Authors: Bible Difficulties
(The same is true of Arabic and Syriac as well.) Nevertheless in dealing with literature written two thousand years ago, it remains true that speech patterns are far more varied--
particularly in poetic genres--than would be true with modern Hebrew; and vowel points are a very necessary safeguard for accurate interpretation.
To illustrate some of the problems involving correct vowel pointing, let me discuss a few passages relating to the Lord Jesus. Each of these has been pointed differently by the Masoretes from what is indicated by the early versions or (in some cases) by the New Testament.
1. Isaiah 7:11 contains the invitation to King Ahaz to name any miraculous sign he wishes to confirm that Isaiah's message of deliverance for Judah by God is truly of the Lord. Isaiah then says (according to the MT): "Ask for a sign for yourself from Yahweh your God; make the request [
] deep, or exalt it on high." This amounts to inviting him to name any kind of miracle in the heaven above or in the earth beneath.
Interestingly enough, the Greek versions all point to a different voweling of
, meaning "to Sheol [Hades]." The LXX has
("to the deep"); likewise Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion render it either
("to Hades"). So also does Jerome in the Vulgate:
in profundum inferni
("to the depth of Hades"). This adds up to considerable weight on the side of the emendation.
2. In Isaiah 9:5 (Isaiah 9:6 Eng.) the MT reads, "And one [or `he'] shall call" his name Wonderful. But the LXX (which is very sloppy in its rendering of this passage, to be sure) makes it the present passive
, which means "his name is called." The Vulgate
is likewise passive: "will be called"; the Syriac
is present passive, just like the LXX. All this adds up to a pretty strong case for repointing the MT
to the passive
("shall be called"). It makes a little better sense in the context and involves no change in the consonants.
3. In Micah 5:1 (Micah 5:2 Eng.), the prophecy concerning Christ's birth in Bethlehem, the MT reads, "You are little to be among the thousands [
] of Juidah," meaning "to be counted among the communities having a thousand families or more." But in Matthew 2:6 it is quoted thus: "You are very small among the leaders of Judah." The Greek word for "leaders" (
) reflects a Hebrew
. This does not reflect the LXX, incidentally, for it supports the MT with
("thousands"). Therefore it must come from some earlier, independent tradition.
4. Psalm 2:9, which is addressed by God the Father to His messianic Son, says (according to the MT), "You shall smash them with an iron rod," referring to hostile kings who will rebel against Him. This pointing of
("smash") seems to be confirmed by the second half of the verse: "You will dash them to pieces like pottery."
On the other hand, the LXX reads
("You will rule"), implying the vowel pointing
. This is confirmed by the word for "rod," which is
, the regular word for the staff of a shepherd or the scepter of a king. It is highly significant that this verse is quoted in Revelation 2:27: "He will rule [or `pasture'] them with an iron scepter; he will dash them to pieces like pottery." Again, in Revelation 12:5 we read, "She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule [
] all the nations with an iron scepter." In both passages the emphasis is not so much on destruction or smashing as it is on shepherding or governing as a ruler over all the earth. The probabilities are, then, that we should repoint the MT's
. This latter reading is the one followed by the Vulgate (
) and the Syriac (
), for both mean "you will rule."
5. Psalm 22, the Psalm of the Crucifixion, reads in Ps 22:9 (according to the MT):
"Trust thou [
] in Yahweh; He will rescue him [or, `let Him rescue him'], deliver him
[i.e., the psalmist in his suffering and humiliation], for He takes pleasure in him." This verse involves a rather awkward mixing of second person ("trust thou") and third person ("him"), referring to the same person in the same verse. But the LXX wording is "he trusted in the Lord' let Him deliver him." This implies repointing
, the same consonants, but a different vowel. Not only is this supported by the Vulgate (
), but it is also supported by the Syriac (
). Most important of all, Matthew 27:43
makes it third person singular: "He trusts [
] in God. Let God rescue him."
Considerations of context, the early versions, and the New Testament quotation all present a very good case for amending
6. Psalm 90:2 in the MT reads, "Before the mountains were born or You did give birth
] to the earth or the world,...You are God." But in almost all the early versions, the verb "give birth" is read as a passive (
, "was given birth to"), thus making the second verb a passive, harmonizing with the first verb, "were born." The LXX, Aquila, Symmachus, Jerome, and even the Aramaic Targum (which usually conforms to the MT) unite in making the second verb passive. There is even one early Hebrew manuscript from the Cario Genizah (Ecl) that reads a passive instead of an active. We may, therefore, safely adopt this emendation and make it a passive-- "were given birth to," which suggests writhing in pain, like a woman in labor.
The Canons of Textual Criticism
After sampling the eleven classes of textual error just described, in summary fashion we will list the seven "canons" or procedural rules textual critics use to come to an intelligent decision about divergent readings. These canons are arranged in the order of their priority or relative value.
. Generally speaking, the older reading is to be preferred over a reading found in later manuscripts. There may be, however, less reliable readings in as old a manuscript as 1QIsa, simply because the latter was a rapidly made a copy, intended for private use rather than for public worship or official instruction. But normally the older a manuscript is, the less likelihood there is of deviation from the reading of the autograph.
. The more difficult reading (
) is to be preferred over the easier reading. This results from the greater likelihood on the part of a copyist to simplify a difficult word or phrase in his
, rather than to make a simple reading more difficult. But it should of course be added that when the more difficult reading seems to have resulted from confusion or inadvertence on the part of the scribe, this rule does not apply. The same is true if the reading is so difficult that it does not really make sense, or, again, if the more difficult reading expresses an idea or viewpoint quite contradictory to the sentiments expressed elsewhere in the book.
. The shorter reading is generally to be preferred over the longer one. The reason for this is that copyists are more inclined to amplify or insert additional material for the purpose of clarification or embellishment than they are to leave out words already appearing in their
. But this rule does not apply if the shorter reading seems to result from haplography or homoeoteleuton, as described above.
. The reading that best explains all the variants is most likely the original one.
An excellent example of this was discussed above in connection with Psalm 22:16 (Psalm 22:17 Eng.), where we saw that a
("they have pierced") misread as
(at a time when waw and yodh greatly resembled each other) most satisfactorily accounted for the MT reading; whereas it would be far less likely that "like the lion" would have been the original lying behind a
, which makes perfect sense in the context.
. The reading with the widest geographical support is to be preferred over one that predominants only within a single region or a single manuscript family. Thus a reading attested by the LXX, the Old Latin, and the Coptic Egyptian versions does not have as much to commend it as one attested by the Vulgate and the LXX (outside of the Psalms, that is), or the LXX and the Samaritan. The reason for this is that both the Old Latin and the Coptic were translated originally from the LXX rather than from the Hebrew. For example, in Numbers 22:35 the Samaritan and the LXX agree on
("you will be careful to speak"), as against MT's simple
("you will speak"). Even though some LXX manuscripts were found in the Qumran library, it is safe to say that the LXX and the Samaritan had very little influence on each other. Therefore if they unite on a reading divergent from that of the MT, it is quite possible they are correct.
. The reading that more closely conforms to the style, diction, or viewpoint of the author in the rest of the book is to be preferred over a reading that seems markedly divergent. Of course this criterion must be applied with caution, for the author may be capable of a wider range of viewpoints and sentiments than modern liberals think admissible. We must firmly resist any emendation that merely reflects our own personal preference or opinion on a largely subjective basis.
. A reading that reflects no doctrinal bias on the part of the copyist himself is to be preferred over one that betrays a partisan viewpoint. Thus we find in Isaiah 1:12 that the Masoretes have shied away from the alleged anthropomorphism of the MT's "When you enter to appear [
] before Me, who has required this from your hand, to trample my courts?" The obvious reading of the unpointed text would be, not the abbreviated form of a medio-passive infinitive (
), but rather the active infinitive
("to behold"). The reason for reading it as medio-passive is a theological one.
Since no man can ever see God, the prophet would not be foolish enough to forbid Israel to do something that the people could never do anyway. But the problem with the MT
pointing is that "before" is normally written
("before me") rather than the simple
, which means "my face," not "before." These two factors lead to the conclusion that the MT has resorted to an antianthropomorphic device, the false pointing of
as the passive infinitive rather than the active. The Masoretes' high view of God as a transcendent spirit made them reluctant to allow the figurative expression "to behold my face," which was probably what Isaiah really intended to say. Yet it is quite possible that by Isaiah's time this had become an idiomatic expression for coming to the temple for worship and prayer. The word
meant both "face" and "presence"; and since the presence of Yahweh rested over the ark of the covenant in the inner sanctum, the so-called table of shewbread was actually called in Hebrew "the table and the bread of the Presence" (
sulhan we leem panim
). The twelve loaves were so designated because they were offered before the Presence of the Lord, concealed on the other side of the curtain separating the Holy Place from the innermost sanctum.
Ground Rules for Competent Textual Correction
Having gone through the general guidelines for choosing between alternative readings on the basis of the seven canons, we now come to a concluding summary that appears in Ernst Wurthwein's excellent volume
The Text of the Old Testament
(New York: Macmillan, 1957), pp. 80-81. Wurthwein is not an Evangelical scholar, but he does represent a very high level of German scholarship in the area of textual criticism; and his recommended procedures are beyond reproach--except perhaps on the part of critics who wish to alter the received text of Scripture in order to suit their own ideas of what it should have said. Here, then, is Wurthwein's formula.
1. Where the MT and the other witnesses present the same reading, and it is sensible and intelligent, then let it stand without tampering. (It is inadmissible to reject this reading and resort to conjecture, as so many have ventured to do.)
2. Where there is a genuine deviation from the MT on the part of other witnesses, and both reading seem equally sensible, then the preference should clearly be given to the MT.
3. Where the text of the MT is for some reason doubtful or virtually impossible--
whether from the standpoint of grammar or sense-in-context--and the reading offered by other witnesses offers a satisfactory sense, then the latter should be given careful consideration. This is especially true if it can be seen how the MT reading might have resulted through one of the familiar scribal errors (described above). But if, on the other hand, there is reason to believe that the ancient translator produced a clear reading only because he could not make out the meaning of the Hebrew text before him, and therefore guessed at what it might have intended to say, then we have a textual obscurity that can only be tentatively solved by resorting to conjecture.
4. Where neither the MT nor the other witnesses offer a plausible reading, then conjecture is the only course left to the critic. But he must do his best to reconstruct a reading that is as close as possible to the corrupted words in the received text, taking full cognizance of the standard types of scribal error and the various alternative readings that may most easily have developed from this original wording--if such it was.
5. In all his work with textual problems, the critic must pay due regard to the psychology of the scribe himself. How might he have fallen into this error, if error it was?