Saturday, March 31, 2012

Updating, Emendation, and Linguistic Studies

In my recent studies of the Hebrew verb ויהי, I came across a familiar tension between textual and linguistic studies. In a number of places (1 Sam 10:5; 2 Sam 5:24; 1 Kgs 14:5; 1 Chr 14:15; Rut 3:4), the MT uses the imperfect verb וִיהִי when we would expect the weqatal verb וְהָיָה, which normally precedes fronted temporal clauses in non-past contexts. Textual critics commonly emend these forms to their more common forms, whereas linguists commonly insist on explaining them as the only surviving evidence. In this methodological gridlock, who is right?

First, it is important to note that our corpus and understanding of Biblical Hebrew is comparatively limited, so we must remain open to challenging received wisdom with new linguistic insight. It is all too easy to emend away difficult evidence which, properly understood, might shed light on the language and text. We must remain open to exceptions to our grammatical rules and to new insights from modern linguistic studies. We must not simply create the evidence for our linguistic studies with premature emendations.

That said, we must understand the biblical text in its historic context as a text manually transmitted over a vast period of time by scribes of varying characteristics. Some scribes were careful to preserve the text exactly as it lay before them, whereas others felt free to update the text with contemporary spellings and linguistic conventions. We can see this dynamic even in the examples mentioned above, now that we have the Qumran evidence. 4QSam(a), for instance, apparently reads the expected והיה for the MT ויהי in 1 Samuel 10:5. 1QIsa(a), on the other hand, occasionally changes the older form והיה to the updated form ויהי, as in 29:15 and 56:12. Such changes as proposed above, therefore, did in fact occur in the transmission of the text. Examples like these show that linguists are wrong simply to assume the MT text in their analyses, as many of the unique and exceptional forms may have arisen in the course of transmission. Linguists who do so run the risk of proposing explanations that unrealistically merge different temporal stages of Hebrew into a single incoherent mush.

So in the end, I would say neither approach will be consistently right, but rather that they should mutually inform one another. At times, linguistic research will clarify difficult textual problems. At other times, examination of ancient manuscripts, the transmission of the text, and the historical development of the language will provide linguistic studies with a more solid evidentiary basis. The two should always remain in a cooperative tension.


  1. Absolutely. But which Hebrew linguists makes such claims? Frankly, it's mostly the other way around, with those doing TC not so interested in the diachronic nuances of Hebrew. But this may be because there are many more TC folks than Hebrew linguists (although perhaps I'm using "linguists" more narrowly than you; if you simply mean grammar-oriented commentators rather than theoretically-oriened linguistics, then the error may be equally shared).

    In any case, I've argued the same point about mutual awareness at our blog (the full article will appear in print someday...):

  2. Hi Robert,

    Thanks for the helpful comments. I guess I was really using "linguist" in a broader sense, but I think you can see the same emphasis at times in more theoretically-oriented studies. For starters, if I recall correctly, Robert Longacre rejected precisely the aforementioned emendations out of hand on methodological grounds. Admittedly, I have seen some good "theoretically-oriented" linguistic works which take into account text-critical concerns, but much more often it seems like they are simply taking the MT as their starting point without a critical examination of the text. But you've read many more linguistic studies than I have... Not that textual critics have much room to complain, since we consistently fail to provide them with good critical texts! :)

    Also, I'm a bit puzzled when you say that textual critics are not interested in the diachronic nuances of Hebrew. What do you mean by this? It seems to me like diachronic studies are central to understanding textual criticism. You cannot evaluate many variants without understanding the history of the Hebrew language. Furthermore, textual critics are in a particularly good position to contribute to our diachronic understanding, as they have often done. I would be interested to hear any specific ways that textual critics fail to treat the history of the language, from your perspective. I would personally like to avoid these flaws in my own work. :) Perhaps you mean that they make decisions based on stages of Hebrew different from the text they are studying?

    Either way, I'm glad we can at least agree in principle on the need for both linguistic and textual studies in conversation. :)

    1. Hi Drew,

      I am new to OTTC and I come from a conservative background. I am familiar with NTTC which seems to be completely different. I am hoping you can point me to an article or book where I can read more about how OTTC relates to innerancy and reaching the autographs. I have read your dissertation and the footnote to Grisanti's paper. It seems like when we read the NT we can say that we have all the readings within the manuscripts but it doesn't seem like that is the case for the OT. Just want to get my bearings and grapple with the issues for the OT text and see how we can consistently hold to innerancy and understand when we know the originals. Thanks for any help. God bless


  3. Hi Peter,

    You are right that the nature of the New Testament books and evidence is somewhat different from the Old Testament, but I'm constantly surprised at how we are often debating the same theoretical and methodological points. There is a lot more overlap than many people realize. I find many helpful discussions even in NTTC works.

    From a conservative perspective, I would certainly recommend you read Grisanti's paper. Bruce Waltke also has a good article on "The Aims of Old Testament Textual Criticism." I think you can find a faithful reproduction at Both of them point out that the complicated compositional histories of many biblical books means that there are multiple stages in the development of the books, so it's not easy to figure out which stage we should try to reconstruct and use in churches. Identifying the completion of the authoritative work and the beginning of its transmission history is probably the biggest problem in OTTC and one of its most controversial questions. Some people even deny that such a distinction is helpful at all.

    As far as the preservation of the evidence, I don't think textual criticism really presents much of a theological problem, as long as you maintain (as most evangelicals do) that innerrancy applies to the composition of the book, whereas textual criticism applies to its reception. The fact that we don't have or can't be certain about the original reading in every case is really not much different from saying that we are often not certain of the correct interpretation of the texts we do have. Uncertainty is a natural part of human interpretation of evidence, and as long as we can accept that, I don't think our uncertainties about what the "original text" was are that big of a theological problem. Recognizing a degree of separation between the originals and our extant manuscript tradition might actually give inerrantists a little extra wiggle room. The real question is what stage or stages you want to attribute inerrancy to.

    1. Drew,

      Thank you for the response your analogy of interpretation and textual criticism is extremely helpful. I also appreciate some of these difficult problems because they are so distant and a lot of the information just isn't available.

      I also had one other question, I believe it was Archer who said that we had a very high % of original readings it was like 97% I think. Would you agree with this number that 97% is the OT is pure or do you think there is more or less corruption?

    2. Hi Peter,

      I'm not sure exactly what Archer said, but the issue is certainly more complicated than a simple percentage can describe. First, does he mean "original readings preserved in the MT" or "original readings preserved somewhere in the extant tradition?" There is a big difference between those two statements. Does he mean that the MT is only problematic for 3% of its text, or does he mean that 3% of the text needs to be emended conjecturally?

      Also, the question of what exactly is this "original" that we are seeking will have a drastic effect on how pure we consider the text to be. Depending on which stage in the development of the text you identify as "original," the MT will either be closer or farther from this original. For instance, if you consider the shorter LXX of Jeremiah to be more "original" than the MT, then the MT would have a significantly greater percentage of expansion than 3%. But if you consider the MT to be the "original" form of the book, then you will consider it to be relatively pure.

      And even when we determine which stage to label as "original," it is still difficult to know how close our extant texts approach this text-form. Conjectural emendation may be required to fix damaged texts, and even preserved texts which make sense may still be secondary.

      Furthermore, you have to consider the situation for each individual book. For instance, in Genesis, the MT is generally a conservative text that accurately preserves the archetypal text (I'm estimating that I probably emended about 3% of the MT in my critical text). But in Samuel, the MT is notoriously corrupt by haplography, accidentally dropping out numerous verses.

      Hope that helps!

    3. Hi Drew,

      The clarification is very much appreciated. I guess what I am getting at, as a layman that has no OTTC experience when I read my Bible how should I view the OT. I know in the NT there are variants but you basically have the entire Original readings of the NT in the manuscripts and where there are variants that is known and we work through those variants.

      My understanding of the OT is different. Do we even have all the original readings? Probably not, so how do I view the OT when I read it how accurate is it to the original reading that was closed at the end of OT canon. Do I need to be looking up every verse I read from my NASB bible to see if there is a better rendering or is it essentially pure with an extremely small % of variants. Is the shorter version of Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Job more accurate how do we know?

      I am not sure you want to answer all these questions so perhaps some good articles and good books to work through would be great. I do believe in Innerancy and I like to know my Bible better than the liberal and critic. Any helps is appreciated,

      God Bless


    4. Hi Peter,

      From kind of a simplified perspective, I think it is probably generally true that you are more likely to find "original" texts not preserved in the extant OT textual tradition than you are in the NT. I do think there are places where the OT text has not been accurately preserved in any known manuscript. In practice, however, it is always difficult to know what the original was exactly.

      Just like in the NT, there are a significant number of variant texts (especially in the Septuagint, Samaritan Pentateuch, and Qumran manuscripts), and we go about deciding which is prior based on similar principles. I don't really know precise percentages of words that have variants. I've been reading the Great Isaiah Scroll recently, and I would estimate that about every third word is different from the standard medieval text. Most of these are simple spelling differences which don't change the meaning. Some are simple scribal errors (see my most recent post on dittography for examples). And a few are serious variants that need to be considered in greater detail. It's probably only once per chapter or two that English translations adopt a reading from the Isaiah scroll. In my work on Genesis, I would guess that I collated variants for about every third word as well (not counting lots of meaningless spelling differences and obvious errors) and adopted probably ten or so differences from the medieval text in four chapters. Sorry I can't give you more definitive statistics, but hopefully that gives you some better idea. Lots of spelling differences and meaningless errors, and some variants with a claim to originality. It's really not all that different from the state we have in the NT, just not as many early manuscripts with substantial text preserved. But as you mentioned, shorter versions of biblical books are the greatest difficulties, and these are very difficult topics still debated by the experts. Most presume that the shorter versions are more original, but not all would agree.

      Practically, for Bible reading, I would say it kind of depends on your purpose. Generally speaking, the NASB alone will give you a good, accurate text for most basic/devotional reading. Most of the variants will not drastically affect the sense of the text. If you are doing more detailed exegetical study, however, I would certainly recommend you expand your reading list. It would be helpful to consult other versions which often include readings based on the Qumran texts and other ancient witnesses (NRSV, NIV, etc.), even if you disagree with their translation philosophies. The NASB is actually towards the lower end of translations that incorporate text-critical decisions into the text (see my earlier post There is also a good book called "The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible" by Abegg, Flint, and Ulrich, which I believe translates all of the biblical scrolls into English for you to compare. If you can work with the Hebrew and Greek, there are many more resources I could point you to.

    5. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for us who do it for a living) there is still a lot of text-critical work on the OT that has not been done. There are also a number of English Septuagint translations out there. For a non-specialist, I would recommend not getting bogged down in too many details. At a minimum, look at multiple translations with textual notes to see if there are any significant problems they note. If all the major modern versions essentially agree, then it is probably not worth your average pastor/teacher spending lots of time tracking down every variant reading. When they do note variants, however, I think good exegetical work demands looking into those variants a little more closely and making a decision.

      A practical introduction to OTTC for a layman would be Ellis Brotzman's "Old Testament Textual Criticism: A Practical Introduction." He is simple and isn't very heavy on the languages, but he is also very clear and helpful. He also has a textual commentary for Ruth, so you can see a practical example of how he treats the text. If you are ready to move on to more detailed work, Emanuel Tov's "Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible" (now in its 3rd edition) is the standard. McCarter and Wurthwein also have good books. From a more conservative perspective (and also more comprehensible for laymen) Paul Wegner's "A Student's Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible" is good for both OT and NT.

      I hope that helps answer some of your more specific questions and gives you some directions to go. I commend you for your diligent efforts to understand the Word better! :) Keep up the good work.


  4. Hi Drew,

    This has been very helpful thank you. If most experts agree that the shorter version of these books is more accurate why do all Bibles include the longer versions? Also if you are saying that the Great Isaiah scroll adds a number of new variants that will be used couldn't that be expanded to so many other texts and since we haven't discovered other texts as well preserved as the Isaiah scroll how many true variants could that be that we don't know about because we don't have ancient manuscripts to do research on. Doesn't this leave us very much in the unknown so that we can't really know any text in the OT is original? So how would the doctrine of God's providence fit into OTTC? Would we say that God preserved a substantially pure text? It almost seems as though the LXX is more reliable since that was the book the NT most quoted from and we have much earlier copies of this book versus the MT which is used in most places.

    I am just trying to figure out in my own head should I just hope that what we have to do is mostly right and we may end up having a word or two wrong in a sentence? It does seem that opens up a can of worms to making the whole sentence possibly unknown. Some insight would be very helpful. Thanks.


    1. Hi Peter,

      Good questions. I would say there are probably at least four reasons why most Bibles still print the longer MT texts. 1) There is still disagreement and a lot of uncertainty on some of these issues; 2) the LXX edition of Jeremiah (and similar books) is not preserved in Hebrew, so we would have to base our text on a translation at points; 3) there is a very strong tradition in favor of the MT; and 4) the MT editions are also very old. The longer MT-type edition of Jeremiah is quoted in the NT and found in one of our oldest Qumran manuscripts (4QJer-a) from 225-175 BC, around the same time the LXX edition was being translated. Since many conservative scholars have a view of the inspiration process as occurring in stages, many could argue that the longer edition was still part of this inspired compositional process. All that to say, these issues are by no means settled or easy.

      As far as the possible number of variants, I think there will always be an element of the unknown, since we have only partial evidence preserved. That said, I think it is important to build our ideas not on what could be the case, so much as on what is likely to be the case. Probabilities are more solid bases than possibilities. So is it possible that genuine readings were lost in the manuscript tradition unknown to us? Certainly. But is it probable that these lost readings were common or would drastically change our understanding of the text? Not at all. The reality is (with the exception of a few major textual problems like multiple editions), most of the text has been relatively accurately handed down to us by the copyists who preserved it. At points where the entire manuscript tradition is in agreement and the text is not particularly problematic, the statistical likelihood is that the original readings have been preserved. It's possible that that is not the case at points, but we're better off dealing with the most probable solutions than dealing with hypothetical possibilities.

      I would be very cautious about simply stating that the LXX is more reliable as well. First of all, the LXX is actually a collection of many different translations of different books, not all of which are of the same quality. In Genesis, it often has later readings than the MT. In Samuel, it is often better than the MT. And the NT citation of the OT is very difficult as well. Many times the NT writers agree with Hebrew texts against the LXX. Revelation cites the longer non-LXX text of Jeremiah. Already by the time the NT writers were citing biblical texts, the LXX had been revised to be closer to the proto-MT texts. Also, much of what we know about the LXX is also from later manuscripts, and at times we have Hebrew texts from Qumran and elsewhere very close to the MT which are far earlier. It is definitely more complex than just preferring the LXX.

      I don't think it is a blind hope to expect that what we have is mostly right. The Qumran manuscripts basically verified the antiquity of the MT, and in most places it is a very good, accurately preserved tradition. On occassion, other traditions preserve better readings, and on even rarer occassion it is possible that the best readings have been lost. But in places where there is no variation and the text is not problematic, there is good reason to expect that we have an accurate text, even if we are wrong on a few details. I don't think we have to fall into an extreme skepticism about the remotest of possibilities. Instead we have to learn to live with the most likely situation, all the while remaining flexible enough to incorporate new evidence when it becomes available. Absolute certainty would be very difficult to attain in historical matters, but I do think we have a pretty good idea of what the text of the OT says. Hope that helps. :)