The Textual Argument: The Preservation of the Old Testament

I have taken up a critique of King James onlyism, a belief I held tenaciously for nearly ten years. The focus of my posts is the examination of what I consider to be six presuppositional arguments used to defend KJV onlyism by its advocates.  I left off with introducing the third argument called the textual argument.

To summarize, KJV advocates believe God has promised perfect preservation of His Word despite the numerous variants contained in the thousands of copies of both the OT and NT documents. KJV apologists contend that God providentially preserves every written letter of the biblical texts by superintending their transmission as He directs His faithful people to identify the original autographs among the copies. God’s faithful people may or may not be aware of His providential hand guiding their selection of the correct words. All that matters is they honor God’s Word by protecting it from any heretical corruption as the Holy Spirit will direct.

God’s guiding preservation eventually winds its way down the corridors of Church History to the King James translators. By the time the King James Bible was translated, God’s providential guidance provided those translators with original language texts that reflected with precise accuracy what the original writers of the biblical books wrote. In other words, the Hebrew text of Isaiah used by the KJV translators was like a photocopy of the original prophecy written by Isaiah himself.The same is believed about the Greek text of John’s gospel, or Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

Because the King James is the final English Bible translated from these providentially guided texts and all subsequent modern translations were translated from original language texts derived from manuscripts that had been corrupted by heretics, only the King James translation can be properly called the Word of God.

Now I will affirm my belief in the preservation of God’s Word. The problem with the KJVO perspective, however, is that it is untenable. KJV advocates will argue they believe God’s providential preservation of the KJV by faith, and certainly we believe God will take care of the transmission of His Word so that His people are never without the Scriptures in their hands. However, our faith in God’s preservation will be affirmed by the historical evidence.

The KJVO view of preservation is that God guides His faithful people to choose the right manuscripts so as to choose the right words to copy.  The original autographs are kept from becoming lost, while at the same time God’s people recognize the heretical corruption of certain other manuscripts so that they are laid aside and basically rejected. But that perspective is NOT supported by the historical facts and is in essence a blind faith. God would not have us believe with a faith that is uninformed and not affirmed by truth, especially by the testimony of our final authority: the very Word of God itself.

We need to have a faith in how God truly guided the transmission of the Scriptures.  One that is true to the facts and accurately handles the history of our Bible, and thus will bring glory to God who preserves those Scriptures.

In order to shore up our defense of the Scripture, as well as critique the KJVO perspective, I believe it is profitable to provide an overview of how our Bible was genuinely transmitted.  With this post, I will take a look at the transmission of the Old Testament, and with the next, the transmission of the New Testament.

If you were to look over the publications of KJV advocates, there is not a whole lot written on the Old Testament.  One would find a lot written about the New Testament, particularly comments on the Majority Text and the Received Text originally published by Erasmus, with a later edition serving as the base text for the King James. There will also be severe condemnations of what are called the Alexandrian family of manuscripts that were used in updating modern version like the NASB and the NIV.  However, criticisms from KJV onlyists against the OT texts used by the modern version are rare.

One key reason has to do with the fact there really isn’t a Majority Text or a Received Text in Hebrew so as to compare to a “heretical” Alexandrian counterpart.  Moreover, as Ellis Brotzman points out in his book on the subject of OT textual criticism,

It must be recognized that the textual situations are quite different for the two Testaments. The New Testament text is attested by a very large number of Greek manuscripts, some very old, and they all reflect a large number of variant readings. The Old Testament text, in contrast, is supported by far fewer, but generally better, Hebrew manuscripts.

Primarily, that has to do with the fact the OT was copied better than the NT documents.There was a scribal class in Israel appointed to maintain the books of the OT, and in turn they produced more precise OT manuscripts.

D.A. Waite is one of those KJVO defenders who will make a small attempt to address the transmission of the OT in his publications.

In his book, Defending the King James Bible, Waite argues that the Ben-Chayyim 2nd edition of the Masoretic Hebrew text published by Daniel Bomberg in 1524-1525 is God’’s Word in the original Hebrew. He goes on to state how the Ben-Chayyim edition of the Hebrew text was used for translating, not only by the KJV translation committees when translating the KJV, but also all other translations for nearly 400 years after its publication by Bomberg.

He then goes on to state how there was a switch by Rudolf Kittel in 1937 from using the Ben-Chayyim edition of the Masoretic text to the Ben Asher edition in the publication of his Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. This is because Kittel utilized the Leningrad Manuscript, one of the oldest and complete Hebrew manuscripts in existence, which is based upon the Ben Asher Masoretic text.

In the ensuing disjointed and simplistic overview of OT textual transmission, Waite then makes the fantastic claim that the Ben Chayyim edition represented what was the Received Text for the OT (in the same way the TR is supposedly the traditional text for the NT) and that the Ben Asher edition has been corrupted by heretics (in the same way the so-called Alexandrian manuscripts for the NT are alleged to have been corrupted by heretics). He further states Kittel’s BHS edition suggests some 20,000 to 30,000 changes from the “traditional text” of the OT, even though he doesn’t provide any examples.

Any person who doesn’t know better (the vast majority of Waite’s readers) would come away from his dishonest and inaccurate discussion believing the Ben Asher edition presents an entirely different account of the historical events revealed in the OT. It would be in the same way the Book of Mormon presents an alternative history of Christianity with the ministry of Jesus in North America.

Yet Waite’s overview, as bad as it is, represents the more sophisticated study of OT textual criticism found in KJVO apologetic literature.  King James advocates across the board give the impression that the Hebrew language was static and unchanging, unless of course heretics corrupted it. This is hardly the case, and if we grasp just a simple foundational understanding of how the Hebrew OT was passed down to us in today’s world, the KJV viewpoint easily dissolves.

To begin, God appointed the scribes and Levites to maintain and preserve the OT Hebrew text (Romans 3:2). They preserved the OT to be read among the people, as well as for official documentation (Deuteronomy 17:18, for example). Even though the Jewish scribes were meticulous with preserving the OT documents, they were not perfect, even for copying such a divine and holy work.

As is expected with hand-copied documents, copyist errors crept into the text as it was transmitted. They were not intentional errors meant to harm the veracity of the text, but human errors common with maintaining handwritten material. Those copyist mistakes in turn created variants, and like all variants in the biblical manuscripts, the scribes kept note of them in the margins, so nothing was “lost” or “changed.”

There were also linguistic developments shaping the transmission of the Hebrew text. Just like any other human language, Hebrew changed in written style and vocalization over time, such as letter shapes and standardized spelling. The same thing has happened with our English language. For instance, if you were to journey down to Barnes and Noble to the classic literature section, our modern day editions of Beowulf would certainly read different in style than the 8th century editions preserved in the British Museum.  Yet, we would all agree the modern version is the same story of Beowulf as written in the 8th century, correct? Does anyone seriously think the message contained in the original Beowulf has been so altered to the point of being unrecognized in our modern day editions?

Even our modern day editions of the King James Bible read differently in style and form than the original 1611 edition. Historians see the same thing happening with Hebrew, also. The Jews, just like textual critics of our day, would “modernize” the language by updating the grammatical forms in their copies. Doing so doesn’t corrupt the Bible, it preserves it.

Then, there was a major event that really shook up the transmission of the Hebrew Bible: The exile of the southern kingdom by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.

If you can recall your Sunday school lessons, the bulk of the Jewish population was relocated to Babylon, what is now our modern day Iraq. However, some of the Jews remained in the land of Israel (2 Kings 25:12, Jeremiah 52:16) and later, some of those remaining in Israel relocated to Egypt (Jeremiah 43).

In those three locations – Babylon, Palestine and Egypt – – families of Hebrew manuscripts arose. Why exactly would that happen? Quite simply, they could only copy those manuscripts available to them. Sam living in the land of Palestine could not call his uncle Moe in Babylon and ask him to verify a variant reading in his text. So, as a result of the dispersion, Hebrew texts copied in these three locations took on some textual characteristics of their own. Again, in spite of the development of those families, God’s Word was not lost. It was still there in those families with all their unique characteristics.

Eventually, the Jews returned to the land and the professional scribes returned to work making copies of the OT once again, but now the presence of these families needed to be taken into consideration.

Then, another major cultural shaking event took place: the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

By the first century, Jewish religious leaders recognized the need to standardize the Hebrew text in order to maintain the cohesion of what was left of their culture. Those leaders took all three families, along with other translations of the OT like the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT, and compiled a standard Hebrew text to be used for instruction and memorization.

There were also other internal cultural influence on Jewish life impacting the Hebrew language. Most significantly, the change in language from everyone speaking Greek to everyone speaking Latin. Moreover, because the Jews no longer had a centralized culture after the destruction of Jerusalem, more and more Jews were loosing their knowledge of the Hebrew language.

One of the main reasons for this is because the Hebrew language is composed of consonants. There are no written vowels, and any vowel sounds would be supplied by the reader as he considered the context. With a lack of instruction in Hebrew, reading a language made entirely from consonants would be easily lost. It would be as if English were a language made of consonants, and an English speaking person came across the letters BRN. If the reader is only somewhat familiar with the English language, those three letters could be read as BORN, or BARN or even BRAIN depending on the context.

This is where the Masoretes come on the scene around 500 A.D. The Masorah were families who developed vowel pointing systems to aid in the reading of the Hebrew text. There were three major schools of Masoretes: the Babylonian, the Palestinian, and the Tiberian, located on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee.  Each school developed their own vocalization system with a set of vowel symbols and accent marks. Even though each one was slightly different in detail, usually differing between a simple system of vowel points as compared to a more complicated one, they were all the same in substance. In other words, none of the schools altered the reading found in the OT so as to produce heretical teaching.

Eventually, the Tiberian school became the standard vowel pointing system. From the Tiberian school came two separate families, each with slightly different vowel pointing systems: The Aaron ben Asher and the Moses ben Naphtali. Again, they had a slightly different accent system from one another, but both were the same in substance as to the OT text.

In 1524-25, Daniel Bomberg printed the second Rabbinic OT edited by Jacob ben Hayyim ben Adoniyahu (Waite’s alleged “perfectly preserved” OT text). It served as a wonderful edition for translating the OT, but it was still not without problems.

For example, it was based on numerous late and imperfect sources and it included hundreds of variant readings in the margins. Moreover, as much as Waite and other KJV onlyist wish to believe it is God’s perfectly preserved word in the OT, the King James translators did not use this edition exclusively. Further, they were at many times inclined to replace the main text readings with the marginal readings. Are we to believe their divinely directed providential leading trumps ben-Hayyim’s divinely directed leading?

Though Kittel used the Bomberg 2nd edition as his base text in his first two published editions, newer manuscript finds, especially the Leningrad manuscript, represented older editions of the Hebrew text than what had be previously available. As any wise textual critic would do, Kittel switched to what he knew was a better manuscript as his base text. In light of the historical facts, it is disingenuous, and I would even go so far as to say outright lying, for KJVO advocates like Waite to claim the BHS is based upon heretical OT manuscripts. Those so-called 20,000 to 30,000 changes are nothing but detail differences between vowel pointing systems. No fundamental doctrine or historical fact found in the OT is lost, mangled, or intentionally corrupted.

As I close this up, I would recommend two fabulous resources on this subject of OT textual criticism:

Ellis R. Brotzman has written a short, easy to read, lay level treatment entitled Old Testament Textual Criticism: A Practical Introduction. Anyone completely unfamiliar with textual criticism would find this book not only easy to navigate, but a compelling read as the author outlines OT textual criticism in a simple fashion.

Then, Roy E. Beacham’s chapter in the book One Bible Only? entitled The Old Testament Text and the Version Debate, provides a concise outline of the OT text’s transmission down to us today. Just as an aside, I would recommend the entire book as an excellent introductory treatment to King James Onlyism.


3 thoughts on “The Textual Argument: The Preservation of the Old Testament

  1. King James Version is just as much reliable as any other version written in any language that utilizes the sacred preserved texts or family of texts and manuscripts. The late movement away from the texts and manuscripts that Luther, Tyndale, and others used is what the problem is today. Leaving out whole verses and words that should be considered the words of God is the problem. Using spurious manuscripts that were preserved better is no good line of reasoning, they could just as well have been preserved because they were not “used” by anyone. So it is just theoretical on those who choose that route! I go with the scholars of old rather than the modernistic liberal Catholic scholars of recent days. There are some modern day scholars that are not KJV english fans only but reflect upon the manuscripts and text that the KJV comes from as the preserved texts! That position is just as scholarly and just as reliable as any other and in my opinion more so! To discount them and make them out to be “wrong” is only an opinion and not substantiated by evidence. Our problem is really uneducated silly men who talk about the KJV english like it is inspired. It isn’t the English it is the greek and hebrew texts underlying that should be spoken about and stood up for. Yes, I do think God has the power and did execute such for each human language if they use the right texts! The texts and manuscripts are what is taken from the originals and they are as good as gold so to speak just like the scribes of the O.T. copied the originals and they were considered inspired also because they were correct and controlled by God. Why does this have to break down in the N.T. work when we have authentic manuscripts copied from the originals? It doesn’t! But we do have to determine which one’s are from the originals! I don’t think Westcott and Horts position is correct on this issue! So, you are either on their side or the other! I stand with the Reformers and their works and some of them actually knew a lot about all of the spurious manuscripts that were available in their day.

  2. Pingback: Answering the Claims of KJV-Onlyism | hipandthigh

  3. Pingback: The Textual Argument: The Preservation of the New Testament | hipandthigh

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