John H. Skilton
“WE WILL never be able to attain the sacred writings as they gladdened the eyes of those who first saw them, and rejoiced the hearts of those who first heard them. If the external words of the original were inspired, it does not profit us. We are cut off from them forever. Interposed between us and them is the tradition of centuries and even millenniums.” These strange words are taken from a remarkably confused passage in an article written many years ago by Dr. C. A. Briggs.1
Dr. Briggs further asserts in the same passage:
Conservative scholars, whatever their disagreements with Dr. Briggs may be, will readily grant that we cannot in the technical use of the term call God’s providential care of his Word “inspiration.” Their viewpoint in this matter is that which is reflected in the ‘Westminster Confession of Faith. According to the Confession, the canonical books were given by inspiration of God (I.ii). The Old Testament in the Hebrew and the New Testament in the Greek — the Scriptures in the languages in which they were given — were immediately inspired by God (I.viii). Quite distinct from the inspiration of the original manuscripts have been the care and providence whereby the Scriptures have been kept pure. It is by virtue of these two separate considerations — the immediate inspiration of the sacred writings in their original form and the singular divine care and providence — that the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek are to be regarded as authentical (I.viii). Indeed, far from confusing these two matters, conservative scholars would insist on making a very sharp distinction between them.
If then we do not call God’s care and providence by the name of inspiration, must we grant that the centuries have cut us off forever from the words of the original and that there is now no profit for us if those words were inspired? We can grant no such things. We will grant that God’s care and providence, singular though they have been, have not preserved for us any of the original manuscripts either of the Old Testament or of the New Testament. We will furthermore grant that God did not keep from error those who copied the Scriptures during the long period in which the sacred text was transmitted in copies written by hand. But we must maintain that the God who gave the Scriptures, who works all things after the counsel of his will, has exercised a remarkable care over his ‘Word, has preserved it in all ages in a state of essential purity, and has enabled it to accomplish the purpose for which he gave it. It is inconceivable that the sovereign God who was pleased to give his Word as a vital and necessary instrument in the salvation of his people would permit his Word to become completely marred in its transmission and unable to accomplish its ordained end. Rather, as surely as that he is God, we would expect to find him exercising a singular care in the preservation of his written revelation.
That God has preserved the Scriptures in such a condition of essential purity as we would expect is manifestly the case. The Hebrew text of the Old Testament has survived the millenniums in a substantially and remarkably pure form. Among the extant manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible from the Christian era there is an extraordinary agreement. Kennicott in his edition of the Hebrew Bible with variant readings deals with consonantal variants in more than six hundred manuscripts.3 Dr. Robert Dick Wilson has pointed out that there are about 284,000,000 letters in the manuscripts considered by Kennicott and that among these manuscripts there are about 900,000 variants, approximately 750,000 of which are the quite trivial variation of w and y.4 There is, Dr. Wilson remarks, only about one variant for 316 letters and apart from the insignificant w and y variation only about one variant for 1580 letters. The variants for the most part are supported by only one or by only a few of the manuscripts. Dr. Wilson has elsewhere said that there are hardly any variant readings in these manuscripts with the support of more than one out of the 200 to 400 manuscripts in which each book is found, except in the full and defective writing of the vowels, a matter which has no bearing on either the pronunciation or the meaning of the text.5
The agreement which exists among the extant manuscripts of the Hebrew Old Testament which date from the Christian era is a sign of the extraordinary care exercised in the transmission of the text by the Jews. It is true that the oldest of these witnesses are relatively late. Among the earliest are the Leningrad Manuscript of the Prophets, which has been dated A.D. 916, and a manuscript of the Pentateuch in the British Museum, which has been thought to date back to the ninth century or earlier.6
It was the practice of the Jews to place worn manuscripts in a receptacle called the “Geniza” and to use newer copies, which had been made with incredible care.7 In natural course the discarded manuscripts perished.8 But though our extant manuscripts of the Hebrew Old Testament from the Christian era are rather late, the text which they contain can he traced to a considerably earlier time.
The text of our Hebrew Bible goes back, first of all, to the Masoretes, a succession of Jewish scholars, notably connected with a school at Tiberias, whose painstaking work on the text began about A.D. 600 or before. The Masoretes introduced into the text an intricate system of accent and vowel notations. Since the Hebrew alphabet was entirely consonantal and since in earlier times no full-fledged system of vowel notation had been employed in the manuscripts, readers had been required to supply vowels to the text. The Masoretes also provided notes on the text, notes of such abundance and detail that from them alone it is possible to a considerable extent to reconstruct the text.9 They mentioned even what they regarded as unusual accents, vowel points, and spelling. They recorded a number of variant readings — on the average of about one to a page of a printed Hebrew Old Testament10 — and they made reference to eighteen corrections attributed to the scribes before them.11 But the Masoretes did not originate the Hebrew traditional text.12 They received from their predecessors a text already traditional which they treated with great reverence. Their high regard for the text that had come down to them is evidenced by their placing in the margin readings which they believed to be correct and leaving the text itself unaltered.
The Masoretes were heirs of the text in use when the Talmud was written, a text which, as is clear from the Talmud itself, had previously been in a relatively fixed condition. The Aramaic versions or paraphrases (the Targums), the Syriac Peshitto version, the Latin Vulgate version of the Old Testament, and quotations of the Old Testament in the writings of Jerome and Origen, and the Hexapla of Origen, with its Hebrew text and Greek versions, bear witness, like the Talmud, to the existence of a Hebrew text for several centuries before the time of the Masoretes which closely resembled their text. Rabbi Akiba, who died about A.D. 132, had a high regard for exactness and fixity of text, and has been credited with inspiring measures toward the settling of the text in the early second century.13 The view of P. de Lagarde that after A.D. 130 all manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible were closely fashioned after one archetype which had been decided on not long before that date has not been accepted by all; but it is at least the case that a type of text basically that of the Masoretes existed around A.D. 100 and that this text subsequently overcame whatever competitors it had. Biblical texts which have been discovered recently at Wady el-Muraba’at in southern Palestine, which have been dated in the second century A.D., are in notable agreement with the Masoretic text.14 Kenyon thinks that since the end of the first century A.D. the text has not been altered in any material way.15
Tracing the investigation still further back, Dr. Wilson maintains that citations of the Old Testament found in the New Testament, in the writings of Josephus and of Philo, and in the Zadokite Fragments bear witness to the existence of a text quite similar to the Masoretic from A.D. 40 to 100.16
The state of the text of the Hebrew Bible about the time of Christ and somewhat earlier has been illumined in the last two decades by the discovery of a great many manuscripts in the area of the Dead Sea. A particularly significant scroll, containing the entire book of Isaiah, in all probability dates from 100 B.C. or earlier. Here is a Hebrew text of substantial length which is about a millennium older than the manuscripts dating from the Christian era mentioned above — and it gives striking support in the main to the Masoretic text. Another scroll, which contains portions of the Hebrew text of Isaiah and which dates from perhaps 50 B.C., gives even stronger support to the traditional text. A commentary on Habakkuk, dating probably from the first century B.C., contains a text closely akin to the Masoretic. Fragments of Leviticus, which go back at least to the second century B.C., provide a firm witness to the traditional text. Certain fragments among the scrolls, however, have some significant agreements with types of texts which diverge to some extent from the traditional or Masoretic, such as those of the Samaritan Pentateuch and of the Septuagint. Texts somewhat out of the main line of transmission can, of course, contribute to our knowledge of the history of transmission and when carefully studied and utilized may at times make important contributions to our knowledge of the nature of the original text itself.
Mention might also be made of an ancient manuscript of the Hebrew text which was discovered before the Dead Sea scrolls came to light and which gives support to the traditional text. This witness is the Nash Papyrus, which was written perhaps around 50 or 100 B.C. and which contains portions of the text of Exodus 20 and of Deuteronomy 6.
W. F. Albright has held it to be certain — and recent discoveries give support to his position — that the Hebrew text between c. 150 and c. 50 B.C. was already fixed and that the variations between it and our Hebrew Bibles today are rarely of significance.17
Studies of the textual situation in the centuries just before Christ must take careful account of the Septuagint, a translation of the Old Testament into Greek, which was made up of a number of distinct translations of different books or sections made at different times. The Pentateuch, the oldest section of the Septuagint, dates back to about 250 B.C. Although agreeing in the main with our received Hebrew text, the Septuagint does contain differences worthy of study which are of importance to the textual critic. There is a danger in magnifying these differences and in drawing false inferences from their presence. When the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament was made, the Hebrew text used was, of course, not marked with the vowel points which the Masoretes later placed in their text. And it is to be observed that the great majority of the variations between the Septuagint and the Masoretic text arise from the fact that the translators supplied different vowels to the consonantal text from those which the Masoretes employed. In numerous other instances the translators had before them the same text as that of the Masoretes, but mistook it, misunderstood it, or interpreted it differently. At times it is clear that the translators were not at all sure what the Hebrew text before them meant and it is quite possible that at some other times, when they did feel sure of the meaning of the text, they were mistaken. Furthermore on some occasions, they attempted to throw light on the original by the addition of material. Comparative Semitic philology has shown that numerous supposed variations in the Septuagint from the Masoretic text do not represent any difference at all in the basic text.18
Dr. Green calls attention to the fact that Origen and Jerome place on translators or transcribers of the Septuagint the responsibility for the variations of the Septuagint from the Hebrew text known to them and do not entertain any belief that the Hebrew text had been altered.19 Pfeiffer expresses the opinion that Origen was misled by reason of a virtual fixation of the Hebrew text which had occurred before his time and by reason of the notable agreement among the available Hebrew manuscripts.20 But it is nevertheless important to observe that neither Origen nor Jerome nor any other early writer evidences any suspicion that a real revision or a fixation of the Hebrew text had occurred after the time of the Septuagint. Dr. Green does not deny the possibility that the Septuagint may have been made from a Hebrew text considerably, if not substantially, different from the text in use in Origen’s day. He thinks it quite possible that there may have been some inferior manuscripts of the Old Testament in use, especially among Jews outside of Palestine; but he holds that, even if this were the case, it would not follow that no authoritative text then existed and that there were no standard copies from which the traditional text has descended. He states a truth quite important in this connection that “reverence for the Scriptures and regard for the purity of the sacred text did not first originate after the fall of Jerusalem.”21 Although conceding the possibility that the Septuagint was made from a text considerably different from the traditional text, he thinks that the differences between the Septuagint and the received Hebrew text are more satisfactorily explained if attributed to the translators.22 The distinctive readings of the Septuagint at times prove superior to readings which have come down in the Masoretic text, and are naturally of importance for textual criticism, as has been mentioned; but they do not indicate that the Hebrew text underlying the Septuagint was basically superior to the traditional text or even radically different from it. Wilson holds that in the Septuagint and also in the citations found in Ecclesiasticus, the Book of Jubilees, and other writings, we can find evidence of the existence of a text substantially the same as our Masoretic text back as far as about 300 B.C.23 He would trace the Hebrew text to a yet earlier date through the evidence which he believes is furnished by the Samaritan Pentateuch.24
There is furthermore much in favor of the view that the Hebrew text was faithfully transmitted from the time of the collection of the canon in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. The scribes undoubtedly watched carefully over the text.25 The high regard in which the sacred books were held called for accuracy in copying. Dr. Green places in the period between Ezra and the Masoretes the counting of the letters, words, verses, and sections in all the books, the noting of the location of the middle letters and words of every book, and the marking of them at times by a letter of abnormal size. He remarks that the Talmud regards all this as old and as performed by the early scribes. He holds that some exacting rules designed to guard the text from error in transmission were formed and followed in this period.26
We may be confident, according to Albright, that the consonantal text of the Hebrew Bible has been transmitted with remarkable accuracy.27 He maintains that the Masoretic text of the earlier books of the Bible can be followed back to the Babylonian Exile, when he believes they were edited. After the Exile, he holds, these fixed texts were taken back to Palestine. There the consonantal text was copied and transmitted with exceptional fidelity.28
In the period from the writing of the earliest books to the collection of the canon, some scribal errors undoubtedly were made;29 nevertheless a study of the text which has come down to us will bring forth much to support the belief that it has been preserved from the very beginning with exceptional accuracy and faithfulness. Some evidence to the contrary might be thought to be found in parallel passages, especially in variations of names and numbers. But many of the variations in these passages may not be due to scribal errors. For one reason or another, these passages may not originally have been identical.30 We should also guard against erroneous conclusions drawn from the failure of the text at times to meet the reader’s expectations as to structure and from its refusal to satisfy the requirements of some artificial theories.31
Dr. Wilson in A Scientific Investigation of the Old Testament mentions a number of considerations which clearly evidence the noteworthy reliability of the traditional text. He calls attention, for example, to some important instances of its demonstrable accuracy in difficult transmission. In its correct spelling of the names of numerous kings of foreign nations, the Hebrew text, as it has been transmitted, is almost unbelievably accurate. The spelling of the names of twenty-six or more foreign kings in our Hebrew text can be compared with the spelling on the monuments of the kings and in documents of their own times. In no case is the spelling in our Hebrew text demonstrably wrong; rather in practically every case it is demonstrably right. Likewise the names of many of the kings of Israel and Judah are found spelled in Assyrian contemporary documents agreeably to the fashion in which they are spelled in our Hebrew Bibles. Wilson observes that “in 143 cases of transliteration from Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian and Moabite into Hebrew and in 40 cases of the opposite, or 184 in all, the evidence shows that for 2300 to 3900 years the text of the proper names in the Hebrew Bible has been transmitted with the most minute accuracy. That the original scribes should have written them with such close conformity to correct philological principles is a wonderful proof of their thorough care and scholarship; further, that the Hebrew text should have been transmitted by copyists through so many centuries is a phenomenon unequalled in the history of literature.”32 He reasons further that since it can be shown that the text of other ancient documents has been reliably transmitted and that the text of the Old Testament has been accurately transmitted for the past 2,000 years, we may rightly suppose that the text of the Old Testament has been accurately transmitted from the very beginning.33
On the basis of varied evidence Wilson concludes:
It does appear that we may rightfully say that the singular care and providence of God has kept the text of our Old Testament in an essentially and remarkably pure condition. We may agree with Green that no other work of ancient times has been transmitted as accurately as the Old Testament has been.36 And we can be grateful that, along with our Hebrew texts, the care and providence of God have provided versions and other aids for the important and necessary work of textual criticism.
The text of the New Testament has also been preserved in a reliable form. There are vastly more manuscripts of the Greek New Testament than there are of the Hebrew Old Testament or of any other ancient work, and some of them were written not a great while after the time of the originals. We have about 5,000 manuscripts containing portions or the whole of the New Testament in Greek, whether of the continuous text or of selections for reading in church. The available papyrus manuscripts number about eighty. Although most of them are quite fragmentary, some of the Bodmer Papyri and the Chester Beatty Papyri, written in the third century or earlier, contain very large portions of the text.37 The oldest of the papyrus manuscripts, a fragment of the Fourth Gospel, containing John 18:31-33, 37, 38, survives from the early second century. It was written perhaps within fifty years of the time when John composed his Gospel.38 There are over 260 manuscripts written on vellum in large, separate letters called uncials. Two of the oldest and best known of these manuscripts, the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus, date back to the fourth century.39 A large number of manuscripts — more than 2,700 — called cursives or minuscules, were written in a smaller, running style. They date from the ninth century to the sixteenth. There are also about 2,100 lectionaries, containing selections from the Greek New Testament for use in church services, and a number of ostraca and amulets. In addition to all these Greek witnesses, we have the testimony of manuscripts of the numerous ancient versions of the New Testament.40 The manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate alone have been estimated as at least 8,000 in number. Furthermore, we have a vast number of citations of the New Testament in early church writers, many of which are in Greek.41
The New Testament is preeminent among ancient transmitted works in the number and variety of the witnesses to its text and in the proximity in date of the earliest extant manuscripts to the time when its books were written.42 By virtue of the abundance of material for the text of the Gospels, Streeter thinks that “the degree of security that, in its broad outlines, the text has been handed down to us in a reliable form is prima facie very high.”43 Surely if scholars justly feel that they have essentially the original text of classical works, which have comparatively few manuscript witnesses, may we not feel certain that in the vast and varied company of extant witnesses to the New Testament text (among which different early textual traditions are represented), the original text in practically every detail has been transmitted to us? Kenyon thinks that “it is practically certain that the true reading of every doubtful passage is preserved in some one or other of these ancient authorities” and that “this can be said of no other ancient book in the world.”44
There are many variant readings in the extant manuscripts of the New Testament. Although these variants are very helpful in textual criticism, in enabling us to form judgments about relationships among documents and about the merit of different individual manuscripts, and of groups and families of manuscripts, the great majority of them are trivial. Dr. F. J. A. Hort, who with Bishop Brooke Foss Westcott published an excellent reconstruction of the original text of the Greek New Testament in 1881 and who prepared for their edition the most important treatise on textual criticism that has ever appeared,45 says of our New Testament text in that treatise that “the proportion of words virtually accepted on all hands as raised above doubt is very great, not less, on a rough computation, than seven eighths of the whole. The remaining eighth therefore, formed in great part by changes of order and other comparative trivialities, constitutes the whole area of criticism.”46 Hort is of the opinion that “the amount of what can in any sense be called substantial variation can hardly form more than a thousandth part of the entire text.”47 Dr. Benjamin B. Warfield has said:
Warfield calls attention to Ezra Abbott’s view that nineteen-twentieths of the variations in the New Testament text “have so little support that, although they are various readings, no one would think of them as rival readings; and nineteen-twentieths of the remainder are of so little importance that their adoption or rejection would cause no appreciable difference in the sense of the passages where they occur.”49 Warfield feels justified by the facts in saying that “the great mass of the New Testament. . . has been transmitted to us with no, or next to no, variation; and even in the most corrupt form in which it has ever appeared, to use the oft-quoted words of Richard Bentley, ‘the real text of the sacred writers is competently exact; . . . nor is one article of faith or moral precept either perverted or lost. . . choose as awkwardly as you will, choose the worst by design, out of the whole lump of readings.’”50
Dr. John H. Skilton, Th.B, Ph.D., was professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He has written many articles and is the General Editor of Scripture and Confession: A book about Confessions Old and New (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1973). This article is taken from The Infallible Word: a Symposium written by the faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary, (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, Philadelphia, 1946), pp. 141-195.
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