KIWI HELLENIST: Can we trust mediaeval copies of ancient books?
(Peter Gainsford). HT Evangelical Textual Criticism
The answer to the question is, pretty much, but it depends.
That is about where Dr Gainsford ends up in this post, especially after the qualifying addendum.
He flags one issue that is especially relevant for the Hebrew Bible:
Now, having said that, there are situations — or rather, literary genres — where we do expect much more discrepancies. Some ancient texts weren’t copied as such, but instead went through recensions and reworkings.
Many, perhaps most, of the books of the Hebrew Bible went through a long process of editing. The Masoretic Text is a medieval tradition that very faithfully copies its (first century CE?) exemplar. But the exemplar was one – generally good – exemplar selected from others. The textual uniformity of the MT emerges from an earlier textual variety. We have some sense of that variety from the ancient Greek translation (the Septuagint or LXX), the Samaritan Pentateuch, and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
For example, the MT, the LXX, and some Qumran fragments show that there were longer and shorter versions of the Book of Jeremiah in circulation in antiquity.
Literary criticism points to a comparable early recensional variety for the the Pentateuch, which is an edited collection of earlier documents. The MT selects a particular exemplar - my sense is that it is quite an old one - from that long process of editing. But it is difficult to speak of an original text for a text that has clearly undergone a lot of recension and reworking. In at least some circles in the Second Temple period it was still okay to revise and develop the text of the Pentateuch.
It happens that TheTorah.com has just published a highly relevant essay by Prof. Carol A. Newsom: There Was Never One Version of the Bible.
During the Second Temple Period, scribes improved and embellished the texts they copied. As a result, divergent copies of biblical books existed side by side.
See there for detailed coverage of these questions.
For more on Pentateuchal source criticism, see here and also here and follow the many links.
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