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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

The Stabilization of Text and Canon

The formation of the canon and the history of the text of the Bible are closely linked. The text of the Bible is based upon the numerous manuscripts of both testaments which have been inherited from ancient and medieval believing communities. We are directly dependent on those communities for the text we attempt to establish for reading and translation today. The manuscripts used for determining the most responsible and critical text include the original-language Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts of the two testaments and also early translations or versions made in communities which spoke languages other than those of the originals. No two manuscripts are exactly the same; in fact, there are often thousands of differences among them, and the more ancient the manuscripts the more fluid they tend to be. For each testament there was a distinct period in which efforts at stabilization of the text began to be made. In the case of the Hebrew Bible, the work began apparently in the middle of the first century B.C.E. and was largely complete by the end of the first century C.E. In the case of the New Testament, standardization came about in the course of the fourth century, after the conversion of Constantine. Before those periods, for each testament, the manuscripts available exhibit a limited fluidity of text.

One needs to understand that all copyists and translators of biblical texts had two major responsibilities, to the past and to the present. That is, one responsibility was to the inherited text; the second was to the community of which the tradent (transmitter) was a member and which he or she served. All tradents wanted their communities to understand the text. And, obviously, that meant that each one wanted each particular community to have the tradent's understanding of the text. This very good intention often led to slight modifications and facilitations of the text, even in the original-language texts, all the more so in the versions where sanctity of the translated text had not yet been established in the community. This phenomenon of (limited) textual fluidity, especially in the precious older and more ancient manuscripts, eventually gave rise to attempts, as early as Luther in the sixteenth century, to establish dependable, standard texts. Since the seventeenth century, that effort to identify and evaluate differences in ancient texts has been called textual criticism.

Stabilization of the text of the Hebrew Bible, begun as noted in the first century B.C.E., reached phenomenal proportions in the work of the Masoretes near Tiberias by the ninth century of the common era. Like most good literature, canonical literature is highly multivalent, which was important to its survival of the canonical process described above. Consequently, single passages often can be read in quite different ways according to the concerns of the readers and the hermeneutics (rules of interpretation) they bring to the text. This is well-illustrated by the considerable fluidity in twentieth-century translations of almost any given passage.

Early in the history of Judaism, especially in the Hellenistic period, this fluidity and multivalency gave rise to many different ways of reading the texts. This led in turn to the considerable pluralism in the Judaism(s) of the time. Efforts needed to be made to provide constraints for such diverse readings. Parallel to the efforts at stabilization of the text itself were efforts to control the rules of interpretation brought to the text. There were apparently seven such rules by the end of the first century B.C.E., then thirteen by the end of the first century C.E., and eventually thirty-two.

The attempt to achieve a stable text was also pursued by Christian communities. In the case of Christianity, textual stabilization was attended by efforts in the several Christian communions, whether Catholicism in the west or the Orthodox communions in the east, to place ecclesiastical controls on biblical interpretation. And that was apparently fully accepted until Luther broke the linkage between Scripture and magisterium (ecclesiastical teaching authority). Protestantism insisted on providing translations for lay folk to hear in their own languages, and eventually to read for themselves.

By the ninth century C.E. the Masoretes had provided restraints within the text of the Hebrew Bible. The stabilization process of the first centuries B.C.E. and C.E. mentioned above dealt with the consonants of the Hebrew text only. The Masoretes inherited that consonantal text and inserted into it three different constraints: (a) vowels, or symbols for reading the text aloud; (b) accent or cantillation marks to guide the literate readers of the communities in their intonations and accentuations, along with markings of formal units of the text for reading aloud and translation at worship and study; and (c) scribal notations in the lateral, top and bottom margins (masorot) to guide subsequent copyists so that the text would be transmitted in as stabilized a form as possible.

The focus of these moves toward complete stabilization was on the Bible as sacred text. In fact, the masorot or marginal notations in many cases preserve anomalies in the text which do not simplify meanings but show their ambiguity. These notations also guard the pluralism that exists among doublets and triplets in the text (e.g., the numerous small differences between 2 Sam. 22 and Ps. 18 which are otherwise the same psalm; or between the two lists of Ten Commandments in Exod. 20 and Deut. 5 ). The tendency noted above for tradents to feel a responsibility for their communities' understanding of the text, and the tendency to harmonize the texts, were thus checked and put under considerable constraint.

Luther and many Christians since Luther, including many scholars today, have tended to belittle the authority of these constraints. Others, like the seventeenth century Buxtorfs in Germany and Richard Simon in France, and a growing number of scholars today, have tended to place considerable value on the traditions for reading and copying the text which the Masoretic notations transmitted. Christianity never developed such constraints, leaving stabilizing of the texts and understanding of their teachings to the several ecclesiastical bodies. Indeed, for the New Testament only a small number of manuscripts in Syriac translation have a few meager examples of such marginal notes.

There is no such thing as an autograph of a biblical book or unit of literature; that is, there are no originals in existence. All the many thousands of manuscripts extant today are apographs of Scripture; that is, they are copies of copies. Such an observation brings into focus another way of relating Scripture to communities of faith. The manuscripts available for establishing a responsibly critical text for reading and translation today are inherited from ancient communities, not from individuals. All tradents responsible for transmitting biblical texts across the centuries were serving their communities. Scribes, copyists, and translators did what they did out of a sense of service—not simply because they had literate skills or a profession to perform. And while they, being human, made mistakes, close study now indicates they were perhaps less errorprone than some text critics, eager to correct the text, have until recently thought. Again one has to think in terms of individuals within communities, not individuals in and of themselves in our typical western manner of thinking. This becomes an important observation which should limit the tendency of western minds to push behind inherited texts in search of supposed original forms of texts composed by ancient individuals.

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