Persistent Pluriformity of Prebiblical Texts (3)

Implications of Dead Sea Scrolls Pluriformity

While there was no “the Bible” during the Second Temple period, the state of the texts that would eventually be included in the Hebrew Bible, and later in the Christian Old Testament, was one of pluriformity. This reality has significant implications for: (1) the importance of every form of the prebiblical texts and text families; (2) the authority and canonization of Jewish and Christian scripture; (3) for the goals of biblical textual criticism; (4) the doctrines of inerrancy and inspiration; and (5) translation and exegesis. As Ulrich states, “The new evidence provided by the Scrolls, much older and much closer to the origins of Judaism and Christianity, requires a paradigm shift. We must start with our old categories and questions, but we must let the Scrolls correct our vision toward newly refined categories and more precise questions.”[1] In the remaining sections of this chapter, we will discuss some “newly refined categories” and entertain “more precise questions.”

Persistent Pluriformity as Evidenced by Ancient Translations

From the last few centuries BCE through the first few centuries CE, the prebiblical texts were translated into various languages, “the most important of which are Greek, Aramaic, Syriac, Latin, and Arabic.”[2] These translations were very important since very few people actually were able to read Hebrew in the latter half of the Second Temple period.  The Greek (initially) and the Aramaic translations were especially important for Judaism, as were the Greek and Latin translations for nascent and early Christianity.  These translations, today, are important for reconstructing the Hebrew parent texts which can tell us something about the nature of the Hebrew texts at the time of translation. That is because the earliest Greek versions of the Hebrew Bible are centuries older than the oldest complete Hebrew versions.

Before considering each of the most important early translations, there is the need for some clarity regarding what a translation is and what evidence it might or might not reveal about its parent text or Vorlage. First of all, that particular texts were translated was a clear indication of their importance (authority) within the groups who made and/or utilized those translations. Only a small minority of people were literate to start with and even less were sufficiently multilingual to be able to translate from one language to another. Precious time, money and limited human resources would not have been spent on insignificant texts. For example, the first books to be translated from Hebrew to Greek (in the mid-3rd century BCE), were the five that make up the Torah. As Ulrich notes, “Again, this unprecedented fact of translation may be a strong indicator that the Torah had become regarded as authoritative Scripture. … These texts concerned not only the past; they were in some way authoritative for guiding the people’s life and thinking about the present and the future.”[3]

Secondly, these translations demonstrate significant differences when compared to the Hebrew texts we possess. The question must be asked and then attempts must be made to determine, as much as possible, whether these differences are the result of unconscious translator errors, conscious translator changes (additions, deletions, etc.), or variants present in the Hebrew parent texts. Given the evidence of the DSS that there were variant Hebrew versions of many prebiblical texts circulating during the Second Temple period, it would be fair to assume that at least some of these differences represent differences in the translators’ parent texts–that is, that the translators were doing their best to translate from their parent texts as accurately as possible and thus clearly demonstrate the pluriformity of Hebrew texts which existed. Thirdly, since all translation involves interpretation, whatever the explanations offered for the variants, these differences also could be indicative of predominate theologies at the time of translation. In other words, the translators understood the meaning of the Hebrew text in a certain way and thus were influenced to translate in a way that made the most theological sense to their intended audiences. As Molly Zahn so succinctly notes, “[A]ll translation requires countless interpretive decisions in order to negotiate the inevitable distance between the linguistic and cultural context of the source text and that of the translation. … [Thus] translators must also make myriad decisions concerning grammar, syntax, meter, tone, register, readability, and on and on.” [4] To relegate these translations to some kind of imaginatively recreated “original” Hebrew text because of the significant differences that exist demonstrates ignorance of the challenges of translation and is insulting of the abilities and integrity of these translators. We must take these translations seriously, as did the early Christians, and consider them objectively as representative of the pluriformity of Second Temple period Hebrew versions of the prebiblical texts.


[1] Eugene Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Developmental Composition of the Bible, VTSup (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 15.

[2] Tov, Textual Criticism, 115.

[3] Ulrich, Developmental Composition, 8.

[4] Zahn, Genres of Rewriting, 140.

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