[b-hebrew] BAR Article on Bible errors using DSS
Bryant J. Williams III
bjwvmw at com-pair.net
Thu Jun 10 00:35:38 EDT 2010
Below is the article from BAR by Harvey Minkoff:
Some of the information in the article has just been discussed in various
threads over the past couple of months.
Okay, guys and gals, what are your thoughts both positive and negative on the
article? Please stick to the issue addressed in the article with examples.
Rev. Bryant J. Williams
Searching for the Better Text
How errors crept into the Bible and what can be done to correct them
by Harvey Minkoff
Talkback Add Your Comment
Click to view a slide show of larger images and captions.
Isaiah’s vision of universal peace is one of the best-known passages in the
Hebrew Bible: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie
down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and
a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6).
But does this beloved image of the Peaceable Kingdom contain a mistranslation?
For years many scholars suspected that it did. Given the parallelism of the
phrases, one would expect a verb instead of “the fatling.” With the discovery of
the Isaiah Scroll among the Dead Sea Scrolls, those scholars were given
persuasive new support. The Isaiah Scroll contains a slight change in the Hebrew
letters at this point in the text, yielding “will feed”: “the calf and the young
lion will feed together.”
This is just one of numerous variations from the traditional text of the Hebrew
Bible contained in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In some cases the traditional text is
clearly superior, but in others the version in the scrolls is better.
Thanks to the scrolls, more and more textual problems in the Hebrew Bible are
being resolved. The notes in newer Bible translations list variant readings from
the scrolls, and in some cases, the translations incorporate these readings in
the text as the preferred reading. No one has ever seriously suggested that the
Dead Sea Scrolls contain anything like an eleventh commandment; but the scrolls
do help clarify numerous difficult phrases in the Hebrew Bible, and for textual
scholars that is more than enough.
Before we list other examples of how the Dead Sea Scrolls influenced—or
altered—Bible translations, we need to understand how ambiguities crept into the
text of the Hebrew Bible in the first place. And we must also familiarize
ourselves with the ancient versions of the Hebrew Bible on which modern
translations rely (for good reason scholars call these ancient versions
“witnesses” to the biblical text).
Hebrew is remarkably compact: Almost all words consist of consonantal roots that
convey their basic meaning. L-M-D, for example, means “learning,” B-Q-R means
“examining,” and K-T-B, “writing.” Particular patterns of vowels and consonants
narrow the meaning; me-a-e added to a root means “one who,” while a-a means “he
did.” Thus, meLaMeD is “one who teaches,” meBaQeR is “one who examines,” LaMaD
is “he learned,” and KaTaB is “he wrote.”
These vowels are crucial for the meaning. However, ancient Hebrew writing
recorded no vowels, only consonants. (Vowel marks were not added to Hebrew
writing until the sixth or seventh century C.E.) Consonants alone were usually
enough to distinguish between possible meanings. LMDT means “you (singular)
learned,” while LMDTM means “you (plural) learned.” Often, however, the absence
of vowels in written Hebrew leads to ambiguity. The word NSTM, which appears in
Zechariah 14:5, could be parsed as the root STM with the prefix N, in which case
it would mean “(it) was filled up.” But it could just as plausibly be read as NS
with the suffix TM, which means “you (plural) fled.” The Jerusalem Bible
translation opts for the former reading and translates the passage in Zechariah
as “And the Vale of Hinnom will be filled up...it will be blocked as it was by
the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah.” The King James Version,
however, reads “And ye shall flee to the valley of the mountains...like as ye
fled from before the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah.” Fleeing
citizens in one text, a filled up valley in another. How much difference one
To eliminate, or at least reduce, such ambiguities, a convention arose among
Hebrew scribes. They began to insert certain consonants, to be used as vowels,
as aids to reading; these are called matres lectionis, literally, “mothers of
reading.” LMD (lamad, “he learned”) became visually distinct from LMDH (lamda,
“she learned”) and LMDW (lamdu, “they learned”). Such expanded spellings are
called plene, or “full,” orthography (spelling); the more rudimentary spellings
are called defectivus, or “defective,” orthography.
Plene orthography did not catch on all at once; some scribes were using full
spellings as early the first century B.C.E., while even today in Israel their
usage has not been standardized. One Dead Sea Scroll that testifies to the older
scribal tradition contains Deuteronomy 24:14. The traditional Hebrew text
contains the full spelling SKYR (sakir), meaning “workman”; most translations
give “You should not oppress a workman.” But this manuscript, called 1QDeutb,
contains the “defective” form SKR (sakar), which can also mean “wages”;
following this scroll, the New English Bible renders the passage as “You shall
not keep back the wages of a man.”
So far we have discussed “micro” issues—variations in spelling and the like. But
there is a much larger factor that contributes to the differences we find in
modern Bible translations: the variations in the textual traditions behind the
text of the Hebrew Bible.
We have three major traditions, or “witnesses,” to the Hebrew Bible: the
Masoretic text, the traditional Jewish text; the Septuagint, the Greek
translation of the Hebrew Bible that became authoritative for Christianity; and
the Samaritan Pentateuch, the text holy to the small offshoot of Judaism that
still survives in two small communities in Israel and the West Bank. How did
these differing versions arise?
The Samaritan Bible is limited to the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses. The
most striking difference between the Samaritan Bible and the Jewish Bible is
that the Samaritan Bible considers Mt. Gerizim, not Jerusalem, as God’s holy
place on earth.
Samaritan origins can be traced to events following the conquest of the northern
kingdom of Israel by Assyria in 722 B.C.E. Many of the inhabitants were exiled,
and other conquered peoples were resettled in the lands of the northern kingdom,
including Samaria. To the people of the ancient Near East, every land was
thought to be protected by its local god, and the people who had been forcibly
resettled in Samaria naturally added worship of the Jewish God to their
religious practices. The southern kingdom of Judah, too, was to suffer
dispersal, at the hands of the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E., and when those exiles
returned, the people of Samaria asked to assist in rebuilding the Jerusalem
Temple. But the leaders of the returning exiles, Ezra and Nehemiah, rebuffed
them for having watered down their religious practices and for having
intermarried with the neighboring, resettled peoples. That, at least, is the
story as found in the Jewish Bible.
The Samaritans, not surprisingly, tell a different tale. They explain their name
as deriving from the word shomerim, (guardians) because they were the guardians
of the true religion of Israel. According to their Chronicles, they are the
descendants of Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, and have continuously
inhabited their ancestral land. Though the Samaritans had offered to help their
coreligionists who were returning from the Exile, they were rejected, mistreated
and finally attacked by the Hasmonean king John Hyrcanus in 128 B.C.E. Their
temple, located on Mt. Gerizim, rather than in Jerusalem, was destroyed.
Though the two versions outlined here assign the roles of hero and villain
differently, both agree that by the second century B.C.E. the Samaritans had
separated from normative—or, to use the more modern, scholarly term,
The development of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible took a different
path. It began in the wake of the Babylonian attack on Judah in the sixth
century B.C.E., when some Jews fled to Egypt. Then, two and a half centuries
later, Egypt, too, was conquered, by Alexander the Great. Alexander established
cities organized on the Greek model in an attempt to unify his empire through a
shared culture. The great metropolis of Alexandria attracted many Jews who
adopted Greek as their language but who retained the religion of their
forebears. By the third century B.C.E., their grasp of Hebrew was so tenuous
that they needed a Greek translation of their sacred scriptures.
According to legend, in 270 B.C.E. Ptolemy II Philadelphus invited 72 scholars
from Jerusalem to translate the Bible into Greek—hence the name Septuagint, from
Interpretatio Septuaginta Seniorum (The Translation of the Seventy Elders).a
When Christianity spread to the Hellenized world, the Septuagint became
incorporated into Christian Bibles as the Old Testament.
One would expect that over many generations of copying, variations would creep
into the three textual traditions. And that is what happened. The variations
arose in several ways, including scribal errors, editing and polemical
One common error, called a homoeoteleuton, occurs when a scribe omits a phrase
when his eye jumps from one word in the text he is copying to another appearance
of the same word (or a similar one) a little farther in the text. That’s what
seems to have happened in the Masoretic version of 1 Samuel 14:41: “Saul then
said to the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Show Thummim.’” Apparently the Masoretic
scribe’s eye skipped from one occurrence of the word “Israel” to the next and he
missed all the words in between, as shown by the fuller text preserved in the
Septuagint: “Saul said to the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Why have you not
answered your servant today? Lord God of Israel, if this guilt lies in me or in
my son Jonathan, let the lot be Urim; if it lies in your people Israel, let it
Some changes were made deliberately. Jewish tradition speaks of tikkun sopherim,
scribal emendation, of disrespectful or misleading phrases. In 1 Kings 21:10,
13, for example, the euphemism “bless God” has replaced the unacceptable “curse
Sometimes variations in the Septuagint indicate a misunderstanding of Hebrew
poetic technique. The Masoretic version of Zechariah 9:9 reads “Rejoice greatly,
daughter of Zion; shout, daughter of Jerusalem. Behold, your king is coming to
you; he is just and triumphant, humble and riding on an ass, upon the foal of an
ass.” In this passage, each key word is reinforced by a synonym or a parallel:
rejoice//shout, Zion//Jerusalem, just and triumphant//humble and riding. But the
translators of the Septuagint apparently missed the parallelism between
ass//foal of an ass and instead pictured two animals—an ass and a foal. This
misunderstanding becomes significant because the verse is used as a prooftext in
Matthew 21:2–7, which describes Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Jesus sends two
disciples to fetch an ass and a foal “to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet”
; Matthew then quotes the passage in Zechariah and adds that the disciples did
indeed bring Jesus an ass and a foal. The textual misunderstanding carried over
into Christian art; some scenes of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem show him
straddling two animals!
Some variations in translations are really disagreements over how a verse should
be punctuated. A good example is Isaiah 40:3. Most modern Bible scholars
recognize that here, too, there is a parallelism at work: “A voice cries out,
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, in the desert make straight a
highway for our God.’” The Septuagint, however, reads, “A voice of one crying in
the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’” Is it a crying voice that is in
the wilderness or a path? Matthew, Mark and Luke all quote this passage as the
Septuagint has it; of course, for them John the Baptist was the voice crying in
the wilderness and declaring the arrival of Jesus.
What do the Dead Sea Scrolls tell us about the three major textual traditions?
In the majority of cases (about 60 percent of the biblical scroll manuscripts),
the scrolls follow the Masoretic text. About 5 percent of the biblical scrolls
follow the Septuagint version; another 5 percent match the Samaritan text; 20
percent belong to a tradition unique to the Dead Sea Scrolls; and 10 percent are
“nonaligned.” The key point is that the readings in the scrolls show that many
variations in the biblical text are of long standing, and are not simply errors
in later transmission.
Just because a text is old, however, does not mean it is better. Ancient editors
may have tried to correct difficult texts. Psalm 145 is an alphabetical
acrostic: The first line begins with aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew
alphabet, and so on through the alphabet—except that in the Masoretic text there
is no line for nun(N). But the Septuagint versin does have a line beginning with
nun-and a Dead Sea Scroll of the Psalms has the line as well. That would seem to
clinch the case for the line’s originality. But scholars point out that the line
uses one name for God-Elohim-while the rest of the psalm employs the personal
name Yahweh. So the line may be a later addition after all, despite being found
in both the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The Dead Sea Scrolls have filled one large gap in the Bible. First Samuel 11:1
begins jarringly with the notice that “Nahash the Ammomite came and besieged
Jabesh-gilead.” The announcement is abrupt—Nahash has not been previously
mentioned, and we would expect him to be identified as Nahash, king of the
Ammonites. Even worse, the text gives no reason for the attack. But a Dead Sea
Scroll text of Samuel contains two preceding sentences, which contain the
expected “Nahash, king of the Ammonites” and a description of how seven thousand
of his enemies had found refuge in Jabesh-gilead, making his attack
understandable. Most Bible scholars accept these verses as authentic. The New
Revised Standard Version includes them in its text of 1 Samuel, and other
translations cite them in a note.
The Dead Sea Scroll version of 1 Samuel contains many other readings that have
been adopted by modern translations. By one count, the New Revised Standard
Version of 1 Samuel incorporates 110 alternatives to the Masoretic text; the New
English Bible uses 160; and the New American Bible, 230.
The evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls must be used carefully, however. Large
portions of Samuel, Isaiah and Jeremiah are represented in the scrolls, but
other biblical books appear only in small fragments. They may not be biblical
texts at all, but rather paraphrases from commentaries or prayers.
Even large chunks of text present problems. The Psalms Scroll contains a
selection of psalms, mostly from the last third of the Psalter. James A.
Sanders, who edited the Psalms Scroll for publication, maintains that
differences in content and order between the Psalms Scroll and the traditional
text prove that alternative psalters existed as late as the first century C.E.
But other scholars counter that the differences prove that the Psalms Scroll was
a prayer book, not a biblical text.
The Dead Sea Scrolls have already made their mark on modern Bible translations.
Even when they do not settle textual questions once and for all, the scrolls
prove that the Septuagint and the Samaritan Bible have ancient pedigrees and may
preserve accurate readings. Bible translators now have an important new body of
evidence to help them decide how best to settle problems in the text—evidence
not available to earlier generations of scholars. William Foxwell Albright’s
exclamation when the scrolls were discovered—he called the Isaiah Scroll “the
greatest manuscript discovery of modern times!”—has been proved true many times
1. This article was adapted from Harvey Minkoff, Mysteries of the Dead Sea
Scrolls (Owing Mills, MD: Ottenheimer Publishers, 1998). It draws on information
from the following sources: Edward M. Cook, Solving the Mysteries of the Dead
Sea Scrolls (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), appendix; Moshe Greenberg, “The
Stabilization of the Text of the Hebrew Bible, Reviewed in the Light of the
Biblical Materials from the Judean Desert” and “The Use of the Ancient Versions
for Interpreting the Hebrew Text,” in Studies in the Bible and Jewish Thought
(Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1995); Minkoff, ed., Approaches to
the Bible, 2 vols. (Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1994–1995),
vol. 1, parts 1–2; James A. Sanders, “Understanding the Development of the
Biblical Text,” in Hershel Shanks, ed., The Dead Sea Scrolls After Forty Years
(Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1991); Harold Scanlin, The Dead
Sea Scrolls and Modern Translations of the Old Testament (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale
House, 1993); Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Scrolls (Philadelphia:
Jewish Publication Society, 1994), chap. 10; Adam S. van der Woude, “Tracing the
Evolution of the Hebrew Bible,” BR 11:01; James C. VanderKam, The Dead Sea
Scrolls Today (Grand Rapids,MI: Edermans, 1994) chap 5.
a. See Leonard J. Greenspoon, “Mission to Alexandria: Truth and Legend About the
Creation of the Septuagint, the First Bible Translation,” BR 05:04.
A professor of linguistics at Hunter College in New York City, Harvey Minkoff is
the author and editor of nine books, including Visions and Revisions
(Prentice-Hall, 1990) and Approaches to the Bible: The Best of Bible Review,
vols. 1 and 2 (Biblical Archaeology Society, 1995).
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