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The Masoretic text of Genesis 5 and 11 is still the most reliable

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Published: 4 June 2019 (GMT+10)
Bible-Genesis

Creationists have recently been examining the textual basis for the Genesis 5 and 11 genealogies. Since the Greek Septuagint (LXX) manuscript family produces a chronology over 1,300 years longer than the Hebrew Masoretic (MT) manuscript family,1 this examination has generated considerable debate. We are on the record preferring the Masoretic Text, and we have detailed our reasons in print. Specifically, our article Textual Traditions and Biblical Chronology lays out a conceptual scheme for approaching this issue and Is the Septuagint a superior text for the Genesis genealogies? argues that one of the main proponents of this view, Henry Smith, made several critical errors in his defense of the LXX. Smith referenced our first paper in an article he published at the last International Conference on Creationism2 and a paper in the Answers Research Journal.3 Now he has responded to our second paper in a 4-part series on the Associates for Biblical Research website while admitting to a major error of scholarship.4 It is our contention that LXX supporters still have a lot of work to do, and Smith should consider retracting his earlier papers.

Ephraem the Syrian

In Is the Septuagint a superior text for the Genesis genealogies?, we pointed out that Smith used a forged quote from Ephraem the Syrian (AD 306–373), which claims the Jews altered the biblical text by reducing the timespan covered by the chronogenealogies in Genesis 5 and 11. This would make Jesus’ birth too early for him to be the Messiah, according to a certain type of chiliasm.5 But the quote cannot be traced to an original source and is contradicted by Ephraem’s extant writings.

The entirety of Part 1 of Smith’s latest response is his admission that we were correct about the Ephraem quote, and that his including it was a mistake. He also gave a detailed explanation of how the mistake came about but he asserts that it makes very little difference either way. We disagree strongly.

While Christian charity may incline us to overlook the error, once admitted, it cannot be forgotten that this quote provided a major piece of evidence for Smith’s claim. If genuine, it would have been the earliest claim that the text of Genesis 5 and 11 was tampered with for Messianic reasons. As it is, the earliest claim is now Julian of Toledo (AD 646–690), a medieval source. If, as it seems, Julian is the first person to make such a claim, fully half a millennium after the events, there is no reason to give the claim any credence at all.

Losing the Ephraem quote as a source invalidates the raison d'être for his entire line of thought. This is not a minor matter.

Other witnesses

Ephraem has been invalidated as a source, and Julian is the earliest known witness to the claim the Jews modified the Bible for Messianic reasons, but Julian wasn’t the first person to claim the Jews changed Genesis 5 and 11. Eusebius (AD 263–339) noticed the difference between the Hebrew (MT) and Greek (LXX) versions, and claimed that the Jews changed the genealogies. As a Greek speaker, he supported the LXX readings. But notably lacking is any anti-Christian motivation—he claimed it was to encourage earlier marriage by reducing the ages at which the Patriarchs married in Scripture (the age of the birth of the sons in Genesis 11 is generally 100 years later in the LXX than in the MT). Could Eusebius even know this was the reason, or was he only speculating? In Part 2, Smith says “C&C [Cosner and Carter] acknowledge Eusebius’ claim, but then dismiss its evidential significance out of hand.” But this misrepresents our argument. We claim that Eusebius’ testimony itself acts against Smith’s argument, because Eusebius, one of the earlier witnesses, does not testify to a Messianic motive.

There were others who claimed the Jews changed Scripture for anti-Christian motives. Justin Martyr claimed (probably wrongly) that the Jews changed Ezra and Jeremiah (Dialogue with Trypho 72), not Genesis. And Irenaeus claimed the Jews misinterpreted (not mistranslated) Isaiah to disqualify Jesus as Messiah (Against Heresies 3.21.1). But this is evidence against Smith for the same reason—while they attribute changes to anti-Messianic motives elsewhere, they do not do this for the genealogies in Genesis. So Smith’s strongest evidence for Jewish tampering, which is weak to begin with, has nothing to do with the passage at hand.

So we have both claims—the Jews changed the genealogies and the Jews changed some other Scriptures for anti-Christian reasons—but we do not find the claims together, that the Jews changed the genealogies for anti-Christian reasons, until Julian of Toledo, and Julian gives us no special reason to regard his testimony.

Yet this doesn’t stop Smith from seeming to think we’ve only given his argument a flesh wound. He actually turns it around and claims that it was a blessing in disguise! He spends much time in his four-part article series discussing various witnesses and how their statements should be taken seriously. But it seems like nothing much more than hand-waving. We are left with these facts:

  1. The earliest known Christian witnesses who noticed differences between the LXX and the MT came down on different sides regarding which was more reliable—Eusebius said LXX, Jerome (AD 377–420) said MT, and so on.
  2. The earliest Christian witnesses who claimed the Jews changed the MT Genesis genealogies did not connect those changes to anti-Christian motives.
  3. The earliest Christians to charge Jews with changing Scripture for anti-Christian motives did not give the Genesis genealogies as one of their examples but stuck to much more straightforwardly Messianic passages in other parts of Scripture.
  4. The earliest Christian to claim the Jews changed Genesis 5 and 11 out of anti-Christian motives was Julian of Toledo, almost 600 years after the alleged tampering.

An impossible conspiracy

Smith claims that Rabbi Akiba (AD 50–135), who was executed by the Romans at the end of the Bar Kokhba rebellion, had the authority to make the ‘changes’ we see in the MT genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11. This would have necessitated that every Jewish synagogue change their Torah scrolls. This includes Jewish congregations across Europe, Africa, and Asia.6 As ridiculous as this is, even if we grant it, the MT text type cannot have originated here, because, as we have shown in Is the Septuagint a superior text for the Genesis genealogies?, all three major text types existed by the end of the first century. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Akiba wanted to change all the synagogue scrolls to the MT text type for anti-Christian reasons. Akiba wasn’t the Jewish Pope. He couldn’t simply demand that every rabbi, from Italy to Mesopotamia, destroy the set of scrolls kept in every synagogue throughout the Jewish diaspora and replace them with new ones. And we wonder how much infighting would result if he had tried.

But let’s say that Akiba did convince every rabbi, sending hundreds of letters via armies of messengers across the Roman Empire and beyond. And let’s say that, as one man, the rabbis decided that the Christian threat was so great that not one Hebrew copy of the true genealogy could be preserved. They could not possibly have accomplished this.

For one thing, each Torah scroll had to be copied by hand and was meticulously checked for accuracy. This required the work of professional scribes, and the process to create a single scroll could take several years, depending on how ornate the scroll was. Considering the number of scrolls that would need to be replaced, it would have taken decades, even generations, to complete the job, even given a professional scriptorium dedicated to doing nothing but generating the new version of the Torah. But remember, Akiba was dead, killed by the Romans, and certainly some Jews were thinking he got what he deserved. It is difficult to believe that Judaism was unified enough at this time to accept a wholesale change of their founding documents.

Smith claims this would have taken place without leaving a record; that the whole point would have been to keep it secret. But is this even possible? You can’t have a horde of messengers, carrying hundreds of copies of letters to get every single rabbi in the known world, telling them to hire professionals to create new forged scrolls, in a decades-long conspiracy designed to change the text of Scripture itself and have it remain a closely-guarded secret. It requires multiple layers of impossible circumstances.

But it gets even worse for Smith, because we know Akiba’s real concern and we know what he did about it—he systematized the Jewish traditions, for which he is known as the father of modern rabbinic Judaism, which is far more dependent on the Talmud than the Torah. The Torah still has authority in modern Judaism, but they claim it cannot be understood apart from the Talmud. Got that? He wanted to keep the Jews unified after the destruction of the Temple and he wanted to counter the influence of the growing Christian religion. He knew that he couldn’t use Scripture alone, because the early Christians accepted the Jewish Scriptures and even used them to support Christian claims. Thus, he created an entire new level of ‘scripture’ and there is no evidence that he attempted to change the Scriptures that existed.

Textual analysis

Smith’s errors show that his historical reconstruction is unlikely in the extreme. But the textual analysis shows it’s impossible. First, as we pointed out above, since the MT already existed before Akiba, he couldn’t have invented it. Second, any reconstruction of the history of the text has to account for the three major text types which exist and how they derive from a single original. As we explained in Textual Traditions and Biblical Chronology, it is trivial to explain how the current MT, LXX, and SP came from an MT-like original, but it is hard to get both the MT and the SP from an LXX-like original. Smith has yet to seriously interact with our work on this topic and seems not to even understand how important it is.

Conclusion

Henry Smith has painted himself into a corner with his Genesis 5 and 11 research project and he appears to have some pre-conceived biases that are colouring his analysis. He admits that he failed to discern a genuine source from a forged source and his incoherent and selective use of historical sources shows that he is no better at historical argumentation. He has not even attempted a textual reconstruction, beyond trying to establish that the Septuagint originally had a correct figure for Methuselah in his ARJ paper.

In short, we find no reason to take Smith’s arguments for the LXX seriously, and many reasons to regard his research with skepticism. The best thing he could do to salvage some credibility would be to acknowledge the problems with his argumentation and retract his prior work.

As we stated similarly in our earlier papers, we implore the LXX community to rise to a higher standard of scholarship. As all parties to this debate acknowledge, the biblical text is not a trivial thing to monkey around with. We know that deliberate changes were made somewhere in history, probably in the century or two leading up to the birth of Christ, and we all want to get to the bottom of it. Personally, we would love an extra couple of centuries post-flood to fit more archaeological evidence before Abraham, but unfortunately the text itself does not allow for that. We know that our LXX-supporting friends are conservative, Bible-believing Christians, and we are willing to be persuaded by them. However, to date, this community has not produced the type of documentation required. As the old adage says, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,7 and we are still waiting for them to produce the evidence needed to back up these extraordinary claims. So far, their best arguments have fallen short.

References and notes

  1. Hardy, C., and Carter, R., The biblical minimum and maximum age of the earth, Journal of Creation 28(2):89–96, 2014. Return to text.
  2. Smith, H.B., Jr., The case for the Septuagint’s chronology in Genesis 5 and 11, Proc. of the Eighth ICC, ed. J.H. Whitmore, pp. 117–132, icc.org. Return to text.
  3. Smith, H.B., Jr., Methuselah’s begetting age in Genesis 5:25 and the primeval chronology of the Septuagint, ARJ 10:169–179, 2017, answersingenesis.org. Return to text.
  4. Smith, H.B., Jr., Setting the record straight on the primeval chronology of the Septuagint, parts 1–4, biblearchaeology.org. Return to text.
  5. Refers to an eschatological scheme that believed that the world would go through seven ages of one thousand years that were analogous to the days of Creation. Return to text.
  6. Carter, R.W., The genetic history of the Jewish nation, Journal of Creation 32(1):114–120, 2018. Return to text.
  7. This is actually a quote from the famous atheist and evolutionist Carl Sagan, but it has transitioned into a common aphorism in our culture today. Return to text.

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