The Implications of Persistent Biblical Pluriformity (1)

Everything presented thus far points to the reality that the prebiblical and, later biblical, texts all existed in pluriformity, whether considered synchronically or diachronically. As one goes back in time, the story of their origins does not become less complex but rather more. Evidence for the persistent pluriformity of the books that were later included in various canons of Jewish and Christian Scripture is undeniable and cannot simply be ignored or explained away, though many still do try. This reality has significant implications for biblical interpretation and for developing theological perspectives that are based on these scriptural anthologies. And these implications are revolutionary in that they cannot be folded into existing hermeneutical and theological paradigms. In the remaining sections of this chapter the implications of persistent pluriformity will be explored regarding: (1) the search for the “originals;” (2) the doctrines of inerrancy and divine inspiration; (3) the validity of the “canonical approach;” and (5) the integrity of the “Christological lens.”  The chapter will close with a plea for biblical scholars and theologians to clearly declare their presuppositions when teaching and writing.

Persistent Pluriformity and the Search for the Urtext

Persistent pluriformity makes it quite clear that either: (1) there never was an original manuscript of any biblical text; or (2) the task of recovering an original manuscript is mission impossible. The discovery of the DSS has caused many textual critics and biblical scholars to reject the idea of finding enough evidence to enable a confident recreation of the original because they have decided there is no textual evidence that points to an original; not now, not ever. The evidence for pluriformity is creating a revolution of thought and the need for a paradigm shift which some welcome and embrace and others continue to resist. Ulrich states, “In short, the seemingly unified Hebrew Bible, as its origins and composition are explored, appears more diverse the further back one goes. The text during its early centuries was not a single static object but a pluriform and organically developing entity.[1] In other words, ancient pluriformity does not lead to an urtext for each biblical book but that from the earliest writings each book existed simultaneously in different forms.  

Numerous scholars, who have spent, collectively, hundreds of years in intensive study of the history of the biblical texts, have written extensively and conclusively in the last thirty years that, in essence, the search for biblical urtexts is a chimera.[2] Breed refers to “the original text–or one of it aliases, such as authoritative copy, archetype, or final form”–as a “phantasm” which “only constructs borders where there were none before.”[3]

A little history, for the uninitiated, on the debate regarding a biblical urtext might be clarifying. Paul de Lagarde was a German biblical scholar (1827–1891) to whom can be traced the Urtext theory which proposes “a single text diversifying over time into several text forms,”[4] thus moving “from an initial uniformity to a final pluriformity.”[5] Numerous eminent textual critics of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have regarded the Urtext theory as untenable.[6] In contrast to de Legarde and his theory stands Paul Kahle (1875–1964), also a German scholar, and his Vulgärtexte hypothesis. He “concluded that an initial pluriformity moved successively to a uniformity; that is, the biblical text was edited to conform to a standard imposed upon it by powerful scribes and political figures.”[7] Since the publication of the material from Qumran Cave 4 in the early 1990s even Emanuel Tov “has been a major voice in the discussion of textual pluriformity.”[8]

Academic generosity would grant that prior to the manuscript discoveries of the last 75 years, support for de Legarde’s Urtext theory was based on a very limited access to, a not nearly as ancient, textual history, and was highly influenced by the belief that God was decisively involved in the origins, the transmission and, in some cases, even the translation of these texts.[9] Once again, it was the discovery and study of manuscripts that predated the previously available Hebrew corpus by almost one thousand years that has come to undermine de Legarde’s theory. To continue to hold to the Urtext theory and “the quest for ‘the original text’ is naïve in the extreme.”[10]

The reality of persistent pluriformity in the history of the biblical texts raises the question of what the goal of textual criticism is. In the past, and for some still today, the goal is to reconstruct the original text of each biblical book. For others, who have embraced the evidence, the paradigm shift is that the goal is “the analysis of differences among texts, the investigation of the significance of those differences, and in some cases, the determination of which textual variant is better or preferable though it may not be original.”[11] These latter textual critics emphasize that one textual tradition cannot be privileged as the original or, even, most original over any other. What applies to the past is also true of the present: the biblical texts we read today, whether in biblical Hebrew/Aramaic, Koine Greek or in modern translations, are still in process and not a final product. Thus, one cannot be promoted as closer to the original and thus somehow more trustworthy.[12] This means not only was there no “original” text to be privileged over another, but also that there is no “final form” that can be privileged over another. As will be seen, this has significant implications for attempts to formulate a uniform “biblical theology.”

I agree wholeheartedly with Law when he states that even though many modern Christians are consumed with the search for the “original,” the earliest rabbis, church fathers and followers of Jesus had no such “theological anxiety,” but embraced the diversity of the copies of their authoritative texts as an “opportunity to learn” and apparently were complete unconcerned about finding the “original.”[13]


[1] Ulrich, Developmental Composition, 1-2.

[2] Breed, Nomadic Text, 33, reads: “From what we can deduce about the history of the text, however, this moment is a chimera. There is no naturally occurring, hermetically sealed moment of pure textual presence, and it is probably not useful to posit an ideal moment in lieu of an actual one.” Nati, Textual Criticism, 28-29, references Breed, “This has been precipitated most sharply, in my view, by the recognition that both the Urtext and the “final form” of given biblical books are, in Breed’s words, “a chimera.”

[3] Breed, Nomadic Text, 52. It was encouraging that as I was proofreading this chapter ( on Aug. 18, 2022), a new article from Professor Carol A. Newsom was posted on https://www.thetorah.com/, titled “There Was Never One Version of the Bible.”

[4] Ulrich, Text of the Hebrew Scriptures, 93.

[5] Tsedaka and Sullivan, The Israelite Samaritan Version, Kindle ed., Loc 253.

[6] See Debel, “Rewritten Bible,” 67-68.

[7] Tsedaka and Sullivan, The Israelite Samaritan Version, Kindle ed., Loc 253.

[8] Nati, Literature in Early Judaism, 15-16.

[9] See Ulrich, “The Text of the Hebrew Scriptures,” 92, 94: “But the problem is not the scrolls, but rather (a) the presuppositions of scholars and students, and (b) the theories regarding the history of the biblical text.” and “…it would seem that religious convictions might incline scholars to assume the Urtext theory: i.e., that the purified biblical text is ultimately God’s word, and the diverse manuscripts we have attest to the errors that human scribes have allowed to penetrate it.”

[10] Ulrich, “The Text of the Hebrew Scriptures,” 86.

[11] Berlin and Brettler, “Textual Criticism of the Bible,” 2068. See also Breed, The Nomadic Text, 67; Würthwein, The Text of the Old Testament, 167-168; Ulrich, “Our Sharper Focus,” 17; etc.

[12] Breed, The Nomadic Text, 17: “In light of the synchronic pluriformity discovered in the Qumran manuscripts and the diachronic diversity within each textual tradition, how might one argue that one manuscript of one textual tradition is naturally privileged as the original?” See also David Clines, “The Pyramid and the Net,” 147.

[13] Law, When God Spoke Greek, 168.

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