No Fear Biblical Criticism: Lower Criticism & Textual Emendations

See the rest of this series here.

Lower Criticism is the study of the various texts of Tanakh in order to determine how the text has changed over time (as opposed to Higher Criticism which is concerned with determining who wrote the Torah and the like). This is done by comparing the text that Jews use today1, referred to as the Masoretic Text, with the Dead Sea Scrolls2, the Septuagint3, the Vulgate4, the Peshitta5, the Torah of the Samaritans6, the Aramaic Targumim7, and quotations from the Talmud. Comparison of these texts reveals words or letters that differ between the texts, presumably due to change over time. Based on this, some Biblical Critics have attempted to sift through the different versions and correct the Masoretic Text that we use today, or even to find the original texts of the Torah and the rest of Tanakh.

Different Differences

Most of the texts that are compared to our Torah’s text are translations, and thus comparison requires first translating the texts back into Hebrew, and then comparing them. At this point, the texts have been translated twice, so the accuracy of the text suffers somewhat, but is not beyond usefulness. While these texts have not revealed extreme differences — such as differing conceptions of God or the like — there are still differences8. While these could present a difficulty for an Orthodox Jew, they could also be dismissed as a function of translation errors, or as intentional mistranslations on the part of sectarians; i.e., perhaps the Qumran sects intentionally changed their Torah to fit their own views. What presents more difficulty, though, are the differences between the Tanakh text as we have it today, and the way Tanakh is quoted in the Talmud.

There are often differences in the quotations from Tanakh that the Talmud uses, and the text of Tanakh that we have it today. The first thing to note about this is that not every one of these differences indicates that the sages of the Talmud had a different text than we do. It’s also possible that somewhere in the years since the compilation of the Talmud, scribal errors were made in its transmission, and so what looks like a misquotation of Tanakh is actually a mistake in the text of our Talmud9. However, there are cases where it is clear from the discussion of the Talmud that the original quotations were in fact different from our text today.

Rambam’s Eighth Principle

The problem this presents for Orthodoxy is that most Orthodox Jews ascribe to Maimonides the Thirteen Principles of Faith, or thirteen statements of belief that a Jew must affirm. The Eight Principle is that the Torah that we have today is exactly the same as the Torah that was given to Moshe10. According to this, to admit to even slight changes between our texts today and those of the time of the Gemara, let alone before that, would be heresy. Thus, we are presented with a contradiction between the words of Rambam, and that which we see before our own eyes. However, salvation from this conundrum may be found if we extend our view beyond Rambam, to the other sages of the Jewish tradition11.

Rambam’s Eighth Principle expresses a very simple view of the text of the Torah12 which is problematic not only in terms of the texts as they existed, but also in terms of other Jewish opinions held by other great sages. One contradiction of this type is found in Masekhet Shabbat 55b. Tosafot comment there (s.v. ma’avirim ktiv): “הש״ס שלנו חולק על הספרים שלנו” or “Our Talmud argues on [read: contradicts] our Books [of Tanakh];” instead of denying or brushing aside the contradiction, Tosafot openly acknowledge its existence. R’ Akiva Eiger comments as well and, in his largest comment in all of the Talmud, lists the locations of every place in the Gemara where a quotation of Tanakh contradicts our text today. Rashba, in discussion of the various cases where our Talmud contradicts our Tanakh, suggests that there are times when it might be appropriate to actually amend our Torah text in order to match the quotations of the Gemara13. Chatam Sofer, by no means a liberal voice in the Jewish tradition, actually gives these contradictions as the reason why we do not make a berakhah when performing the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah14. These are only a few of the voices in the Jewish tradition that readily affirm the differences between the Talmud’s quotations of Tanakh and the Tanakh as we have it today.

However, there are also sources, before Rambam, that suggest such changes had occurred to the text of Tanakh. The Gemara in Masekhet Kiddushin 30a discusses the possibility of determining the exact midpoint of the Torah, and concludes that it cannot be done because, by the time that they were having the discussion, they had already forgotten the correct spellings of many of the words15.

There is also a midrash regarding the Torah that was used upon the return of Ezra HaSofer to Israel:

Jerusalem Talmud, Masekhet Ta’anit 4: 2:

Three books they found in the Temple court, the book ‘מעונ, the book זעטוטי, and the book היא. In the one they found written קדם א׳לוהי מעון and in the two they found written מעונה (Deut. 33: 27), and they upheld the two and set aside the one. In the one they found written ישראל בני זעטוטי את וישלח and in the two they found written וישלח את נערי בני ישראל (Exodus 24:5) and they upheld the two and set aside the one. In the one they found written nine times היא, and in the two they found written eleven times היא ,and they upheld the two and set aside the one16.

This midrash states that the text of Ezra’s Torah was actually composed by going with two out of three Torah scrolls on every occurrence of debate between them. While this is both logical and in accord with the halakhic principle of following the majority, the likelihood that our Torah, let alone our text today, is exactly what Moshe gave to Bnei Yisrael in the desert drops dramatically with each contradiction.

Earlier Intentional Changes

While these sources discuss forced or accidental changes, there are also sources that discuss the possibility that the text of the Torah was intentionally changed. Rashi makes a powerful statement on this matter in regard to the odd phrasing of a verse in Bereishit:

Rashi on Genesis 18:22:

ואברהם עודנו עומד לפני ה' וַהֲלֹא לֹא הָלַךְ לַעֲמוֹד לְפָנָיו, אֶלָּא הַקָּבָּ"ה בָּא אֶצְלוֹ וְאָמַר לוֹ, זַעֲקַת סְדוֹם וַעֲמוֹרָה כִּי רָבָּה וְהָיָה לוֹ לִכְתּוֹב "וַה' עוֹדֶנּוּ עוֹמֵד עַל אַבְרָהָם"? אֶלָּא תִּקּוּן סוֹפְרִים הוּא זֶה, (אֲשֶׁר הָפְכוּהוּ רַזִ"לִ לִכְתּוֹב כֵּן) (בראשית רבה)

ABRAHAM STOOD YET BEFORE THE LORD — But surely it was not he (Abraham) who had gone to stand before Him, but it was the Holy One, blessed be He, Who had come to him and had said to him, “Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great” and it should therefore have written here, “And the Lord stood yet before Abraham”? But it is a variation such as writers make to avoid an apparently irreverent expression (Genesis Rabbah 49) (which our Rabbis, of blessed memory, altered, writing it thus).

Rashi is saying that in order to demonstrate proper reverence to God, the scribes actually changed the text of the Torah. Moreover, this is not a local incident, as he uses this explanation in a variety of places throughout Tanakh17. An even bolder midrashic formulation, in a discussion of certain words throughout Tanakh that have dots above them, attributes words throughout the text to the authorship of Ezra.

Bamidbar Rabbah 3:14; Avot de-Rabbi Nathan 34:5:

Wherefore are the dots? Thus said Ezra: “If Elijah will come and say, why have you written these words? I shall say unto him: I have already put dots over them. And if he will say, thou has written well, I shall remove the dots over them.18

This midrash is saying that Ezra added these words to Tanakh, but because he was not certain that they belonged there he put dots over the words in order to make it obvious that they were his additions. This way, they could be removed if Eliyahu HaNavi determined them to be out of place. Thus, the midrash is suggesting that before the Gemara, before even the Dead Sea Scrolls of the Second Temple Period, Ezra had changed the text of the Torah.

Rambam’s Eight Principle flies in the face of all of these sources19, and the evidence we see with our own eyes. It is hard to state with confidence that we possess the exact same text, letter for letter, that Moshe had.

Resolving The Contradiction With Rambam

An interesting approach to this difficulty with Rambam was taken by the Seridei Eish, R’ Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg:

Fundamentals and Faith, 90-91:

Rambam knew very well that there variations existed when he defined his Principles. The words of Ani Ma’amin and the words of the Rambam, “The entire Torah in our possession today,” must not be taken literally, implying that all the letters of the present Torah are the exact letters given to Moshe Rabbeinu. Rather, it should be understood in a general sense that the Torah we learn and live by is for all intents and purposes the same Torah that was given to Moshe Rabbeinu.

This provides a more workable model for someone confronted with all of this evidence and source material. Rather than burying our heads in the sand and pretending that the Torah has never changed, we should simply appreciate that there have been no truly significant changes20, and that the Torah is for all intents and purposes the same as it was when Moshe gave it to Bnei Yisrael.

“Correcting” Our Text

This brings us to the discussion of textual emendations. While Lower Criticism is a field of study in and of itself, it also has ramifications for the interpretation of Tanakh. Critical Scholars often switch or remove words and letters that seem to them to be incorrect in order to create a text that reads more correctly to them. The Orthodox Tanakh Scholar Shemuel David Luzzato also used such critical methods in his commentary on the Torah. However, both this approach to textual interpretation and the attempt to find the “original text of the Tanakh” have received critiques from within Biblical Criticism.

In a study of a passage from Sefer Yehezkal, Moshe Greenberg argues that, regardless of which versions may be original, changing the Masoretic Text based on other versions often ignores and obliterates the brilliance of the text21. Critics often perceive “textual flaws” and, instead of looking for a deeper reason the text was written that way, simply change it to a reading they find more fitting. Greenberg argues that perceived defects in the text of Tanakh should be a springboard for a deeper investigation, as they often point the way to discovering the masterful artistry of Tanakh.

Meir Weiss argues similarly that most textual emendations are enacted based on faulty understandings of the text22. He says that most critics simply do not know enough about what the text should look like, and work off faulty assumptions about the nature of Biblical Poetry and Narrative.

Greenberg also argues against the idea that scholars can even determine the “original texts” of Tanakh, not because of the difficulty of the task, but because there is no such thing23. He argues that at any point at which there was a fully developed text of a book of Tanakh, there was multiple versions. He does make a caveat that the text of the Torah itself seems to have been concretized pretty early, but he still maintains that there were multiple versions. This final argument of Greenberg is complex from an Orthodox perspective — as it contradicts the idea that the Torah was given by God at Sinai — but it’s not incredibly difficult, nor impossible to work with. He also makes a similar statement regarding the books of Nevi’im and Ketuvim, but there is no principle of Faith in any part of Judaism that requires one to believe in the giving of a book of Nakh all together at one time. Jeremiah in fact suggests otherwise.

Jeremiah 36:2:

קַח־לְךָ מְגִלַּת־סֵפֶר וְכָתַבְתָּ אֵלֶיהָ אֵת כָּל־הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר־דִּבַּרְתִּי אֵלֶיךָ עַל־יִשְׂרָאֵל וְעַל־יְהוּדָה וְעַל־כָּל־הַגּוֹיִם מִיּוֹם דִּבַּרְתִּי אֵלֶיךָ מִימֵי יֹאשִׁיָּהוּ וְעַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה

Take you a scroll of a book, and write therein all the words that I have spoken to you against Israel, and against Judah, and against all the nations, from the day I spoke that to you, from the days of Josiah, even to this day.

Sefer Yirmiyahu seems to have been written more than once, at various stages of its development. Similarly, the Gemara suggests that Sefer Shemuel was written in parts by Shemuel HaNavi, Gad HaChozeh, and Natan the Prophet, and then all those were compiled to make Sefer Shemuel as we know it today24.

In short, we have a lot more flexibility in terms of how we understand the books of Nakh than we do in terms of how we understand the Torah.

Conclusion

When it comes to the Torah itself, Lower Criticism can tell us a lot about the nature of the text, but it cannot tell us what this information means. How the information is to be interpreted in terms of the text of Torah (or Nakh) is up to us. We can either hold tight to a strict interpretation of Rambam’s Eighth Principle, or we can accept the true nature of the text, and embrace the sages and sources that understood the text in this manner.


1. The oldest version of our text that exists today is known as the Aleppo Codex, written in the 10th century, and was used by Rambam as the basis for his Hilkhot Sefer Torah. For more, see here.

2. Tanakh texts from the Second Temple Period found hidden in caves in the Israeli desert area of Qumran, by the Dead Sea, thought to be written by jews of varying sects and then hidden from the Romans. For more, see here.

3. An early Greek translation discussed in Masekhet Megillah 9a-b. Of the fifteen deliberate mis-translations recorded there, only two are found in the Septuagint as we have it today. For more, see here.

4. An 4th-century Latin translation used by the Catholic Church. For more, see here.

5. An early Syriac translation that is likely from the second century. For more, see here.

6. The Samaritans were brought to Israel and settled in Samaria during the First Temple Period. They have their own traditions and a Torah that are similar to that of Rabbinic Judaism. For more, see here.

7. The most famous of these Aramaic translations are the Targum Onkelos on the Torah and the Targum Yonatan on Nevi’im and Ketuvim. For more, see here.

8. Kaiser, Walter (2001). The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable & Relevant?. InterVarsity Press. p. 48.

9. For more on this, see this shiur by Rabbi Jeremy Wieder, Rosh Yeshiva of YU.

10. For a rather different, and not mainstream, understanding of Rambam’s Eight Principle that does not contradict the evidence, see here.

11. I am indebted for many of the sources that follow to Marc Shapiro’s "The Limits Of Orthodox Theology". These sources and others can be found in the article that was later expanded into the book, which can be found , pages 10-21.

12. It is important to note that this principle is only referring to the Five Books of Moshe, not to all of Tanakh.

13. She’elot u-Teshuvot ha-Rashba ha-Meyuhasot le-Ramban (Warsaw, 1883), #232. See also Meiri to Kiddushin 30a, Kiryat Sefer, 57-58, and She’elot u-Teshuvot ha-Radbaz; #1020

14. She’elot u-Teshuvot Hatam Sofer, Orah Hayyim, #52

15. The form of spelling mistakes under discussion are what is called in Hebrew “מלא וחסר” or “plene and defective” in English. This is the spelling of words with or without extra letters that neither make a sound nor affect the meaning, rather they simply denote the sound is made by the vowel on that syllable.

16. Translation from Marc Shapiro, Op Cit. This midrash is also found in Sifre Piska 356., Masekhet Soferim 6:4, and Avot D’Rabbi Natan, Ed. S. Schechter, (Vienna, 1887), Recension B, chapter 46, p. 65a;

17. See Note 140 in the article by Marc Shapiro cited above in note 10. It seems that this is not necessarily the correct interpretation of the midrashic phrase “תיקון סופרים,” or “Emendation of the Scribes,” but it is how Rashi understood it. For more on the proper interpretation, see this article by Avrohom Lieberman.

18. Translation from Marc Shapiro, Op Cit.

19. This is without even going into the discussion of the last eight verses of the Torah, a view from the Gemara that Rambam seemingly would have qualified as heretical.

20. The only real ramifications are for the midrashic approach where every letter is of the utmost significance, which is beyond the scope of this discussion. Two quick points that should be mentioned: 1. This approach is not to be considered totally unusable, but it does have to be understood in light of this whole discussion. 2. There has always been a second midrashic school which did not place ultimate value on each and every letter.

21. Greenberg’s article can be found here.

22. See “The Bible From Within: The Total Interpretation Method”

23. Greenberg, Op Cit.

24. Masekhet Baba Batra, 15a

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