Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Masoretic text: the other side of the story

I enjoy hearing the other perspective on issues. Well, not always, but I do when I barely even knew there was another perspective. For example, I would probably find an ancient Philistine chronicle fascinating. What was their version of events? We have something of that nature in the Mesha Stele.

Blogger a Goy for Jesus has a couple of posts about textual criticism of the Bible (see here and here.) In the first one he links to two audio clips of short lectures on textual criticism and the masoretic transmission by a preacher named Fred Butler. I listened to the second clip (the masoretic one). Butler is an engaging speaker and it isn't a bad overview (and I don't mean to knock him, but I was amused by some mispronunciations; an amusing one was Jacob ben Tschaim)--don't get me wrong, I'd probably do the same if I was saying aloud Greek or Arabic words which I only learned from books--if anything it's just an object lesson in the limitations of the Latin alphabet for portraying the sounds of Hebrew). An Evangelical Christian, a major focus of these lectures seems to be to combat King James Onlyism (and indirectly "the" masoretic text, which it was based on), hence his interest in textual criticism. (Or at least that's my take.)

In any case, after discussing why and how there is a uniform text for the Hebrew Bible he turned to the why and how there are so many texts of the Versions with many thousands of differences. As many of my readers will knows, this fact is thought to impugn the integrity of the Christian Bible by many non-Christians. You will find this remarked upon at Aish seminars and also by Muslims. Although we can argue how meaningful this really is, it's somewhat irrelevant from a Christian perspective, since Christians relate to their Bible in a different way from Jews and Muslims. Jews and Muslims expect a basically uniform text, because they have basically uniform texts. Christians don't, because they don't. Furthermore, although there is some sense that a particular language version has special sanctity (ie, Latin Vulgate for Catholics, Syriac Peshittha for some eastern churches, King James for many Anglo Christians, etc) it is my understanding that many Christians expect Bibles in dozens of versions, in as many languages as possible. So there simply cannot be the same sense of "this text is THE Bible" in the same way Jews can have it or Muslims can have it. Everyone who places the Vulgate at the top is aware that it is a translation.

In any case, what of all the differences? Isn't it clear and obvious that a perfect text with no differences is better and has more integrity? You might think that. But Mr Butler has another viewpoint and it is specifically directed at King James Onlyists, who wish to invest all their eggs in one basket, with one version. Using the Qur'an as a foil, he says that it originally had a multiplicty of texts, but under the auspices of the third khaliph one version emerged, all others being confiscated and destroyed (he makes an error in saying that the Sunni and Shi'a Muslims have two texts which don't agree).

Here's the argument: there is a pitfall to having ONE text and it is the following. If you have one text of sacred scriptures there is always the danger that some heretic could alter the text (!). Obviously he would have to be a despot with great power (he'd also have to, I suppose, destroy the internet).

"A multiplicty of copies helps prevent any one heretic from gathering them all up and inserting error into it. Because if you get one little group of that, and you do mess up the text--if he was to do that, well you'd have three or four other families [of texts]...that would witness against this guy's corruption that he put together. You see that with the New Testament as well....There are so many copies that there is no way a heretic could gather them all up to changedGod's word. You don't have that with the Qur'an. There's only one copy of it now."

I haven't had the chance to turn this argument over in my mind much, but one thing is for sure: it's a new perspective and I was glad to hear it.

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