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Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament – 5

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Chapter 4: Text and Cano

In chapter four Childs deals with “Text and Canon”. He does so by discussing: 1) The nature of the problem, 2) History of the discipline, 3) The goals of Old Testament textual criticism, 4) Canon och text, 5) Goal and method of a canonical approach to text criticism, 6) Masoretic text and canonical text, 7) The pre-stabilization period in Old testament textual history, 8) The text-critical task. Childs purpose with this chapter is to discuss the problem of text criticism in relation to canon. The discipline of Old Testament criticism raises a whole list of issues in relation to the canonical approach, e.g.: What are the similarities and differences between the literary and textual development of a canonical writing? What are the goals of textual criticism? Is it possible to speak of a canonical Old Testament text in the light of the multiplicity of textual traditions? Why should the Christian church be committed in any way to the authority of the Masoretic text?

Childs reviews the history of modern Old Testament text criticism up to the publication of his Introduktion in 1979. Studies of textual problems extend far back into the ancient period, and include the rabbis and Masoretes, the church fathers and various interpretations in various translations. But these early activity with the text were of different sort and concern than the modern discipline of text criticism. Different textual traditions co-exist and the debate regarding the history of the Old Testament text is ongoing, but Childs points out that in some major areas a consensus have emerged. About the authoritative role of the masoretic text (MT) he says: 1) Behind the apparently monolithic structure of the MT lay a long history of textual development in which the state of the text was in great fluidity; 2) The authoritative role of the proto-Masoretic tradition derived from a variety of historical factors many of which remain unknown; 3) Long after the process of stabilization had begun, a considerable amount of textual fluidity continued to be tolerated within Jewish communities.[1]

What then is the goal of Old Testament textual criticism? Childs explains that this question illustrates the problematic dimension of modern Old Testament text criticism: “The basic issue at stake is a methodological one. On what level is the Old Testament text to be reconstructed? The following approaches answers the question in different ways: 1) The traditional goal (Klein, Bentzen, Harrison): Textual criticism is the discipline that tries to recover the original copy (autograph) of a piece of literature by comparing its available copies, all of which contains mistakes; 2) The comparative philological method (Driver, Winton Thomas, Dahood): The original text is generally assumed to be the goal, but the method only attempts to reconstruct the most likely original text as intended by its author; 3) Reconstruction of the earliest forms of the text which can be determined by critical analysis of existing textual evidence (Barthélemy, Thompson, Sanders); 4) The method that trusts the Masoretic tradition of the Hebrew text from the tenth century AD.[2]

The history of the Old Testament Canon and the text-critical enterprise are according to Childs closely related. He means that a concern for the text emerged first when the formation of the literature reached a final stage of development within the canonical process. The main process of canonization preceded, but still the two processes overlapped (e.g. Qumran, LXX). This relationship has important exegetical implications. Childs admits that to establish a critical text before one begins the task of interpretation has some pragmatic advantages, but points out that such a exegetical method reverses the historical sequence in the canonical formation of the literature. Instead the literary development shaped the major lines of interpretation which textual development sought to preserve. Thus, there is a danger of misunderstanding when one attempts to establish a text without first understanding its canonical function as a whole. Many decisions in the textual development reflect a type of midrashic exegetical activity within the Bible itself.[3]

The goal of a canonical approach to text criticism is the recovery and understanding of the canonical text. The concern is to describe the literature in relationship to the historic Jewish community, and the goal is not the reconstruction of the most original literary form of the book and textual tradition. Childs proposes that the MT is the vehicle both for recovering and for understanding the canonical text of the Old Testament. He justifies this position in the following way: 1) The Hebrew text was clearly a derivative of a fixed canon. Moreover, it was only the Hebrew text that was stabilized; 2) The masoretic community has continued through history as the living vehicle of the whole canon of Hebrew scripture, and various other Jewish communities began to establish their identity on the basis of the Masoretic text; 3) Only the historic Jewish community whose authoritative text was the Masoretic was the tradent of the oral tradition of the vocalization of the Hebrew Bible; 4) From the Jewish perspective the Greek Bible never had an independent integrity which could contest the Hebrew. The Greek was continually brought into conformity with the Hebrew and never the reverse; 5) The early Christian community of the New Testament never developed a doctrine of scripture apart from the Jewish. The church’s use of the Greek and Latin translations of the Old Testament was valid in its historical context, but theologically provides no grounds for calling into question the ultimate authority of the Hebrew text for church and synagogue.[4]

The canonical text is that Hebrew text of the Jewish community which had become stable in the first century AD. This means there was a pre-stabilization period (a wider toleration of different text type) and a post-stabilization period (only minor variations of the one official text). Childs emphasizes here that the MT is not identical with the canonical text, but is only a vehicle for its recovery. There is no extant canonical text and the canonical text of first-century Judaism is now contained within a post-canonical tradition. Since the first century changes has occurred and a distinction between the MT and the canonical text is therefore necessary. To illustrate this Childs mentions that there is not just one MT, but a variety of different Hebrew texts within the Masoretic tradition. There is also a diversity regarding vocalization and accentuation of the MT. The task then is to text critically recover the stabilized canonical text of the first century through the vehicle of the Masoretic traditions. Childs means that this task of recovering a text close to the 1st century MT is attainable with the support by proto-Masoretic texts from Qumran.[5]

To achive the goal of text criticism according to the canonical model one must study two things: the text before its canonical stabilization and the historical dimension of its development. Childs points out that it is of “crucial importance to recognize” the difference between the pre- and poststabilization phases of the text. During the poststabilzation period the differences in the text tradition are minor, while the pre-stabilization period is characterized by the multiplicity of textual traditions. Because of this complexity of diversity and cause it can be misleading to talk about an original text. The selection of MT in the 1st century as the dominant tradition was the culmination of a long recensional history and the grounds for the selection appear to involve the use of texts in religious groups for liturgical and didactic purposes. Childs concludes that MT did not necessarily get its status for being the best or most original Hebrew text, but the choice was “determined often by broad sociological factors and internal religious conflicts, and not by scholarly textual judgments”.[6]

The attempt by text critic to recover the earliest and best text (Urtext), confronts the problem how to determine the superiority of a text. The historical criterion is often, the best text is the earliest and closest to the original. But Childs means that this assumption fails to take seriously the peculiar features of the canonical biblical literature. The textual history shares in the canonical process, which means that the canonical approach does not attempt to establish a “better” text than the MT, but remains with the canonical text. The approach is however “vitally interested” in all the evidence from the pre-stabilization period, with the aim to understand the canonical text better (e.g. intentional changes). Also, an important part of canonical text criticism is to evaluate the effect of the Hebrew text on its reader within the context of the biblical tradition. Childs argues that the methods of Old Testament text crticism fail in many respects to understand the nature of Hebrew scripture. But he also says that they can serve important roles within the canonical approach, if correctly applied. The methodological issue regarding text and canon is hermeneutical and of great importance for determined how to go by the entire exegetical task.[7]

[1] Childs, 89–92.
[2] Ibid., 92–94.
[3] Ibid., 94–96.
Ibid., 96–99.
Ibid., 100–01.
Ibid., 101–03.
Ibid., 103–06.


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