[b-hebrew] Is the Massoretic text reliable?

K Randolph kwrandolph at gmail.com
Thu Nov 19 15:28:41 EST 2009


I bring up the New Testament only as a witness to the MT and Hebrew text.

On Thu, Nov 19, 2009 at 10:09 AM, James Christian <jc.bhebrew at googlemail.com
> wrote:

> In many respects I agree with your sentiments. Obviously, as a Christian, I
> have more respect for the opinions of the original authors of the NT than
> for anything else but there are still too many variables to make a decisive
> decision:
> 1) What language was the NT written in? Syriac or Greek or both? There are
> good arguments for both camps.

Among ancient books, there is none as well attested as the New Testament.
Not only in surviving comments about it, but in actual surviving
manuscripts. That it was written in Greek (with the exception of Matthew) is
attested to in both, with the oldest predating the Syriac translation.

As far as how accurately we know it, to me it appears that the Byzantine
tradition may reflect the oldest and most accurate texts, in other words,
more accurate copies. One reason I say that is because in the Gospels, it
appears to reflect even slight dialectal differences in its transcribed
names between Judea and Galilee, distinctions lost in Sinaiticus, Vaticanus
and similar texts.

> 2) Given the above how sure can we be of the original state of the NT
> documents? e.g. absence of YHWH in MSS makes me suspicious.

As for not using YHWH in the Greek text, remember, these were Jews, writing
in a Jewish religious milieu, in which κυριος had been the accepted way of
referring to YHWH in Greek for a couple of centuries already, why should
they be different?

> 3) How close is the Hebrew text of NT author's day to that of the MT
> (centuries later)?

There was an article I read a while back, I don’t remember where, where it
was pointed out that there seemed to be an attempt at textual criticism as
early as about 100 BC, so that the texts of the late Second Temple period
tend to be closer to the MT than the earlier ones. But even then there are
still changes, probably mostly connected with copyist errors, such as the
two differences I noted in the Nahal Heber fragment on Psalm 22. It could be
that, like the Byzantine tradition apparently reflecting an older tradition,
so the MT reflects an older tradition that, on the whole, is close to the

> 4) Scenario gets even worse because Jerome was much later than MT authors.

Why even bring in Jerome?

> All in all, given the above factors (and any others I have forgotten to
> mention) I feel that both positions are extreme. i.e. to assert Greek or
> Hebrew primacy of the various text traditions. There seems to be evidence
> that both are corrupt and that careful analysis of all traditions should be
> taken without ascribing any primacy to any particular tradition. I feel that
> a much more balanced position is that neither are absolutely superior and
> that both traditions have pros and cons.
> James Christian
> The question is not which position is more extreme, rather which position,
if any, has the most historical evidence to back it up? For the record, I am
not a textual critic, but those who are tell me that they consider the LXX
as a legitimate source when looking at the MT, particularly on verses that
are difficult to understand. There are times that they accept that as the
preferred text, though that is not common.

A final note: as a person who has written translations, no translation is
ever as good as the original in trying to convey its message. The LXX is a
translation. As long as the MT has shown itself to be pretty close to the
original (at least the consonantal text), there is no reason not to accept
it as the main working text when looking for its message.

Karl W. Randolph.

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