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Introduction to Textual Criticism

Gary E. Schnittjer

Theoretical Goals

Deciding the goal of textual criticism is both essential and difficult because of the nature of the case. It is easy enough to speak of reliable text upon which to ground exegesis (Würthwein/Fischer), but in the absence of original autographs and in the presence of available evidence there remains significant philosophical judgments. Deciding the goal of textual criticism should be taken up in the classroom, with vigorous discussion of attendant issues and implications. Here are competing potential goals (Waltke 1989):

→ original text (author) (older traditional approach)

→ final text (redactor) (eclectic text) (BHK apparatus, BHS apparatus, HBCE text, modern English committee translations, e.g., NRSV, ESV, NIV)

→ canonical text (proto-Masoretic c. 1st cent CE) (Childs 1979, 96-99)

→ earliest attested (excluded conjectures of non-extant Ur-text) (UBS Text Project, BHQ apparatus, HUB apparatus)

→ pluriformity (proto-MT, Qumran, LXX, Samaritan Pentateuch) (Tov 2008; Biblia Qumranica [multi-column, DSS, MT, LXX])

  Several issues complicate this decision, including: the apparent shift from ancient scribes (sopherim) who viewed “improvements” as part of their work to scribes as human-photocopy machines of an authoritative canonical text; continuing debate concerning ancient formal acknowledgement of canonical status of text versus emerging canon-consciousness; distinguishing between scribal edits which are part of the authoritative canonical text versus scribal edits which corrupt the canonical text. While no difference in scribal care can be discerned between scriptural and non-scriptural texts at Qumran, the proto-Masoretic witnesses demonstrate greater scribal care in the late second temple period (see Tov 2004, 24-26, 250-254, and see table 27 [126] and appendix 8 [332-335]).
Overview Textual Criticism of  Hebrew Bible


Evaluating External Evidence

Begin with apparatus of critical Hebrew Bible


Evaluating Internal Evidence

Investigating internal evidence means thinking with ancient scribes. Begin by reverse engineering variants based on close attention to scriptural details themselves. Detailed consideration of  scriptural context naturally  improves exegetical outcomes.

Evaluate internal evidence (intentional scribal theological improvement)
Contextual, grammatical, linguistic
Variant by accident or by intention
What factors could explain accidental scribal variation?
What motives could explain “scribal improvements”—grammatical, harmonistic, theological?
Help from commentaries

Provisional Decision

There are no rules for making responsible text critical decisions. A couple of general guidelines are often useful.
→ Shorter reading is often preferred
→ More difficult text is often preferred
→ “Which is more likely to have given rise to the other?” (McCarter 1986, 72)

In addition to sources cited above, I am esp. indebted to Tov 2012, Würthwein/Fischer 2014.

For further reading

Armerding, Carl. The Old Testament and Criticism (Eerdmans, 1983).

Barthélemy, Dominique. Studies in the Text of the Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Old Testament Text Project (Textual Criticism and the Translator 3; trans. Stephen Pisano et al; Eisenbrauns, 2012).

Biblia Hebraica, ed. Rudolf Kittel, 7th ed. (Stuttgart: Württ. Bibelanstalt, 1937, 1951).

Biblia Hebraica Quinta: Genesis, ed. Abraham Tal (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2015); Biblia Hebraica Quinta: Deuteronomy, ed. Carmel McCarthy (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2007); Biblia Hebraica Quinta: Judges, ed. Natalio Fernández Marcos (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012); Biblia Hebraica Quinta: Minor Prophets, ed. Anthony Gelston (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2010); Biblia Hebraica Quinta: Proverbs (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2008); Biblia Hebraica Quinta: General Introduction and Megilloth, ed. J. de Waard, et al (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2004); Biblia Hebraica Quinta: Ezra and Nehemiah, ed. David Marcus (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2006).

Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, 5th ed. (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1997).

Brotzman, Ellis R. Old Testament Textual Criticism: A Practical Introduction, 2d ed. (Baker, 2016).

Childs, Brevard S. Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), 96-99.

The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Edition. Michael V. Fox, ed. Proverbs: An Eclectic Edition with Introduction and Textual Commentary (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2015) (formerly known as Oxford Hebrew Bible).

The Hebrew University Bible, The Book of Isaiah, ed. M. H. Goshen-Gottstein (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1995); The Hebrew University Bible, The Book of Jeremiah, eds. C. Rabin, S. Talmon, E. Tov (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1995).

Marcus, David and James A. Sanders, “What’s Critical about a Critical Edition of the Bible?” Biblical Archaeology Review 39.6 (Nov/Dec 2013): 60-65.

Martin, Gary D. Multiple Originals: New Approaches to Hebrew Bible Text Criticism. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010.

McCarter, P. Kyle. Textual Criticism: Recovering the Text of the Hebrew Bible (Fortress, 1986).

Preliminary and Interim Report on the Hebrew Old Testament Text Project, eds. Dominique Barthélemy, et al, 5 vols. (New York: United Bible Societies, 1977-1980). Vol. 1, Pentateuch (1979); vol. 2, Historical Books (1979); vol. 3, Poetical Books (1977), vol. 4, Prophetical Books I, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations (1979), vol. 5, Prophetical Books II, Ezekiel, Daniel, Twelve Minor Prophets (1980).

Tov, Emanuel. “Hebrew Scripture Editions: Philosophy and Praxis,” in Hebrew Bible, Greek Bible, and Qumran (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008),

__________. Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, 3d ed. (Fortress, 1992, 2001, 2012).

Waltke, Bruce K. “Aims of OT Textual Criticism,” Westminster Theological Journal 51.1 (1989): 93-108.

Wegner, Paul D. A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible: Its History, Methods, and Results (IVP Academic, 2006).

Würthwein, Ernst. The Text of the Old Testament: An Introduction to the Biblia Hebraica. 3d ed. Rev. by Alexanderr Achilles Fischer. Trans. Erroll F. Rhodes (Eerdmans, 2014).

For additional resources see textual criticism titles in Biblical Hebrew Bibliography.

Copyright © 2016 Gary E. Schnittjer

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