Bad arguments for the Masoretic Text

by ,

Published: 11 February 2020 (GMT+10)
Great Isaiah Scroll

We began studying the chronology of the Old Testament by comparing the numbers contained in the different text families several years ago. This was in response to a trend among some creationist researchers toward using the inflated chronology of the Septuagint (LXX), which allows them to add several hundred post-Flood years to Earth’s history. There are three major text families that must be analyzed, the Greek Septuagint (LXX), the Hebrew Masoretic (MT), and Samaritan Pentateuch (SP). Our previous articles detail the reasons why we believe the textual and historical evidence indicate that the Masoretic chronology reflects the original form of the Genesis text, and we did not draw this conclusion until after we did our best to assess all relevant facts. As we developed our arguments, we attempted to apply a sober, scholarly analysis to demonstrate our argument without resort to personal attacks or sensationalism, and we exhorted our opponents to do likewise.

It seems now we must do the same with those who would purport to agree with us.

The Creation Research Society Quarterly recently published an article on the MT-LXX debate that strongly supports the MT.1 But the authors make multiple basic errors of logic and fact and fail to address this serious topic with appropriate academic rigor.

For something that supports our position, we do not support the way the article is structured, the way the points are argued, or the way the authors draw their conclusions. They assume the conclusions they need to prove (question begging) and use unfair accusatory language toward their opponents. They use at least one suspect publication as an authoritative source, and extensively cite it as if that proves their points without providing real supporting evidences. They fundamentally misunderstand the historical questions and evidence surrounding this topic. Finally, they fail to cite prior work, including a paper we co-wrote that demonstrably answers one of their main criticisms of the LXX. This is one of the most unhelpful things we have ever read. The LXX-MT debate is straining the creation movement, but this one article sets us back by years. There is not a single paragraph that does not demonstrate a significant flaw.

We regret very much having to write such a negative review of their paper, but it simply does not hold academic water. We have striven to remain civil as we interacted with our LXX-supporting peers, holding them to a high standard while attempting to be fair in our reviews, which were often harsh. This paper, poorly argued as it is, can now be used by them as an example of lame scholarship within the MT-supporting camp as well as an example of deliberately spiteful language.

In the very first sentence of the abstract they call the Septuagint, “…a controversial Greek translation of the Old Testament that also includes the noncanonical Apocrypha.” This is incorrect. The Septuagint, narrowly considered, is actually the Greek translation of the first 5 books of the Bible. Most scholars recognize that the other OT books were translated into Greek later, in a separate process, and the quality of these later books is uneven. The OT books are further differentiated from the apocryphal books, which were not originally written in Hebrew. In other words, even though they were included in the body of literature, they are not part of the ‘translation’. Also, the fact that extant early copies of the Greek Old Testament carry some apocryphal books, and therefore the entire corpus is invalidated, is not in itself a valid argument. The first edition of the King James Bible also included the Apocrypha, yet the authors certainly are not arguing against the KJV. One of the authors has also published with Jack Chick publications, who for decades have been purveyors of theologically controversial tracts with rabidly anti-Catholic leanings and an outspoken King-James-only-ism. One does not expect sound scholarship from such an organization, no matter how noble their intentions or how many have come to saving faith through their efforts over the years, and our expectations were not subverted.

They also claim that no LXX scholar has offered a “forensically reliable remedy” to the claim that the numbers in the LXX require Methuselah to live past the Flood by 14 years. This is also incorrect. They are aware of, yet do not interact with, Henry Smith’s work (which we have responded to in detail). In fact, had they consulted the prior material written on this subject, they would have seen that Smith did indeed offer a historically defensible reason why Methuselah did not live past the Flood in the original translation. Also, they would have seen that we published our agreement with Smith’s conclusions. The first thing anyone does when researching a subject is to familiarize themselves with what has already been written on it. Yet, they did not even include the recent material published by their circle of creationist scholars. Finally, they use the term “forensically” throughout the paper, but with no discernible connection to its commonly understood meaning.

They claim that key messianic prophecies were corrupted in the LXX. They do not demonstrate that this is the case (we will let the reader decide for themselves), but even if that were true, they do not demonstrate that the corruption of one part of the text would indicate corruption of a completely separate part of the text (e.g. the chronogenealogies in Genesis 5 and 11 vs. prophetic books that were translated by different people at a later time). And even if it would lead us to suspect corruption in the genealogies, one would have to demonstrate that such corruption exists.

Each of the examples they cite (Genesis 3:15, Numbers 24:17, Isaiah 9:5, Hosea 11:1, and Zechariah 12:10) can easily be explained by normal phenomena known to text critics, which includes occasional scribal errors. There is no need to appeal to any conspiracy. And we can’t ignore the fact that the earliest surviving LXX manuscripts are Christian documents. They are, after all, attached to our earliest complete copies of the Greek NT. Early Christians would not have been circulating documents that questioned the deity of Jesus.

Yet even if someone demonstrates that corruption exists and was introduced purposely, that does not prove the motive, which the authors argue was “to remove their otherwise clear prophetic connection to the New Testament mission and divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ … most likely by Messiah-rejecting Jews and/or Scripture-altering pseudo-Christian Alexandrian scribes” (p. 40). We know that Messiah-rejecting Jews dealt with Christian use of the OT by emphasizing and writing down their oral tradition. This is the origin of the Talmud, including detailed descriptions of how they answer the scriptural claims that Jesus was the Messiah. However, the authors have not produced evidence that the Jews tampered with what they considered holy scripture. There is no reason to single out Alexandrian pseudo-Christians, unless one wants to go down the route of KJVO conspiracy theories. Shall we forget about Marcion, who was born in Sinope (Turkey) and died in Rome, or Arius, who was born in Libya and died in Constantinople? Furthermore Athanasius of Alexandria was the single greatest apologist against Arianism in his day. Alexander of Alexandria, his predecessor, also was a leader against Arianism, and Cyril of Alexandria was notable for his opposition to Nestorianism (Nestorius, by the way, was from Constantinople. Shall we then cast aspersions on the Byzantine manuscripts?). Their appeal to the supposed power of Origen to corrupt Christian texts is lamentable. By the time of Origen, the text had already been so widely spread that no one individual could have corrupted it.

The entire paper uses conspiratorial language, invoking the Roman Catholic church, “ecumenical evangelicals”, corrupt translation by “gnostic pseudo-Christians”, and the like. This is not the way a well-constructed argument reads, and such verbiage does nothing to advance one’s views among those who can tell a valid from an invalid argument (e.g. among any group composed of academically trained individuals). This is a debacle of epic proportions.

The LXX was not written after the New Testament

The authors argue for the novel view that the LXX was translated after the NT was written. They say that in places where the NT seems to quote the LXX, the LXX actually copied the NT. However, the case for the LXX pre-dating the NT is so certain that if we can’t know that, we cannot know anything about the history of the text.

First, how do we know that the LXX was translated before Jesus? Our earliest copies of the LXX are attached to Alexandrian manuscripts. If you have an unreasonable hatred of all things Alexandrian, you might be put off by that. But the manuscripts themselves (which are from the 300s AD) are not the earliest nor the only evidence for the LXX text. Eusebius wrote Preparation for the Gospel at the beginning of the fourth century AD. In it, he quoted Alexander Polyhistor, who wrote in the 1st century BC, quoting Demetrius the Chronographer, who wrote around 200 BC. Demetrius clearly uses the LXX chronology, giving us the earliest evidence of any of the three major text types.

In another article, we criticized Smith for hypothesizing that Rabbi Akiba changed the MT to shorten the timeline. It would have been logistically impossible, and this contradicts everything we know about what Akiba historically did. But to argue that the LXX postdates the NT is an even more radical theory that flies in the face of all scholarly work on the subject. If they want to make such claims, they should have made an attempt to clearly demonstrate their validity. Instead, reference is made to a book published by Daniels through Chick Publications. No effort is made in the actual article to substantiate these over-the-top claims.

Equally fanciful is the idea they support that NT fragments are contained among the Dead Sea Scrolls. The claim is based on a single fragment, smaller than a thumbnail, which has only one uncontested full word, the Greek word kai, which means “and”. It is so small that any identification would be difficult to prove. And none of the rest of the body of literature found at Qumran gives us any reason to expect a NT document to be preserved among them. Even if the contents from this cave come from the latest possible time of deposition, it would require that the decidedly non-Christian residents of Qumran somehow got hold of a copy of Mark’s gospel at a very early date (so early that we would not be able to differentiate the copy from the original!) and stored it among other Greek-language documents, none of which are clearly identifiable as Christian writing. This is yet another alternate-universe scenario.

Fragment 7Q5, from one of the caves at Qumran, is purported to be a fragment of the New Testament (Mark 6:52–53). However, this is highly disputed by the vast majority of scholars and is no basis for making the claim that the Dead Sea Scrolls post-date the completion of the New Testament canon. [Wikimedia commons]

Bad arguments for the correct conclusion

Some might expect us to go easy on the authors of this paper simply because they come to the same conclusion as us, that the MT chronology, not the LXX, is what God originally inspired. But as Christian scholars, we have to maintain high standards among ourselves, both for our friends and our ‘opponents’.

The authors show no awareness of how one would argue for one chronology over another. By casting aspersions on the LXX in general, they hope to undermine the chronology in general. However, most of their statements are tangential to this debate (including a long excursus about legged whales) and multiple statements that should be pertinent to the discussion are factually incorrect.

The editor informed us that several outside reviewers approved the article. However, they somehow missed the conspiratorial material, logical fallacies, and other errors of fact and logic. This constitutes a lapse in the peer review process. While we recognize that everyone is fallible, there is a certain standard for academic writing, and this paper falls far short of those expectations.

While we disagree with the LXX advocates within biblical creationist circles, we feel that they and their views deserve the respect of a fair, scholarly discussion. Let us all seek higher levels of scholarship, and friendly interactions among all parties, as we tease apart these critical yet difficult subjects. This paper should never have been published.

References and notes

  1. Tomkins, J.P., Daniels, D.W., and Johnson, J.J.S., Extensive messianic prophecy corruptions and Flood-related chronology errors disqualify the Septuagint (LXX) as a reliable source for creationist research, CRSQ 56:40–47, 2019. Return to text.

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