Why can we have confidence that the Hebrew manuscripts reflect the original writings?
The process of textual criticism for the Old Testament (OT) involves comparing various ancient translations of the Hebrew text to the standard known as the Masoretic Text (MT). This differs drastically from the procedure for New Testament manuscripts.
Nevertheless, scholars regard the Hebrew Bible based upon the Leningrad Codex—known as the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS)—as an exemplary reflection of manuscripts dating back to 100 AD, especially for the Pentateuch.
In 1947, a shepherd searching for a lost member of his flock discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) in a cave. These texts largely confirm the Masoretic Text’s reliability. They contain all of the OT, with the exception of the book of Esther, and they date back to the third century BC.
Where significant differences do exist, most Bibles provide an explanatory footnote (see the paragraph in brackets in 1 Sam 10:27–11:2 in some English translations, which comes from 4QSam of the DSS).
Old Testament scholars consider the text of Gen 15:2 problematic. The issue regards the identity of the man whom Abram names in his complaint to God. Does “the son of acquisition of my house, Eliezer of Damascus” reflect the original writing?
Since the process which Bible scholars call OT textual criticism is fairly complicated, we’ll walk together through an examination of the identity of Abram’s heir in the tables below.
The first of these table cites various ancient Hebrew translations, while the second table consists of Greek translations, and the third lists Aramaic, Syriac, and Latin texts.
Column A of the first table contains the information for the Masoretic Text, which is the standard for our OT. At the bottom of each page, we have the date of the translations as well as whether they arose independently from the MT.
The center row identifies how each manuscript deviates from the Masoretic Text. Those entries which affirm the reliability of the MT appear in bold.
Column B does not help us, as this verse does not appear in Qumran’s Dead Sea Scrolls. If it did— and were identical to the MT—our decision would be simpler due to the early date of the DSS (250 BC–68 AD).
However, we do have a strong witness from the Qumran era in the Samaritan Pentateuch (Column C). Although the earliest manuscripts date to the 12th century AD, the tradition formed independently of the MT in the second century BC.
Overall, this page supports the Masoretic text.
|Biblia Hebraica||Dead Sea Scrolls||Samaritan Pentateuch||Samaritan Torah|
|Stuttgartensia||von Gall ed.||Shoulson|
|וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אַבְרָ֗ם אֲדֹנָ֤י יֱהוִה֙ מַה־תִּתֶּן־לִ֔י וְאָנֹכִ֖י הוֹלֵ֣ךְ עֲרִירִ֑י וּבֶן־מֶ֣שֶׁק בֵּיתִ֔י ה֖וּא דַּמֶּ֥שֶׂק אֱלִיעֶֽזֶר׃||missing||ויאמר אברמ אדני יהוה מה תתן לי ואנכי הלך עררי ובנ משׁק ביתי הוא דמשק אליעזר||ויאמר אברמ אדני יהוה מה תתן לי ואנכי הלך עררי ובנ משׁק ביתי והוא דמשק אליעזר|
|Masoretic Text (MT)||identical to MT||adds “and”|
|And Abram said, “O Lord God,what will you give to me, but I[am] going childless, and the son of acquisition of my house, he [is] Eliezer of Damascus.”||And Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give to me, but I [am] going childless, and the son of acquisition of my house, he is Eliezer of Damascus.”||And Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give to me, but I [am] going childless, and the son of acquisition of my house, AND he is Eliezer of Damascus.”|
|dated 1008 from @100 AD||250 BC to 68 AD||12th cent/trad to 2nd BC||12th cent/trad to 2nd BC|
|Masoretic tradition||not dependent on Masoretic tradition||not dependent on Masoretic tradition|
Table 1. Hebrew and Samaritan texts of Gen 15:2
Moving on to the next table, we see various Greek translations of the OT (the Septuagint). They change the picture considerably, for they originated in the second century BC.
Significantly, a more recent translation by the German Bible Society based upon a compilation of the most reliable Greek manuscripts parallels the Masoretic Text (Column E).
When considering the Greek translations, Origen’s Hexapla (ca. 230–240 AD) provides extremely valuable information. Origen compiled five common Greek translations, including the Septuagint (Column H).
His version matches the Codex Vaticanus. However, next to these Greek translations, Origen listed the Hebrew text of Gen 15:2 which was available to him. That Hebrew exactly matches the Masoretic Text from 1008 AD!
|German Bible Society||Göttingen||Swete Cambridge||Origen Hexapla|
|Abram sprach aber: HERR, mein Gott, was willst du mir geben? Ich gehe dahin ohne Kinder und mein Knecht Eliëser von Damaskus wird mein Haus besitzen||λέγει δὲ Αβραμ Δέσποτα, τί μοι δώσεις; ἐγὼ δὲ ἀπολύομαι ἄτεκνος· ὁ δὲ υἱὸς Μασεκ τῆς οἰκογενοῦς μου, οὗτος Δαμασκὸς Ελιεζερ.||λέγει δὲ Αβραμ Δέσποτα, τί μοι δώσεις; ἐγὼ δὲ ἀπολύομαι ἄτεκνος· ὁ δὲ υἱὸς Μασεκ τῆς οἰκογενοῦς μου, οὗτος Δαμασκὸς Ελιεζερ.||ὁ δὲ υἱὸς Μασεκ τῆς οἰκογενοῦς μου/וּבֶן־מֶ֣שֶׁק בֵּיתִ֔י|
|identical to MT||identical to MT|
|Abram said, “Lord God, what will you give me? I go childless, and my servant Eliezer of Damasacus will own my house||And Abram said, Master [and] Lord, what wilt thou give me? whereas I am departing without a child, but the son of Masek my home-born female slave, this Eliezer of Damascus||And Abram said, Master [and] Lord, what wilt thou give me? whereas I am departing without a child, but the son of Masek my home-born female slave, this Eliezer of Damascus||Greek says, “And the son of Masek my home-born female slave”/Hebrew as in MT|
|4th/5th Century AD||based on best avail||4th century AD||230-240 AD|
|text revision like NA28||textual evidence||Codex Vaticanus||Hebrew as in MT|
Table 2. Greek Translations and Origen’s Greek and Hebrew parallels of Gen 15:2
|But Abram said, “Lord God, you have given me much, and there is (still) much before you to give me. But what benefit do I have, since I pass from the world childless, and Eliezer, the manager of my house, at whose hand miracles have been performed for me in Damascus, expects to be my heir?”||And Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I will die childless, and Eliezer of Damascus, one of my household, will be my heir?”||w)m_r )brm, mry) )lh), mn) ttl ly, d)n) ).zl )n) dl) b:nyn, w)ly(zr drmwsqy) br byty h_w/#3#/ yrt: ly,||dixitque Abram Domine Deus quid dabis mihi ego vadam absque liberis et filius procuratoris domus meae iste Damascus Eliezer|
|rather than “a son”||identical to MT|
|Abram said, “Master God, what [will you] give to me, the one who goes without child, and Eliezer the Damascene, he [is] to inherit.”||And Abram said: Lord God, what wilt thou give me? I shall go without children: and the son of the steward of my house is this Damascus Eliezer.|
|TargumOnkelos||5th century AD||1st century AD tradition||390-405 AD|
|plus commentary||Codex Ambrosianus||mss from 5th cent AD||trans from Hebrew|
Table 3. Aramaic, Syriac, and Latin translations of Gen 15:2
Image via Wikimedia Commons
After examining all this evidence, how would you identify the man whom Abram cited as his heir in Gen 15:2? How can you support your position?
Ernst Würthwein, The Text of the Old Testament, 2nd Ed. (Erroll F. Rhodes; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 36–7.
John J. Collins, “Dead Sea Scrolls,” Anchor Bible Dictionary, 2: 89–101, 89.
Alan D. Crown, Samaritan Scribes and Manuscripts (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001), 5.
Mark Shoulson, The Torah: Jewish and Samaritan Versions Compared (Mhaig, Ireland: Evertype, 2008), 34–5.
Alan England Brooke and Norman McClean, eds, The Old Testament in Greek According to the Text of Codex Vaticanus, Supplemented from Other Uncial Manuscripts, with a Critical Apparatus Containing the Variants of the Chief Ancient Authorities for the Text of the Septuagint (London: Cambridge University Press, 1906), 35.
John William Wevers, ed., Septuginta: Vetus Testamentum Graecum, I Genesis (Göttingen: Vandenhöck & Ruprecht, 1974), 167.
Wolfgang Krause et al., eds, “Septuaginta Deutsch: Das Griechische Alte Testament in Deutscher Ubersetzung,” (German Bible Society, 2009), electronic ed.
Origen, Hexapla, 2 Vols. (ed. Frederick Field; Oxford: Clarendon, 1875), 1:32, https://archive.org/stream/origenhexapla01unknuoft#page/32/mode/2up.
Würthwein, The Text of the Old Testament, 2nd Ed., 83.
Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon Project, “62001 P Gen, Chapter 15,” http://cal1.cn.huc.edu/.
Würthwein, The Text of the Old Testament, 2nd Ed., 96–7.
James Strong, A Concise Dictionary of the Words in the Greek Testament and The Hebrew Bible, 2 Vols. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2009), 2:74.