1902 Encyclopedia > Bible > Further History of the Old Testament Canon in the Jewish Church

(Part 7)


Further History of the Old Testament Canon in the Jewish Church

Under this head we confine ourselves to points which lead up to the reception of the Old Testament by Christendom. These are mainly two:—(1), the history of the Hebrew text, which we now possess only in the recension established by Jewish scribes at a time later than the Christian era; (2), the history of those versions which arose among Jews, but have influenced Christendom.

(a) The Text of the Old Testament

The Consonantal Text

Semitic alphabets have no full provision for distinguishing vowels, and the oldest writing, before orthography became fixed, was negligent in the use even of such vowel-letters as exist. For a long time, then, not only during the use of the old Phoenician character, but even after the more modern square or Babylonian letters were adopted, the written text of the Bible was consonantal only, leaving a certain scope for variety of pronunciation and sense. But even the consonantal text was not absolutely fixed. The loose state of the laws of spelling and the great similarity of several letters, made errors of copying frequent. The text of Micah, for example, is often unintelligible, and many hopeless errors are older than the oldest versions.

Plurality of Recensions

But up to the time of the Alexandrian version, MSS. Were in circulation which differed not merely by greater or less accuracy of transcription, but by presenting such difference of recension as could not arise by accident. The Greek text of Jeremiah is vastly different from that of the Hebrew Bible, and it is not certain that the latter is always best. In the books of Samuel the Greek enables us to correct many blunders of the Hebrew text, but shows at the same time that copyists used great freedom with details of the text. For the Pentateuch we have, in the copies of the Samaritans, a third recension often but not always closely allied to the Greek. The three recensions show important variations in the chronology of Genesis; and it is remarkable that the Book of Jubilees, a Jewish treatise, which cannot be much older than the Christian era, perhaps not much older than the destruction of the Jewish state, sometimes agrees with the Samaritan or with the Alexandrian recension. Up to this time, then, there was no absolutely received text.

Received or Massoretic Text

But soon after the Christian era all this was changed, and by a process which we cannot follow in detail, a single recension became supreme. The change was, no doubt, connected with the rise of an overdrawn and fantastic system of interpretation, which found lessons in the smallest peculiarity of the text; but Legarde has made it probable than no critical process was used to fix the standard recension, and that all existing MSS. are derived from a single archetype, which was followed even in its marks of deletion and other accidental peculiarities. (Legarde, Anmerkn. zur griech. Uebersetzung der Prov., 1863, p. 1; cf. Nöldeke in Hilgenfeld’s Zeitschr., 1873, p. 445.) Then the received text became the object of farther care, and the Massorets, or "possessors of tradition" with regard to the text, handed down a body of careful directions as to the true orthography and pronunciation.

Vowel Points

The latter was fixed by the gradual invention of subsidiary marks for the vowels, &c., an invention developed in slightly divergent forms in the Babylonian and Palestinian schools of Jewish scholarship. The vowel points were not known to Jerome, but the system was complete before the 9th century, presumably several hundred years before that time. All printed Bibles follow the Western punctuation, but old Karaite MSS, with the Babylonian vowels exist, and are now in course of publication. It is from the Massoretic text, with Massoretic punctuation, that the English version and most Protestant translations are derived. Older Christian versions, so far as they are based on the Hebrew at all (Jerome’s Latin, Syriac), at least follow pretty closely the received consonantal text.

(b) Jewish Versions

Versions of the Old Testament became necessary partly because the Jews of the Western Dispersion adopted the Greek language, partly because even in Palestine the Old Hebrew was gradually supplanted by Aramaic.


The chief seat of the Hellenistic Jews was in Egypt, and here arose the Alexandrian version, commonly known as the Septuagint or Version of the LXX., from a fable that it was composed, with miraculous circumstances, by seventy-two Palestinian scholars summoned to Egypt by Ptolemy Philadelphus. In reality there can be no doubt that the version was gradually completed by several authors and at different times. The whole is probably older than the middle of the 2nd century B.C. We have already seen that the text that lay before the translators was in many parts not that of the present Hebrew. The execution is by no means uniform; and, though there are many good renderings, the defects are so numerous that the Greek-speaking Jews, as well as the large section of the Christian church which long depended directly or indirectly on this version, were in many places quite shut out from a right understanding of the Old Testament. Nevertheless, the authority of the version was very great, its inspiration was often asserted, and its interpretation exercised a great influence on Jewish and Christian thought, though among the Jews it was to a certain extent displaced by the version of the proselyte Aquila (2nd century of our era), which followed with slavish exactness the latter of the Hebrew text.


Among the Jews who spoke Aramaic, translations into the vernacular accompanied, instead of supplanting the use of the original text, which was read and then orally paraphrased in the synagogues by interpreters to Methurgemanim, who used great freedom of embellishment and application. This practice naturally led to the formation of written Targums, or Aramaic translations, which have not, however, reached us in at all their earliest form. It used, indeed, to be supposed that the simple and literal Targum of Onkelos on the Pentateuch was earlier than the time of Christ. But recent inquires have been led to see in it, and in the linguistically cognate Targum on the Prophets (Targum of Jonathan), products of the Babylonian schools, in which the freedom of the early paraphrastic method was carefully avoided. Upon this view the date of these Targums is some centuries after the Christian era. On the other hand, an older style of paraphrase is preserved in the Palestinian Targums, which nevertheless contain in their present form elements later than the Babylonian versions. The Targum of Pseudo-Jonathan on the Pentateuch is apparently the latest form of the free Palestinian version, full of legendary adornments and other additions to the text. Other fragments of Palestinian translation, known as the Jerusalem Targum, and referring to individual passages of the Pentateuch and Prophets, probably represent an earlier stage in the growth of the Aramaic versions. There are also Targums on the Hagiographa, which, however, have less importance, and do not seem to have had so changeful a history. The Targums as a whole do not offer much to the textual critic. They are important, partly from the insight they give into an early and in part pre-Christian exegesis, partly from their influence on later Jewish expositors, and through them on Christian versions and expositions. In some cases the literal or Babylonian Targums have a text differing from the Massoretic. But it is not unlikely that if we had a satisfactory text of the Targums (towards which almost nothing has hitherto been done), these variations would find their explanation in the Eastern text and the Assyrian punctuation.

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