Persistent Pluriformity of Prebiblical Texts (2)

Needed: A Paradigm Shift

One reason this history is important is that these texts have only fully been accessible to all for a mere thirty years even though they were first discovered seventy-five years ago! Thirty years is not a lot of time for the revolutionary implications of the DSS to be examined, debated, and accepted. As Thomas Khun notes in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, resistance is inevitable when new information cannot simply be added to a previous paradigm but threatens to replace the old paradigm. Kuhn states, “The source of resistance is the assurance that the older paradigm will ultimately solve all its problems…Though a generation is sometimes required to effect the change, scientific communities have again and again been converted to new paradigms.”[1] Kuhn notes that when new evidence challenges the predominant paradigm a crisis arises that takes time to resolve.[2] It often takes a generation for a paradigm shift to occur, as efforts are first made to incorporate the new information into the old paradigm by means of more and more complicated and often convoluted theories. But the good news is that these artificial constructs are simply signs that the old paradigm is experiencing a slow death. There is hope that the new paradigm will take precedence and replace the old, even if some of the initial opponents must die, and a new generation take their place.[3] Make no mistake about it, the discovery of the scroll remnants in the Judaean desert instigated a crisis where the new paradigm of textual pluriformity challenged the old paradigm of textual consistency and uniformity. Timothy Michael Law states, “The discoveries in the Judean Desert in the middle of the twentieth century revolutionized our understanding of the Bible’s history or, better, its prehistory.”[4]

The manuscript fragments of prebiblical texts predate the previously oldest copies of biblical texts by more than one thousand years! Based on the Aleppo and Leningrad codices one can see how scholars conjectured that the MT was the most ancient and accurate text type. However, with the discovery of the DSS, there was now clear and incontrovertible evidence that the state of the prebiblical texts was one of pluriformity and an absence of any text type hierarchy.[5] Just as the sun was once thought to revolve around the planet earth, so the biblical texts were thought to have reached their final and unified state in the mid-Second Temple period and faithfully preserved and thus were accurately represented by the early 11th century CE Leningrad Codex.[6] As Copernicus (and other men of science) revealed a different reality, so the discovery of the DSS have revealed a different and much more complex and messy history of the biblical texts at every “stage” of textual creation, from authorship, transmission, redaction, translation, to canonization.[7]

Explanation for, and Examples of, DSS Pluriformity

            The reality of the manuscript evidence is that “no two manuscripts of any book in antiquity were ever exactly alike.”[1] However, scribal error alone cannot explain all the variants among the prebiblical texts. Scribes were intentional in making changes as they copied. Scribes had the challenging job of holding two tasks in tension: they made conscious efforts to preserve the texts they were copying while at the same time made changes in an attempt to ensure that these respected texts spoke relevantly to their current audiences. As Zahn notes, “Scribes who copied texts frequently, added, changed, or omitted content—without giving any indication in the manuscript that they had done so. Literary texts were not seen as the creative work of an individual author, but as repositories of ancient tradition or divinely revealed wisdom.”[2]

            A classic example of DSS pluriformity is found in the various manuscript remnants of the text of Jeremiah. We know that the Old Greek (OG) version of Jeremiah found in the LXX is about 17 percent shorter than the MT version and that its contents are found in a radically different sequence. This is not the result of the Greek translators being free with the Hebrew text. As Zahn notes, “[M]ultiple forms of the book must have circulated in Hebrew in Judea during the Second Temple period. 4QJera and 4QJerc preserve texts that largely correspond to the MT…while 4QJerb and 4QJerd contain texts that agree with the OG against the MT…and thus attest to what the Vorlage of OG Jeremiah must have looked like.”[3]

            When it comes to the Torah (i.e., the Pentateuch), the most revered portion of the Hebrew Bible, the various “manuscripts of these five books reflect the Masoretic Text only 48 percent of the time, while the remaining books outside the Torah reflect the Masoretic Text only 44 percent of the time.” As Law notes, “This is hardly the picture of textual uniformity…”.[4] It is clear that different editions of the same books were preserved by this one community. Obviously textual pluriformity, even of the most copied prebiblical texts, was not a problem. Since there is a consensus among Qumran scholars that few of these texts were actually copied at Qumran, then if it fair to conclude that pluriformity was the rule throughout Palestine, and perhaps the Diaspora, as well.[5]

A Specific Hebrew Version: The Samaritan Pentateuch

            As noted previously, prior to 1947 there was evidence of a version of the five prebiblical books known as the Samaritan Pentateuch (SP). The DSS discoveries supported that this variant existed, being confirmed by comparison to the LXX and with respect to the MT. Evans and Tov note, “What makes the SP interesting is that in approximately 1,900 places it agrees with the Greek version (the LXX) over against the MT. In some places it agrees with NT quotations or allusions over against both the Greek and the MT.”[6] Würthwein states, “These agreements are certainly not coincidental.”[7]

            Most scholars believe that the SP text family which is present among the DSS is a revision of the MT (or proto-MT) text family. However, Benyamim Tsedaka questions that conclusion, in part, because the LXX Pentateuch, translated from Hebrew texts in the third century BCE, is much closer to the SP than the MT.[8] Regardless of which came first, for our discussion, the SP is further clear evidence of very early, prebiblical pluriformity.


[1] Eugene Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Origins of the Bible, Studies in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Related Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1999), 23.

[2] Molly M. Zahn, Genres of Rewriting in Second Temple Judaism: Scribal Composition and Transmission (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 1.

[3] Zahn, Genres of Rewriting, 10. Note: 4QJera = 4th Qumran Cave, Jeremiah, 1st manuscript. Also, “vorlage” = the original-language version of a text from which a translator creates his translation.

[4] Law, When God Spoke Greek, 25-26.

[5] Bowley and Reeves, “Rethinking the Concept of the Bible,” 17.

[6] Evans and Tov, Exploring the Origins of the Bible, 17.

[7] Würthwein,The Text of the Old Testament, 82.

[8] Tsedaka, Beyamim and Sharon Sullivan (eds.), The Israelite Samaritan Version of the Torah: First English Translation Compared with the Masoretic Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013), Kindle Edition, Loc. 622.  


[1] Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 163-164.

[2] Kuhn, Scientific Revolutions, 164.

[3] Kuhn, Scientific Revolutions, 163.

[4] Law, When God Spoke Greek, 2, 21. See also, Hans Debel, “Rewritten Bible, Variant Literary Editions and Original Text(s): Exploring the Implications of Pluriform Outlook on the Scriptural Tradition,” in Changes in Scripture: Rewriting and Interpreting Authoritative Traditions in the Second Temple Period, edited by Hanne van Weissenberg, Juha Pakkala and Mark Marttila (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2011), 65; Allen, “Textual Pluriformity,” 103; Ulrich, “Our Sharper Focus,” 2.

[5] Allen, “Textual Pluriformity,” 45, n. 19; James Nati, Textual Criticism and the Ontology of Literature in Early Judaism: Ana Analysis of the Serekh Ha-Yahad, Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism, Vol. 198 (Leiden: Brill, 2021), 3; Brennan Breed, Nomadic Text: A Theory of Biblical Reception History (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2014), 22

[6] Ulrich, “Evolutionary Production,” 47: “Before the Dead Sea Scrolls…the prevailing view was that the composition of many biblical books was complete…and that those completed forms constituted “the original text…”. Also, Allen, “Textual Pluriformity,” 43: “Non-MT text families were regarded as secondary, sectarian, or…poor translations. The MT was the ‘inspired’ or ‘original’ text and was the textual witness that most closely reflected the possible Urtext in the mind of most scholars. This perspective continues to hold sway in some sectors of popular perceptions. However, the find of Qumran have forced a complete reconsideration of the textual evidence.”

[7] For detailed examples of the incontrovertible and persistent textual pluriformity of biblical texts, I highly recommend Eugene Ulrich’s The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Origins of the Bible (1999) and The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Developmental Composition of the Bible (2015).

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