Media History Project

Has the Bible Been Changed?

Dead Sea Scroll

The discipline of textual criticism as developed over the last two centuries has become one of the pillars of modern Bible research and interpretation. In the field of scientific Bible study it is commonly accepted that one of the first questions to be addressed before real interpretation can be undertaken is the nature of the text itself and what changes it has undergone during the long course of its transmission. The assumption underlying this approach is, on the face of it, seemingly simple: the Scriptural text is an entity that has been handed down over the centuries and is therefore subject to the same sort of errors as any other transmitted text. To what extent the received text has been preserved in its original form is a question that can be examined by critical-philological means, as developed in general textual criticism.

But, due to the sanctity of the Holy Scriptures, the text-critical approach was shunned by religious students of the Bible, and its use as a tool of interpretation summarily dismissed. Even those scholars who were willing to adopt some aspects and conclusions of scientific Bible study stopped short of textual clarification in the scientific manner.

The oldest textual witnesses currently available are documents from the Second Temple period. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has given researchers and students their first look at a variety of Scriptural texts which serve as direct witnesses to the textual reality in Eretz-Israel at the close of this period.

Even before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, however, theories about the Biblical text in the Second Temple period abounded. These theories drew inspiration from two texts whose roots lie in the same period: the Septuagint and the Samaritan version of the Bible. The Septuagint Vorlage (the presumed underlying Hebrew text) differs from the Masoretic Text [the received Hebrew text, the Authorized Text, the Jewish Bible, abbreviated MT] in many aspects, several of them of great significance. We cannot determine the exact Vorlage of the Septuagint, but it appears to have contained thousands of differences from the received text, some minor (conjunctions, prepositions, etc.) and some quite significant, including words, sentences, and even whole sections. An outstanding example is The Book of Jeremiah, which in the Septuagint is almost one eighth shorter than in the Masoretic Text.

The Samaritan text shows similar differences; in addition, since the text is in Hebrew, several thousand differences in spelling are apparent to the eye in the Five Books of the Pentateuch. The Samaritan text has distinctive features, and even though it holds almost two thousand differences in common with the Septuagint, it is in no way identical to the Septuagint; many of its changes are unique and in many places it differs from the Septuagint and agrees with the Masoretic Text.

Since the Septuagint is not a Hebrew text and the Samaritan version reached us through a breakaway sect, their value to reflect the early stages of the Biblical text was debatable. This battle was first waged between Catholic and Protestant scholars on theological grounds, and in the 19th and 20th centuries amongst Bible scholars against a scientific background. Some maintained that extreme caution must be exercised when using the Septuagint as a text-witness for an ancient Hebrew text-type fundamentally different from the Masoretic version; one must take into account the changes that were made in the course of translation for linguistic, exegetical, and interpretative reasons. There were also similar claims that the Samaritan text could not be taken as representing the general transmission of the Biblical text outside of the specific Samaritan recension; its variants do not reflect the earlier text-form which the community had adopted, but are changes that were made within the closed frame of the Samaritan community.

- Excerpts from an essay by Menachem Cohen, Professor of Bible, Bar-Ilan University