committee’s eyes (132).

It seems, finally, that the only fixed point in the history of the Hebrew text which can serve as a base of reference is represented by the standard edition of the consonantal text that was produced by the rabbis at the end of the first century A.D. … We can then regard the Tiberian MT — at least for the books it contains — as an essentially faithful witness to the Bible that Paul read at the feet of Gamaliel. Even if this Bible does not constitute the only form of the Christian Old Testament, it does at least represent a particularly venerable form of it (137).

That is why this report devotes so much space to the history of interpretation. Because recent commentaries and dictionaries too often show little interest in those difficult texts that they eliminate through correction, it was essential to take a fairly large inventory of the syntactic analyses and interpretations that the most conscientious early Jewish and Christian interpreters offered for these texts. We hope that a given syntactic comparison or an original Judeo-Arab interpretation (even though 1,000 years old) will occasionally be able to remind us that the situation of some of these texts is not as desperate as a lazy critic may claim in order to justify the proliferation or the mediocrity of his conjectures (138).

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The Early History of OT Textual Criticism