Old Testament Textual Criticism

In this article, we will look at a small number of miscellaneous issues related to the text of the Old Testament.

Was the text of the OT well-preserved prior to the Masoretes?

The preservation techniques of the Masoretic scribes are well known, so that we are aware that the preservation of the text of the OT from the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the OT was transmitted with near perfection. But what about prior to the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls?

Aside from some very tiny scraps [Brotz.OTTC, 38], we have almost nothing in terms of "hard evidence" regarding the text of the OT prior to the Dead Sea Scrolls, so that direct textual criticism is impossible. However, the principle of keeping a sacred text sound is found recorded in Egyptian and Mesopotamian texts as early as the 12th century BC. Scribal fidelity was emphasized, and texts bear indications of proofreading. Steps were taken to prevent "hypertrophic growth of the written corpus under inside pressure, especially to restrain the theologian from re-interpreteing the sacred story, elaborating it, embellishing it, and destroying it." [Vash.OTOT, 6; see also Brotz.OTTC, ibid.] T

herefore, while we have no direct textual evidence telling us that the OT text was accurately preserved, we certainly have direct evidence of a sociological model that emphasized the accurate preservation of texts in the ancient world, in societies with direct influence upon Israelite culture.

As a practical matter, it should be added that an added encouragement to copy accurately was that mistakes were a big headache to correct. It was not exactly possible to run your scroll back through the word processor, and white-out was a couple of millenia in the distance.

What sort of textual changes do we find in the transmission of the OT text?

As noted in Patzia's evaluation of the New Testament, there are certain specific types of scribal miscues that we are able to classify and identify, and we find the same from the OT. Few of these miscues were deliberate, and most that were deliberate were for the purposes of clarification (e.g., the switch to "Dan" in Genesis). McCarter [McCrt.TCOT] identifies four types of deliberate change in the OT text:

  1. To protect God or some revered figure from injury or reproach. The Masoretes knew of at least 18 instances where a change was made that seemed offensive in this manner. For example, 1 Samuel 3:13 read that "sons were blaspheming for themselves," whereas the LXX read that the "sons were blaspheming God." This sort of change does not really alter the context - we can figure out, after all, who the sons were blaspheming! - but they were indeed made.
  2. Eupemistic insertions/subbstitutions. These too were often made to avoid perceived dishonor to God.
  3. Harmonizing.
  4. Suppressed readings. These last two were used in an attempt to resolve perceived difficulties.

How much of a "problem" are we talking about?

Not much of one. We have two editions of Jeremiah, one of which is 1/6 shorter than the other. Most of the ommissions are of single words or phrases. A second edition of Joshua is 5 percent shorter, most of what is missing being elucidations. A similar percentage of variation is found in a second edition of Ezekiel, and there is a parallel edition of Proverbs with material in a different order and some items missing [Tov.TCHB, 320-337].


  1. Brotz.OTTC - Brotzman, Ellis R. Old Testament Textual Criticism. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994.
  2. McCrt.TCOT - McCarter, Kyle P., Jr. Textual Criticism: Recovering the Text of the Hebrew Bible. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986.
  3. Tov.TCHB - Tov, Emmanuel. Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992.
  4. Vash.OTOT - Vasholz, Robert I. The Old Testament Canon in the Old Testament Church. Lewiston: Edwin Mellon Press, 1990.