Friday, May 19, 2006

G. Norton on the Old Testament Text

G. Norton, “Ancient Versions and Textual Transmission of the Old Testament,” in The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies, eds. J. W. Rogerson and Judith M. Lieu (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 211-236.

Before I provide this summation of Gérard Norton’s article, allow me a personal word about this friend and colleague. I had only known Norton through email correspondences until this past April. He had always been a cordial and gracious—not to mention thoughtful and analytical—respondent to my occasional questions, some of which I am sure were not a little bothersome. When I met was able to spend some time with him last month during the 2006 Grinfield Lectures on the Septuagint (which I am soon to report on), I was very happy to learn that these affable gestures were more than an electronic façade. During his time here, myself and one other colleague sensed a genuine respect for the biblical text. He spent several summers in Fribourg working closely with Dominique Barthélemy, whose impact in this field has been so great that nothing need be said here. (In fact, many of my own photocopied articles have come from Barthélemy’s library, via Norton via Salvesen!) Consequently, he has more than earned his right to be heard when it comes to textual studies. His “Cautionary Reflections” has been a touchstone article in guiding the new Hexapla Project of which I am a part. Norton’s most significant assignments at present include not only the edition for the Hexapla Project of the Psalter, but also the editorial responsibility for the Psalter of BHQ, a project he also serves as one of the general editors. With that said, let us turn now to his latest article (NB: What follows is NOT a review. I am only summarising his article, mentioning salient points that might encourage discussion).

Norton’s essay is a summary of the history of the Hebrew Bible, and the translation and transmission of the Old Testament in the ancient versions. He begins by tracing the history of the text through four distinct phases. First, the ‘original texts’ of the individual books “were composed in different generations, and in different historical circumstances” (212). In particular, books like Isaiah may have been transmitted orally for a long period of time before being committed to writing. Further, there is the possibility that books such as Isaiah, even after they were omitted to writing, “circulated in several varying forms for centuries before our earliest witnesses to that text” (212). Thus, the “history of the text of the Hebrew Bible in a pre-canonical stage must be considered book by book and development by development.” The second stage of transmission involves the earliest text(s) to which we have access, directly or indirectly (212). Third, the proto-Masoretic form is chosen as the definitive version within Jewish circles. Though Norton does not conjecture a reason for this selection, he believes it most likely that the text was already favoured, especially by groups like the Pharisees. The elements added to this text in the following centuries were intended to conserve the pronunciation, reading, and writing details of the proto-Masoretic form. The fourth and final stage is the completed text of the Masoretes based on the manuscripts of the ben Asher family in Tiberias (9th-10th centuries), equipped with the additional layers of vocalisation and cantillation marks. This was the end of ‘textual development’ within the Hebrew Old Testament, and efforts from this point on attempt only to preserve this text form.

Norton next discusses the approaches to modern editions, both diplomatic and eclectic. Indeed, since Norton is the editor of the Psalter for BHQ, he is especially interested in the principles of preparing modern editions. His concluding critique of previous editions is their use of the ancient versions in the apparatuses, leading to an “undervaluation of the role of these texts in the history of the communities for which they were made” (217). One immediately thinks of the superb work of the French school of LXX studies, and the project La Bible d’Alexandrie. This commentary series on the Septuagint text attempts to view the Septuagint not as a tool for the textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible, but as a text that should be valued in its own right as a window into the socio-religious world of Hellenistic Judaism.This issue is raised again in Norton’s discussion of the Syriac Peshitta. For example,
In the Peshitta the earliest form of the translations seems to have been the closest to the Hebrew text. This was successively revised to provide a more stylistically polished Syriac text that sometimes, however, presents pseudo-variants if retroverted to Hebrew. Interpretation of this feature has been a problem in editions of the Hebrew Bible (228).

This seems to be similar to the protests of P. J. Williams regarding the use of the Syriac NT in the textual criticism of the NT.

Finally, Norton addresses the evidence from Qumran. Though he does not make any firm conclusions (given that this is a survey article!), he does affirm that many of the Hebrew texts found at Qumran “are clearly the ancestors of our Masoretic Bible” (230). This seems to be a forgotten (or avoided???) point in modern scholarship. It appears that there has been such excitement over the prospect of proof of textual fluidity, few have taken into consideration the remarkable ‘proof’ of stability also provided by Qumran. As a ‘word of caution’ to this issue, Norton writes:
Even though many texts have been found at Qumran, we still do not have all of the texts that were extant (even at Qumran) at the time when the translations were being made. Neither do we know how representative these texts are of the kinds of texts that would have been conserved in other Jewish communities, or even in Jerusalem (231).

Presumably, Norton intends to inject some prudence in the debate, warning us not to jump to swiftly to conclusions on the basis of the little evidence we now have available from the Judean Desert.

With everything just mentioned, Norton’s article is well worth reading, whether as an introduction to the Old Testament text or a précis of the issues currently occupying the minds of textual scholars. What have been offered here are points that hopefully will lead to some profitable discussion about the nature of the Hebrew text.


  1. "Third, the proto-Masoretic form is chosen as the definitive version within Jewish circles. Though Norton does not conjecture a reason for this selection, he believes it most likely that the text was already favoured, especially by groups like the Philistines."

    First: what evidence do we have that the "proto-Mastoretic form" was CHOSEN, i.e. deliberately selected in contrast to other Hebrew textual forms?

    Second: "Philistines"? Perhaps he meant "Pharisees," but do we have any evidence for this?

    Michael Lyons

  2. Yes, Goliath was quite keen on textual issues and favoured the proto-Masoretic text, except for the books of Samuel.

    Thx, correction made, my fault.

  3. "Neither do we know how representative these texts are of the kinds of texts that would have been conserved in other Jewish communities, or even in Jerusalem" This is only sort of true. While there is not a great deal of non-Qumran biblical MSS to work with, from what we do have "other Jewish communities" seemed to have a preference for what might be called proto-Masoretic.
    We have both the biblical texts from Masada (all pre 73 AD), and some of the texts from other sites usually associated with the Bar Kokhba Revolt may also be pre First Revolt. For these other sites:
    1: Some (but certainly not all as some are clearly early 2nd century AD) biblical MSS are dated earlier than the First Revolt, even if they may have been deposited at the time of the Bar Kokhba Revolt
    2: For the earlier MSS it is not certain that they were deposited at the time fo the Bar Kokhba Revolt as their findsites often include items from the First Revolt.
    Matthew Hamilton

  4. Of course, there aren't even enough of these texts available to prove that they are absolutely proto-Masoretic.

  5. Also the Bar Cochba and Masada texts if I remember right only include books for whom there are not wide variations in the known texts anyway. Therefore, labelling them as proto-Masoretic is somewhat deceptive. In addition to being proto-Masoretic, they are also Septuagintal, Pre-Samaritan, and every other "text-type." So why call them "proto-Masoretic"?

    I believe that it was recognizing this very fallacy that prompted Tov to adjust the percentages in his text-type table in his revision of Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (the first edition gives 70% for proto-Masoretic; the second gives something much lower, I think 40%).

    I am personally comfortable giving the Masoretic text a privileged position in OT TC (as is Tov). But those of us who do this need to be cautious about how this bias impacts our language when we're communicating with people who don't share it. In the OT, the evidence compels us to treat different books differently, so that the text-types for one do not necessarily exist for another. Really, in order to label the textual affinities of manuscripts the way Tov does, we would have to do it book-by-book and make fresh delineations of text-types each time. When we did that we would find that in Genesis, for example, only one text type exists, and its label would need to reflect that appropriately. I don't think "proto-Masoretic" would be very good in that case.

    I want to add that I've seen this same fallacy in NT critiques of the byzantine priority position. Its critics love to claim that the byzantine text is not attested in the early centuries. And they count every papyrus known, no matter how small, as Alexandrian. In some cases, the collations of these papyri would make it just as easy to align them with byz as with B&P75. But the assumptions of the author of the essay prevent them from considering that.

  6. ER:
    "I've seen this same fallacy in NT critiques of the byzantine priority position."

    To its credit, the BP side has now released a printed text representative of its text-type (now in several editions, with the possibly of many more to come).
    Thus we can now examine a ms against any edition of 'the' Byz text and precisely declare its affinity with that text-type. This is especially easy to do if the ms in question doesn't include the Apocalypse.

    The difficulty of assigning a ms to any other text-type is that no printed copy of such exists for comparison, other than for the Byzantine.

    Should NA be declared the printed representative of the Alexandrian, we immediately run into the problem that our definition of text-type must then allow for mss which vary by over 30 percent from the standard. Take p66, for instance; how would it fare if collated against NA27 letter-by letter?