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Iron sharpening iron: the MT-LXX debate as a case study of Christian disagreement

Published: 3 August 2019 (GMT+10)
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Recently, we have received some criticism regarding our interaction with Dr. Henry Smith’s research into the Septuagint (LXX) version of the Bible. The history of this back-and-forth is contained in our latest article on this topic, The Masoretic Text of Genesis 5 and 11 is still the most reliable. Daniel B. wrote a long letter taking exception to our interaction with Dr. Smith. Several others also wrote in to complain about the tone of our article, so we will take the time to give them, and the reader, a proper response. Some of his points included:

  • He felt that our work was both below par and unfairly treated Dr. Smith.
  • He felt that referring to the Ephraem the Syrian quote as ‘forged’ imparted a motive of dishonesty to Smith and we should have used different language.
  • He pointed out there were some points in Smith’s article that we didn’t respond to, and other arguments we dismissed.
  • He felt that we should have treated Dr. Smith differently as a brother in Christ.

Lita Cosner and Robert Carter respond:

Daniel, it seems like you’re engaging in a bit of a double standard. You feel free to “inflict some wounds of a friend” in the spirit of “iron sharpening iron,” and use those exact phrases in your letter to us. Yet you don’t interpret our critical remarks of Smith in the same vein. Rather you attribute negative motive to us.

You also use a lot of emotive language when talking about our work (e.g., “intentional deception”, “ascribing less-than-honorable motives”, and “troubling”), yet we tried to be dispassionate and scholarly. In fact, we were much more restrained in our comments on the errors in Smith’s work than the wider community would be. If he cares to test that himself by presenting his work in a mainstream scholarly forum, even one full of conservative Bible scholars, he will find that we were nothing short of charitable. The fact is that glaring errors in logic, historical analysis, and research were made. We agree with your statement that “we should studiously hold ourselves to a higher standard” in Christian scholarship. But we’ve demonstrated that Smith’s research does not meet that high standard. This would not normally be a big deal, except that the subject is a big deal and the faith of many people might be impacted if this is indeed an example of poor scholarship. All of us, you included, would do well to take heed of an important biblical admonition:

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways…” (James 3:1–2a)

It might also be helpful for us to talk about our motivation in this work. We want to know what the Bible says. Period. And we are open to scholarly debates on important issues. As we have said multiple times, we are willing to be persuaded.

Yet, one of CMI’s central messages is that people can trust the Bible from the first verse. But when the average Christian hears that, they think of the leather-bound book they’ve been reading since they were young. Most people don’t have a solid concept of the ‘autographs’, as defined by the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy. People struggle enough with different translations, let alone questions about the Johannine Comma and the long ending of Mark (the inevitable comments protesting this sentence will be proof of that!), and these are trivial matters compared to the LXX vs. MT debate. Thus, we don’t want to raise arguments that have the unintentional side effect of confirming what skeptics like Bart Ehrman say—that the leather-bound book they think is the Word of God really has been corrupted so much that we can’t be certain about what it says.

For that reason, even though we started out determined to be as unbiased as possible, we were very happy that our conclusions supported the Masoretic Text, as almost all scholars have also concluded for over 1,000 years. We aren’t the first Christians to ask these questions, after all.

Text criticism is a field of study in its own right, and it is very difficult for a layperson to get into it without training from experts. This is because it is a field that has developed over a long period of time, and it is hard for one person to replicate that on their own. There are many errors into which the untrained individual can easily fall but that are obvious to the person with the benefit of training. You can probably think of areas in your own specialization of astrophysics that would be nearly impossible for even a very intelligent layperson to unravel on their own. How easy would it be for the novice or incautious student to fall into the trap of geocentrism, for example? There are probably other and better examples that you can think of, because you are in the middle of the field and are being trained at a very high level.

You say, “I found that the matrix he [Smith] presented, when interpreted from the starting assumption of the LXX holding the correct dates, was more plausible than when interpreted from the starting position of the MT’s dates being correct.” Respectfully, the table of differences is just numbers and there are various ways to interpret those numbers. There is a way that text critics have developed to determine which is most likely original. Rather than relying on historical arguments as Smith does, we have to go back to the primary texts; the earliest copies of the extant forms of the text in question, and then seek to explain how we got from a single original text to the forms that exist today. We must also examine the people who quoted the text in question throughout history to estimate when that text form came into existence. We did this work in Textual Traditions and Biblical Chronology. And one of our conclusions is that it is much easier to explain the versions that now exist starting with an MT-like original. While it is possible that LXX scholarship might have an answer to the conclusions we present there, the LXX-supporting community has yet to meaningfully interact with this work.

Instead, Smith went straight to a tertiary historical argument. He argued that the Jews forged the text at the time of Rabbi Akiba and Bar Kochba because of the Christian use of the chronology. We showed that 1) the texts existed by the time of Christ, so the Masoretic could not have been forged at the time of bar Kochba, 2) Smith’s primary source for that allegation was forged, and 3) Rabbi Akiba’s response to the Christian use of the OT was to consolidate the Jewish traditions into a new layer over the OT. By the way, you say using the term “forged quote” means that we are implying a motive of intentional deception on Smith’s part, but this is not the case. The clear implication of our words was that Smith used a false quote that someone else had generated. We did not attribute the forgery to him, but to someone in the line of research he used. Even if two 19th Century scholars (e.g., Hales and Wacholder) used the disputed quote, this means nothing. They were wrong and good scholarship should have picked out the error. He admitted that his use of the quotation was a mistake, and we accept that. But his source committed the error either through forgery or ignorance. This is precisely why one of the basic practices of good research is to trace a quote back to its source.

Our book Evolutionists say the Oddest Things is a prime example of this. I (LC) spent an enormous amount of time collating and fact-checking hundreds of quotations from leading evolutionists. Nothing went into that book that was not rock-solid, but the amount of research required was huge. I literally spent months on it. By contrast, using basic research techniques that students are taught in the undergraduate level. Within a few hours of research, I found that the Ephraem quote was almost certainly forged. The fact that we had to do that work for them signifies a significant problem in their methods.

You also take exception to the description of his argumentation as ‘hand-waving’. First, we’ve responded to most of his claims before, and he has done nothing to respond to our more substantial criticisms that deal with the heart of the issue. You can’t major on the tertiary points when your primary arguments are left with gaping wounds. Talking about this or that other witness, out of context as often as not, does not fix the major problems: he is claiming that a historical figure created something a century after it already existed, in contradiction to what the source was known to have done, and despite the fact that his main documentation is at the very least incorrectly attributed.

You also say there are parts of Smith’s argument that we didn’t deal with. This is true. We didn’t bother with some of his arguments, because at some point it would be like beating a dead horse, and we did not want to write another long essay on the subject. This was not necessary as the argument was already settled.

You say lots of complimentary things about Smith’s Christian testimony and character—and on that we agree. But someone can be a good Christian and wrong about some things. And when someone is wrong about some things, the kind thing is to point it out. One might even call it “inflicting the wounds on a friend” (Proverbs 27:6). Yet, we had to do so publicly because his works were out in the public sphere and many of our supporters were asking us about it. We were careful not to call names or attribute motive, although some, like you, interpreted our words otherwise.

Our main point still stands—Smith’s argument is implausible (to put it as mildly and as kindly as possible) whether one looks at the textual or historical side of the argument. The genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 in the Masoretic text are still the best candidates for the original numbering system. We will hold this view until shown otherwise. In reply to your signing off with the Latin slogan of the Jesuit order, we will reply with the words Martin Luther is purported to have said while on trial for his faith in 1521, “Here I stand. I can do no other.”

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Readers’ comments

Kevin B.
It gets a little sad when we lose sight of the bigger picture in full Bible textual apologetics. Consider the following: 1. The Septuagint was translated from the Hebrew text to Greek in 70BC (by the Jewish nation for of the Western world). 2. The Armenian Church of the East held a complete translation of the same Hebrew OT text into Aramaic, (the language of Jesus Christ and the Eastern Church) done for them according to Armenian history by the Apostle John in c90AD. 3. Aramaic is the parent language of Hebrew. 3. The English translation of the Aramaic has the same depth and wealth of understanding of the unchanged Hebrew text used for the Septuagint (something lost to the translators of the Massoretic who used the same Hebrew text). 4. But the Aramaic and the Massoretic both agree on the chronologies in Genesis with an exception as to Terah's age at 75 for the birth of Abraham in the Aramaic - instead of 70 in the Massoretic. (This could be the English translations typo). 5. Most genuine scholars agree that the translators of the Septuagint exaggerated the ages of the patriarchs by set amounts to fit and exaggerated Roman and Egyptian chronologies of the day. Don't let the 'iron sharpens iron' thing be an excuse for knocking each other unconscious. God is good and his Word is true.
Alf F.
So many would-be lay scholars are only willing to study the material of their own school of predigested thinking; to love truth one must rise above that.
Grahame G.
This hypocricy (sorry, hypocrisy for US readers) is rife in modern Christianity. Don't judge! If I perceive you are judging, I will hold nothing back in judging you for judging. Jesus was VERY judgemental of sin. In the very passage people seem to think He is saying don't judge (Matt 7:1, which doesn't actually say that), Jesus goes on to tell use to judge but judging ourselves first so we can judge others. In John 7:24, Jesus commands us to judge righteous judgement! And let's go back to Matthew 7 again and look at verse 6 where Jesus says to not cast our pearls before swine (pigs) or give what is holy to dogs. If that's not judgement, then what is?? And not only is HE judging but He is commanding us to judge again because we can't obey the command unless we know who the dogs and pigs are. And then we could turn to Matthew 23. If you speak in a way that aligns with that attitude you will be called unloving and unChristlike. Forgive the bluntness of the following truth, but this is lunacy. It's even demonic to accuse the work of Christ to be from the devil. In fact, it is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit to accuse the work of God of being of the devil. If you think that we should not obey the Christ of Matthew 23 and follow in His steps, then which Christ are you trusting. Jesus commands us to judge. He commands us to call out sin. He is very clear on this. And I know that some people say it is not gentle or meek or etc to speak the truth and call out sin, but Jesus is all those things and He did it. I will follow Him and not be distracted by those who twist God's word. If you want to challenge me directly, find me of Facebook, but bring God's word and some humility. I will seek to do the same. God bless you all as you seek Him.
Thomas C.
A curiosity. I come across some info that claimed that most of the other world religions started when the first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. That is they became more prominent if not created at that time. Mostly because people thought that the God of the Jewish nation was weak and not that able to protect his people. Tying it into the Scriptural integrity, many forget that all peoples had in their past the real history of the creation and flood, and dispersion though corrupted over time. Especially since the fall of Israel Kingdoms.
David S.
Textual criticism does not determine what is the word of God. It is a canonical issue, both in the books of the Bible and in the text of the Bible. Most conservative Christian scholars are willing to concede the point of canonicity when speaking of which books make up the word of God, but abandon that test for the fickle world of textual criticism when considering the readings. We would rather allow certain authorities (scholarly textual critics, popes, councils) to determine what is the text of scripture instead of relying on the tried and true tests of canonicity (apostolic authorship, Divine characteristic, reception and use by the wider church through the centuries). Rely upon the experts if you must, but I will put my faith in the providence of God through his people to determine what text is “God breathed”. The reformers were not shy in declaring the text they used to be the inspired, INERRANT Word of God, and they were not referring to the autographs, but to the text they held in their hands.
Mitch C.
Thank you for speaking the truth in love! For me, one of the most compelling reasons to reject the authenticity of the Johannine Comma (1 John 5:7) is that it was never cited in defense of the Trinity during the Arian controversy at the First Nicean Council (AD 325), either by Athanasius or any of the others present. This is one glaring example where the KJV departs from the so-called "Majority Text". Of the thousands of New Testament manuscripts that have survived, there are only 8 manuscripts that contain the Comma, and all of them date to around the time when Erasmus compiled his Greek New Testament (early 1500's). The Wikipedia article on Erasmus notes: "The first and second edition texts did not include the passage (1 John 5:7–8) that has become known as the Comma Johanneum. Erasmus had been unable to find those verses in any Greek manuscript, but one was supplied to him during production of the third edition." The King James Version was based on the 3rd edition of Stephanus, published in 1556, which included many of the readings from Erasmus' New Testament (including 1 John 5:7). There is no Greek manuscript that agrees 100% with either the Stephanus text or Erasmus text. Both were the product of comparing manuscripts that differed in places from one another, and even the original KJV had marginal notes indicating variants. Modern translations, such as the NASB, ESV, NIV, etc., are based on a much broader base of manuscripts, most of which are hundreds of years older than the manuscripts available to translators in 1611, and some date to within a few centuries of the apostles, giving less time for copyist errors to find their way into the manuscripts, and would agree more closely with the autographs (i.e. the original documents written by the apostles).
Jim B.
Whew. Thanks for a common sense answer to what seems to be some recent hysteria supporting a phantom alternative Hebrew manuscript that has never been seen by anyone. In contrast, we have the words of Moses preserved for us in Hebrew by those who God says are the custodians of the oracles of God. "What advantage then has the Jew? or what is the profit to be of the Circumcision? Much every way: first of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God/ to them were committed the oracles of God." (Romans 3:1-2) "He shows His word unto Jacob, His statutes and His ordinances unto Israel. He has not dealt so with any nation." Psalm 147:19-20 Unless and until someone produces an actual Hebrew text that is older than what is represented in the Masoretic text - then there is no cause for us to set aside what God has preserved for us in the Hebrew language. Thanks again!
Jon C.
I would be interested in learning who would be considered LXX scholars in the estimation of MT scholars. I understand that a good part of the OT quotes in the New Testament were from the LXX. I've been led to believe that most Palestinian Jews knew Aramaic and Greek, but that few knew the pre-Babylonian Hebrew. In a series of lectures by Michael Rydelnik, I heard that the LXX is more reliable than the MT, especially in regard to messianic prophecies. The rabbis that reconstructed the ancient Hebrew text, producing the MT during 100-800 CE, sometimes purposely watered down messianic prophecies so it would be more difficult for readers to recognize them as messianic. Jews in the early years of Christianity were hard-pressed to resist Christian arguments since both Jews and Christians were using or were familiar with the LXX. Judaism lost a great many people to Christianity during the church's infancy. In Acts, Luke says that even many rabbis became believers then. I was wondering if you knew of these claims.
Lita Cosner
Jon, Isaiah 53 is as strongly Messianic in the Masoretic text as it is in the LXX and indeed in our English translations. If any group of Jews tried to scrub Messianic passages out of the Torah, they failed miserably. And we know how Jews dealt with the Messianic verses in the OT; they added so many layers of rabbinic interpretation on them that the average Jew never even sees the prophecy itself.
Paul M.
From article:

"The fact that we had to that work for them signifies a significant problem in their methods."

Huh?
Lita Cosner
A basic element of research is ensuring that one's sources are actually valid. I should not have had to dig through sources to try to ascertain where the quote came from, and ultimately conclude it was a forgery, because Smith should have done that work and never used the quote in the first place. His method was faulty on a foundational level.

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