Why Don’t We Care About the Text of Old Testament

One of the project I can’t wait to dive into is textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible. Right now, (thanks in large part to Bart Ehrman) for people tend to know about the textual history of the New Testament (how many manuscripts are known today, how they were copied, when they were copied etc). But I don’t think I’ve ever heard an accurate presentation on Old Testament text transmission outside of the standard, “The Jewish scribes were so careful in copying their manuscripts that they washed their hands [insert number] times after writing God’s name and if there were more than [insert another number] mistakes on a page, they would burn it.” And we seem pretty content with that story.

In his practical introduction to Old Textual Criticism, Ellis R. Brotzman explains the reasons exactly,

Two extreme views exist regarding the need for textual criticism of the Old Testament. The first holds that he Hebrew text has been so carefully transmitted that textual criticism is, for all practical purposes, unnecessary. the second maintains that the text of the Old Testament is so uncertain that it is impossible for text critics to recover the original form of the Hebrew Scriptures. (p.17)

While these two ends of the spectrum may do battle, the practical result is that neither end can conclude that an actual examination of the textual evidence is a worthwhile effort (the later because they don’t think it’s possible and the former because they don’t think it’s necessary).

From the biblical literalist perspective, that’s such a strange conclusion. If we’re going to say, “The first principle of proper Bible study is to find what the author intended.” then it seems to me a natural and worthwhile question to ask would be, “How can we prove that the text we have today is actually what the author wrote three millennia ago?”

We are so confident in the texts of the gospels and apostles (And I would argue rightly so). I just don’t know why we wouldn’t want to be able prove the same level of textual integrity for, say, Leviticus. Or Isaiah.

In the mean time, the situation is ripe for a Bart Ehrman of the Old Testament to write, “Misquoting Moses”. Sadly, I doubt that would become the New York Times bestseller that Misquoting Jesus became because (1) People in general don’t care that much about the Old Testament reliability and (2) evangelicals seem to be largely giving up the fight for OT, preferring instead to just focus on the resurrection.

Anyway, lecturing on NT manuscripts is one of my absolute favorite things to do and I can’t wait to do the same for the OT.