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Citation for Textual Criticism of the Bible

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Berlin, Adele and Marc Zvi Brettler. "Textual Criticism of the Bible." In The Jewish Study Bible. Oxford Biblical Studies Online. Jan 23, 2020. <http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/book/obso-9780195297515/obso-9780195297515-chapter-59>.


Berlin, Adele and Marc Zvi Brettler. "Textual Criticism of the Bible." In The Jewish Study Bible. Oxford Biblical Studies Online, http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/book/obso-9780195297515/obso-9780195297515-chapter-59 (accessed Jan 23, 2020).

Textual Criticism of the Bible

Adele Berlin

Marc Zvi Brettler

No original manuscript of any biblical book has ever been discovered. This situation, which may seem surprising, is actually quite common for ancient writings, and even for those from only a few centuries ago. For instance, none of Shakespeare's plays is available in the original manuscript from Shakespeare's hand, and for most of them there are two or more early printed versions with many differences between them. For the biblical books, numerous copies or partial copies, varying greatly in age and quality, have been preserved in various parts of the world. Occasionally, as with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the mid‐20th century, new copies come to light (see “The Bible in the Dead Sea Scrolls,” pp. 1920–28). Nevertheless, for the entire text of the Bible, scholars are faced with a situation in which they have multiple manuscripts that have been copied by hand so that each is a unique product, unlike a modern printed book, and therefore the copies differ among themselves in many places, some differences trivial and some important. The differences among manuscripts range from a single letter to words or lines, to the absenceor presence of entire sections, or to the presentation of the same material in a different order. Some of these differences are of little consequence for meaning; others have significant impact on the meaning. Some of the latter may have been intentional changes or may have arisen through an error, and been preserved over time. Given this situation, scholars have had to develop a methodology for comparing and accounting for the differences in wording in cases where the copies disagree. This methodology is called textual criticism.

Textual criticism involves, first of all, the collection of all the differences between copies of any text. The manuscripts may be in several forms. The earliest were scrolls (like those found at Qumran, near the Dead Sea), long strips of parchment (animal skin) or papyrus rolled up. Scrolls can accommodate a book or a few books, but not the entire Bible. In the late first millennium CE, collections of biblical books in book form, called codices (the plural of codex), came into use. Another source for the biblical text is citations, or quotations in ancient writings, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls or rabbinic literature. These sources, taken all together, are called witnesses or authorities, and the differences among them are called variant readings or simply variants. The ancient translations, or versions, of the Bible, which provide indirect evidence for the Hebrew text on which the translation was based, are a final important source for variants.

There is no unanimity concerning the theoretical goal of textual criticism. Some, following the older school, aim to reconstruct the original text of the Bible, what it looked like when it was first written. Others are less certain that we can or should speak of an “original” text, since the evidence suggests that some biblical books may have circulated in different editions (or recensions) from a very early period. Texts, even once written, may have been fluid, with sections being added or subtracted. In addition, ancient copyists may have had a very different notion from ours of what it meant to copy a text; for example, it was acceptable to update the spelling of a word, to substitute a synonym for a word, or to gloss a word with a brief explanation. Thus, the “best” text in a certain time and place may not have been the “original” text. Those who espouse this second approach do not consider the task of textual criticism to be the reconstruction of the original text, but rather the analysis of differences among texts, the investigation of the significance of those differences, and in some cases, the determination of which textual variant is better or preferable, though it may not be original.

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