Arie Van Der Kooij
Modern editions of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, are based on manuscripts which date to the tenth and eleventh centuries CE—the codex of Aleppo and the codex Leningradensis. The former is used in the edition of The Hebrew University Bible, whereas the latter forms the basis of the third edition of the Biblia Hebraica edited by R. Kittel, and of the Biblica Hebraica Stuttgartensia, as will also be the case with the forthcoming Biblia Hebraica Editio Quinta. Unlike the modern editions of the Greek New Testament, those of the OT do not offer a text which is the outcome of a critical assessment of the available data, but represent the text of a particular MS. That is to say, they are editions of the diplomatic type, not critical editions in the strict sense of the word.
The two MSS just mentioned are the most important witnesses of the so-called Masoretic text (MT). Although in matters of details such as vocalization, accentuation, and delimitation, Masoretic MSS show some variety, they do represent—particularly as far as the ketib is concerned—a text of the Hebrew Bible which testifies to a standardized text tradition.
Since, as is generally assumed, the biblical books in Hebrew (and Aramaic) go back to a period of a much earlier date—that of the seventh to the second centuries BCE—the question suggests itself as to whether the text of the biblical books has been transmitted, through the ages up to its attestation in the early Middle Ages, accurately, or not. It is the task of textual criticism to examine the text's reliability from the perspective of the transmission history. One has to reckon with errors and deliberate changes in the text, in the course of time. Moreover, early Jewish sources bear witness to the latter category of intentional changes, as they provide lists of theological corrections in the text, the so-called tiqqune sopherim (McCarthy 1981).
The idea that the reliability of the MT should not be taken for granted came up in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when scholars realized that the Hebrew text, as it was attested in the editions of the time (Biblia Rabbinica), was not the only text of the Hebrew Bible. Study of the Samaritan Pentateuch and of the Septuagint (LXX) led to a great deal of textual comparison. It became apparent that there are quite a number of variant readings which require evaluation. The same realization prompted B. Kennicott and G. B. de Rossi, in the eighteenth century, to publish the many variant readings extant in a range of medieval manuscripts.
Thus textual criticism started with textual comparison based on the evidence available at that time. Later on, since the nineteenth century, it was extended to cases where the text was considered to be ‘difficult’ or corrupt, and where in a number of cases no variants were attested. The picture that emerges from commentaries and from the editions of Biblica Hebraica (edited by R. Kittel, BHK 1 (1905–6), 2 (1912), 3 (1937) ), is that of numerous ‘problems’ in the MT, including morphological, syntactical ones, as well as matters of style (e.g. metri causa) and literary-critical issues (e.g. glosses). In a large number of instances, these difficulties in the MT were viewed as being due to scribal errors. It is interesting to note, though, that, unlike many exegetes, grammarians of the time, like W. Gesenius, F. Böttcher, and E. König, were less inclined to state that a given reading in the MT is to be seen as ‘incorrect’ Hebrew.
The reason why textual criticism is needed has become fully clear since the remarkable finds in the Judaean desert in the years 1947–56. A great number of biblical texts were found at Qumran, Masada, Nahal Hever, and Wadi Murabba'at. Most of these texts are written in the language of the Hebrew Bible, i.e. Hebrew or Aramaic, thus representing a ‘direct’ witness, in contrast to ‘indirect’ witnesses such as the ancient versions (translations). The biblical texts of the Dead Sea region (hereafter Qumran) are very important, as they date from the earliest period in which the biblical text is attested: viz. the third century BCE to the second century CE. In comparison to the other witnesses of this period (LXX and Samaritan Pentateuch), the Qumran texts have an additional value in that they constitute manuscript evidence that goes back directly to this period, and not indirectly (i.e. via a reconstruction of the text on the basis of manuscripts of a later date, such as in the case of the LXX). On the other hand, it is frustrating that the Qumran evidence is so fragmentary, except in the case of the ‘great’ scroll of Isaiah (1QIsa-a). Nevertheless, these findings have proved beyond any doubt the need and importance of textual criticism. The Qumran material provides clear evidence that the MT represents a very old textual tradition, but it also offers a large number of variant readings in comparison to the MT (variants, pluses, and minuses), as well as cases of remarkable differences pertaining to clauses, sentences, and pericopes.