The Jews were remarkably free in early times to edit and re-edit their Hebrew texts. They did not regard their scriptures as a single body, but as separate works. As we have already seen they often copied chunks of one book into another, sometimes changing names and other details to meet the needs of the moment. Impious suggestions were also doctored. For example, it seemed wrong that God should stand before Abraham, so the two swapped places and Abraham now stood before God.
There were genuine errors too. A common one was to incorporate marginal notes into the text. Typically, one scholar would add a note giving his explanation of an opaque passage. A later scholar, copying the manuscript, would interpret the note as a correction and copy it as part of the main text In later times after AD Jewish scribes began to take pains to ensure that texts were accurately copied, for example by checking the number of letters and words in the new manuscripts.
The texts then settled down to relative uniformity, although they preserved errors and contradictions originating from earlier editing. Until the twentieth century, the oldest known Hebrew manuscript was only about 1, years old. A further difficulty was that different Jewish sects each tampered with the scriptures to suit their own teachings. For example the Samaritans had their own version, and so did the Essenes. There were also mainstream variants, and it is now generally accepted that the traditional text, known as the Masoretic Text, is "only one late and arbitrary line, surviving from an earlier uncontrolled variety" The texts are only relatively uniform, and surviving manuscripts frequently disagree with each other.
The New International Version NIV of the Bible gives variant readings in footnotes, showing that Hebrew manuscripts often disagree with each other, and with Greek, Syriac and other texts. Here are extracts from the preface to the NIV explaining how the translators worked:. For the Old Testament the standard Hebrew text, the Masoretic Text as published in the latest editions of Biblia Hebraica, was used throughout.
The Dead Sea Scrolls contain material bearing on an earlier stage of the Hebrew text. They were consulted, as were the Samaritan Pentateuch and the ancient scribal traditions relating to textual changes. Sometimes a variant Hebrew reading in the margin of the Masoretic Text was followed instead of the text itself Readings from these versions were occasionally followed where the Masoretic Text seemed doubtful and where accepted principles of textual criticism showed that one or more of these textual witnesses appeared to provide the correct reading.
A recent international committee, considering the text of the Old Testament, identified some 5, places where the Hebrew was so puzzling that it might need to be corrected. A few of these are noted in footnotes to modern translations, although different translations handle them in different ways. Some cases look like simple errors.
According to the Masoretic Text corresponding to 1 Samuel , Sarah took a three-year-old bull to Shiloh, but according to most other manuscripts she took three bulls rather than one. In other cases it appears that the scribes have created rather a mess by deliberate tampering. Take for example the case of the killing of Goliath. Everyone knows that he was killed by David.
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The Bible says so, at least it does if one reads 1 Samuel But according to the original text of another passage in 2 Samuel, Elhanan killed him:. And there was again a battle in Gob with the Philistines, where Elhanan the son of Jaare-oregim, a Bethlehemite, slew Goliath the Gittite, the staff of whose spear was like a weaver's beam. This is not what is printed in the Authorised Version, however. The translators have inserted the words "the brother of" before Goliath's name in 2 Samuel so that the Authorised Version reads:. And there was again a battle in Gob with the Philistines, where Elhanan the son of Jaare-oregim, a Bethlehemite, slew the brother of Goliath the Gittite, the staff of whose spear was like a weaver's beam.
They are absent in more accurate recent translations. So why did Christian scholars manipulate the text in this way? In mitigation they could claim that they were merely bringing it into line with a third version of the story in 1 Chronicles And there was a war again with the Philistines; and Elhanan the son of Jair slew Lahmi the brother of Goliath the Gittite, whose spear staff was like a weaver's beam.
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But why then did 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles contradict each other in the original texts? What seems to have happened is this: Goliath was killed by Elhanan, and the story, dating from around BC, was recounted in both 1 Chronicles and 2 Samuel. Some years later it was felt that David's reputation needed a boost, so David was made into the hero of the story and this new version was included in 1 Samuel.
To cover their tracks the Jewish editors changed the passage in 1 Chronicles by adding the words "Lahmi the brother of". They neglected however to change 2 Samuel in the same way, leaving a contradiction that later English translators obligingly tried to cover up using the same technique. The original interpolators made another gaffe, for they used the new David and Goliath story to explain how David came to meet Saul 1 Samuel , neglecting to square it with a different story about how they met, which appears in chapter Early manuscripts contain only one of the two stories, further evidence that the contradictions arose through tampering The book of Chronicles routinely tidies up earlier historical accounts.
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For example in an original story the actions of King Asa were slightly flawed:. And Asa did that which was right in the eyes of the Lord…But the high places were not removed Asa would have been more impressive if he had removed the pagan high places, so in Chronicles we read:. And Asa did that which was good and right in the eyes of the Lord his God: For he took away the altars of the strange gods, and the high places Jewish history was routinely rewritten to show up a favourite leader in a good light, or to confirm God's attachment to the Jewish people.
Sometimes God was introduced into a story to explain key events. A story in 2 Chronicles is essentially the same as that in 1 Kings , except that the mechanics of Jehoshaphat's escape is different. In the earlier version he simply calls out to those who are about to attack him. And it came to pass, when the captains of the chariots saw Jehoshaphat, that they said, Surely it is the king of Israel. And they turned aside to fight against him: and Jehoshaphat cried out.
And it came to pass, when the captains of the chariots perceived that it was not the king of Israel, that they turned back from pursuing him. In the improved version he calls out to God, and God is responsible for his delivery.
And it came to pass, when the captains of the chariots saw Jehoshaphat, that they said, It is the king of Israel. Therefore they compassed about him to fight: but Jehoshaphat cried out, and the LORD helped him; and God moved them to depart from him. For it came to pass, that, when the captains of the chariots perceived that it was not the king of Israel, they turned back again from pursuing him. Significantly, the original text is not altered, but added to.
The later text Chronicles is almost identical except that an additional sentence has been inserted. A man called Jether has different nationalities according to different manuscripts It appears that it was politically correct for him to become an Israelite, and this was achieved simply by doctoring the text. Did Solomon have a mere 40 stalls for chariot horses, or a much more impressive 4, 24 , and did Jashobeam kill three men on a single occasion, or was it 30 men, or , or even men 25?
There are numerous such inconsistencies, both between different books, and different manuscripts of the same book Such tampering can be detected only when the editors failed to cover their tracks early enough and well enough.
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We can never know how many times they covered their tracks successfully. Like the Jewish scribes who had not always been careful of the truth, neither were Christians. Early Christians tampered with the Septuagint, but this tampering was exposed by comparison with the original Hebrew. Christians then accused Jews of suppressing the truth in their Hebrew versions.
But the Jews had largely stopped tampering with their ancient texts by the end of the first century AD and were thus routinely vindicated by the evidence. For example, in the Septuagint, Psalm 96 was amended to include an apparent prophecy about the Lord ruling from the tree i. The fact that Jewish versions included no such line was explained away by the fact that the perfidious Jews had removed it from the text.
In fact it was the Christians who had been responsible for the tampering, a fact easily confirmed by comparing the texts with older copies in both Greek and Hebrew. Christians also inserted a line in Jeremiah to foretell Christ's descent into Hell "The Lord God remembered His dead people of Israel who slept in the earth of the grave, and He went down to them to preach to them His salvation". This fraudulence has been quietly dropped, but the writings of the Church Fathers confirm that they believed it to be genuine and thought that the Jews had tried to suppress it Having now shown that every book in the Bible, from Genesis to Judges, is without authenticity, I come to the book of Ruth, an idle, bungling story, foolishly told, nobody knows by whom, about a strolling country-girl creeping slyly to bed with her cousin Boaz.
Pretty stuff indeed to be called the word of God! Traditionally God was held to have been the author of all books of the Bible, just as Muslims believe Allah to have been the true author of the Koran. In both cases, part of the evidence of divine authorship was the sublime quality of the language used. Many Muslims hold that God must have written the Koran because no human could produce such beautiful prose. Unfortunately its supernatural beauty seems to be discernible only by Muslim speakers of Arabic and remains opaque to other Arabic speakers. The position of the Old Testament is less convincing.
Even the most pious Christian scholars found the original text crude and uncouth. St Jerome for example found the language of the prophets "harsh and barbarous" , much preferring the quality of writing of pagan authors such as Cicero and Plautus. Another problem is that of identifying the human authors. Most books of the Old Testament were not written by the people whose names they bear. Many were written and edited over a long period by unknown hands. Traditional ascriptions are known to be unreliable, and textual analysis reveals some books to be the work of more than one writer.
The oldest book whose author is known is an apocryphal book called Ecclesiasticus or Ben Sirach , written by the Jewish scholar Jesus ben Sirach at a surprisingly late date around BC. The books of the Law were traditionally believed to have been written by Moses, although this has long been discounted by scholars.
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No one previously seems to have been unduly concerned that Moses sometimes referred to himself in the third person, as in Numbers , but writing about his own death and burial Deuteronomy raised a few questions. A further give-away was the phrase " This could only have been written after there had been a king, which was centuries after the time of Moses.
Moses was not the only person traditionally identified as a biblical author to write as historical fact about events that occurred after his death. Samuel, in 1 Samuel , gives an account of his own death and burial. Again, Joshua in Joshua tells us that " Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders that outlived Joshua".