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   Print Edition: 1990-2002


The Jeremiah Dilemma
by Farrell Till


1990 / July-August



Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest known manuscripts of the Old Testament dated from 895 A.D., a fact that raised significant questions about the integrity of the Masoretic text. Since tradition assigned the authorship of some Old Testament books to writers who lived as long ago as the 15th century B.C., faith in Bible inerrancy required one to believe that uninspired scribes had somehow copied these books for more than 2,000 years without infusing significant error into the texts. That being too much for some to accept, the inerrancy doctrine lost a lot of followers. Liberal minded Christians began to think of the Bible as a sacred book whose ideas had been divinely inspired but not necessarily the very words, not even the words in the long defunct "original autographs" that inerrancy spokesmen like to talk about.

With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, believers in the inerrancy doctrine thought they had found cause to rejoice. In Cave One at Qumran was found a manuscript of the book of Isaiah containing all 66 chapters except for only a few words that were missing where edges of the scroll had crumbled. Although many spelling variations were found in the text, the content of the Qumran scroll was found to be remarkably parallel to the Masoretic text of 895 A. D. Translators of the Revised Standard Version in 1952 found only 13 textual differences in the manuscript that they considered important enough to affect their translation of Isaiah. When scholars dated the manuscript at circa 100 B.C., Bible fundamentalists believed they had found in the Qumran text of Isaiah indisputable proof that through the long, silent centuries Jewish scribes had been scrupulously faithful in transmitting their sacred books. After all, if a thousand years had brought no significant changes to the text of Isaiah, couldn't we believe that the same was true of the other Old Testament books?

This would make an impressive argument were it not for subsequent discoveries that were made at Qumran, which Bible inerrantists have been very reluctant to talk about. In commenting on these other discoveries, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, professor emeritus of New Testament at The Catholic University of America, dashed cold water onto the hopes of those who had hastily concluded too much from the Qumran text of Isaiah:

In Cave 4, 157 fragmentary biblical texts were retrieved, among which is every book of the Hebrew canon, save Esther (and Nehemiah, which at that time was considered as one book with Ezra). Eventually, these Cave 4 fragments revealed a different story about the copying and transmission of Old Testament writings. In some cases, especially 1-2 Samuel, Jeremiah, and Exodus, the fragments brought to light forms or recensions of biblical books that differed from the medieval Masoretic tradition. For instance, one text turned out to be a shorter Hebrew form of Jeremiah, previously known only in its Greek version in the Septuagint. It now seems that the fuller form of Masoretic tradition represents a Palestinian rewording of the book. Another from Cave 4, written in paleo-Hebrew script and dated from the early second century B.C., contains the repetitious expanded form of Exodus previously known only in Samaritan writings, ("The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible: After Forty Years," America, October 31, 1987, p. 302, emphasis added).

This "different story" told by the discoveries in Cave Four at Qumran is a story that Bible inerrantists have been conspicuously silent about, probably because it puts to rest all notions of scrupulously meticulous ancient scribes who counted all the letters in the copies they made to be sure that no mistakes had occurred. The Cave Four discoveries tell us that mistakes were not only made but that textual changes were also made with probable deliberation.

A single article can't review all parts of the "different story" told by the Cave Four discoveries, but an analysis of the Jeremiah manuscript will be sufficient to refute the claim that we can be reasonably sure the present day text of the Bible is essentially the same as what was in the "original autographs." Scholars had long known before the Cave Four discoveries at Qumran that the Masoretic text of Jeremiah differed substantially from the Greek version found in the Septuagint. Some sections of the Masoretic text were missing entirely from the Septuagint, and other sections were organized differently. Jeremiah 27:19-22; 33:14-26; 39:3-14; and 48: 45-47 are sections in the Masoretic and various English texts that were not in the Septuagint version. The organizational restructuring is too complex to discuss in detail, but some thirty changes in organization have been identified in the Septuagint version. Chapter 25:15-38 of the Masoretic text appears as chapter 32 in the Septuagint, 27:1-19 is chapter 34, 33:1-14 is chapter 40, and so on through more than thirty other changes in organization.

To explain the problem posed by these variations in the Septuagint version of Jeremiah, proponents of the inerrancy doctrine once attributed the deviations from the Masoretic text to poor translation, but after the discoveries in Cave Four, this "explanation" became hard, if not impossible, to defend. Work on the Septuagint version began in Alexandria around 285 B.C., and the Jeremiah manuscript found at Qumran, like the Isaiah scroll, was dated in the early second century B. C. Since the Qumran text of Jeremiah was parallel in content and organization to the Septuagint version, here was tangible evidence that at one time, for at least two centuries, a shorter, differently arranged version of the book existed. Hence, variations from the Masoretic text in the Septuagint version of Jeremiah resulted not from careless translation but from a radically different Hebrew text that the translators had before them. More interested in scholarship than the defense of pet theories, Fitzmyer said this about the Cave Four discoveries:

Such ancient recensional forms of Old Testament books bear witness to an unsuspected textual diversity that once existed; these texts merit far greater study and attention than they have been accorded till now. Thus, the differences in the Septuagint are no longer considered the result of a poor or endentious attempt to translate the Hebrew into the Greek; rather they testify to a different pre-Christian form of the Hebrew text, (Ibid., p. 302, emphasis added).

Because of the damage these facts inflict on the inerrancy doctrine, Bible fundamentalists will, of course, resist the obvious conclusion that they lead to, but until the inerrantists can produce a Masoretic copy of Jeremiah that antedates the Septuagint, they will find it hard to defend their claim that the Bible text we now have is essentially the same as what was written in the "original autographs."

The sections missing from the Septuagint and Qumran versions of Jeremiah clearly testify to what Fitzmyer called "a Palestinian reworking of the book." Let's consider, for example, the following omission:

Behold, the days come, saith Yahweh, that I will perform that good word which I have spoken concerning the house of Israel and concerning the house of Judah. In those days, and at that time, will I cause a Branch of righteousness to grow up unto David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days shall Judah be saved, and Jerusalem shall dwell safely; and this is the name whereby she shall be called: Yahweh our righteousness. For thus saith Yahweh: David shall never want a man to sit upon the throne of the house of Israel; neither shall the priests the Levites want a man before me to offer burnt offerings, and to burn meal-offerings, and to do sacrifice continually.

And the word of Yahweh came unto Jeremiah, saying, Thus saith yahweh: If ye can break my covenant of the day, and my covenant of the night, so that there shall not be day and night in their season; then may also my covenant be broken with David my servant, that he shall not have a son to reign upon his throne; and with the Levites the priests, my ministers. As the host of heaven cannot be numbered, neither the sand of the sea measured; so will I multiply the seed of David my servant, and the Levites that minister unto me.

And the word of Yahweh came to Jeremiah, saying, Considerest thou not what this people have spoken, saying, The two families which Yahweh did choose, he hath cast them off? thus do they despise my people, that they should be no more a nation before them. Thus saith Yahweh: If my covenant of day and night stand not, if I have not appointed the ordinances of heaven and earth; then will I also cast away the seed of Jacob, and of David my servant, so that I will not take of his seed to be rulers over the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: for I will cause their captivity to return, and will have mercy on them, (33:14-26, ASV with Yahweh substituted for Jehovah).

Obviously intended as a repetition of Yahweh's promise to establish an eternal, perpetual throne of David over the house of Israel, which promise was first proclaimed in II Samuel 7:12-17, this passage, and ones like it, have proved embarrassing to God's people ever since the vagaries of history reduced the Yahwistic promises of an everlasting Israelite kingdom to mere ethnocentric wishes that didn't materialize. To protect the inerrancy doctrine, Bible fundamentalists have been forced to read figurative meaning into these statements, so rather than a literal promise to establish David's throne forever, they see this passage, and others like it, as a Messianic prophecy that was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Either way, the passage concerns a central biblical theme and must therefore be considered important, yet it was in neither the Septuagint version nor the Jeremiah scroll found at Qumran. These omissions have grave implications for the inerrancy doctrine, because they suggest that significant editing occurred in at least one Old Testament book after completion of the original manuscript. So what exactly are we to conclude from this? After verbally inspiring Jeremiah to write his manuscript, did Yahweh decide he could improve on the original and then direct someone to reorganize the material and insert the passages that weren't available to the Septuagint translators or to the scribe who made the Qumran copy? If so, what does this say about the omniscience of Yahweh that we hear so much about? Or if the changes didn't happen under Yahweh's direction, did some scribe or committee of scribes just take it upon themselves to do the editing? Either way again, the proponents of Bible inerrancy have a serious problem on their hands. They preach a doctrine that simply cannot be squared with known facts.

Questions raised by the Qumran discoveries pose still other problems for the inerrancy doctrine. A principle of lower criticism states that the older a manuscript is, the more likely its content will parallel the original version. If this is so, now that we have the Quamran version, which is a thousand years older than the Masoretic text, to confirm the probable accuracy of the Septuagint version, what should be done about the book of Jeremiah? Should we scrap the version that has been published for centuries in English Bibles and substitute the Septuagint version? If so, what should be done about the past mistake of publishing a corrupted version of one of God's inspired books? Should Bible fundamentalists simply say, "Oops, sorry about that," and go on proclaiming the inerrancy doctrine as if nothing had happened? Or should they just keep the problem swept under the rug and pretend that it doesn't exist? Since they have now had 40 years to react to the discovery and have done nothing, I suspect they will choose to keep it swept under the rug. After all, what ignorant pulpit audiences, who probably have never even heard of Qumran, don't know won't hurt them.

Even without the discovery of the Jeremiah scroll at Qumran, the variations between the Septuagint version of Jeremiah and the Masoretic text posed problems that Bible inerrantists should have addressed long ago. The New Testament writers, who were presumably guided by the Holy Spirit in what they wrote, frequently quoted the Septuagint translation when citing Old Testament scriptures. If these writers were indeed guided by the Holy Spirit as they composed the New Testament, one would assume that their use of the Septuagint for scripture references was done not only by the approval of the Holy Spirit but by his explicit direction. To say the least, then, this would appear to put a stamp of divine approval on the Septuagint Bible. Why then have Bible inerrantists said little or nothing about the variations between the divinely approved Septuagint version of Jeremiah and the longer, differently organized version in the Bibles that they preach their sermons from? Surely this was an incongruity important enough to warrant an explanation.

The reliance of New Testament writers on the Septuagint scriptures poses still another problem that goes far beyond variations in the Jeremiah text. That problem concerns the quality of the Septuagint translation in general. The discovery of the Qumran text of Jeremiah may have quelled notions that variations from the masoretic text in the Septuagint version of Jeremiah were primarily due to poor translation, but scholars nevertheless agree that many sections of the Septuagint were carelessly translated. My own copy of the Septuagint says this in the introduction:

The variety of the translators is proved by the unequal character of the version: some books show that the translators were by no means competent to the task, while others, on the contrary, exhibit on the whole a careful translation. The Pentateuch is considered to be the part the best executed, while the book of Isaiah appears to be the very worst, (The Septuagint Version of the Old Testament, Zondervan Publishing House: 1970, p. iii).

The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary gives a similar assessment of translation accuracy in the Septuagint:

Examination of the text, however, indicates a combination of numerous versions both literal and free and marked by considerable variance in style, interpretation of the Hebrew, and even order and contents; the latter suggests a variety of underlying Hebrew texts. The Greek-speaking authors of the New Testament quoted from the LXX (Septuagint) rather than the Hebrew text, and the LXX became their authoritative scriptures. Its use by Christians for proselytizing and in anti-Jewish polemics, as well as the growing Jewish dissatisfaction with the LXX for being too loose a translation and not based on the current authoritative text (it varied also from the order of the Hebrew canon), led to the more literal translations of Aquila (A. D. 130), Theodotion, and the Ebionite Christian Symmachus, (Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987, p. 154, emphasis added).

As indicated in an early edition of Scribner's Dictionary of the Bible, the problems of poor translation in the Septuagint and significant variations from the Masoretic text in manuscripts that the translators had to work with were generally known even before the Qumran discoveries:

The second fact that comes to light from a comparison of G (Septuagint) and M (Masoretic) is that there is a great difference between particular books or sets of books in the OT. This arises partly from the circumstances that all the books are not due to the same translators, but still more from the different character of the text lying before them. That Isaiah, for instance, found an interpreter not worthy of this book, was remarked long ago by Swingli; the translator of Job, says Swete, p. 316, was perhaps more familiar with Greek pagan literature than with Semitic poetry.... But more important is the fact that already the Hebrew texts used by the translators differed in varying degrees from the Massoretic text, (1923, Vol. IV, p. 449, emphasis added).

Incompetent translation and significant variations from the allegedly inspired Masoretic text--these are serious charges against the Septuagint version that must be resolved if we are to believe that the Holy Spirit guided the writers of the New Testament to quote the Septuagint whenever scripture citations were deemed necessary. Anyone can easily verify the divergent readings between the Septuagint and Masoretic texts by merely using a reference Bible that will identify the sources of quotations used by the New Testament writers. In Matthew 15:8-9, for example, Isaiah 29:13 was quoted from the Septuagint Bible: "This people honoreth me with their lips; But their heart is far from me. But in vain do they worship me, Teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men." This has been an often quoted statement in Church-of-Christ sermons aimed at establishing the need of scriptural authority for the structure of Christian worship. The only problem is that the statement, although faithful to Isaiah 29:13 in the Septuagint version, is barely recognizable in the Masoretic text. This is readily apparent in the following juxtaposition of the two versions:

And the Lord has said, This people draw nigh to me with their mouth, and they honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me: but in vain do they worship me, teaching the commandments and doctrines of men, (Septuagint).

And the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw nigh unto me, and with their mouth and with their lips do honor me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men which hath been taught them... (Masoretic).

There are similarities in the first half of each text, but the last halves are markedly different. Nothing is said in the Masoretic text (which inerrantists say is so close to the "original autographs" as to make variations irrelevant) about the vanity of worship that is taught after the commandments and doctrines of men. If this was not in the Masoretic (original?) text, why did the Holy Spirit guide Matthew to quote it this way? Inerrantists need to explain this.

Another variant reading, among many that I could cite, is the quotation of Psalm 40:6-8 in Hebrews 10:5-7: "Wherefore when he cometh into the world, he saith, Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, But a body didst thou prepare for me; In whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin thou hadst no pleasure: Then said I, Lo, I am come (In the roll of the book it is written of me) to do thy will, O God." This quotation is very parallel to the Septuagint rendering:

Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not; but a body hast thou prepared me: whole-burnt-offering and sacrifice for sin thou didst not require. Then I said, Behold, I come: in the volume of the book it is written concerning me, I desired to do thy will, O my God...."

There is a significant difference, however, in the Masoretic text:

Sacrifice and offering thou hast no delight in; Mine ears hast thou opened: Burnt offering and sin offering hast thou not required. Then said I, Lo, I am come; In the roll of the book it is written of me: I delight to do thy will, O my God....

What happened to the body that was prepared in the Septuagint account quoted by the Hebrew writer? It isn't in the Masoretic text, yet we are supposed to believe that the Masoretic text and the "original autographs" are essentially one and the same. If the two are indeed essentially the same, why did the Holy Spirit guide the Hebrew writer to quote a corrupted version of this particular Psalm?

These are legitimate questions to ask in view of the Hebrew writer's application of the statement present in the Septuagint but missing from the Masoretic text. The reference to the "body [that] thou didst prepare for me" (v:5) is obviously crucial to his point in verse ten about Christians having "been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all," but, as already noted, that statement is not in the Masoretic text. So if the Masoretic text and the "original autographs" are essentially the same, as the inerrantists claim, then the "inspired" psalmist never said what the Hebrew writer said that he said. Anyone who can't see the problem this poses for the inerrancy doctrine doesn't want to see it.

In a real sense, then, the Jeremiah dilemma is actually (See JEREMIAH, p. 12) the Septuagint dilemma, for what is true of the Septuagint version of Jeremiah is generally true of its versions of the other Old Testament books. They are characterized by faulty translation and significant variations from the Masoretic text. Skeptics of the inerrancy doctrine have every right, then, to ask its believers to explain why the Holy Spirit chose a flawed version of the Old Testament as his primary source of scripture quotations in the writing of the New Testament. And what should be our position relative to significant variations between the Septuagint and Masoretic texts, as in the examples cited above? Are we to believe that the Septuagint was verbally inspired and the Masoretic wasn't? Or should we believe the Masoretic was inspired and the Septuagint wasn't? Either choice poses major problems for inerrancy proponents. If they go with the Holy Spirit and choose the Septuagint as the "verbally inspired" version, they must explain why they have relied for so long on the Masoretic as their primary textual source. If, on the other hand, they choose the Masoretic, then they return us to where we started. How do they explain why the Holy Spirit directed New Testament writers to quote the uninspired Septuagint?

These are questions begging for answers. Perhaps some enterprising inerrantist among our readers can give us the answers.
 



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