Introduction to Hebrew Bible Textual Criticism

By: Robert Ward - Oct. 2, 2021

Hebrew Bible (HB) textual criticism (TC) is more complicated than New Testament (NT) TC, for reasons that will be discussed below.[1] While the methodologies used between the two are broadly similar (e.g. internal and external evidence), the textual state of the HB is more complex than the New Testament. As such, it would be good to start off discussing the three major text families of the HB and their relationship to TC.[2]


The Masoretic Text


The Masoretic Text (MT) is the form of the HB that most people are likely familiar with. Most versions of the OT are based on a single 11th-century manuscript in the MT family, the Leningrad Codex.‏‏‏‏[3] While manuscripts like the MT (called the Proto-MT by Tov)[4] were found in the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS), The work of the Masoretes (the scribes who copied the MT) likely began around the year 600.[5] The Masoretes had a reputation for being extraordinarily careful in their copying.[6] Given the extensive texts found in the MT family, and that it is written in Hebrew, it is the most significant form of the HB available today.


The Septuagint


The name Septuagint (hereafter LXX) is subject to some confusion, since there is no agreed consensus about the use of the term.[7] Some use the term to refer to the Greek translation of the Pentateuch, others for the oldest series of Greek translations, and others still for the entire collection of Greek translations of the HB. For simplicity, I will be using the term in the third sense. Translation of the HB into Greek likely began in the third century BCE, starting with the Pentateuch.[8] Production of translations continued, likely covering the rest of the HB by the first century CE, known as the Old Greek (OG).[9] However, later translations emerged, possibly because of discontentment in the translation of the OG, or because Christians had adopted it as their preferred form of the HB. The three notable translations are Aquilla, Symmachus, and Theodotion.[10]


By the third century CE, the pluriform nature of the Septuagint made it difficult for Christians to debate Jews. With this apologetic concern in mind, Origen created the Hexapla, so named for its six columns.[11] The columns contained (from left to right): the HB, a Greek transliteration of the HB, Aquilla, Symmachus, the OG, and Theodotion. His OG column contained harmonized readings with the other versions, and critical marks to note additions and minuses in the text. The Hexapla is no longer available in any extant forms. Ironically, the popularity of Origen’s Hexapla has made recovery of the OG more difficult. Later scribes would use Origen’s form of the OG, which (of course) contained the harmonized readings. These readings, called Hexaplaric recensions, have made manuscripts containing Origen’s OG text of limited usefulness.[12]



The Dead Sea Scrolls


The 1947 discovery of the DSS was one of the most important discoveries for HB textual criticism. The Scrolls contain over 200 manuscripts of texts from the HB.[13] Dating from the 300 BCE-100 CE, the DSS predates the Leningrad Codex by around 1,000 years. Most of the manuscripts are fragmentary, though some are extant. Though the Dead Sea Scrolls are often treated as a manuscript family in text-critical discussions, they are really a collection of manuscripts of various families, including LXX-like texts, proto-MT, pre-Samaritan, and what Tov calls non-aligned texts.[14] By Tov’s analysis, nearly half (48% for the Pentateuch, 44% for the rest of the HB) of manuscripts are proto-MT. Non-aligned texts make up another significant percent (39, 49%).[15] As such, the DSS represents a biblical text that is pluriform.


Practicing Textual Criticism of the HB


Given that the major forms of the HB contain complex histories and multiple languages, practicing textual criticism is very complex. For instance, with the LXX, one must first analyze the various manuscripts for things like Hexaplaric recensions, and other various forms of textual changes that may occur in the transmission process to arrive at the earliest form of the LXX possible. Once that has been completed, scholars must attempt to revert the LXX from its Greek form to the Hebrew Text it was translated from (hereafter vorlage).[16] The process is so complex that an entire book has been devoted to it.[17]


However, a more fundamental issue arises when practicing HB textual criticism: what is the goal? For most textual critics, the goal of their work is to determine the “original text,” or some variation thereof.[18] However, definitions of an original text abound.[19] The cause of this difficulty is in part due to the complicated transmission history of the HB. In the NT, authorship is relatively simple: the texts are usually assumed to be written by a single author; for instance, Paul (or his scribe) wrote the letters to the Romans, Colossians, Thessalonians, etc.[20] While single authorship is sometimes imposed upon the HB (such as the attribution of the Pentateuch to Moses), the truth is more complicated. The HB was not written by “authors” as such, but by scribes.[21] While scribes were responsible for copying the books (transmission), they would also contribute to writing them (composition). As such, the transmission and composition of the HB at times occurred simultaneously.[22] This contradicts the traditional paradigm of the “original text” standing at the end of the composition process and the beginning of the transmission process.[23] For these and other reasons, I am sympathetic with Breed’s statement that the composition of the HB is “irreducibly complex.”[24]


However, this does not necessarily mean that determinations of earlier and later readings are without value; even without a theory regarding the “original text,” textual criticism is still interested in the transmission and alteration of texts. Rather, the text critic will not simply evaluate readings qualitatively; readings are not necessarily better or worse, just earlier or later (though, even in this perspective, there may still be qualitative evaluations, e.g. when a scribe makes an obvious error). Textual criticism, then, joins reception history in being interested in how texts are treated throughout their history of use, rather than being singularly concerned with the removal of centuries worth of changes and accretions.


Practicing TC involves the evaluation of evidence related to the variant readings. Generally, the types of evidence are divided in two: external evidence and internal evidence. External evidence is concerned more with the manuscripts than with the actual readings. Criteria for evaluation of external evidence include: independence (i.e. if one text was copied from another, the secondary text is of less value),[25] age (older is generally considered better),[26] and overall quality of the witness (whether a text contains a lot of alterations, is used predominantly by a particular sect, etc.).[27] Internal evidence is concerned with the readings themselves. Criteria for internal evidence include: lectio difficilior (preference for the more difficult reading)[28] and lectio brevior (the shorter reading is preferred).[29] Internal criteria are generally formulated around the types of changes scribes are likely to make. Scribes tend to make difficult reading easier, and they are more likely to add then to removed (except in the case of errors like homoioteleuton, where a scribe accidentally skips a section of text because he mistakes two words that have similar endings).


These criteria are not without difficulty, however. There are exceptions to each, both external and internal. For instance, what makes a reading difficult? Additionally, a reading might be difficult because of a scribal error, rather than being earlier. Because of this, Tov importantly states that “textual evaluation cannot be bound by any fixed rules. It is an art in the full sense of the word, a faculty that can be developed, guided by intuition based on wide experience.”[30]





Abegg Jr., Martin, et al., The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible: The Oldest Known Bible Translated for the First Time into English. New York: Harper One, 1999.

Breed, Brennan W. Nomadic Text: A Theory of Biblical Reception History. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2014.

Brotzman, Ellis R. and Eric J. Tully. Old Testament Textual Criticism: A Practical Introduction. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016.

Epp, Eldon Jay. “The Multivalence of the Term “Original Text” in New Testament Textual Criticism.” The Harvard Theological Review 92:3 (1999) 245–281.

Hendel, Ronald. “The Oxford Hebrew Bible: Prologue to a New Critical Edition.” Vetus Testamentum 58:3 (2008) 324–351.

Jobes, Karen H., and Moisés Silva. Invitation to the Septuagint. 2nd. ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015.

McCarter, Kyle P. Textual Criticism: Recovering the Text of the Hebrew Bible. Guides to Biblical Scholarship, Old Testament Series. Philadelpia, PA: Fortress, 1986.

Law, Timothy Michael. When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible. New York: Oxford, 2013.

Toorn, Karel van der. Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible. Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2007.

Tov, Emanuel. Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible. 3rd ed. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012.

———. The Text-Critical Use of the Septuagint in Biblical Research. 3rd ed. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2015.




[1] While the the terms Hebrew Bible and Old Testament broadly refer to the same text, Hebrew Bible is preferred for several reasons: first, it applies specifically to the texts of the Jewish scriptures (and by extension, the protestant Old Testament), thus specifying that we are not here talking about the deuterocanonical works included in Catholic and Orthodox canons; second, it recognizes the text as Jewish scriptures, rather than a specifically Christian text; third, Old Testament has a pejorative connotation, whereas Hebrew Bible does not.

[2] Because of the brevity of this article, other forms, such as the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Peshitta, and the targums will not be addressed.

[3] Most modern translations are largely based on the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, which itself is based on the Leningrad Codex. Abegg, et al., The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible, x.

[4] Tov, Textual Criticism, 24.

[5] Brotzman and Tully, Old Testament Textual Criticism, 50.

[6] Ibid, 32.

[7] Jobes and Silva, Invitation, 13–14.

[8] The Letter of Aristeas suggests that its translation was commissioned by King Ptolmey Philadelphus; however, many aspects of the letter are legendary, and it is likely an apologetic piece written to validate the use of the LXX. Jobes and Silva, Invitation, 17–22.

[9] Brotzman and Tully, Old Testament Textual Criticism, 67.

[10] There are issues surrounding when and why these translations emerged; for instance, Theodotion was supposed to have been translated in the 2nd century CE, but Theodotion Daniel was known to the authors of the NT. Jobes and Silva, Invitation, 28.

[11] Law, When God Spoke Greek, 143.

[12] Jobes and Silva, Invitation, 44–45.

[13] Abegg, et al. The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible, xvi.

[14] Tov, Textual Criticism, 108–109.

[15]Tov came to those numbers by analyzing 46 extant texts from the Pentateuch and 75 from the rest of the HB. Ibid, 108.

[16] For a brief summary of the process of using the LXX in HB textual criticism, see Jobes and Silva, Invitation, 167-168.

[17] Tov, The Text Critical Use of the Septuagint.

[18] Other terms, such as archetypal text or urtext are also used, which all carry their own nuances. However, in broad terms, these terms more or less refer to the same concept.

[19] Ulrich lists 8 possible meanings of the term; Epp writes a survey of the use of the term in New Testament textual criticism. Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls, 13; Epp, “The Multivalence of the Term ‘Original Text.’”

[20] I recognize that there are examples of greater textual complexity, such as the synoptics or 2 Corinthians; however, even in these cases, the level of complexity pales in comparison to many works in the HB.

[21] Van Der Toorn, Scribal Culture, 51.

[22] Hendel, who is working on a critical edition of the HB, notes that composition would occasionally occur after the transmission process had begun. Hendel, “Oxford Hebrew Bible,” 333.

[23] E.g. Tov’s definition: “At the end of the composition process of a biblical book stood a text which was considered authoritative (and hence also finished at the literary level), even if only by a limited group of people, and which at

the same time stood at the beginning of a process of copying and textual transmission.” Tov, Textual Criticism, 167.

[24] Breed uses the phrase specifically in the context of the book of Daniel. Breed, Nomadic Text, 53.

[25] McCarter, Textual Criticism, 64.

[26] Tov, Textual Criticism, 274.

[27] Ibid, 271–273.

[28] Ibid, 275.

[29] Ibid, 277–278.

[30] Ibid, 280.

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Robert Ward

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I completed my BA in Christian studies in 2018, and I am currently a graduate (MA) student in New Testament in Hamilton, Ontario. My research interests include: Old Testament textual criticism, Revelation, Apocalyptic literature, Bibliology, and the Dead Sea Scrolls.


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