Reviewed by Eric Tully
Sound biblical exegesis requires that we know something about many different things: the historical and literary contexts of the passage, the genre, the structure, and the significance of certain details. Before we consider those issues, however, there is the question of the text itself. The more we understand where our Bible came from, how it was transmitted and copied, the various versions in which it appears, and the procedure for evaluating different textual readings, the more prepared we will be to interpret the text accurately and carefully.
For some, it is tempting to ignore these complex issues and to accept the reading of the Hebrew Masoretic Text or even a particular English translation. However, when we make that decision we have made a text critical judgment and chosen one biblical text over others. While we cannot all be experts in textual criticism, the more we understand about the versions of the Bible and how they relate to each other, the better informed we will be when we read commentaries or even the footnotes in our Bibles. These matters of textual criticism have a steep learning curve, but fortunately there are some very helpful books to guide us along the way.
One of these books, Ernst Würthwein’s The Text of the Old Testament, has been an important resource for both students and scholars. It first appeared in 1952 and was subsequently revised over the years to reflect new discoveries and research in the field. The fifth edition was published in 1988, but then Würthwein passed away in 1996. Recently, the book was revised and rewritten in a sixth edition by Alexander Achilles Fischer. The work under review is the third edition of the English translation of this originally German work.
The book is intended to introduce beginners to the sources and methodology of Old Testament textual criticism, with a particular focus on the standard Hebrew Bible: Biblia Hebraica. In my view, it is somewhat advanced for true beginners. However, it would serve very well as a reference or as a textbook for intermediate students.
The book is clearly organized in nine chapters under three major headings:
A. The Hebrew Text of the Bible
1. Language Script and Writing Materials
2. The Masoretic Text
3. The Qumran Scrolls
4. The Samaritan Text
B. The Ancient Translations
5. The Septuagint
6. Other Translations
C. Textual Criticism
7. The Goal and Task of Textual Criticism
8. Textual Corruptions, Changes, and Variants
9. The Method of Textual Criticism
Chapter 1 is a general introduction to the characteristics of Biblical Hebrew and poetry as well as a survey of the development of writing materials. This is an important foundation for thinking about the kinds of errors that might develop in a text and why texts are arranged in certain ways.
Chapter 2, on the Masoretic Text, provides a brief history of the consonantal text, special letters which scribes used to make corrections or notations, text divisions and accents, and the Masorah. The authors conclude this chapter with a description of early printed versions as well as the primary scholarly editions of the Hebrew Bible available today. The book was published in 2014, but there are already two references which are out of date. The authors mention the 27th edition of Novum Testamentum Graece (1993) on p. 47, but the 28th edition is now available. Likewise, on p. 51 they mention the Oxford Hebrew Bible Project as a future eclectic edition, but the first volume on the book of Proverbs (Fox, 2015) has recently been published with the new series title, The Hebrew Bible: a Critical Edition. These examples illustrate how fast the field is changing and why this new edition is significant.
In Chapter 3, the authors describe the current state of research on the Qumran scrolls. They argue that there is a relationship between the site and the caves, “…the caves were familiar to the people at Qumran, so they were undoubtedly aware that manuscripts were hidden in them. When the scrolls were placed in the caves is also known: just before 68 C.E., when the Romans invaded and destroyed the Qumran settlement” (pp. 58-59). According to the authors, the two most significant consequences of the scrolls for textual criticism are that the Septuagint now has greater credibility and we now realize that in the Second Temple period, there was an overlap between the final editing of the biblical text and the beginning of the copying process (p. 72).
Chapter 4 discusses the Samaritan Pentateuch, a Hebrew text with later ideological insertions by the Samaritan community.
In the second part of the book, Chapters 5 and 6 introduce other editions and versions of the Old Testament Text. Chapter 5 introduces the Greek Septuagint, surveying early manuscripts, recensions, and major codices. The authors do an excellent job of clearly explaining the complex historical development and the symbols found in major critical editions. Chapter 6 briefly introduces the Targumim, the Syriac Peshitta, the Vulgate, Old Latin Fragments, and minor translations such as Coptic, Ethiopic, and Arabic.
In the third part of the book, chapters 7, 8 and 9 describe the methodology and goals of textual criticism. In Chapter 7, “The Goal and Task of Textual Criticism,” the authors make an argument for the necessity of textual criticism as foundational to exegesis. According to the authors, the goal of textual criticism is the canonical final text. They use the term “final text” to indicate the final state of the text following any editing or literary shaping in its development. They write, “From a canonical perspective the history of the text begins with the final form accepted as authoritative about 100 C.E., which form is the goal of textual criticism. Whatever happened earlier belongs to its prehistory, and is irrelevant for interpretation in a community defined canonically” (p. 160). According to this perspective, the discipline of textual criticism is only equipped to work with actual textual evidence. Therefore, seeking to describe earlier stages of the text for which there is no evidence (such as the relationship between the Hebrew and Greek versions of Jeremiah, for example) is a job for other disciplines.
Chapter 8 describes the various kinds of errors that occur in the transmission of texts such as haplography, dittography, and errors in word division. In addition, sometimes scribes make intentional alterations for style or to introduce euphemisms or explanatory statements.
In Chapter 9, the authors describe the process of textual criticism from the vantage point of Biblical Hebraica Stuttgartensia and its critical apparatus. However, they say that “while the MT may often have the leading role, methodologically it should be treated like any other witness to the text” (p. 190). The three steps of textual criticism are (1) Preparation (read the apparatus), (2) Execution (process the data, and (3) Decision (determine the reading closest to the original text).
The book concludes with almost 100 pages of plates (about 1/3 of the book). This is a real strength of the volume. For each plate, the recto page has a crisp photograph in black and white. The verso page has the title, date, and current location of the inscription or document as well as a description of its historical background and significance. Although the photos are not on glossy paper, their quality is quite good.
The Text of the Old Testament: An Introduction to Biblica Hebraica is an excellent introduction to the field of Old Testament Textual Criticism. As the subtitle suggests, the authors treat the subject in reference to the standard critical edition of the Hebrew Bible. For example in chapter 1 they discuss the Hebrew square script first (the script in BHS) and then go back and introduce the Phoenician or Paleo Hebrew script which is chronologically prior. This makes sense since most students and non-specialists will engage in textual criticism via the apparatus in BHS.
The discussion is balanced and the explanations are clear. A variety of tables and illustrations add interest and clarity. Evangelicals will likely disagree with some of the assumptions in the book regarding canonicity, dating, and the literary development of biblical texts.
One particular strength of the book is the bibliography provided at the end of each chapter and categorized according to topic. For example, in chapter 2, “The Masoretic Text,” the authors suggest further reading for “Editions” (BHS, BHQ, etc.), “Facsimiles,” “Aids for Biblia Hebraica,” “Masorah,” “Tiqqune Sopherim,” “Geniza Fragments,” “Introductions,” and “Digital Programs” (i.e. software). As might be expected, the bibliography is heavily focused on German works. For example, at the end of chapter 1, “Language, Script and Writing Materials” eight out of the ten recommended resources are German works. This may not be as helpful for English-speaking beginning students in the U.S., but it is important for students to be aware of these German resources.
As mentioned above, the book would perhaps best be used with intermediate students. I will continue to use Brotzman’s, Old Testament Textual Criticism (there is a new edition forthcoming) with my Elementary Hebrew students and Tov’s, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (2011) for my advanced elective on Old Testament Textual Criticism. The present volume by Würthwein and Fischer stakes out a position between these in terms of technicality.
This is an important, up-to-date resource that will benefit everyone interested in Old Testament Textual criticism. The excellent bibliography, diagrams, and plates are unique contributions among introductory works in the field. Highly recommended.
Eric Tully is Assistant Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
Buy the books
The Text Of The Old Testament: An Introduction To Biblia Hebraica, Third Edition