(Re)writing the Bible in Antiquity and Today

(Re)writing the Bible in Antiquity and Today July 31, 2010


The New Testament writers and early Church Fathers used the Septuagint (LXX) for proof texts and for personal and communal worship.  The LXX is based on the Old Greek translations of the Hebrew and Aramaic Scriptures (indeed, it is the oldest of the Versions) begun probably in the mid-3rd century B.C.E. with the Torah (i.e., the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible), but eventually culminating over the next couple of centuries with all the books now present in the Christian Old Testament, as well as a number of other important Jewish religious texts (some with originally Semitic originals, some with Greek), such as Ecclesiasticus, the books of Maccabees and Tobit (these other texts are commonly called the Apocrypha).[1] These texts were not accepted as scriptural, however, later in the Rabbinic tradition that would eventually produce the Masoretic Text. Moreover, in the late Second Temple Period (i.e., 250 B.C.E.-70 C.E.) there were many other Jewish religious texts, commonly referred to as the Pseudepigrapha, that carried claims to revelatory authority and were regarded as sacred and religiously authoritative by many Jewish and early Christian groups in the same manner that later biblical texts came to be, but which were not included by the later Rabbinic tradition or in the LXX.[2] For instance, 1 Enoch is alluded to or quoted over a dozen times in the New Testament and the biblical book of Jude (vv. 14-15, quoting 1 Enoch 1:9) cites it as prophetical, utilizing the same type(s) of formula(e) that introduce biblical proof texts.  Moreover, this book was popular and sacred generally among Second Temple Judaisms, as can be seen from Qumran. Jubilees too should probably be regarded similarly, and no doubt there are other such texts as well. Indeed, the existence of numerous Jewish texts from antiquity that are based on biblical characters and texts but which also expand the biblical texts and traditions demonstrate that many at this time felt it was legitimate to expand upon the biblical stories and to use them for religious purposes.  Finally, it is also apparent that certain groups also held religiously authoritative and sacred the words of their founder(s) or certain of their spiritual teachers.  Thus the words of the Teacher of Righteousness, revered at Qumran, held special significance for the sectarian group, he being believed to have held the key to the correct (eschatological) interpretation(s) of all the mysteries of the prophets.  The earliest Christians, on the other hand, highly esteemed the words of Jesus and certain of his earliest disciples.  The examples of these groups illustrate that the canon was far from firmly fixed in the eyes of many Jews and early Christians in the late Second Temple Period; indeed, there was no such idea as yet.

Thus the idea of canon is clearly a post-biblical development. Although in the late Second Temple Period certain collections of texts had become standardized (both in content and order) and religiously authoritative and sacred, such as the Torah (also referred to as the Law, the first traditional division of the Hebrew Bible), the Bible [3] as a closed book, consciously chosen as uniquely scriptural in contradistinction to all other books, did not then exist, nor could it really, since biblical and non-biblical books were written not in book (or codex) form but on individual scrolls (we should imagine a collection of scrolls, of various text types, since all the books of what would later become the Bible could not fit on a single scroll or roll).  Moreover, it is clear from ancient sources that the contents of the Bible had not been fixed yet, either in terms of content or order.  The book of Daniel, for instance, was considered prophetic both in the New Testament (e.g., Matt. 24:15) and at Qumran (4Q 174, the Florilegium, 2:3), as well as by Josephus (e.g., Ant. 10.249) and Melito, although later Rabbinic tradition allocates it to the third division of the Hebrew Bible, the Writings, and not to the Prophets (the second traditional division).  The same is true for the Psalms.  Not only were the contents of the second traditional division of the Hebrew Bible fluid–that is, Daniel and Psalms were probably included among the Prophets–but so was its order.  So we see in the Talmud (4th or 5th century) that the order of the Major Prophets is to be Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah (B. B. Bat. 14b).  However, it should be stated that the Torah (Law) and (for the most part) the Prophets were considered scriptural by the late Second Temple period, although the contents (probably including Daniel and Psalms) and order  of this section were not entirely fixed and established.  Eventually the Psalms became segregated from the Prophets. Thus Luke 24:44 speaks of “the Law, and the Prophets, and Psalms,” and 1 QMMT mentions the Law, Prophets, and David (i.e., the Psalms–since many of them were often attributed to king David–although not necessarily the edition of Psalms in the Masoretic Text [see below]).  Moreover, the contents of what would become the third traditional division of the Tanakh, the Writings, was very unstable in this period, and those works, such as 1 Enoch or Jubilees, among others, as mentioned above, would have been part of this later section.  Even in the second century the contents of this section were still not agreed upon, as can be seen by the fact that Rabbi Aqiba was still arguing that the Song of Songs was indeed scriptural.


The Dead Sea Scrolls have opened up a new world in the scholarly study of the history of the biblical text and the textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible. Scholars now realize that the Septuagint (better: Old Greek [OG]) translators were usually attempting to render a faithful translation of their sacred texts, and that disagreements between it and the traditionally received Massoretic Text (MT, the textus receptus) are not due to the carelessness or intrigue of the translators, but are often because the LXX is based on different Hebrew (or Aramaic) Vorlagen (source/parent texts).[4] The import of this point should be stressed, for it is now clear that there were not only meaningful differences in individual words (that is, individual variants; e.g., Deut. 32:8-9) and orthography, but even variant literary editions of entire biblical (as well as non-biblical) books or passages throughout the Second Temple Period.[5] Thus, for instance, the book of Jeremiah in the LXX is noticeably shorter than that of the MT and has a different order, and this different length and order is confirmed by 4QJerb and 4QJerd. The difference between the LXX and MT is almost certainly due to the fact that the MT of Jeremiah is a later, revised, expanded edition of the book.

Pluriformity and diversity in the biblical texts abounded during the Second Temple period. For instance, the LXX has an earlier version of the David-Goliath story in 1 Samuel 17-18, to which the MT has added various David traditions, while the LXX has probably secondarily expanded the Hannah story found in MT 1 Samuel 1-2 for theological reasons.  Additionally, the LXX of Psalms contains a 151st Psalm attributed to David, and this Psalm, as well as other non-biblical Psalms, have turned up in their Hebrew originals in 11QPsa (c.f. the edition of Psalms attested in 4QPse) in the Dead Sea Scrolls (as well as being attested in Syriac translations).  The Book of Daniel has been significantly expanded in the LXX tradition (particularly interesting is that chapters 4 and 6 are expanded in the LXX, although the MT represents a secondary edition of chapter 5) as has the book of Esther (N.B.: no copies of Esther have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, and manuscripts of the book of Daniel found at Qumran seem to reflect the MT).  The Samaritan Pentateuch (SP), frequently ignored by scholars in the past, since its “rediscovery” shows different, expanded editions of the books of Exodus and Numbers, and these expansions (minus the very few Samaritan sectarian additions) are also found in 4QpaleoExodm (c.f. 4QNumb), thus showing that at Qumran there were multiple textual traditions in use for the book of Exodus with apparently no distinction as to whether one was truly scripturally valid and the other not.  Also, the LXX represents a different literary edition of Exodus 35-40 as over against the MT.  Josephus, moreover, had a different edition of the book of Samuel (a later edition of the Old Greek/LXX), also represented in Hebrew by 4QSama among the Dead Sea Scrolls, than that found in the MT.[6] Other books too show evidences of variant editions of biblical books or passages, including the books of Joshua (e.g., 4QJosha and the building of the first altar after Israel’s crossing the Jordan), Judges (4QJudga), and others. 

Further, the Dead Sea Scrolls have confirmed a number of variant (individual) readings from the Septuagint as older than those preserved in the MT, and they have also provided at times unique individual variants that appear to be older than those in either the MT or LXX (or SP) (of course, it too has many readings that appear to be revised or later additions).   Additionally, certain passages that were altogether missing from the MT where scholars have long suspected that there was corruption in the traditional text have been found.  Thus the NRSV now contains the translation of a biblical passage that has not been in any Bible for nearly two millennia (see the extra paragraph about Nahash in the NRSV, recovered from 4QSama and confirmed by Josephus, after 1 Samuel 10:27).  Finally, passages that are secondary in the MT (and/or LXX) have been more certainly isolated, such as Judges 6:7-10, which does not appear in 4QJudga and, for a variety of reasons (e.g., Wiederaufnahme), is almost certainly an expansion in the MT textus receptus.

Of further significance is that many of the secondary editions and expansions were produced for the same reasons and by the same methods that scholars have argued produced the earlier stages of literary composition for the biblical books.[7] These principles include systematic harmonization (SP, 4QpaleoExodm), composite splicing of sources (1 Samuel 17-18 in the MT verses the shorter edition in the LXX), exegetical expansions and rearrangement of material (e.g., the MT revision of Jeremiah), and ideological driven changes (as perhaps is the case in the LXX revision of 1 Samuel 1-2).  Moreover, the book of Daniel, probably written sometime in the third and/or second century B.C.E., even though it is perhaps the latest of the biblical texts, was itself substantially revised and expanded in the Hebrew Vorlage to the LXX (as well as in the MT in chapter 5, as noted above).  These scribal practices are akin in nature (though usually on a somewhat smaller scale) to those of earlier editors and authors who composed the books of the Bible.  For instance, scholars see the splicing of sources throughout the Pentateuch and Deuteronomistic History (i.e., Joshua-Kings) (an especially good parallel for 1 Samuel 17-18 would be the Flood narrative in Gen. 6-9), secondary exegetical expansions and accretions of material throughout the prophetic books, Psalms and Proverbs, etc., and the transplanting of text and harmonization (e.g., 2 Kings 18 and Is. 36; Is. 2:3-4 and Mic. 4:1-4; Obad. 1-10 and Jer. 49:7-22, etc.).  Moreover, the type of large-scale redaction and expansion for the book of Daniel represented by the LXX is seen throughout the Hebrew Bible.  Moreover, the book of Chronicles furnishes a terrific example of the creation of a novel work with its own unique theological Tendenz composed from prior biblical (e.g., the Deuteronomistic History) and non-biblical sources.  The Chronicler edits, expands, supplements, changes, and ignores a number of features from his sources (including his “biblical” sources) for his own purposes (cf. the Synoptic problem).  (It is further interesting to note that the textual source for the book of Samuel in Chronicles is very similar to the text type represented in the Dead Sea Scrolls by 4QSama and also found in the OG and the Greek source for Samuel which underlies the work of Josephus; the MT, on the other hand, as scholars have realized for a long time, has a large number of textual corruptions [cf. the Nahash passage mentioned above], often resulting from parablepsis, that were never corrected in the (proto-)MT tradition.)

It is significant, therefore, that such scribal-authorial practices were still taking place in the Second Temple Period, demonstrating that the biblical texts were not yet entirely textually fixed and that variant literary editions of the biblical books existed side-by-side, apparently with no difference in religious value.  The Dead Sea Scrolls have thus helped to erase the artificial line dividing higher and lower criticism of the Hebrew Bible since scribes were at times more than simple copyists or transmitters of the biblical books, but active participants in the development of the biblical texts.


The Dead Sea Scrolls, LXX, SP, and other ancient witnesses, have amply demonstrated that the Bible as canon did not occur until long after the writing of all the now-biblical books, and that the textual history and character of these books should be described as evolutionary and pluriform.  The problem of recovering an “original” text for the biblical books is therefore extremely complicated.[8] For instance, is the original text the final, expanded edition of a given biblical book or passage (but what if there are multiple late expanded editions, as we have seen)?  Or is the original the edition of a book at an earlier stage in its transmission history (perhaps when it was accepted by some community as authoritative?)?  Is it the earliest recoverable edition of a given book (even if we know, as is the case for the book of Daniel, that there was an earlier edition underlying all of our extant witnesses)? Is the original text the earliest complete edition of the book that we would recognize as that book (even if we don’t have access to it)?  Or is the original text the literary sources used to compose that book (such as J, P, or D for the Pentateuch), even if the author(s) or editor(s) revised and modified those sources for their own (different) purposes?  Or are the oral traditions that underly many of our literary sources the real original text? There are many other such questions and complications. 

Further, the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient witnesses strongly indicate, on account of the great pluriformity in the biblical texts during the Second Temple Period, that there were likely many more editions of biblical books and passages, important textual variants, orthographic peculiarities etc., than we moderns currently have access to, and that the extant (and lost) literary editions of the biblical books and their many variants represent a long and complicated textual history for these texts.  Although the Dead Sea Scrolls are our oldest biblical manuscripts, they only represent a very small fraction of the biblical manuscripts from antiquity, and they also do not contain large sections of the biblical books, not to mention entire books (e.g., Esther was not found among the Dead Sea Scrolls). 


We have already concluded, drawing on the research of Ulrich, Vanderkam, Tov, and others, that there was no canon in the Second Temple Period and that the idea of a canon–a closed, authoritative collection of texts that is consciously chosen as distinct from other texts–is a post-biblical development.  Indeed, many Second Temple Jewish groups and individuals believed other books or traditions were as religiously sacred and authoritative as the (later) biblical texts (although some groups, like the Samaritans, only accepted a smaller collection of texts, e.g., the Torah), while other groups also held in high regard the words and teachings of their contemporaries (or near contemporaries).  The LXX (and later Vulgate) was the Bible of the Christian Church for the great majority of its history and it contains a number of books not found in traditional Rabbinic and Protestant Bibles.  The Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient witnesses show part of the development of the canon–what we might term the canonical process–but they do not witness to the canon as such.  Rather, the Dead Sea Scrolls show that ancient scribes, like earlier authors and editors, both transmitted their religious texts and modified them to meet the needs and circumstances of their contemporary communities.

However, although the idea of a fixed canon exists in traditional Judaism and Christianity, modern religious readers of the Bible still edit and modify their sacred texts in similar ways to those of the ancient scribes and editors who physically composed and transmitted the biblical texts.  Modern readers update and expand (and subtract) from the Bible through various hermeneutical traditions (e.g., religious traditions, the academy, etc.), pluriform ideological and political perspectives (e.g., egalitarianism, Marxism, etc.), manifold world views, and their own diverse, raw human experiences.  Modern readers eisegete the biblical texts, harmonize them, use secondary materials as means of interpreting the Bible, selectively choose which parts are to be emphasized or ignored, etc.  There is also a dialectical interpretive[9] process at work between these and the modern reader, and in this process the modern reader necessarily adds to and takes away from the biblical books (even if not physically).  Thus modernreaders are in many ways similar to their ancient counterparts–the difference is that many (though not all; c.f. scholarly conjectural emendations, etc.) do not physically change the text of their sacred writings because of their developed, non-biblical notions of canon.


However, does the fact that all readers of the Bible add to and subtract from it in their dialectical engagement with the biblical texts, in combination with the fact that the biblical texts themselves show complex evolutionary stages of growth and development, undermine certain modern notions of canon?  That is, does the evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls, other ancient witnesses, and modern biblical scholarship, undermine certain modern ideas of canon since 1) there is, historically speaking, seemingly no accessible “original” text, 2) the idea of canon is itself non-biblical, and ancient Jewish and Christian groups used other sacred texts (e.g., 1 Enoch or Jubilees) and traditions (e.g., the words of Jesus, Paul, or the Teacher of Righteousness) as religiously authoritative, 3) the very composition and transmission of what would become the biblical texts was gradual and evolutionary until an artificial end (e.g., there is no evidence that the text types for the biblical books selected in the Rabbinic tradition were chosen on textual grounds[10]) sometime probably in the second century C.E., 4) there were multiple editions of biblical books and/or passages, and 5) the biblical texts (like all texts) are always read in a dialectical manner involving both the reader and the text in a process that necessarily adds to and subtracts from the scriptures (even if not physically)?  And finally: what impact do these issues have on modern notions of Scriptural, and especially biblical, authority and the devotional use of the biblical texts?


[1] On the LXX, see Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 134-148; Eugene Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Origins of the Bible. Studies in the Dead Sea scrolls and related literature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 205-214.

[2] For the following discussion of canon see James C. Vanderkam, The Dead Sea Scrolls Today, 2nd Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 178-195, 63 (concerning the role of the Teacher of Righteousness); Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls, 17-33, 51-78.

[3] “Bible” as a general term throughout this paper means primarily the Jewish Bible, i.e., the Hebrew Bible, what Christians typically refer to as the Old Testament, and does not usually include the New Testament unless otherwise indicated through the immediate context or explicit mention.

[4] Emanuel Tov, The Text-Critical Use of the Septuagint in Biblical Research. Jerusalem biblical studies, 3. (Jerusalem: Simor, 1981).

[5] For the following discussion of variant literary editions see Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls, 3-120.

[6] Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls, 184-201.

[7] Again, for this discussion see Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls, 3-120.

[8] For the following discussion of “original text,” etc., see Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls, 3-33 (esp. 12-16).

[9] See Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls, 73-78 (esp. 73-75).

[10] Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls, 84.

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