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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Readers’ comments

Ricardo M.
The Septuagint is a second century AD forgery, you will search in vain high and low for a pre-christian LXX, you´ll be more successful drawing a square circle. I won´t weary you with words that others have more aptly put in print but read please "The mythological Septuagint" by Peter Ruckman which is the work that comes to my mind right now but there are scores of them exposing that fake "bible". God bless you.
Lita Cosner
There is good evidence that the LXX was translated in Alexandria a couple centuries before Christ. Almost no scholar would put the LXX after the time of Christ.
Philip S.
All very well re the Greekified chronologies,, but the Masoretic deliberately left out at least one vital Messianic texts the Septuagint leaves in, as in Psalm 40 v 6 ;.....A BODY you have prepared for me', as correctly quoted in Hebrews 10 v 5!!! The NT often prefers the Septgt to the Mastc, or should we say, the Sept uses better, older source material than the Masoretic, which was some 1000 yrs after Christ, & written 'without Him', in fact, in Psalm 40, obviously against Him?!
Gian Carlo B.
All was excellent until the end with the extraordinary claims adage. I know why you said it, but it’s no excuse, considering such an aphorism is nothing more than hand waving and not even an intelligent criteria to assess evidence. Also, Carl Sagan wasn’t the first to propose said epic fail, it was David Hume, and scholars like John Earman showed how such maxim collapses under hypotheticals turned against Hume such as the Indian Prince, which Earman considered an embarrassment to Hume. So really, as Ken Ammi well puts it, “extraordinary claims” require adequate evidence. The LXX community has yet to produce adequate evidence for the reliability of the LXX texts regarding the Genesis 5-11 genealogies, and Henry Smith’s conspiracy is obviously just kids’ play type conspiracy, not to be taken seriously. Should be trashed alongside the conspiracy tropes Christ mythicists throw around.
Michael B.
It seems to me that the testimony of Abraham would argue against the Septuagint ages. If the Septuagint is correct why would Abraham have been so despondent at being childless in his 80s when his forefathers were well over 100?
But if they were all having children in their 30s as the Masoretic text shows then Abraham would have had reason to think he may be beyond having children. (just hoping to pull evidence from within the text itself)
Your Brother in Christ,
Michael
RONALD M.
I still prefer the Mas Txt over the LXX in almost all cases, but both sides seem to be on defence of their favorite view rather than just looking at evidence and making the best judgment possible. Instead of "we implore the LXX community to rise to a higher standard of scholarship," we need to add "and the Mas Text advocates." There are places where the Mas Text is incorrect and the NT epistles certainly prefered quoting the Greek OT. The current article is not as formidable as wished for. There even seemed to be a lack of understanding about ancient rabbis. In any case, the issue of the genealogies will need to be examined for some years to come.
Lita Cosner
Have you looked at the previous articles linked above? We have examined the genealogies in depth and have made a comprehensive case for the superiority of the Masoretic genealogies. But we agree that there is more work yet to be done.
Carson C.
Having been following this for the past several months, I don't recall anywhere Smith says the entire MT arose in the 2nd century, but just specifically the genealogies being changed in an already existent proto-MT.
Lita Cosner
And our response is specifically that these genealogies in their MT form already existed by the second century, that there would be no reason for these genealogies specifically to be changed, and that the actual Jewish response to the 'Christian problem' was not to change Scripture, but to standardize the extra-biblical traditions that minimized the place of the Scriptures in Jewish life in favor of the traditions.
Don S.
I appreciate that you have pointed out the errors in Smith's work - this is essential in the pursuit of truth. However, I do not think that the errors in Smith's work invalidate the rest of his argument any more than the errors in the lifespans of Shelah and Eber that you made in Figure 2 of your article "Textual traditions and biblical chronology" invalidate the rest of your argument, nor should either of you retract your articles in whole in light of these errors. Philip S. makes a good point that the New Testament authors were often inspired to prefer the LXX reading to the MT one - something that Biblical Christians must take seriously. Regarding Michael B.'s question above, he would be concerned when his wife hit menopause regardless of the ages of his recent ancestors when they gave birth, which is why neither he nor Sarah doubted that he would be able to produce a child with Hagar. But there is an additional line of evidence in support of the LXX that is rarely mentioned, and that has to do with the exponential decline in the lifespans of the patriarchs - regardless of the cause, the LXX ages fit an exponential decline far better than the MT does. Whether largely due to genetic entropy or to a declining magnetic field strength (or something else or a combination), an exponential decline would be expected. As a scientist, this holds considerable weight with me. And on the question of an anti-Christian bias on the part of the Masoretes, another overlooked line of evidence is that twice in the New Testament the Old Testament is cited as saying that the Messiah would rise on the third day (Luke 24:46, 1 Cor. 15:4). Yet the MT doesn't contain such a prophesy. Except it would if there was a different (Masoretic) vowel pointing in Hosea 6:1-2.
Robert Carter
Don, we appreciate your comments.

Figure 2 is a graph. It uses the biblical data. There was no error. Our 'error' was one of further exploration in way of honing an argument. We were glad to have learned more about a fairly inconsequential matter. And, making the change did not affect our argument at all. Smith lost the central part of his argument. Without it, there is really nothing more to say. The two are qualitatively different.

Regarding the exponential decline in lifespans, what is your x-axis? Generation count, year of birth, number of meioses since Creation? Also, by stretching out the birth years of the early post-Flood patriarchs, this has the effect of flattening the curve. Thus, it would not be unexpected that the regression would have a better fit. In fact, after flattening, the data fit a straight-line regression almost as well as the fit an exponential one.

Yes, the NT writers preferred to use LXX-like readings in their citations of the OT text, but they also spoke Greek! Thus, their use of the Greek translation was natural. We agree that this is a serious matter, and the use of the LXX by the NT authors is, perhaps, the best argument for the LXX side of the debate. However, this is far from conclusive evidence, as essentially every modern text critic agrees that the LXX was not the original. In fact, one cannot speak of the LXX as a monolithic whole. Parts are excellent translations of the Hebrew. There are other places where the LXX shows systematic changes, e.g. Genesis 5 and 11. Being that our 'earliest and best' NT manuscripts were bound together with the LXX OT, it is natural to assume that the scribes made small corrections to the NT (e.g. the extra Cainan of Luke) to harmonize the two. In fact, the extra Cainan of Luke is the only place in the NT that has any bearing on the argument at hand.

Also, vowel pointing was an early-Middle Ages innovation. So when Jesus unrolled the great scroll of Isaiah, there would have been no vowel points. Vowel point arguments are about as relevant as chapter and verse divisions in our Bible. Whether or not vowel pointing affected English translations is a valid discussion, but it has nothing to do with the LXX vs MT debate. Also, it does not appear that this HAS affected English translations, at least both the ESV and KJV of Hosea 6:1-2 clearly say "on the third day".

LXX vs MT Hosea is irrelevant to LXX vs MT Genesis. If there were changes to any part of the OT that attempted to invalidate the Messianic claims of Jesus, we would expect them to be in the prophesies that were assumed to be Messianic at that time. The relevance of the chronology to the coming of the Messiah is, at best, secondary, and if altering the chronology invalidated Jesus' Messianic claims, it would also invalidate Bar Kochba. Etc.
Travis L.
I think that just the idea that the Jews would take the sacred texts and deliberately change them is an extraordinary claim. The copying and care taken to pass the texts down (not to mention their high regard for their importance) defies any logical claim of tampering, unless there is very solid evidence of this.
David S.
The church through the centuries has spoken, and it has affirmed the Masoretic Text. Textual critics of every stripe can argue all they want. The church has recognized the voice of God, the Holy Spirit has preserved His word. Just as the Canon of scripture was received by the church through the providence of God and the recognition of His voice, so was the text. A person cannot separate the two and remain consistent in their approach to God’s word.
Don S.
Thanks for replying to my previous comment - no need to publish this one if you don't want to. But to be clear, your Figure 2 shows Shelah and Eber living 800-900 years each according to the LXX. But as far as I know there is no LXX text that gives a figure like this for their lifespans. On the contrary, I think you are correct in the text of your article where you note that the LXX gives a lifespan for Eber of 370 years. So the figure does contain errors - ones that obscures the smooth exponential decline in lifespans of the patriarchs recorded in the LXX. And my preferred x-axis is years but the data of the LXX seems to make more sense if it is generations also. The MT has many post-Flood patriarchs living far longer than their offspring, which is odd to say the least. And regarding Masoretic vowel pointings, don't lose the forest looking at the trees - the point was just that there is indeed evidence of anti-Christian bias within the MT manuscripts that we have. But specifically I was referring to the fact that the "-nu" ending on the nouns is ambiguous without the vowel pointing - it could either be 1st person plural (per the MT and most translations) but it could also be 3rd person singular (him) in which case it would read something like "He has torn him so he will bind us, he has wounded him and will heal our wounds, he will revive him after two days, on the third day he will raise him up so we can live in his presence." This is more consistent with Isaiah 53, and also makes sense of Jesus' assertion that the Scriptures foretell his resurrection (not "ours") on the 3rd day. I ran out of words to explain that in my previous comment.
Trying to help. Gratefully, Don
Robert Carter
Pardon me. I read your comment too quickly and did not examine Figure 2 carefully enough. In my answer, I switched the discussion to our changing of an argument about the 'begetting' age of Methuselah from an earlier paper. See Is the Septuagint a superior text for the Genesis genealogies? under the heading "Augustine". I do not consider an adjustment, after consideration of an opponent's counter arguments, as an "error". We are learning, honing, and hopefully improving over time.

You are correct about Figure 2, and you are the first to point it out to us. Needless to say, I was disappointed when I saw it because I was the one who prepared the figure. But that was a simple graphical error. The data are still correct in the table. So, yes, we are subject to typos and graphical mistakes. But these, again, are not core arguments to our hypotheses. And there was no intentional obscuring of the LXX decay curve.

We often hear that it is "odd" that the MT Patriarchs are outliving their descendants. But is it not also "odd" that people were living for hundreds of years? This is a one-off historical experiment. We do not know what was controlling lifespan, we do not know why lifespan was dropping so rapidly, and we do not know what we should expect, as far as overlapping generations go, from a situation like this. Rejecting the MT numbers because they are "odd" is nothing more than an argument from incredulity.

Regarding vowel pointing again, the most heated arguments among Hebrew scholars tend to revolve around which vowels are supposed to go where. Yes, it is difficult. Yes, this affects the way words might be interpreted. But this is not the place to argue about how it might affect English translation. It is not like modern translators are unaware of the debate. And, as I said earlier, this has nothing to do with the LXX/MT debate because the vowels were added later.

Mitch C.
You mentioned a third OT manuscript family "SP" (besides MT and LXX). What does SP represent?
Robert Carter
"Samaritan Pentateuch". See Textual Traditions and Biblical Chronology.
Mitch C.
How do we know the NT writers quoted from the LXX rather than simply translating the MT into Greek? Are there manuscript variants specific to the LXX that were quoted by the NT writers?
Robert Carter
Yes, there are specific readings in the New Testament that match the LXX and not the MT (e.g., the extra Cainen in Luke). However, since our earliest New Testament manuscripts postdate the original writing by several centuries, and since the Greek (LXX) Old Testament was generally bound with the Greek New Testament, there was ample time for scribes to attempt to harmonize the two. This is a subject that scholars have labored over for centuries. Even the introduction to the original KJV ("From the Translator to the Reader") noted the facts, although they suggested that the New Testament writers often diverged from a perfect quotation of the LXX when it diverged theologically from the MT. The differences between the LXX and MT have been under the microscope for a very long time, yet in the end the differences are minor. It is not a matter that threatens the idea of biblical inspiration, per se. It is more a matter of 'jots and tittles' that theologians like to debate over.
Jim B.
My confidence in the preservation of the Hebrew Text is based on what the Bible says:
1. Clearly the Bible was originally revealed in Hebrew (& a form known as "Chaldaean") - seen in acrostic Psalms (Ps. 34 & 119)
2. God preserves His word as revealed (Ps. 12:6-7).
3. Not the smallest Hebrew letter (yodh) or penstroke (tittle) will fail until all be fulfilled (Matt. 5:18).
4. God says that the Scriptures were entrusted to the care of the Nation of Israel - not the Greeks of Egypt (Rom. 3:1-4).
5. People in Judaea SPOKE AND READ HEBREW (Luke 23:38; John 5:2; John 20:16)
6. Jesus spoke Hebrew (Acts 26:14).
7. The Apostle Paul spoke Hebrew and used the Hebrew Scriptures - freely translating them into Greek (Acts 21:40; 22:2 - Rom. 12:19; Heb. 10:30)
Roy S.
How about this in the words of Jesus Himself:
For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
Matthew 5:18
Or from the psalmist:
The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in the furnace of the earth, purified seven times.
Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever.
Psalm 12:6-7
Consider those words.
Harm B.
Did anyone have a good look at Augustine's explanation of the differences in The City of God, Book XV, Chapter 13?
Lita Cosner
Yes. To put it briefly, Augustine did not believe the Jews corrupted their own Scriptures, but rather an early copyist was the source of the error by systematically inflating the begetting age so that it would be plausible to say that one of our years was 10 of their years, to deal with the long lifespans. But this was conjecture on his part, and he didn't present any evidence for that.

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