An Introduction to Old Testament Textual Criticism

by Zach Vickery

In the opening words of the book of Ruth, one finds a variety of readings between the textual witnesses. The Masoretic Text (MT) reads, “In the days of the judging of the judges,” but the Greek Septuagint (LXX) simply reads, “when the judges judged.” Moreover, the Syriac Peshitta reads, “In the days of the judges.” Though this example is relatively insignificant, it demonstrates the dilemma of the Old Testament textual critic. The source which contains the original language of the text says one thing, but the Septuagint and Peshitta are earlier witnesses to the text and may reflect a more original form. How does one determine which of these readings most closely reflects the pen of the original author? What sources are available that enable the textual critic to reconstruct the earliest form of the text?

The Goal of Textual Criticism

Textual criticism seeks to answer the questions of how and why changes occurred in a text’s transmission over time.[1] The primary goal of textual criticism is to discover the earliest recoverable form of a text. Unfortunately, there is no step-by-step process for Old Testament textual criticism and no clear path to a text’s earliest recoverable form.

Housman points out that textual criticism, in general, is not exclusively an art or a science. It is a science because it involves discovering and evaluating errors in a text, but it is also an art because it focuses on emending texts and reconstructing the original.[2] One should be cautious of emphasizing one of these aspects over the other. In practicing textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible, one must evaluate the variants across all manuscript traditions and then determine what reading is closest to the original.

The art of textual criticism involves the retroversion of texts. This is especially difficult in the context of Old Testament textual criticism due to the fact that many of the books’ early witnesses are in different languages.

For New Testament textual critics, a plethora of Greek manuscripts exist as witnesses to the original text. However, there are more witnesses to the Old Testament in other languages than there are in Hebrew. These ancient translations such as LXX and the Syriac Peshitta often predate the earliest Hebrew manuscripts that are currently available. Utilizing translations of a text to discover its earliest recoverable form is an especially difficult task and will be discussed in more detail below.

Textual Transmission

The Old Testament textual critic should first consider the transmission of the text. The books that comprise the Hebrew Bible were copied by hand for thousands of years before the invention of the printing press. Scribes would often make changes to the text while copying, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally. Additionally, several letters in the Hebrew alphabet closely resemble one another, making it easy to mistakenly copy the wrong Hebrew letter. Some letters are similar in sound which would often cause scribes to make copying errors when the text was read to them. Some errors were introduced because of a scribe’s familiarity with a text that is similar to the one they are copying (e.g., Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5). This type of change may be accidental, but it could also be the result of a scribe harmonizing the two similar texts. These factors are important for the textual critic to keep in mind when evaluating textual variants and determining the most original form of a text.

Witnesses to the Old Testament

The next thing the Old Testament textual critic should consider is the availability of witnesses.

These vary from book to book, and in many cases the witnesses are only fragmentary. Until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, the Hebrew witnesses were all relatively late. The Dead Sea Scrolls, also known as the Qumran Scrolls, date to about the third century BC to the first century AD. These scrolls contain at least fragmentary witnesses to every book within the canon except the book of Esther. The majority of the Dead Sea Scrolls closely resemble what later came to be known as the MT.

Another Hebrew witness to the Old Testament is the Samaritan Pentateuch. This text dates to the second century BC and contains only an adapted version of the Torah. The Samaritans adapted the Torah according to their theology and did not view the rest of the Old Testament as canonical.[3] Other than the theological adjustments, the Samaritan Pentateuch is a useful text-critical resource that witnesses several ancient variant readings that are helpful for recovering the most original form of a text.[4]

Perhaps the most significant Hebrew witness to the Old Testament is the MT. The Masoretic tradition carefully preserved the Hebrew and eventually became the standard text among Judaism. The term Masoretic comes from the Hebrew word msr which means to pass down or transmit.

The Masoretes are known not only for their careful preservation of the text but also for their extensive editing. They added accentuation and vocalization to the Hebrew consonantal text along with other paratextual elements and the Masorah.[5] Some accents were inserted to stress the proper syllable when read aloud. Other accents marked breaks in a text, much like commas and periods in English. They also added marks for vocalization to aid in the pronunciation of the text. The paratextual elements inserted by the Masoretes include elements such as paragraph divisions, words that were in some way doubtful, adjustments for reverence, and some omissions.[6] The most distinguishing work of the Masoretes is the Masorah, which has three features: the Masorah Parva, the Masorah Magna, and the Masorah Finalis.[7]

There are also several ancient translations that are excellent sources for the textual criticism of the Old Testament. These include the LXX, the Syriac Peshitta, the Latin Vulgate, and the Aramaic Targums. Perhaps the most useful of the ancient translations is the LXX. The first Septuagint translation of the Pentateuch was completed around 250 BC and the remainder of the Old Testament books were completed between the third and first centuries BC. The LXX is especially valuable for textual criticism since it is a complete text and represents a Hebrew text older than that of the standardized MT.[8]

Utilizing Translations for Old Testament Textual Criticism

Ancient translations are helpful for Old Testament textual criticism, but one must take care to consider all possibilities for a variant before coming to a conclusion. When one encounters what appears to be a textual variant, Jobes and Silva recommend six considerations necessary for reaching a conclusion:

First, ascertain the Greek text itself. In this step, one should consider the certainty of the Greek variant they are reading and assess how likely it is that this was the original translation.[9]

The second step is to “inquire whether the Greek translator’s method of work can account for a change in this passage.”[10] This step involves considering the translator’s technique and observing any interpretive or theological motivation for the translator’s rendering of his Vorlage.[11]

Step three is to “determine whether the equivalence is merely possible or likely.”[12] In this step, one should observe other occurrences of the Greek word to see how often it is used to translate its Hebrew equivalent.

The fourth step is to “evaluate the internal evidence.”[13] This step forces one to consider possibilities other than a difference in the Vorlage.

Step five is to “determine whether the LXX variant is supported by other witnesses.”[14] This involves the findings of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Targums, the Peshitta, and other ancient witnesses.

Finally, step six is to “choose between the two competing readings.”[15] Perhaps the most important of Jobes and Silva’s six steps is the assessment of translation technique. Until one determines the translator’s technique or method, little can be said about the so-called variants. The study of translation technique is not limited to discussions on how literal or free the translator is in his rendering of the Hebrew text. Aejmelaeus explains that translation technique is simply a study “designating the relationship between the text of the translation and its Vorlage.”[16]

The terms literal and free are often used to label translations, but these are inadequate when studying the Septuagint. Aejmelaeus recommends, “A distinction should be made between literalness and faithfulness. A good free rendering is a faithful rendering. If a translator uses free renderings that are faithful to the meaning of the original, this is no justification for attributing to this translator all kinds of additions and omissions that occur in his book.”[17]Therefore, a translation may not be a word-for-word equivalent to the Hebrew but still be a faithful translation of the text. Those wishing use the LXX or other ancient translations as a text-critical tool of the Old Testament must take this into consideration when they come across a divergence between the translation and the Hebrew text.


While the focus of Old Testament textual criticism is often on variants within a text, the similarities between the texts are remarkable. After thousands of years of transmission, it is amazing to see how the Old Testament has been preserved. The Hebrew manuscripts from the Dead Sea Scrolls, the many ancient translations of the Old Testament, and the later standardized MT are astonishingly consistent. Because of those who have devoted their lives to the study of textual criticism, we can approach Scripture with confidence, fully trusting that the Lord has and will continue to preserve His Word.


Author’s Bio: Zach Vickery lives with his wife, Emily, in Cambridge, UK, where he is studying the Greek Old Testament at the University of Cambridge. He also holds a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree from Welch College in Gallatin, TN. When he isn’t studying, Zach enjoys spending time outdoors and reading.


[1] Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012), 1. See also Karen H. Jobes and Moisés Silva, Invitation to the Septuagint (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015), 156-80.

[2] A. E. Housman, “The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism,” accessed online

[3] Ellis R. Brotzman and Eric J. Tully, Old Testament Textual Criticism: A Practical Introduction (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016), 44.

[4] Brotzman and Tully, Old Testament, 48.

[5] Tov, Textual Criticism, 47.

[6] Brotzman and Tully, Old Testament, 53.

[7] Ibid., 55. The Masorah Parva consists of words written in the side margins of the text to refer to word usages in the Old Testament and the ketivqere. The ketiv refers to a word that is written in the text while the qere note in the margin refers to the way in which the word is read. The Masorah Magna is found in the top and bottom margins and basically elaborates on what is found in the Masorah Parva. Finally, the Masorah Finalis provides information on things such as the number of words in a book.

[8] Ibid., 74.

[9] Karen H. Jobes and Moisés Silva, Invitation to the Septuagint (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015), 167.

[10] Jobes and Silva, Invitation, 168.

[11] German for prototype.

[12] Jobes and Silva, Invitation, 168.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 169. Jobes and Silva’s discussion is primarily concerned with the Septuagint but can also be applied to any other ancient translation.

[16] Anneli Aejmelaeus, On the Trail of the Septuagint Translators (Leuven: Peeters, 2007), 205.

[17] Aejmelaeus, On the Trail, 56.

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