Persistent Pluriformity of the Biblical Texts

Persistent Pluriformity as Evidenced by Modern Texts and Translations

How does the fact that the ancient manuscripts which textual critics analyze are pluriform in nature impact the choice or reconstruction of Hebrew/Aramaic and Greek texts for use today? There is no “original” or even “initial” text for any book included in Jewish or Christian canons of scripture. Also, almost all of the most ancient manuscripts are at least somewhat fragmentary, and some quite so. How do textual critics reconstruct a trustworthy scholarly edition of the text of any canonical book from which biblical scholars can exegete and/or translate? Ernst Würthwein states, “There are basically two editorial methods to be distinguished, known as the eclectic (selective) and the diplomatic (exact reproduction) principles.”[1]

The eclectic method is an effort to determine what are the best readings from all available manuscripts and thus create an eclectic text. Such a text, however, does not represent an actual manuscript or even a particular text group of manuscripts, but is the result of a plethora of scholarly decisions resulting in a “(re)constructed text.” A diplomatic edition is based on the choice of “the most reliable manuscript” and is the result of scholarly efforts to reproduce that specific text as faithfully as possible.[2] For the Tanakh, as well as many of the better known and most often used versions of the Christian Old Testament, the translators have used a diplomatic edition based on the MT which is, specifically, a modern edition of the 1008 CE Leningrad Codex.[3] The question Ulrich raises is pertinent and worthy of an answer from those translators who utilize the MT as their textus receptus for modern translations of the Hebrew scriptures:

One may respectfully ask why Christians should use “the text established in the eighth/ninth centuries AD by Jewish scholars except where that text “presents insuperable difficulties,” when even Jews at the time of the birth of Christianity did not regard those texts as superior and when we do have alternate manuscripts and translations that preserve superior writings?[4]

For the New Testament, translators use an eclectic edition, such as the Nestle-Aland 27th Edition or The Greek New Testament published by the United Bible Societies. But whether the base text is an eclectic or diplomatic edition, these are revised texts, which, at least to some degree in the eclectic editions, are created by examining and comparing virtually all available ancient manuscripts. Thus, there is no Hebrew/Aramaic or Greek text that is an exact copy of one specific ancient manuscript. The various Hebrew/Aramaic and Greek texts that are read and studied today exist in pluriformity because scholars make different choices about which readings of which manuscripts are the most reliable.

Most readers of the biblical texts today read from and reflect on translations, not from the ancient languages. These translations also exist in pluriformity because the extant ancient manuscripts exist in pluriformity.  In addition, translation requires interpretation and the Bibles that are consistently being published perpetuate, and even add to, modern day biblical pluriformity. While many translations are largely similar or at least highly comparable, consider the KJV, the ASV and/or the NRSV as compared with the Good News Bible, the Living Bible and/or The Message. Yet, most believers think that whatever translation (or paraphrase) they are reading and reflecting upon are the words written–or at least the meaning intended–by the presumed initial authors of these texts–Moses, David, Solomon, Jeremiah, John or Paul–two to three thousand years ago. However, the reality is that the revision of the biblical texts did not end in the second century CE for the Jews or the end of the fourth century for the Christians, but revision has continued throughout the centuries with every manuscript copied, every reconstruction of the biblical texts from those pluriform manuscripts, every edition published, and every version translated. As Breed notes,

“Biblical texts remain open to change even now. Textual critics, for example, are busy creating new forms of the texts to represent older ones. … Thus, text critics, ostensibly looking for the original text, alter the construction of the stabilized text. … The point is this: the text is not yet done changing, because it continues to be read, copied, edited, and studied. The concept of telos seems unhelpful here.”[5]

Added to these expressions of pluriformity among the texts of the Old and New Testaments, is the reality that there still remains a pluriformity of canons with respect to the Old Testament.[6] Unfortunate is the reality that most modern readers of the Bible consider the canon of their particular denomination to be the only “God anointed canon” and that all the other canons have either taken away from or added to what the author of 2 Timothy held as “sacred writings” when he stated, “All Scripture is God breathed” (3:14-17).[7] For example, most Protestants, especially conservative and fundamentalist evangelicals, believe and speak as if the sixty-six books of the Protestant canon were the exact ones, and the only ones, that the author of 2 Timothy had in mind.


[1] Würthwein, The Text of the Old Testament, 46 (author’s emphasis).

[2] Würthwein, Text of the Old Testament, 47.

[3] For examples, see the Prefaces of (1) the JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh, 1999, (2) the New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version, 2010, (3) the New International Version, 1984, and (4) the NET Bible, 2005.

[4] Ulrich, Our Sharper Focus, 16.

[5] Breed, Nomadic Text, 22, 23.

[6] See McDonald, The Biblical Canon, Appendix B, Table B-4: Current Canons of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, 442-444.

[7] This passage with be discussed further in a later section of this chapter. Also I will offer an alternative translation of this passage which I and others are convinced is grammatically justified and more contextually consistent in a future article.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: