Friday, July 17, 2020

Is There a Unity amid this Diversity?

Currently, there is debate about the state of the Old Testament text before the second century AD. While many argue that the OT text existed in a state of fluidity – that is, the OT text had not yet reached its final form – some others believe that a stable text existed alongside a diversity of texts. I hold to this latter view, and I identify this stable text as an MT-like text.

Now, Old Testament textual critics cite a variety of evidence when discussing this important topic. Perhaps the strongest evidence of this debate is the Hebrew/Aramaic biblical manuscripts discovered in the Judean Desert. At least two reasons make these manuscripts unique among the other evidence: 1) they are the oldest biblical texts available to scholars, and 2) they are written in the OT’s original languages. These two details compel us, then, to take seriously two further details: nearly half of these manuscripts align closely with the MT while the other half do not. Emanuel Tov labels these latter manuscripts non-aligned texts.
First four columns of 1QIsaa
Thus, in a series of blogs, I am going to discuss the non-aligned manuscripts. I hope to show that these manuscripts are largely secondary and dependent on an MT-like text. This analysis suggests to me that the stable text that existed alongside the diversity of the non-aligned texts is an MT-like text. I hope this creates some intriguing dialogue for the glory of the great God whom these manuscripts bear witness!


  1. "nearly half of these manuscripts align closely with the MT while the other half do not"
    Grouped all together this may be true but by dividing the manuscripts by findsite we find the non-Qumran manuscripts are closely aligned with the MT. Qumran while having many MSS, may in effect be an outlier

    1. Matthew,

      You bring up an extremely important point, and I'd love to hear you elaborate on it.

      We should also note that, according to Tov, many of the manuscripts from Qumran warrant the label semi-MT, and these manuscripts co-exist alongside of the so called “non-aligned” texts. Thus, an MT-like text is present everywhere in the Judaean Desert, including Qumran. I think this is a significant point.

      By the way, the statistics I provided are from Armin Lange’s chapter “The Textual Plurality of the Jewish Scriptures in the Second Temple Period in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” in Qumran and the Bible: Studying the Jewish and Christian Scriptures in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls.


    2. Hi Anthony,
      tried to post a fuller reply but can't seem to get tables copied. Short answer is that there are around 14.4 words per variant in the Qumran biblical MSS while for non-Qumran it is around 199 words per variant. And before anybody posts that is because the Qumran biblical MSS are pre First Revolt and the non Qumran biblical MSS are post First Revolt, so the difference is a diachronic comparison - not fully so. Using only those non Qumran biblical MSS that are, or likely are, pre First Revolt, there are still over 156 words per variant.
      There is still a degree of diachronic comparison as the non Qumran MSS - mostly Masada but also some of those from Wadi Murabba'at and Nahal Hever - date within a century before the First Revolt and mostly within the half century before the First Revolt, while many of the Qumran MSS are a century or more earlier.
      Uniformity at 3 findsites (either 12 or 13 MSS) cf. a lesser degree of uniformity at Qumran

    3. Matthew,

      Thanks for the reply. Do you mind providing the source of these statistics? I believe that Tov provides these statistics somewhere, but others may have too. If Tov is the source, I’d imagine he is also counting orthographic and morphological differences as variants. If that is the case, the value of these statistics would be limited.

      Even if the source is excluding these differences, the statistics still have limitations since the range of agreement between the manuscripts from Qumran and Leningrad is wide. On the one hand, some manuscripts align closely while others do not. What is needed is for us to know how each individual manuscript aligns statistically with the other sources. Moreover, we cannot simple count the variants, we must weigh them. Have you seen the statistics I provide in my dissertation? I think that is a good way forward if we are going to assess the biblical manuscripts from Qumran properly. (If I recall, Lange provides some statistics in Handbuch der Textfunde vom Toten Meer.)

      Overall, I agree with you: the biblical-manuscripts from the other sites all preserve a proto-MT text. This is significant for our understanding of the state of the OT text in the Second Temple period, and I, like you, do not think this evidence suggests a standardization of the OT text.

      The point that I am trying to make here is that the non-aligned texts from Qumran depend on a MT-like text. I think this is another significant point that supports the idea of a stable OT text in the Second Temple period.


  2. "nearly half of these manuscripts align closely with the MT while the other half do not"

    If you check different editions of Tov's Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, you'll notice that his percentages changes significantly. In 1992, he put 70% of all Qumran manuscripts in the Proto-Masoretic category. Then in his 2001 revision, that number went down to 35% (I haven't consulted the 2011 edition), with the non-aligned texts going up to 35%.

    I want to point out, also, that the OP implies that Tov's use of the label "non-aligned texts" applies to everything that's not Proto-Masoretic, which isn't how he uses that term. His categories include 1) Qumran Practice, 2) Proto-Masoretic, 3) Pre-Samaritan, 4) Close to OG, and 5) Non-aligned. In that 5th category he places everything that doesn't fit well into any of the other 4 categories (not just anything that's not Proto-Masoretic).

    When the 2001 edition of Tov's book came out, I thought the decrease of the percentage of Proto-Masoretic manuscripts from 70% to 35% was remarkable.

    I was told by Eugene Ulrich that the reason for this was that, while much more than 35% of Qumran manuscripts do align closely with the MT, in many of those manuscripts the MT they matched up with the Samaritan or OG just as well, because those texts didn't differ from one another significantly over the portions of the text contained in the manuscript, and in such cases, to label those manuscripts as "Proto-Masoretic" would be to privilege the Proto-Masoretic as the default category.

    For Tov's purposes in categorizing the manuscripts, that line of reasoning makes sense. But for purposes of comparing each category for its frequency of attestation at Qumran, the revised numbers seem to understate how dominant the Proto-Masoretic was. For this purpose, the non-aligned texts should be left out of the equation, as texts that favor no one text-type over another, and the frequencies of the 4 main categories out of the 65% of manuscripts that remain should be compared. In that comparison, the Proto-Masoretic makes up the majority of all Qumran manuscripts that do align with any of the categories. It is almost twice as common as the Qumran practice, more than twice as common as the Pre-Samaritan, and many times more common than texts aligning with the OG.

    And if I understand Tov correctly, this is just in Qumran, and doesn't include the non-Qumran DSS, where, as MH says above, the Proto-Masoretic text is decidedly more dominant.

    1. Eric,

      Thank you for your helpful comments. You are very right to point out that Tov’s categorization grid has evolved. I list these statistics in the introduction of my dissertation, n3, if you are interested. The source I cite for this information is Armin Lange’s chapter “The Textual Plurality of the Jewish Scriptures in the Second Temple Period in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls.” See my comment to Matthew for the full citation.

      If I recall though, Tov has decreased the manuscripts in the semi-MT and proto-MT category not because of the reason you cite – although that is the reason why Lange’s semi-MT category is so low – but because of his methodology. He believes that manuscripts should be categorized as texts, not text-types. Thus, his categorization is very, very narrow. This leads him to label 1QIsaa as nonaligned, even though he states that it is non-aligned in the least significant way.

      Finally, Tov has dropped the QSP category from his grid. I believe that these manuscripts have shifted to the non-aligned category.


  3. I would have to read your work, but from my own studies I believe that the MT is the secondary text. Look at the NT and youll see early on there was wide variation but that after a few centuries there was a standardization. Standardizing makes sense to have unification of diverse groups. Original diversity is far more faithful to the historical diversity. The proto MT tradition is ancient. so already the text was standardized around the 1st century bc/Ad. But that doesnt make it the primary text. However its also not an either or thing. Ive found plenty of instanced with MT as a superior reading over the others. But many readings in orders are to me clearly superior. So to say that one us primary is completely false. I will say however that I believe 95% of the time the samaritan is more original than the Mt. But the lxx throws a wrench in it. Its like 75% superior to MT in my view. But MT is like 25% superior. Those numbers are my impressions not to be taken as exactly accurate. But anyways i believe the MT is only one standardization. The lxx was standardized by origen. Jerome standardized the Latin texts. Wide divergence occurs early, thus uniformity and standardized readings is a strong argument against it being the primary text type.

    1. Ounyeh,

      Thank you for your reply. I am not an expert on the NT use of the OT, but the NT authors for the most part, are engaging in “resignification;” in other words, they are being targumic. This is my opinion.

      Your argument seems to be as follows: resignification equals textual fluidity. I disagree. Notice that even post 2nd century AD there is still “resignification” happening in the Targums; yet, most everyone argues that post-second century AD there is a standard text. "Resignigication" still happens today. I do it most Sundays when I read the word of God to the people of God.

      I would say that what we have happening around the turn of the era is that “resignification” simply moves from Hebrew texts to Aramaic ones. Peter Gentry makes this argument in an article published in JETS. Yet, amid the resignified manuscripts there exists a standard text.

      Have I understood your argument properly?


    2. When I mentioned the NT i was referring to NT textual criticism unrelated to OT. My point was that I believe the state of NT textual criticism is similar for OT. Basically the NT has 5 text types: Alexandrian, Egyptian, Caesarean,Western and Byzantine. The Byzantine is notable for being the MT of the New testament. Mt standing got majority text. The majority text of the NT is characteristically uniform in a way very similar to the Masoretic text
      Whereas the other NT text types exhibit a more fluid and diverse variation. Most scholars believe the byzantine standardization is later. Despite being later, they agree the standardization happened early since the Peshitta version of the new testament is byzantine text type. So likeeise while the Masoretic version of the OT is early, there is considerable evidence in my view of it being later than and secondary to some of the other versions. Just like the NT though sometimes byzantine readings are the most accurate despite being the later version one can say the same about the Masoretic sometimes being more accurate than the other versions.
      But over all it appears to me to be a later and secondary version.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.