Monday, May 14, 2007

A threat to Tehillim? Dead Sea Scrolls in the Jewish Tribune.

A friend sent me a clipping of the following letter from last week's Jewish Tribune (a London Agudist newspaper), regarding "Tehillim and the Dead Sea Scrolls":



(click to enlarge)

It contains the following assertion: "Secular and non-Jewish scholars have to admit that the Tenach scrolls are word-for-word identical with our texts and not with those of Samaritans (Kusim) and early translators (Septuagint - Greek, Targumim in various Aramaic dialects, et al)." However, there are differences in spelling, differences in the use of vavs, yuds and alephs, etc.

I found this assertion astonishing! But then I remember that I'd heard it before...

In any case, although the letter writer actually subscribes to some non-traditional, modern scholarly positions (e.g., that the graphic symbols of the nekkudot are post-Talmudic, that the canon of the Bible was not fixed until Jamnia [1] (יבנה), etc.) there is no traditional position on the Dead Sea Scrolls. But perhaps his view is widely shared in the Orthodox community; roughly that the texts match our massoretic text. On the other hand, divergences are meaningless because either they are sectarian or they are simply passul [2] texts that were placed in the desert as shemos [3] (our letter writer adopts the latter position).

Putting aside the question of who wrote the texts and why, the assertion that word for word these texts are massoretic is simply not true. It is false; so false that it crazy that anyone could believe it who has seen the evidence! And if one hasn't seen the evidence, what business does one have saying such a thing? And where does it even come from, so far from the actual picture is it.

In fact three or four kinds of Hebrew texts were found at Qumran (depending on how you divide it). The first are Bible texts that are much like the masoretic text (and comprise about 60% of the material), the second seems to be a type of Hebrew text that the Septuagint was translated from (only about 5%), the third is like the Samaritan Pentateuch, lacking only the ideological changes that are present in the Samaritan version (also about 5%). A fourth type are texts that can't be placed into any of these categories (about 105), and finally there are non-Biblical Hebrew texts which are unique to Qumran, comprising about 20% of the total. In other words, exactly the opposite of what the writer claimed.

As it happens. in a backward sort of way the Dead Sea Scrolls was a gift to the massoretic text. It is true that its authenticity as an ancient (much less the ancient) Hebrew text had long been doubted or denied, at least since the Samaritan Pentateuch was discovered and brought to Europe by Pietro della Valle in the 17th century. Furthermore, it was also thought that the Septuagint reflected a different, more original Hebrew text for the following reason: the oldest existing Hebrew Bibles were from about the year 1000 CE. The oldest Septuagint texts were hundreds and hundreds of years older than that. It seemed fairly evident that the Septuagint had been translated from a Hebrew text that had different readings from the masoretic Hebrew. So what conclusion was there besides that the assumed Hebrew vorlage of the Septuagint was the older? [4] The reasoning was reasonable, but as it turned out, incorrect. The Dead Sea Scrolls introduced Bible texts more than a thousand years older than what had previously been known into the discussion. And the Dead Sea Scrolls proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the massoretic text is not late, it is at least as old as the Samaritan and the Hebrew Septuagint. Conversely, it also proves that 2000 years ago "the Bible" was not exclusively massoretic.

That's the good news, if indeed this is good news. But its important to understand that these massoretic Dead Sea texts are actually massoretic-like, not identical with our own text. This means that many words as spelled differently in ways that don't matter, as the letter writer notes, but also that many words are not the same at all.

Here is a small sample of examples. The first is our massoretic reading, the second the Qumran reading. The text being compared is an Isaiah scroll (1QIsaa):

Is 46:11
M: והמתי ברעב שרשך ושאריתך יהרג
1QIsaa: והמתי ברעב שרשך ושאריתך אהרג

the former reads "it shall slay" and the latter "I shall slay."

Another example will compare the massoretic with a Qumran Samuel:

1 Sam 1:23
M: אך יקם יהוה את דברו
4QSama: אך יקם יהוה היוצא מפיך

the latter, by the way, seems to be the Hebrew which the Septuagint used (in translation: "may the Lord establish that which comes out of thy mouth," as opposed to the massoretic "only the Lord establish His word.")

Are these the only two examples? No, they are only two examples. [5]

[1] Sid Leiman wrote his doctorate on the Talmudic and Midrashic evidence regarding the canonization of Tanakh. He concluded that from the evidence--and he collected essentially every piece of rabbinic writing that had some bearing on the canon--it is completely baseless to conclude that the Bible was canonized at Jamnia; it must have been canonical earlier. Given that this scholarly trope is based entirely on rabbinic writings, it seems to me that he has a point.
[2] Unfit for ritual use, eg, reading from it in a synagogue.
[3] Hebrew writings made sacred because of the presence of a name of God. Such writings are to be respectfully stored away rather than thrown into garbage.
[4] Would it surprise anyone that ideology was also a factor? Although going strictly by the evidence this was a logical conclusion--that the Septuagint reflected an older Hebrew Bible--the matter can not be separated from internal disputes then raging in Christendom. The Protestants eschewed the Latin and Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible as a mediating presence between them and God's pure word in its original tongue. The Roman Catholics had an interest in discrediting the Hebrew text, to show that true Biblical authority lay with the text canonized by the Church (the Latin) and that, in fact, the Hebrew was a corrupt text compromised by its Jewish custodians and thus useless in interpreting God's word.
[5] Pages 111, 114 in 'Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible," Emanuel Tov, Minneapolis, 1992.

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