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Sermon Podcast | Audio | Video : Christian Books : CHAPTER XVII. CRITICISM OF THE SACRED TEXT.

Companion To The Bible by E. P. Barrows


1. The only legitimate criticism of the sacred text is that which has for its object to restore it, as far as possible, to its primitive form. Had we the autograph of Moses in the exact form in which he deposited it in the sanctuary (Deut.31:26), this would be a perfect text; and so of any other book of the Old Testament. In the absence of the autographs, which have all perished, we are still able to establish the form of their text with a reasonable degree of certainty for all purposes of faith and practice. The means of accomplishing this are now to be considered.

2. Here ancient manuscripts hold the first place. It is obvious, however, that in settling the true reading of a given passage we cannot look simply to the number of manuscript testimonies. The quality of the manuscripts must also be taken into account. Here age is of primary importance. Other things being equal, the oldest are the most worthy of credence, as being nearest to the original sources. But, in estimating the testimony of a manuscript, there are other qualities besides age that must be carefully considered -- the care of the transcriber; its freedom from interpolations by later hands (which can, however, as a general rule, be easily detected); and especially its independence, that is, its independence as compared with other manuscripts. We may have a group of manuscripts whose peculiar readings mark them as having come from a single source. Properly speaking, their testimony is valid only for the text of their source. The authority of a single independent manuscript may be equal in weight to their combined testimony. Then, again, the character of the different readings must be considered. The easiest reading -- that which most naturally suggests itself to the scribe -- has less presumption in its favor than a more difficult reading; and that on the simple ground that it is more likely that an easy should have been substituted for a difficult reading than the reverse. There are many other points which would need discussion in a work designed for biblical critics; but for the purposes of this work the above brief hints are sufficient.

The Masoretic manuscripts have a great degree of uniformity, and are all comparatively recent. Chap.14, No.7. We have reason to believe that the Hebrew text which they exhibit has a good degree of purity. But we cannot consider these manuscripts as so many independent witnesses. The text of the Samaritan Pentateuch is independent of the Masoretic text. Could we believe that we possess it in a tolerably pure form, its critical value would be very great. But, according to the judgment of the best biblical scholars, it has been subjected to so many alterations, that its critical authority is of small account.

3. Next in order come ancient versions, the value of which for critical purposes depends on their character as literal or free, and also upon the state of their text as we possess it. Other things being equal, the authority of a version is manifestly inferior to that of a manuscript of the original. But a version may have been made from a more ancient form of the original text than any which we have in existing manuscripts; and thus it may be indirectly a witness of great value. The extremely literal version of Aquila (Chap.16, No.9) was made in the second century. Could we recover it, its testimony to the Hebrew text, as it then existed, would be of great value. The Septuagint version was made (at least begun) in the third century before Christ. But its free character diminishes, and the impure state of its text greatly injures its critical authority. Of the Targums, those of Onkelos and Jonathan alone are capable of rendering any service in the line of sacred criticism, and this is not of much account.

4. We have also primary-printed editions of the Hebrew Bible -- those printed from Hebrew manuscripts, which the reader may see noticed in Horne's Bibliographical List, Appendix to vol.4. The critical authority of these depends on that of the manuscripts used, which were all of the Masoretic recension.

5. Parallel passages -- parallel in a critical and not simply in a historical respect -- are passages which profess not merely to give an account of the same transaction, but to repeat the same text. Well known examples are: the song of David recorded in the twenty-second chapter of the second book of Samuel, and repeated as the eighteenth psalm; the fourteenth and fifty-third psalms, etc. Such repetitions possess for every biblical student a high interest. But in the critical use of them great caution is necessary. It must be ascertained, first of all, whether they proceed from the same, or from a different writer. In the latter case they are only historical imitations. If, as in the case of the above-named passages, they manifestly have the same author, the inquiry still remains how the differences arose. They may be different recensions of the same writer (in this case, of David himself), or of another inspired writer, who thus sought to adapt them more perfectly -- the fifty-third psalm, for example -- to the circumstances of his own day. The gift of inspiration made the later writer, in this respect, cooerdinate in authority with the earlier.

Historical parallelism, such as those in the books of Chronicles, as compared with the earlier historical books, do not properly belong here. Yet these also sometimes furnish critical help, especially in respect to names and dates.

6. The quotations from the Old Testament in the New have for every believer the highest authority; more, however, in a hermeneutical than a critical respect. For, as already remarked (Chap.16, No.6), the New Testament writers quote mostly from the Septuagint, and in a very free way. The whole subject of these quotations will come up hereafter under the head of Biblical Interpretation.

7. Quotations from the Old Testament in the Talmud and later rabbinical writers are another source of sacred criticism. The Talmud, embodying the ecclesiastical and civil law of the Jews according to their traditions, consists of two parts, the Mishna, or text, generally referred to the last half of the second century, and the Gemara, or commentary on the Mishna. The Mishna is one; but connected with this are two Gemaras of later origin; the more copious Babylonian, and the briefer Jerusalem Gemara; whence the distinction of the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud. Whether because the Hebrew text was rigidly settled in its present form in the days of the Talmudists, or because their quotations have been made to agree with the Masorah, an examination of the Talmud furnishes few various readings that are of any importance. Most of them relate to trifling particulars. The quotations of later rabbinical writers are of small account in a critical respect.

8. It remains to speak of critical conjecture. Of this a wise and reverent scholar will make a very cautious use. He will content himself with offering to the public his suggestions, without venturing to incorporate them into the text itself. The recklessness of some modern critics, who make an abundance of conjectural emendations, and then embody them in their versions, with only a brief note, deserves severe condemnation. Had the ancient critics generally adopted this uncritical method, the sacred text would long ago have fallen into irretrievable confusion.

We add an example where critical conjecture is in place, though it may not venture to alter the established reading. In Psalm 42, the last clause of verse 6 and the beginning of verse 7, written continuously without a division of words (Chap.13, No.5), would read thus:

[Hebrew: ky'od'odnu'sho'tpnyu'lhy'lynpshytshtvhh]

With the present division of words:

[Hebrew: ky 'od 'odnu 'sho't pnyu 'lhy 'ly npshy tshtvhh]

the clauses are to be translated, as in our version:

For I shall yet praise him [for] the salvation of his countenance. O my God, my soul is cast down within me.

Divided as follows (by the transfer of a single letter to the following word).

[Hebrew: ky 'od 'odnu 'sho't pny u'lhy 'ly npshy tshtvhh]

the rendering would be:

For I shall yet praise him, [who is] the salvation of my countenance and my God. My soul is cast down within me.

Thus the refrain would agree exactly with the two that follow (ver.11 and 43:5). Yet this conjecture, however plausible, is uncertain, since we do not know that the sacred writer sought exact uniformity in the three refrains.

9. General remark on the various readings of the sacred text. As a general rule, the various readings with which textual criticism is occupied have respect to minor points -- for the most part points of a trivial nature; and even where the variations are of more importance, they are not of such a character as to obscure, much less change, the truths of revelation in any essential respect. Biblical critics tell us, for example, that the Samaritan Pentateuch agrees with the Septuagint version in more than a thousand places where they differ from the Masoretic Hebrew text. Chap.16, No.7. Yet these three texts all exhibit the same God, and the same system of doctrines and duties. Revelation does not lie in letters and syllables and grammatical forms, but in the deep and pure and strong and broad current of truth |given by inspiration of God.| Reverence for the inspired word makes us anxious to possess the sacred text in all possible purity. Yet if we cannot attain to absolute perfection in this respect, we have reasonable assurance that God, who gave the revelation contained in the Old Testament, has preserved it to us unchanged in any essential particular. The point on which most obscurity and uncertainty rests is that of scriptural chronology; and this is not one that affects Christian faith or practice.

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