Textual Criticism: Part 2 Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament)

There has been an ongoing debate among scholars regarding theories of the development of the Hebrew text, and one’s views in this debate will affect the goals of Old Testament textual criticism. Wegner explains the various views in Table 1. Theories of Hebrew Development in the journal article entitled, “Current Trends in Old Testament Textual Criticism” and the following is an adaptation of this visual aid.[1] 

Paul de Lagarde 1827-1891 (Göttingen) argued that all the Old Testament manuscripts were developed from a single original manuscript.

Paul Kahle 1875-1964 (Oxford) argued that the standardized official text was developed through the use of several divergent copies.

William E. Albright 1891- 1971 (John Hopkins) and Frank M. Cross 1921- 2012 (Harvard) argued for the idea of text families explaining that an original authoritative text was copied and maintained in three locations Palestine (forming the text family consisting of the Samaritan Pentateuch, Masoretic Text of Chronicles, and some Qumran manuscripts), Babylon (forming the Masoretic Text family) and Egypt (forming the Septuagint text family).

Shemaryahu Talmon 1920- 2010 (Hebrew University) argued that there was diversity in early Judaism and there are three text types that survived because they were protected by different groups: the Masoretic Text by Jewish Rabbis, the Samaritan Pentateuch by the Samaritans and the Septuagint by the Christians.

Emanuel Tov 1941- (Hebrew University) argued against a single, original manuscript and explained that there may have been several authoritative forms of a specific writing and the various manuscripts were related to one another highlighting the similarities, variants and exclusive aspects.

Eugene Ulrich 1938- (University of Notre Dame) argued for the idea of literary editing of texts which took place in temporary stages resulting in a final form. Each literary edition was a response, by the editor, to a unique religious set of circumstances.

As stated earlier, one’s view regarding the development of the Hebrew text will establish the goals for textual criticism. Scholars who have a single text focus will strive to recover the wording of the original writing. Others with a single text focus will set out to recover the final form (the form that was finalized after undergoing a process of redactions). Still others will set out to recover the single text in its earliest attested form.[2] Moreover, scholars with a plural text focus strive to recover several texts which include final texts that were equally valid and authoritative, texts that were accepted by diverse religious communities and literary edited texts that were completed through stages.[3]

Regardless, of one’s view and goals for Old Testament textual criticism, there are some basic principles for Old Testament textual criticism that should be discussed.  Wegner gives five guiding principles when evaluating and comparing manuscripts,

“1) Manuscripts must be weighed, not counted. 2) Determine which reading would most likely give rise to the others. 3) The more distinctive reading is usually preferable 4) The shorter reading is generally favored. 5) Determine which reading is most appropriate to the context (examine literary structure, grammatical or spelling errors, historical context).” [4]


[1] Paul D. Wegner, “Current Trends,” BBR 23.4 (2013): 462.

[2] Ibid., 476.

[3] Ibid., 476.

[4] Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible. (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Academic, 1999), 179.

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