The Need for Textual Criticism
Sherlock Holmes said, “There is nothing like first-hand evidence.”1 Unfortunately, the original documents (technically called “autographs”) of the Old Testament books all perished due to time and natural causes. But they did not disappear before scribes copied them, and then later scribes copied those copies, and on and on. We, therefore, possess only copies of the originals. And what is more, our copies differ to varying degrees when compared to one another. Almost every ancient book is in this situation: the original is lost and only different manuscript copies remain. However, through the discipline of textual criticism, we can have a high degree of certainty as to the content of the original Old Testament manuscripts.
Avid English Bible readers have already encountered the differences in our manuscripts. Most have seen the solid line that appears after Mark 16:8 or John 7:52 with a note saying something like “This passage does not appear in (some of) the earliest manuscripts.” Most differences between manuscripts are not as notorious. But English Bibles do often indicate the important differences or variants between manuscripts in their footnotes.
Textual criticism is a discipline that seeks to recover the original wording of an ancient book by examining the remaining ancient copies of that book. Our “first-hand evidence,” therefore, consists of Hebrew manuscripts and important ancient translations (or versions) in the Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Aramaic languages. We refer to these manuscripts and versions as “witnesses,” asking them what they can tell us about the history of the text of the Hebrew Bible.
Practicing Textual Criticism
In 1 Samuel 17:4, several English translations report that Goliath stood six cubits and a span, or about nine feet nine inches tall. And the ESV, for example, includes a footnote after “six” saying, “Hebrew; Septuagint, Dead Sea Scroll and Josephus four.” This note indicates that the Hebrew has “six,” while other sources report a shorter Goliath, at four cubits and a span, or six feet nine inches tall. The former is a real giant; the latter is shorter than Shaquille O’Neal and many other people. Most readers may not know what terms such as “Hebrew” or “Septuagint” mean in the English Bible footnotes, and fewer still realize how difficult the decision between “six” and “four” is. Which reading is right? Let’s analyze the sources and then ask how each reading probably arose.
Sources on Goliath’s height
Reading: “six cubits and a span”
Witnesses: MT; the Three; Vulgate; Peshitta; Targum
Reading: “four cubits and a span”
Witnesses: 4QSama; LXXB L; Josephus, Antiquities 6.171
The MT and its normal witnesses support the nine-feet-nine-inches Goliath. Since the Three, the Vulgate, the Peshitta, and the Targum usually agree with the MT, nothing stands out as abnormal. One of the Dead Sea Scrolls and some important Greek manuscripts along with the testimony of Josephus present Goliath as six feet nine inches tall. There are two options for how these readings arose: (1) an unintentional scribal mistake or (2) an intentional scribal change.
If we suggest that the original reading was four cubits, then a scribe’s eye could have skipped to verse 7, to the place where Goliath’s spear head is said to weigh “six hundred shekels.” Perhaps the scribe anticipated copying the “six hundred” in verse 7 and then copied “six cubits” instead of “four” in verse 4. But that explanation requires the scribe’s eye to skip farther down the column than normal for this kind of mistake. Thus, could this instance be a type of exegetical or free copying?
Let’s suppose still that the original reading was “four cubits” and that a scribe intentionally changed it to “six cubits.” Why? This change would have made David’s victory over Goliath far more impressive. But could this explanation work in the other direction, from six to four cubits? Yes. Why would a scribe shrink Goliath? A six-nine Goliath (still tall by ancient standards) probably matched Saul’s own physical stature (note that 1 Sam. 9:2 describes Saul as taller than his countrymen). Thus, in this case, a scribe might have been further underscoring Saul’s lack of courage by pitting him, a tall man, against an enemy closer to his own height.2
We cannot be certain of the original text here. Although the six-nine Goliath has the earlier and perhaps better external evidence, the nine-nine Goliath is probably more likely original because a later scribe probably found a contextual reason (1 Sam. 9:2) to shorten Goliath to six nine. This problem doesn’t influence theology, but it can affect our reading of the narrative and certainly affects the depictions of Goliath in our children’s ministry curricula, depending on which reading we choose.
God providentially superintended the preservation of his revelation through the normal arduous work of ancient scribes and translators.
A Beautiful Textual Mosaic
Varied witnesses tell the story of the Old Testament text. However, we don’t need to despair over this situation. Rather, we should hear all of the witnesses that Providence has preserved for us in these diverse ways and texts so that we can appreciate the various contours and lines contributing to the beautiful textual mosaic that we have. God providentially superintended the preservation of his revelation through the normal arduous work of ancient scribes and translators. Some scribes were more careful than others. Some translators produced more literal translations, while others created more dynamic ones. Some scribes intervened more than others in the copying process. God used all of these normal human means to pass down his word faithfully.
Textual criticism allows us to appreciate this complex and beautiful textual mosaic, and also to restore the original wording of the text. Textual critics continue to work hard today in many areas of the biblical text’s history, and fundamentally, their work provides pastors, teachers, and Bible translators with the most reliable wording of the text so that they can faithfully communicate the word of God to his people.
- Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles, A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, Everyman’s Library (New York: Knopf, 2014), 36.
- Benjamin J. M. Johnson, “Reconsidering 4QSamaand the Textual Support for the Long and Short Versions of the David and Goliath Story,” Vetus Testamentum 62 (2012): 534–49.
This article is adapted from Scribes and Scripture: The Amazing Story of How We Got the Bible by John D. Meade and Peter J. Gurry.
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