To the Field: Old Testament Textual Criticism

Genesis 4:8

In the story of Cain and Abel, Cain’s offering is not accepted by God, but Abel’s sacrifice is. Cain is jealous, and convinces Abel to go out to the field with him before he slays him.

In the NIV and many modern translations, Genesis 4:8 records what Cain said to Abel:

Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. (Genesis 4:8, NIV, cf. HCSB/CSB, NET, NLT, RSV, NRSV)

But in the KJV and other translations, these words of direct speech are completely absent:

And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him. (Genesis 4:8, KJV, cf. ESV, JPS, LSB, NASB)

So why such a big difference?

Textual Criticism

When you read the Bible in English, the Old Testament is translated from Hebrew (and Aramaic) manuscripts, and the New Testament is translated from Greek manuscripts. Whenever something that is thousands of pages long is copied by hand, some mistakes are bound to creep in. No two manuscripts are exactly the same.

However, copying mistakes tend to be the same kind of mistakes. For example, a letter or a word may be left out, or a letter mistaken for a similar looking letter, or a line might be skipped. If you’re proof-reading someone’s term paper, it’s usually not too difficult to find typos and spelling mistakes and know exactly what was originally intended. So if we find variations in the biblical text, most of the time it’s not too difficult to figure out what went wrong.

The study of how different variations came to be is called “textual criticism.” Textual criticism can be used to put together what words are likely to be the original words. The Bibles we have today are translations of what the editors think are closest to the original texts.

For the New Testament, we have thousands of Greek manuscripts available to compare. There are enough manuscripts around that the best reading is almost always preserved in some manuscript. But for the Old Testament, there are very few Hebrew manuscripts. So when text critics find mistakes, they usually don’t have another Hebrew manuscript that has the correct reading. The text critic has to “emend” the text, which is a fancy way of saying they correct text.

Old Testament Text Sources

Modern translations of the Old Testament are based primarily on the Masoretic Text, as found in manuscripts like the Aleppo Codex and the Leningrad Codex. These codices date to the 10th and 11th centuries.

However, we have ancient translations of the Old Testament that were done centuries before these manuscripts, translations into the Greek, Syriac, Latin, and Aramaic languages. The Greek Septuagint dates to the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. The Syriac Peshitta dates to the 2nd century. The Latin Vulgate dates to the 4th century, and there are some Old Latin manuscripts that precede the Vulgate. Aramaic Targums were made for those Jews who could no longer read Hebrew. The Greek Septuagint especially represents a different manuscript tradition than the Masoretic Text, and is the one most often used to suggest a different original Hebrew reading.

In addition, we have other ancient Hebrew manuscripts as well. The Dead Sea Scrolls, containing some manuscripts as old as the 3rd century BC, contains many fragments of the biblical texts. The Samaritan Pentateuch, representing a group that separated from the Jews, is another source written in Samaritan Hebrew.

At this point, I’ll state the obvious: Old Testament textual criticism is hard. You have to know a lot of different languages just to be able to begin to look at the data.

Genesis 4:8 differences

So what is going on in Genesis 4:8? Well, it turns out that the Hebrew text doesn’t record Cain’s direct speech. However, the ancient translations into Greek, Syriac, and Latin all record that Cain said to Abel, “Let’s go to the field.”

The wording in Hebrew seems to expect that there would be direct speech. The Jewish Publication Society (JPS) 1985 translation preserves the awkward construction: “Cain said to his brother Abel … and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.” (Genesis 4:8, JPS).

So which is the original? When the Revised Standard Version (RSV) revised the American Standard Version (ASV), they added in this direct speech. Since the ancient translations had it, the RSV translators figured that they must have translated from Hebrew manuscripts that had those words. They supposed those Hebrew manuscripts preserved the original reading, and the Masoretic Text dropped the direct speech in a transcription error. Many modern translations translate accordingly.

On the other hand, when the English Standard Version (ESV) revised the RSV, they took the direct speech out again. They figured that the original text probably did not have the direct speech, and that it was added in later to make the narrative smoother and less awkward.

New Testament in English: one of two types

New Testament translations today are usually one of two types. Some are based on the Textus Receptus, the Greek text underling the King James Version. These include the New King James Version (NKJV) and the Modern English Version (MEV). (Also, some minor translations use the Majority/Byzantine Greek text, which differs slightly from the Textus Receptus).

However, most modern versions translate mainly from the Critical Text, which is a Greek text that scholars have compiled. They compared all the manuscripts and recording what they think best represents the original text.

Within these text types, the translations are generally consistent. That’s because the two types are standardized. The King James Version is the textual standard for the Textus Receptus. (The Scrivener Greek New Testament is used as the Greek source, but it’s just a Greek text specifically created to record the KJV’s textual choices). The Nestle-Aland/United Bible Societies (NA/UBS) text is the textual standard for the Critical Text translations.

Old Testament Textual Criticism

However, Old Testament Textual Criticism is a different story. There aren’t any standard Hebrew critical texts used for Bible translation. Rather, people use the Hebrew Masoretic Text, but supplement it with the other source texts. Each Bible translation makes its own textual choices, and there is not much textual consistency between Bible versions.

Thus, Old Testament translations do not fit so easily into different types, as do New Testament translations. It’s more like a spectrum between adhering closely to the Hebrew Masoretic Text and being willing to utilize other sources to revise the Masoretic Text.

Some Bible versions stick very closely to the Hebrew text. The Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation adheres very closely to the Hebrew text, as the Masoretic Text is authoritative for Jews. The Bible versions that hold to the Textus Receptus also hold to the Hebrew Masoretic text, for much the same reason: that it was was the traditional text of the Protestant Church before textual criticism became widely practiced.

Some Bible versions give the Masoretic Text preference, but will make corrections to the Hebrew if they think the Hebrew text doesn’t make sense. Other Bible translations don’t give as much preference to the Masoretic Text. They may give more weight to the Greek Septuagint and other texts, and they may be more willing to emend the text without having support from Hebrew manuscripts or an ancient translation.

So how do English Bible translations compare? And how many changes are we talking about?

The major Bible translations will put in footnotes whenever they deviate from the Hebrew text. In E. Ray Clendenen and David K. Stabnow’s book HCSB: Navigating the Horizons in Bible Translations, they count the footnotes in each of these versions.

According to their count, the NRSV used a reading from the Greek Septuagint over the Hebrew text 569 times. The other translations: ESV 277, HCSB 257, NLT 240, NIV 226, NASB 53. In addition, the NRSV noted a whopping 301 emendations to the Hebrew text without support from other manuscripts or translations, compared to ESV 26, HCSB 21, and NIV 16.

So you can see that, among major translations of the Bible, there’s a pretty wide range. The NASB is not opposed to using the Greek Septuagint, choosing it over the Hebrew text 53 times, but the NRSV does it ten times more often. And even though the ESV didn’t use the Greek Septuagint reading for Genesis 4:8, and the HCSB, NLT, and NIV did, overall, the ESV uses the Greek Septuagint more often than those other translations.

Since that count was done, the NRSV Updated Edition has replaced the NRSV. I looked over some of the textual notes and made some comparisons. The NRSVUE has made a number of changes to the NRSV to move closer the Septuagint (e.g. Genesis 2:2; 14:2; 31:53; Exodus 5:9; Leviticus 15:3) and added some emendations (e.g. Exodus 5:16).

Resources for Old Testament Textual Criticism

If you want to look up textual information for the Old Testament, where can you look? As I noted, the footnotes in your Bible will identify textual issues. The NRSV is a good Bible to have for textual issues. Since it deviates from the Hebrew text the most, it has the most footnotes! The notes themselves are usually pretty sparse, telling you which sources support the reading in the text. For Genesis 4:8, it says, “Sam Gk Syr Compare Vg: MT lacks Let us go out to the field.”

The exception to this is the NET Bible. It has detailed textual notes for both the Old and New Testaments, explaining what variants there are, and how they decided to choose the text that they did. Also, it’s freely available online. This is the single best resource for studying textual issues.

In Logos Bible Software, there’s a resource called the Lexham Textual Notes on the Bible, covering both the Old and New Testaments. It’s included in a lot of base packages, so if you have purchased Logos, there’s a good chance you already have it.

The more technical Bible commentaries will also discuss textual issues as well. I’ve found that the Word Biblical Commentary series tends to give the most attention to textual issues. Unfortunately, these types of commentaries are big, heavy, and expensive, so they’re not for everyone.

Although there is currently no Critical Text for the Hebrew Bible, the Society of Biblical Literature is working on one called The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Edition. So far, they’ve only published one volume on Proverbs, and that was in 2015.

The standard Hebrew Bible for students and scholars is Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS), which has the Masoretic Text, but it has textual notes in it as well. Unfortunately, the textual notes aren’t the easiest to read. The note on Genesis 4:8 says: “mlt Mss Edd hic interv; frt ins c ⅏𝔊𝔖𝔙 נֵלְכָה הַשָּׂדֶה cf 𝔗J JII.” I kid you not. Sometimes I wonder if they the notes make it esoteric on purpose. Anyway, BHS is being replaced by Biblia Hebraica Quinta (BHQ), which updates the textual notes, but not all the BHQ volumes have been released yet.

Also, years ago, the United Bible Societies worked on something called the Hebrew Old Testament Text Project (HOTTP). They published a five-volume “Preliminary and Interim Report.” This report is available to Bible translators through Bible translation software called Paratext. Later, Dominique Barthélemy published a five volume report called the Critique textuelle de l’Ancien Testament. It’s available as a free PDF download, but it’s in French.

And that’s a wrap!

Will a critical edition of the Hebrew Bible appear in our lifetime? Will it bring unity and harmony among scholars and Bible translators, or strife and chaos? What did Cain really say to Abel? Did Cain kill Abel with a rock? Such are the mysteries of this age.

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