[b-hebrew] Is the Massoretic text reliable?

K Randolph kwrandolph at gmail.com
Fri Nov 20 14:05:03 EST 2009


2009/11/20 James Christian <jc.bhebrew at googlemail.com>

> Hi,
> 2009/11/19 K Randolph <kwrandolph at gmail.com>
>> James:
>> I bring up the New Testament only as a witness to the MT and Hebrew text.
> Of course. Me too.
>> 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.
> It is far from clear whether the Syriac was a translation. There are strong
> arguments for Syriac being the original language just as there are strong
> arguments for Greek being the original language.
> 1) The patriarchate of Antioch (the base of early Christian missionary
> work) to this very day maintains a strong tradition of Syriac primacy.

This is a modern tradition, similar to the Eastern Orthodox tradition that
puts the LXX as primary over the original Hebrew.

Was there any book of the New Testament written in Antioch?

Matthew most likely wrote while still in Judea or Galilee, being a
government official most likely learned Mishnaic Hebrew, so either wrote in
that or Galilean Aramaic. Mark was a translator to Greek for Peter, so Greek
would be his language. Luke wrote his three books most likely in Rome in the
lingua franca of his day, namely Greek. John was living in Hellenized Asia
Minor when he wrote his books, Paul wrote from where ever, none addressed to
speakers of Syriac so would not have used Syriac, James and Jude wrote from
Jerusalem. Peter went to Babylon, which had been Hellenized.

The evidence for Syriac is very weak, at best.

> 2) There are linguistic arguments that imply Syriac primacy to be
> believable. e.g. A camel through the eye of a needle in the Syriac is a rope
> through the eye of a needle. The words for camel and rope are similar in
> Syriac and supporters of Syriac primacy hold that Greek was a translation
> and 'Camel' was mistranslated. The illustration of a rope through the eye of
> a needle rather that thread makes more sense.

This ignores the fact that Syriac was a local dialect of Aramaic. Aramaic
was the language of the streets in Galilee where Jesus did most his
preaching, but it was not the same as Syriac. Of course there would be
similarities, but that still is not evidence of Syriac being the original.

> 3) We have reference to an original 'Hebrew' gospel of Matthew but what
> exactly was meant by Hebrew?

Addressed above.

> 4) The language spoken in Antioch (the base or early Christianity) was
> Syriac and not Greek.

The base of early Christianity was Jerusalem, not Antioch, during the time
that most of the books of the New Testament were written. This is the
picture given in Acts.

> Please note that I am not arguing for Syriac primacy. Where I see two
> conflicting traditions my instinct is that there is some truth in both and
> some falsehood in both. My gut feeling is that as both Syriac and Greek were
> common languages and, if we are to believe the testimony of the gift of
> tongues, the authors were polyglots it may well be that the Greek and Syriac
> were both original and that neither is a translation of the other.

We need to go not from gut feelings, but solid scholarship.

>> 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.
> You've lost me here. The sinaiticus and the vaticanus are the major basis
> of the Byzantine tradition. What do you mean by 'Byzantine tradition'?

Sinaiticus and Vaticanus are of the “Alexandrian text type”, not Byzantine.
They are the basis of modern “critical” editions of the New Testament.

>> > 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?
> Actually, fragments of the LXX which predate the vaticanus and the
> sinaiticus show the tetragrammaton in all its glory in its rightful places.
> The NT present a prophet named Jesus who actively opposed the traditions of
> men. The idea that such a man would support the superstition which the
> original authors of the hebrew books evidently did not share seems, at least
> to me, to be a complete contradiction in terms.

That the Tetragrammaton is written instead of a translation or
transliteration shows already the traditions of men, in this case that the
name should not be pronounced. Apparently not even in Greek. This is an
indication of how old is that tradition. In fact, the use of the Greek
κυριος is consistent with that Jewish tradition.

>> 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.
> I would feel more comfortable making a critical reference to all the
> sources available. Differences in the Greek tradition are suspicious because
> well intentioned Christians may have felt they were making justifiable
> changes. In the same was differences in the MT are suspicious because well
> intentioned defenders of Judaism may have felt they were making justifiable
> changes.

No two manuscripts are exactly the same, and the reason is simply—copyist
errors. This applies to all ancient works that have survived to modernity.
Some of those “errors” actually weren’t, just thought were errors by later
copyists. And sometimes corrected. Among those “corrected” errors would be
the transliterations of Galilean names “corrected” in the Alexandrian New
Testament text tradition.

> James Christian
It is possible that well-intentioned Masoretes “corrected” what they thought
were errors due to their theological leanings, there are lists that make
that claim. I would like to see more details to see how accurate are those
claims. But as of yet I have seen no details, nor do I know where to look.
Is it possible that those details don’t exist?

On the whole, I have been told that there are remarkably few changes between
the DSS and the MT, fewer on an order of magnitude or more when compared
with other literature from the same period. As a result, I can be pretty
sure that when I read MT that on the whole I’m getting an accurate rendition
of the original. But if more accurate is possible, that is preferred.

I wish there were a critical edition that corrects some of the obvious
errors of the MT instead of mechanically following the MT exactly.
Corrections recognized by DSS and other MSS findings, backed up by
translations found in LXX, NT, Vulgate and others.

Karl W. Randolph.

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