How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament: Step 3—Text Criticism

Series: How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament 

by Jason DeRouchie December 22, 2020

For all their care and attention to detail, the scribes who copied and recopied the Hebrew Bible were not perfect. Errors in copying did occur. Poor memory, impaired judgment, mishearing, and errors of sight or misunderstanding caused the best-intentioned scribes to omit, substitute, or repeat letters or words. At times, scribes made matters worse by deliberately altering the text to correct a perceived problem. The ultimate result was a series of accidental corruptions or intended improvements that departed from the original text. Most modern translators engage in the science of text criticism in order to establish the original readings, and most modern translations use footnotes to inform readers where the text is difficult or where scribal variants may exist.

The Nature and Purpose of Text Criticism

The presence of textual errors among the biblical witnesses does not destroy the Bible’s credibility or message. Just as an alert reader can understand a book that has typographical errors in it, so too God’s word is able to speak for itself despite the scribes’ minor corruptions. Most of the biblical text is certain, and where variations do occur among existing copies, scholars can usually determine the original wording with a reasonable degree of certainty.

Text criticism is the discipline of restoring the biblical authors’ original words by comparing and contrasting the various copies and translations of the Bible. Here “criticism” means not “finding fault with” but “evaluating” the existing copies. The guiding principle when evaluating the various readings is that the more original reading is the one that best explains the rise of all the others.

Texts and Versions

From the earliest period of the Bible’s origin, there was a tendency among God’s people to preserve the text and to update things like the Hebrew script, spelling developments, and geographical data for later generations. The Jews saw the Scriptures as God’s lasting and authoritative word, so they sought not only to copy the text with great care but also to explain (through side comments), update (in the ways noted above), and translate the text so as to preserve the meaning.

Not one of the original biblical manuscripts still exists. Nevertheless, through the years, faithful scribes, translators, and expositors have preserved the Scriptures. For the OT, we have ancient manuscripts in Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, Syriac, and Latin. There are also thousands of leather and papyrus scroll fragments, some more than two thousand years old. These sources bear witness to the “original” OT. Scholars call the Hebrew witnesses “texts,” and they tag translations “versions.” What follows are the most important texts and versions.


The primary witnesses to the original OT are the copies written in Hebrew. The most significant of these texts are the Masoretic Text(s), the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Samaritan Pentateuch.

  • Masoretic Text(s) (MT): The Masoretic Text is the received standard text of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is called “Masoretic” because it is the text tradition of the Jewish scholars known as the Masoretes, who worked between AD 500–1000 to add to the consonantal Hebrew text a system of vowels, accents, and notes that guaranteed a more accurate transmission of the biblical text. No other text from the ancient world was as carefully safeguarded as the MT. Recipients have regarded its tradition as authoritative, and we can still consider it highly trustworthy. Today the earliest complete Masoretic manuscript, the Leningrad Codex (AD 1008), is used for the standard edition of the Hebrew OT. Another ancient copy, the Aleppo Codex, is even earlier (AD 925), but part of the Pentateuch is missing.
  • Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS): Up until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, the earliest known copies of the Hebrew Bible were those produced by the Masoretes in the Middle Ages. But with the 800 scrolls found in the Judaean Desert, dating from approximately 250 BC to AD 135 and including every OT book except Esther, our knowledge of the OT text was pushed back a thousand years! The DSS contained Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic manuscripts and fragments. A great number of the OT manuscripts found reflect essentially the same text inherited by the Masoretes, confirming the antiquity and authority of the MT. The most famous DSS text is the great Isaiah scroll (1QIsaa), which contains the entire book of Isaiah.
  • Samaritan Pentateuch (Smr): This is the Pentateuch of the Samaritan community, the semi-Jewish breakaway group that grew up in the region of Samaria after Assyria’s occupation (2 Kgs 17:29) and that Jesus encountered several times in his ministry (e.g., John 4). They recognized only the Pentateuch as canonical. In some places it seems that scribes have deliberately altered the Samaritan Pentateuch to support the theology of the Samaritans, but many differences between it and the MT are merely spelling related (orthographic), so we can still use it for text-critical purposes.


Since the discovery of the DSS, the ancient versions (or translations) of the Bible have become less important for establishing the original OT text. Nevertheless, readings that differ from the MT are still evaluated in at least four early versions: the Greek Septuagint, the Aramaic Targums, the Syriac Peshitta, and the Latin Vulgate.

  • Septuagint (LXX): The most important of all versions, the Septuagint is the translation of the OT into Greek that became the early church’s Bible. Although its origins are debated, the process of translation probably began around the mid-third century BC in Alexandria, Egypt. It does not appear to be the work of a single translator or even of a single group of translators; it has been called a collection of translations. Some books in the LXX are translated skillfully and accurately, but others, such as Job, are very free renditions. It is the most useful version for helping us establish the original OT text because (1) it is the earliest translation of the entire OT, (2) it is well attested in numerous manuscripts, and (3) it contains more significant variant readings than any other version. Still, very few scholars would regard it as superior to the MT, even though certain DSS material supports some of its readings.
  • Targums (T): Aramaic for “translation” or “interpretation,” a Targum is an Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Scriptures made for postexilic Jews whose mother tongue was Aramaic. Targums tend to paraphrase freely—at times exceedingly so. Targum Onkelos is the official Targum for the Law, and Targum Jonathan is the official Targum for the Prophets, but there are also a number of unofficial Targums. Translators appear to have worked from a text very similar to the MT. However, individuals translated the Targums interpretively, loosely, and with comments, which results in their being of less use for establishing the original Hebrew text.
  • Peshitta (S): Syriac for “simple” or “straightforward,” the Peshitta is the authorized Bible of the Syrian Church. Syriac is a later dialect of Aramaic. Although the history of the Syriac text is complex and debated, it appears that it has Jewish rather than Christian origin, dating no later than the fourth century AD. It was originally translated relatively literally from the Hebrew making it helpful for text criticism.
  • Vulgate (V): The Vulgate is Latin for “common” or “popular,” and since the late fourth century AD it has served as the standard Bible of the western church. The OT portion comprises the church father Jerome’s translation of the Hebrew text into Latin. When translating, Jerome depended largely upon the Septuagint and varied a lot in his literalness, so we must be cautious when using the OT Vulgate as a witness to the Hebrew original.

The Process of Text Criticism: A Case Study in Psalm 22:16

Psalm 22 contains a well-known example of a text problem. This is the “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” psalm. The NT refers to this psalm numerous times in relation to Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection. In verse 16 (verse 17 in the Hebrew) the ESV reads, “They have pierced my hands and feet,” which is the preferred reading in all the major English versions except the NET Bible, which reads, “Like a lion they pin my hands and feet.”[1] These two renderings reflect different opinions over which manuscripts preserve the most original reading.

External evidence

The first step in considering a text-critical problem is to identify the various readings in the texts and versions. An ESV footnote alerts the reader that its translation follows some Hebrew manuscripts, the Greek Septuagint, Latin Vulgate, and Syriac Peshitta, whereas most Hebrew manuscripts read “like a lion, my hands and feet.” Even if you don’t know Hebrew, you can see the similarity and distinction in the spellings.

  • The texts:
    • MT:     כָּאֲרִי יָדַי וְרַגְלָי (“like a lion my hands and feet”)
    • DSS:    כרי[ו] ידי ורגלי (“they have pierced his hands and feet”; 4QPsf, followed by LXX ,V, S)
  • The difference:
    • MT:     כְּ (“like”) + אֲרִי (“lion”)
    • DSS:    כָּרוּ (“they burrowed, gouged, pierced”)

Internal evidence

The NET Bible notes affirm that the Hebrew phrasing in the MT is “grammatically awkward,” and this led the English translators to supply the clause’s subject and verb, “they pin.” Nevertheless, the notes suggest that the difficult syntax may exist due to “rhetorical design” in order “to convey the panic and terror felt by the psalmist.”[2] Against this approach, there is a difference between a construction that is “grammatically awkward” but still makes sense and one that is completely unintelligible. As the phrase stands, the grouping of words in the majority of Hebrew manuscripts of Psalm 22:16 is nonsensical, which lends support to the reading in the DSS and versions.

The wording of Psalm 22:16 in the bulk of the Hebrew manuscripts could be one of a number of examples in the OT where the bias of later Jewish scribes against Christianity moved them (consciously or unconsciously) to vocalize the Hebrew text in a less messianic way.[3] Furthermore, including “lion” in verse 16 would break what appears to be an intentional inversion of the enemy lists, which follow an ABCD-D′C′B′A′ pattern:

  • 22:12–18: “bulls”; a “lion”; “dogs”; armed “evildoers” (vv. 12, 13, 16)
  • 22:20–21: “the sword”; “the dog”; “the lion”; the horned “wild oxen.”[4]

In all likelihood, Psalm 22:16 stands alongside Zechariah 12:10 (which uses a different verb for “pierced”) in supplying a direct prediction of the Messiah’s death (Matt 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:33), which included the piercing of his hands and feet (John 19:37; cf. 20:25; Luke 24:40).

Statement of significance

No major doctrines are at stake in this text-critical issue. God ordained that the Roman soldiers pierce Jesus’s feet and hands for our transgressions regardless of whether Psalm 22:16 predicted it or not (cf. Isa 53:5). As here, most scribal questions in Scripture involve minor points in the text. We have good reason to be confident that the translations that are now available reflect faithfully, yet never perfectly, what the authors originally wrote. The presence of scribal errors should not cause fear or move us to think the Bible is untrustworthy. Instead, we should rejoice that God has preserved his word through the ages and has raised up faithful scholars in our day to help establish the best readings when textual variants are present.

Note: This post adapts material from “Chapter 3: Text Criticism” in DeRouchie’s How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament, 128–56.

[1] The Hebrew texts lack the italicized words, but the translators added them in an attempt to make sense of the verse.

[2] The NET Bible (Richardson, TX: Biblical Studies Press, 1996–2006), s.v. Ps. 22:16 n. 36.

[3] Various types of Jewish post-biblical interpretation are evident through the Masoretic Text. Some proposed examples directly relate to messianic interpretations. These include reading “Gog” instead of “Agag” in Numbers 24:7; understanding David’s last words to concern “the Christ” instead of himself in 2 Samuel 23:1; viewing Psalm 72:5 as a prayer for the unending reign of the hoped-for king and not for the people to fear him; treating “Mighty God” and “Everlasting Father” as titles for the promised child and not God the Father in Isaiah 9:6; and reading the timeframe of “the anointed” one’s coming in Daniel 9:25 to be aligned with the appearing of Jesus (after 7 weeks + 62 weeks) and not some other much earlier figure (e.g., Nehemiah). For an overview of these texts, see especially Michael Rydelnik, The Messianic Hope: Is the Hebrew Bible Really Messianic?, NAC Studies in Bible and Theology 9 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2010), 34–46, along with the discussions in Roger T. Beckwith, “Daniel 9 and the Date of the Messiah’s Coming in Essene, Hellenistic, Pharisaic, Zealot, and Early Christian Computation,” RevQ 40 (1981): 521–42; John H. Sailhamer, Introduction to Old Testament Theology: A Canonical Approach (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 204–5, 220–21.

[4] For a full text-critical argument in favor of the LXX reading, see C. R. Gren, “Piercing the Ambiguities of Psalm 22:16 and the Messiah’s Mission,” JETS 48 (2005): 284–99.