OT and History: Part IIb The Text of the Old Testament

OT and History: Part IIb The Text of the Old Testament

Or, how Abraham became post-exilic.

Last week, we took a brief overview of the most important theory underpinning modern Old Testament studies, the Documentary Hypothesis.  Today we look at the “Text of the Old Testament.”   What we find here, as we continue to observe the moderate-to-liberal position on the scripture, can be interpreted a few different ways.  After this post, I will start to outline my view.  Remember, the positions described here are not my own.  But, being so prevalent, it is necessary to describe them before going over the conservative position.

A key element to all of this is that a person’s current theories will color how the state of the text is interpreted today.  If one is precommitted to the OT as scripture then the information today likely will not cause a problem for you.  If, however, one is precommitted to the Documentary Hypothesis, then the date of the texts of the Old Testament will be seen as corroborative evidence for the more liberal theories.

A Timeline and Understanding the ‘Problem.’

A simple timeline

**The general date for the time of Abraham and Moses are reckoned according to Eugene H. Merrill’s book, Kingdom of  Priests.  Dr. Merrill, and others, work from the time that the temple of Solomon was built backwards to Abraham.  If anyone is interested in more information and details on how these dates can be reached then I would heartily recommend his book.  Sooner or later, this will be the subject of one of my posts.  Also, not all calendars have a year 0.  I have represented it only for visual aid.**

This, then, is the situation.  The earliest complete manuscript of the Old Testament is dated to about 1008-9 A.D.  It purports, I believe, to tell us accurate history from nearly 2000 B.C.  Can one trust a text to have accurate, reliable, and historical information about a period nearly 3000 years before?

The Text(s) of the Old Testament

The last paragraph is put in the most shocking terms it could be.  That characterization does not accurately reflect the current situation, but, only containing a bit of truth, could be used to shake a person’s trust of the Hebrew Bible.  So let’s get some more details.

The oldest complete Hebrew Manuscript we have of the Old Testament is the Leningrad Codex which is dated to 1008-1009 AD. The Aleppo Codex, once complete, is nearly a hundred years older (925), but parts of it were lost in a fire.

The question has been, “How are we to know that the Old Testament reliably tells us history from 2100 B.C.?” The complete text is nearly 3000 years away from the events of, let’s say, Abraham in the early parts of Genesis.

Now, there are other factors to consider. There are other ancient translations of the Hebrew.

Ancient Translations

The Greek (Septuagint, abbreviated by LXX) is of most importance. Every book is represented and they are dated from the first to the third centuries B.C.  The Septuagint, because it is a translation, represents an earlier Hebrew text than it was translated from.  In the Septuagint, different approaches to translation were taken.  Some books were translated woodenly and literally, but others… not so much.  In addition to the Greek, there are other translations: Aramaic (Targums), Syriac (Peshitta and Origen’s Syro-Hexapla), SamaritanLatin (Old Latin is a translation of the Greek and the Vulgate is a translation from the Hebrew by Jerome).  Many of these translations, then, are witnesses to Hebrew texts earlier than the Leningrad and Aleppo Codices.  Last, not all of these translations and copies agree with the Leningrad codex.  So, there are variations between these manuscripts.

If it were not for the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS)  250 B.C. – 65 A.D., there would be no Hebrew manuscripts prior to the birth of Christ, and the Septuagint would have been the only witness before our common era.  This is why the discovery of the DSS was so important.  We now have Hebrew texts that are prior to the birth of Christ.  The texts found in the caves of the Dead Sea are of a high variety, though.  Some agree with the Leningrad Codex, and some do not.  So, in sum, we have attestation of the Hebrew Bible as early as 300 B.C., but the majority of our attestations are found much later.

When confronted with manuscripts that do not agree, the science of Textual Criticism is employed.  Textual Criticism is the science of removing errors by comparing available manuscripts and reconstructing as far as possible the original.  Remember, it is the original that fundamentalists believe to be inspired.  Most of the differences, it should be duly noted, are completely insignificant.  For example David may be spelled with or without the Yod.  But for some differences, careful study must be taken to see what caused the change.  This science is used for all ancient documents.  If you want to know what Aristotle was really saying in his work Rhetoric, then we must compare the copies of Aristotle’s original.  One day, I hope to provide an example of how this is done.

Many scholars, if not most, though, say that the few major differences between the manuscripts mean the text was fluid.  This is because some of the documents recovered have significant language, grammar, and narratival differences from the Text currently in the Bible.

The Dead Sea Scrolls and Text Fluidity

So what does this matter?  A fluid text essentially means that there was not any one authoritative OT text.  It’s more accurate to speak of equally valid versions of the Old Testament. More than that, some scholars would say the words and content of the text(s) of the OT were constantly changed by scribes/priests/prophets.  Some of the facts represented here are undeniable.  It is not normally the facts that ‘fundamentalists’ disagree with, but rather how they are interpreted.  Conservatives are aware that the copies of the Hebrew manuscripts that exist do not always agree 100%.  The narrative that the liberals give concerning this is that there was not one authoritative text that you could call “The Text.”  The Old Testament, they say, was in flux.  A conservative would say that “the text” resided in the temple, and that the other manuscripts that differ in a great degree reflect popular versions.  In this view, it would be much like excavating a modern book store and finding the NASB beside the Message version.  Would the finding of a KJV and the Message necessitate the view that there is no “Bible?”  Or would it be that some other versions were made to make the language of the bible more understandable–more popular?  Would it necessitate that the people who lived at the time of the Message version, the NASB, the ESV, the KJV don’t care for words of the text?

In the case of the Pentateuch–which will be the main focus from hereon–Moses’ authorship would be out the window if for no other reason than it would be difficult to say we have Moses’ words (remember, these scholars are saying the texts were changed for various reasons).  It would be possible, in this view, to say that the original source might be Mosaic, but it would be nearly impossible to know what parts are Mosaic because of the changes made to the OT text.  Which parts were changed? Which parts stayed the same?

Please note, I’m not saying that these scholars believe that the OT text was merely updated.  They typically hold that the OT text has been changed in numerous ways including vocabulary,  reorganizing legends, genealogies, etc.  I personally do not see how one could hold to this massive, continual reworking of the OT text and still say it can be attributed to Moses.  Most scholars that I’ve read in this field (i.e., King from Boston College, Stager from Harvard, Martin Noth, Thompson from Copenhagen, et. al) don’t attempt to claim Mosaic authorship.  Instead, they see the development of the Pentateuch in terms of Source Criticism.

Most scholars believe that the Pentateuch reached its final edited form after the exile, let’s say, 500-400 B.C.  This was the conclusion based upon the Documentary Hypothesis Theory discussed last week.  But modern scholars are also saying the DSS give evidence that the Pentateuch was edited after this period as well.  In fact, many would say the Pentateuch was subject to changes all the way until it was finally standardized in the 1st century AD.  Prior to this, stories were rearranged, added, and (probably) deleted.  Some of the DSS manuscripts read like summaries (almost as if adapted for a child) and, some move stories into different spots.

Consequences of the JEDP Theory and Text Fluidity

As mentioned at the beginning of this series in Old Testament and History, here, J. Alberto Soggins no longer sees Abraham as a story about a man dwelling in tents and living according to the promise of Yahweh.  His words are worth quoting again:

Soggins, J. Alberto, A History of Ancient Israel (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984)

One of the values of the studies by Thompson and Van Seters has been their discovery that the mention of ethnic groups, places, and individuals in the patriarchal narratives makes sense only at a time of the united monarchy (for Van Seters as late as the post-exilic period), and certainly never before! …So we must conclude that, leaving aside the possibility of re-readings and later reinterpretations, the nucleus of the patriarchal narratives can be traced back without any difficulty to the time of the united monarchy. (p. 90)

…Once we accept that the patriarchal traditions were re-read at the end of the exile and in the early post-exilic period: the itinerary of Abraham then became the itinerary of those who were returning home, from south-eastern Mesopotamia, passing through Harran, the usual route between the two regions. (p. 92)

This aligns very well with the view I’ve been describing.  The patriarchal narratives may be traced to the united monarchy (J&E), but for Van Seters they are traced only as late as post-exile.  Nevertheless, the final view is that the form of the Pentateuch that we have now must be interpreted from a post-exilic angle (who knows, after all, what J & E looked like during the Kingdom if it existed then).

This post-exilic interpretation is what Soggins does in the second paragraph.  Since the text came to finalization after the exile, the meaning of the pentateuch is also found post-exile.  This is according to a (good!) rule of literature:  The meaning of any particular text is found by interpreting it through the culture and time period that the text was written in.  This means, Huck Finn, for example, must be understood from the time period of Southern Antebellum and also from Mark Twain’s own period.  Even when authors write about the past–even if the goal is history–the author always makes the past relevant to the present.  Hence the saying, “Those that ignore history…”

Soggins believes that when the exiles returned and re-read the traditions about Abraham (largely believed to be myths and legends), the Pentateuch became restructured and re-interpreted to represent the trek from exile in Babylon back to Judah.  Because the meaning of a text is found in the date of its composition (post-exile), the meaning of the story of Abraham’s travels from Mesopotamia to Canaan land is found, truly, in the journey of exiles from Babylon to Judah.  Abraham is not historical, but has become a literary device.

Factors and presuppositions that are leading to this view are

1. Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch.  The Pentateuch was the work of redactors bringing together separate traditions from the 10th century B.C. onward.

2. There is no way that Jews living in the 1000-700 B.C. century (the time most scholars believe J & E was being formed) could recall history from 2000 B.C. (the approximate time Abraham would be living if he is accepted as historical).  Abraham and the patriarchs are, therefore, mythical.

3.  The source traditions (the common word used when referring to the idea of fluid, changed and changeable, material that makes up the Pentateuch) which made up the Pentateuch were repurposed for each new generation.

This is what Soggins suggests in what is quoted above.  Upon the return from exile, the Jewish community, in order to make the tradition relevant to themselves, would have repurposed the patriarchal narratives found in Genesis.  Thus, since Abraham is considered ahistorical, his life becomes an image of the Jewish Exiles relationship with Yahweh.  Just as Abraham was called in the land of Ur to live in Canaan, the Exiles were called by Yahweh (through Cyrus) to go back to Canaan.  The story of Abraham is now the story of the return from exile.  Changes to the tradition would have been made to accommodate this “repurposing.”


Theory (JEDP) affects the interpretation of evidence (the date of the manuscripts) and vice versa.  Further, all of these factors affect the interpretation of the text.  Is Abraham a man living by faith in Yahweh or is he a literary device who is representative of Israel after the exile? What I’m attempting to show is the interrelatedness of all these things, and how liberals view them:

(some points will be repeated)

1. The date of the manuscripts which exist today plus…

2.  The differences between manuscripts has lead to skepticism about there being an “authoritative” version.

3. How the date assigned to the manuscripts gives scholars a window of dating their ‘original’ composition (e.g. finding manuscripts of the Pentateuch from about 300 B.C. could mean a composition date of 500-400 B.C. is reasonable).  Anything earlier starts to stretch credulity.  Also, anachronisms** and other internal evidence is used to corroborate this date.

4.  It’s impossible for Jews living in 950 B.C. to actually remember historical information from the distant past.  (The Grandfather law states that anything remembered  prior to the third generation is seriously unreliable).  Therefore, the patriarchs in Genesis are not historical in any meaningful sense and are more than likely made up to serve the literary purpose(s) of the author(s).

5.  Finally, the meaning of a text is determined in part by the time it was written.  Further, the time it was written is determined, in part, by the date of the copies that are now present.  Thus, the date of the oldest manuscripts currently in possession (ca.  300 B.C.) affects the date of their composition to some extent.  They are no longer dated to Moses (ca. 1400 B.C.), but to post-exile.  They were then repurposed by the exiles, 536  B.C. and afterwards.  Practically speaking, the meaning of the Pentateuch is now found in either the age of the monarchy or in the Hellenistic age.  Genesis-Exodus tells us not of the events it records, but what exile and exodus mean to Jews coming back to Jerusalem after their exile.






**An anachronism is a piece of a story that doesn’t fit within the time frame it represents.  For example, in Genesis 14:14 it is recorded that Abram went to war with four kings and pursued them as far as Dan.  The issue is that Dan didn’t exist by the name Dan, yet.  Dan is the great-great-grandson of Abraham, and Abraham died before Dan was born.  That area in the north was named Dan after Joshua led the conquest of Canaan nearly 600 years later.  Therefore, the naming of that place as “Dan” is an anachronism.  Many scholars who are already skeptical of the Bible will say that this is a proof that this story was composed after the monarchy began and the tribe of Dan conquered this northern region.  I would simply say that it is more likely that the original name of the city that Abraham pursued the four kings to no longer made sense after Dan conquered it.  Therefore, to keep the text accurate, the name of that city was edited to Dan (by some prophet or priest guided by the Spirit).  The difference is that I still hold that the original composition is historical and by Moses.

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