On August 12, 2011, the Associated Press released for wide distribution a story with the provocative title, “In Jerusalem, scholars trace Bible’s evolution.” The story went viral on the Internet in nanoseconds. I got countless emails from friends and strangers within 24 hours of the story’s release, all wondering if their faith was in jeopardy. Why? What did the story reveal?
Here are some highlights:
- Work done on the Hebrew Bible at Hebrew University in Jerusalem “would startle many readers of the Old Testament” because what was written in the past is not what we read today.
- “Scholars…have been quietly at work for 53 years on one of the most ambitious projects attempted in biblical studies—publishing the authoritative edition of the Old Testament… and tracking down every single evolution of the text over centuries and millennia.”
- “And it has evolved, despite deeply held beliefs to the contrary.”
- “For many Jews and Christians, religion dictates that the words of the Bible in the original Hebrew are divine, unaltered and unalterable.”
- An unspecified verse from Malachi in which ‘in my name’ was added later is mentioned, as is an unspecified verse from Deuteronomy which changes ‘you’ to ‘us.’ The changes are claimed to be ‘significant.’
- Most revealing, the Masoretic Text of Jeremiah is one-seventh longer than the Dead Sea Scrolls text, written about 1000 years earlier. The longer text also apparently has a prophecy in it that was added after the fact.
- “Considering that the nature of their work would be considered controversial, if not offensive, by many religious people, it is perhaps surprising that most of the project’s scholars are themselves Orthodox Jews.
These are the statements from a reputable news source. Prima facie, this looks rather disturbing. In particular, the article doesn’t accent the fact that absolutely none of these textual issues are new to biblical scholars. Ever since the Dead Sea Scrolls were made public decades ago, scholars have recognized the differences between the older Hebrew Jeremiah and the Masoretic text. In fact, the older Hebrew form was already known for hundreds of years because it is found in some old Greek manuscripts of the Septuagint. And the prophecy added after the event? Here’s the statement: “Some verses, including ones containing a prophecy about the seizure and return of Temple implements by Babylonian soldiers, appear to have been added after the events happened.” I’m not sure which text the author is referring to, but Jer 28.6 makes this same prophecy and that’s a passage found in the Septuagint. So if the same prophecy has been duplicated elsewhere in Jeremiah, is it really honest to speak of the prophecy as “added after the events happened”? Yes, those words in that place would be, but not this specific prophecy since Jer 28.6 is found in the earliest forms of the text.
Now what about startling the masses by claiming that the Bible has evolved over the centuries? It is true that there are many Christians who have failed to look at the marginal notes in their Bibles, notes that have been there since the 1611 King James Version and before. And these notes speak about other ancient authorities (i.e., manuscripts) that have variants from the translated text. But that this news should be shocking to people either indicates that they are not careful readers of the Bible or the marginal notes are not worded strongly enough to indicate that in those places scholars are not completely sure what the original text said. To the informed believer—and all believers should fit into this category—this ‘shock and awe’ article is almost a yawn.
The emphasis on the evolution of the text is a bit misleading, too. To be sure, textual critics are always attempting to identify spurious readings. But the purpose for doing so is not to trace the development of the text as much as it is to recover the wording of the autographs. Ironically, the author of the piece, Matti Friedman, seems to have gotten many of his facts wrong, and made the article far too sensationalist; Friedman’s article has apparently evolved away from reality. The very fact that Orthodox Jews are the main scholars working on this project should raise a flag about how concerned Christians and Jews should be about this project. Friedman simply suggests that this is surprising. In reality, it is the orthodox—both Jews and Christians—who are most interested in what the original text had to say because they believe that the original text is the word of God. There is no surprise that the orthodox would lead the charge on this project, then. Informed Christians and Jews should not only be unconcerned about this, they should be excited that this project is underway.
“For many Jews and Christians, religion dictates that the words of the Bible in the original Hebrew are divine, unaltered and unalterable.” This is the line that came the closest to yellow journalism. I suppose it is technically true. It is certainly the belief of most Muslims regarding the Qur’an (even though it is not true of their sacred text either). But as I mentioned earlier, virtually every Bible in the last 400 years has had marginal notes that discuss textual variants. Anyone who has read the Bible at least semi-consciously is aware of textual variants. So, though it is true that “many Jews and Christians” think the Bible is unalterable, they are outliers in their faith communities.
The reality of this project is quite different from what the Associated Press reported. For half a century, Hebrew Bible scholars have labored at finally constructing a critical text of the Old Testament. The New Testament has a critical text, one that is based on the best manuscripts, versions, and Fathers, rather than a copy of a single manuscript. The critical work started in 1831, and has continued with several scholars examining the data and wading through the evidence for every textual variant. But what the published Hebrew Bibles have is different from this. They represent what is known as a diplomatic text, an exact reproduction of the text of a single manuscript.
Why have Old Testament scholars not produced a critical text yet? One reason is historical. In the 1760s, Benjamin Kennicott, the great Hebraist of Oxford University, announced plans to produce a critical text of the Old Testament. But a young self-taught man named Granville Sharp spoke to Kennicott, pleading with him not to do this yet. Sharp reasoned that the state of Old Testament textual criticism was not yet at the point where a critical text could be constructed. He was especially fearful that the wording of the autographs might get relegated to the footnotes or even disappear from the page altogether. His pleas went unheeded; Kennicott was advancing with the work. So Sharp wrote a book against Kennicott’s project. That was sufficient to cause him to abandon his task. Inertia set in and has continued until 1958.
The other reason has to do with a significant increase in the materials to work with. By the time that scholars began to seriously consider such a project again, the great manuscript caches, especially of the twentieth century, had multiplied their workload. Their labors for the past fifty years are the gifts to Jews and Christians that selfless, truth-seeking scholarship offers. And although the resulting text will finally be a critical one that certainly differs in places from the Masoretic Text, it should be one that all orthodox Jews and Christians are grateful for, since it brings them that much closer to the wording of the originals.
What shouldn’t surprise us in all this is that here is yet another piece by a respected journalist, writing for a highly regarded news agency, in which he turns a straightforward story about serious biblical scholarship into a sensationalist piece that borders on yellow journalism. When will journalists learn that the story as is is interesting and significant in its own right? Historically, journalists simply can’t relay the narrative of discovery or research of biblical manuscripts without midrashing the story and taking cheap shots at believers. This may reveal something of the shallow soil of their own theological convictions in which a robust orthodoxy never had a chance to take root.