Divrei ben Abuya

In the Babylonian Talmud, Elisha ben Abuya was a great sage who lost his faith in God. So great was he that his and subsequent generations continued learning from him - to the extent that the authors of the Talmud needed to create a story that would serve to legitimise his teachings despite his apostasy. His lesson is a lesson for us all: that great stature is not contingent upon blind faith, nor high learning upon the observation of Torah precepts.

May 30, 2006

On the Transmission of the MT

In the interests of equanimity, the following are the remarks of Dr Ian Young, of Sydney University, concerning Rabbi Gil Student's article on the precise transmission of the Masoretic Text (linked to in the previous post). These sentiments were obviously not intended for any form of publication, but were e-mailed to me in a private correspondence after I requested a scholarly opinion on the article.

First up, I was impressed that the author hung his whole argument on a fictional history of the text. Moses wrote 13 copies of the Torah. Does he get that from the Biblical sources? No, from Rabbinic midrash. The Torah was kept pure all through the pre-exilic period. Evidence? None. The only text he cites, the story of King Josiah’s astonishment and fear upon the discovery of the Torah in 2 Kgs 22, would seem to indicate that the Torah was unknown at that time. We have Biblical evidence that there was a goddess in Solomon’s Temple for most of its history, but no corresponding evidence for a true Torah scroll! In fact any evidence we have is contrary to this assertion. He says textual variations arose in the exilic period. Evidence? Radak! He was a great scholar, but did he have access to reliable historical traditions or was he just speculating? Scholars of Rabbinics would say the latter. Ezra restored the true text of the Torah? No ancient evidence for that, only an unusual reading of the 3 scrolls in the Temple story.

He asserts that in the late second temple period the true copy of the Torah was in the Temple and that the majority of Torah scrolls agreed exactly with it. This is possible, of course: everything is. But the fact is that all the evidence we have from the last centuries BCE indicates a variety of Biblical texts in use. He fails to mention that the Samaritan text is very similar to texts found at Qumran- indicating that that sort of text was at least being used by two quite different groups, even if he wants to condemn them as evil sectarians. The two other sources we have for the Torah are the Septuagint (LXX) and the Dead Sea Scrolls. If the LXX only deviates, as he sometimes claims, due to reasons of translation, how come it shares so many readings with the Hebrew texts of the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Qumran scrolls? He seems to assert that all these sorts of differences are deviations from the true MT, introduced erroneously. What basis does he have for judging that the MT is always more original? Only his presupposition that it is. There is no rational argument here - just an assertion that despite the evidence, his presuppositions may actually turn out to be correct.

His treatment of the Dead Sea Scrolls is bizarre. He says both that the scrolls were the property of an evil orthodoxy-hating sect, and that the majority of scrolls come from outside Qumran. You can’t have both. If the majority of scrolls come from outside Qumran (and they must), they represent at least to some extent the more general state of the Biblical text at the time. The most important piece of misinformation is his claim that 80% of the scrolls in any case are like the MT. I could see how you could get this from a superficial reading of Tov’s first edition. But what Student means by this is that 80% of the scrolls are identical to the letter with the MT. Note his conclusions: we can be confident that 99.99% of the letters of the Torah are what Moses wrote. In fact, only 3 of the 108 Biblical scrolls with 50 or more preserved words have no variations against the MT. If we take into account plene and defective spellings that number must be reduced to zero (although that could be said even of the authoritative medieval codices too). More than half of the scrolls have a non-orthographic variant every 20 or less words. So, if Student admits that most scrolls are not sectarian, the evidence would seem to suggest that the textus receptus was virtually unknown in the last centuries BCE.

How do we know whether the Qumran scrolls are typical of their time? All we can do is point to the evidence. The Samaritans used the same sort of Torah scroll as some of the Qumran scrolls. The LXX is a collection of Biblical scrolls of similar nature to Qumran: a mixture ranging from texts quite close (not identical) to the MT e.g. LXX Ruth, to texts representing different editions of Biblical books e.g. LXX Jeremiah. Student may still be right: the MT may have been the true text held by a majority of people in the last centuries BCE. It’s just that every single piece of evidence currently in our possession is contrary to his theory. In those circumstances, scholars usually admit that there is something wrong with the theory, rather than claiming that there is something wrong with all the evidence. (The foot is the wrong size for the shoe!)

The author claims that the textus receptus of the Torah is nearly letter perfect identical with the text Moses received on Mt Sinai. You should know that textual criticism is but one of the problems this theory has to face. You are probably aware that scholars usually consider the Torah to be the end result of a process of editing and re-editing, and that it only reached its current form long after Moses’ time. As a small example, how could Moses refer to the town of “Dan” in Genesis 14:14, when Judges 18:29 tells us that the town was not even named Dan until long after Moses time? An argument that is less often mentioned relates to language and spelling. According to everything we know, the language in which the Torah is expressed is completely inappropriate for Moses’ time c.1400BCE. As an example, the definite article (ha- in Hebrew) is unattested in any Semitic language before c.1000BCE. Likewise, all the evidence we have indicates that the spelling of the Biblical text in 1400BCE would have been quite different. For one thing, it is likely that only consonants would have been spelled. Even as late as our inscriptions from c.600BCE Hebrew is spelled with far fewer waw’s and yod’s marking vowels than in any Biblical text we know. Also our earliest evidence for spelling the suffixes for “his” as -w on singular and -yw on plural is the Dead Sea Scrolls. All our earlier evidence indicates Hebrew used -h for singular and -w for plural instead. These then are a couple of other big problems for a theory which claims that 99.99% of the letters of the current textus receptus are identical to the ones given to Moses on Mt Sinai.

I have no issue with someone who says “I believe God miraculously preserved the MT version of the Bible”. I do have problems with someone who claims that this sort of statement gives the best interpretation of the available evidence. While this theory is possible, I hope I have shown that none of the evidence is in favour of it.

- Ian Young


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home