THE “ORIGINAL TEXT”?
The Dead Sea Scrolls, LXX, SP, and other ancient witnesses, have amply demonstrated that the Bible as canon did not occur until long after the writing of all the now-biblical books, and that the textual history and character of these books should be described as evolutionary and pluriform. The problem of recovering an “original” text for the biblical books is therefore extremely complicated.1 For instance, is the original text the final, expanded edition of a given biblical book or passage (but what if there are multiple late expanded editions, as we have seen)? Or is the original the edition of a book at an earlier stage in its transmission history (perhaps when it was accepted by some community as authoritative?)? Is it the earliest recoverable edition of a given book (even if we know, as is the case for the book of Daniel, that there was an earlier edition underlying all of our extant witnesses)? Is the original text the earliest complete edition of the book that we would recognize as that book (even if we don’t have access to it)? Or is the original text the literary sources used to compose that book (such as J, P, or D for the Pentateuch), even if the author(s) or editor(s) revised and modified those sources for their own (different) purposes? Or are the oral traditions that underly many of our literary sources the real original text? Further, the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient witnesses strongly indicate, on account of the great pluriformity in the biblical texts during the Second Temple Period, that there were likely many more editions of biblical books and passages, important textual variants, orthographic peculiarities etc., than we moderns currently have access to, and that the extant (and lost) literary editions of the biblical books and their many variants represent a long and complicated textual history for these texts. Thus, although the Dead Sea Scrolls are our oldest biblical manuscripts, they only represent a very small fraction of the biblical manuscripts from antiquity, and they also do not contain large sections of the biblical books as well as entire books (e.g., Esther was not found among the Dead Sea Scrolls).
We have already concluded, drawing on the research of Ulrich, Vanderkam, Tov, and others, that there was no canon in the Second Temple Period and that the idea of a canon–a closed, authoritative collection of texts that is consciously chosen as distinct from other texts–is a postbiblical development. Indeed, many Jewish groups and individuals believed other books were as religiously sacred and authoritative as the (later) biblical texts (although some groups, like the Samaritans, only accepted a smaller collection of texts, e.g., the Torah), while other groups also held in high regard the words and teachings of their contemporaries (or near contemporaries). The LXX (and later Vulgate) was the Bible of the Church for the great majority of its history and it contains a number of books not found in traditional Rabbinic and Protestant Bibles. The Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient witnesses show the development of the canon, what we might term the canonical process, but they do not witness to the canon as such. Rather, the Dead Sea Scrolls show that ancient scribes, like earlier authors and editors, both transmitted their religious texts and modified them to meet the needs and circumstances of their contemporary communities.
However, although the idea of a fixed canon exists in traditional Judaism and Christianity, modern religious readers of the Bible still edit and modify their sacred texts in similar ways to those of the ancient scribes and editors who physically composed and transmitted the biblical texts. Modern readers update and expand (and subtract) from the Bible through various hermeneutical traditions (e.g., religious traditions or the academy), pluriform ideological and political perspectives (e.g., egalitarianism, Marxism, etc.), manifold world views, and their own diverse, raw human experiences. Modern readers eisegete the biblical texts, harmonize them, use secondary materials as primary means of interpreting the Bible, selectively choose which parts are to be emphasized or ignored, etc. There is also a dialectical interpretive2 process at work between the Scriptures and the modern reader, and in this process the modern reader necessarily adds to and takes away from the biblical books (even if not physically). Thus modern readers are in many ways similar to their ancient counterparts–the difference is that many (though not all; c.f. scholarly conjectural emendations, etc.) do not physically change the text of their sacred writings because of their developed, non-biblical notions of canon.
However, does the fact that all readers of the Bible add to and subtract from it in their dialectical engagement with the biblical texts, in combination with the fact that the biblical texts themselves show complex evolutionary stages of growth and development, undermine many modern ideas of canon? That is, does the evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls, other ancient witnesses, and modern biblical scholarship, undermine some modern religious notions of canon since 1) there is, historically speaking, seemingly no accessible “original” text, 2) the idea of canon is itself non-biblical, and ancient Jewish and Christian groups used other sacred texts (e.g., 1 Enoch or Jubilees) and traditions (e.g., the words of Jesus, Paul, or the Teacher of Righteousness) as religiously authoritative, 3) the very composition and transmission of what would become the biblical texts was gradual and evolutionary until an artificial end (e.g., there is no evidence that the text types for the biblical books selected in the Rabbinic tradition were chosen on textual grounds3) sometime probably in the second century C.E., 4) there were multiple editions of biblical books and/or passages, and 5) the biblical texts (like all texts) are always read in a dialectical manner involving both the reader and the text in a process that necessarily adds to and subtracts from the scriptures (even if not physically)? And finally: what affects do these evidences and issues raise for modern notions of biblical authority (e.g., inerrancy) and devotional use of the Bible?
1 For the following discussion of “original text,” etc., see Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls, 3-33 (esp. 12-16).
2 See Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls, 73-78 (esp. 73-75).
3 Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls, 84.