P.Kyle McCarter Jr’s Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible

Peter Kyle McCarter.Jr’s Textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible is a 94 page introduction to the enigmatic world of textual criticism. McCarter is an astute Old Testament scholar born in 1945. At John Hopkins University, he is a William Foxwell Albright Professor with his specialization being in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical studies. Some of his other works that have made him a hit in the academic world are Books of Samuel which he wrote for the Anchor Bible Series, containing two volumes. In his textual criticism book, McCarter, however, decides to delve into Bible criticism genre, involving the scholarly investigation and study of biblical writings in order to make discerning judgments about them1.  The book seeks to introduce a view that biblical texts are simply ordinary pieces of literature and no different from other forms, shattering the traditional view that it is a literal truth. It seeks to as when the text was brought into being, where this took place, how, for whom and the circumstances that led to its production.

In his textual criticism, what is striking about the book is it’s choice of the study of formative tales on the transmission or creation of parts of the Hebrew Bible; Ezra’s refurbishment of the Bible (4 Ezra 14), Baruch and Jeremiah’s scroll (Jeremiah 36), the subsequent discovery of Torah books (Second Kings 22 to 23) by Josiah, Moses’ story and the stone tablets (Exodus 32-34). Each account happens to be a slight variation from the pattern of a typical tale involving of individuals losing an important text, before it is recovered again, the tale causing tension when dealing with a scribal culture’s cardinal aspirations in the past. One should note that it is thus distinguishable from colophons in history: permanence and the inviolability that a particular text has. During the relation of narratives about literature that they wrote, scribal creators would often represent texts in its early form in history, often as being under threat and vulnerable. Mc Carter’s book accounts for his counter-intuitive choice. The central argument he provides the readers within each of the stories under scrutiny, especially concerning the pattern of loss in text and its recovery, serves as a vehicle for arguments related to divine revelation.

These stories function in a way different from how an uninterrupted plotline would normally function in its goal of textual transmission. Most tales that are at the center of textual loss and its retrieval afterwards are seen as tactical dealings with text sacrifices to express other discourses with regards to the divinely written revelations. It is noteworthy to acknowledge, the size of the book is less than a hundred pages, together with its appendices which make it easy to read for most students. McCarter is also an expert at being concise with the statements that he gives. One would lose track of the number of time that the text makes one chuckle due to the witty approach that McCarter uses in the book. The appendices provided in the form of short addendums are also quite helpful in guiding a reader through the book. First to appear is the glossary which defines the basic vocabulary put to use in text criticism (codex, witness, homoioptoton, haplography etc.) The second appendix in the book is a bibliography of all the primary sources used in the book. For an individual who is a novice in textual criticism, this book becomes a gold mine of information.

Negatives in the Textual Criticism: Recovering the Text of the Hebrew Bible are quite a few mainly because of the books’ brevity but doesn’t intentionally touch on all issues imaginable concerning textual criticism. The book is, after all, leans more on the side of being an introduction than that of a monograph. Additionally, McCarter shows us the situations and technicalities that come into being when one is translating ancient manuscripts and shows us all the differences that exist. Many have long been of the opinion that the stringent rules concerning the copying the exact text and how it has been helpful in preserving the Bible throughout the ages. McCarter makes an effort to show the reader how copying exact texts also ends up corrupting the text. Subsequent copies of previous manuscripts tempt fate which opens a window for corruption to set in. One witness named in the book is the Massoretic text in the Hebrew Old Testament, which means that there might not be an original copy of the Bible but several copies of the ancient one.

McCarter also indicates that a corrupt text typically reads smoothly like the wandering scribe copying something that he already familiar with. He points out that the corruption of ancient manuscripts and texts occurs when a scribe tries to copy a text but ends up not understanding it, prompting them to copy it in a new version that they will understand. The book points to the deliberate alteration of text in the Hebrew scripture so that it could be better understood. It is an attempt to remove ambiguity and reduce ambiguity in the text. Examples that he gives in, this nifty book point to glosses made in the text while copying it. Additionally, parablepsis, which is an oversight that can result in the serious loss of information in manuscripts own right. Others might interpret this as a case of human error but there are other instances where long changes are instituted to deliberately change the meaning of the whole passage. It is important to note that McCarter’s work is trying to look into the oral and written processes that went into the making of the final text of the Bible that people have come to embrace. The scribes have been painted in a negative light due to their intentional alteration of the text in a bid to suit their own needs. Critics such as McCarter seeks to point out the importance of preservation of the original final text and the restoration of the archetypical, eclectic text by scientifically classifying it into recessions that spot errors together with their artful removal.

The reconstruction of the final or original eclectic original text has been a view seen in the English version of the Bible. Using the English Bible as an example, one notes that translators of this version offer an eclectic manuscript as the copy text with the indication of their sources in the margins as opposed to the Masoretic text that they are from2. Such an approach has suffered the disadvantage having to minimize the contribution of the original literary ‘genius’ while handling more adequately created editorial additions3. Text critics of the Hebrew Text do not necessarily create a demarcation between final texts and original compositions. What is more prudent for critics such as McCarter is to interpret his own rationale in terms of the original subjectivity of authorial intentions together with a more objective final manuscript. McCarter’s attempt to totally reconstruct a final archetypical text is meant to have a heuristic value that removes many intentions of the later contributors to bedevil the true intentions of the final text. His other intention is pointing out errors and omitting them the extant Masoretic text thus conjecturally amending the manuscript where text defies any logical exegetical expectations.

The implicit acceptance of manuscripts has been criticized as many assume that it is the tradition that often preserves it. Here, the postures of two opposing committees that seem to be against each other in terms of opposition to radical subjectivism are evident4. The explicit and implicit evidence that has already been made available seeks to provide a blueprint with which the critic finds most of the information that he needs. McCrarters aim is not to restore the archetypical text but on the contrary stresses on the importance of the social relations that are present in the literary productions. He notes that a dialect often exists between two entities; the community it is from and the available as they both shape and reshape each other. McCarter does not deny the authenticity and the existence of the final text but only views are a chimera. Such is the case because of the period that exists between its creation and the stabilization of the text during the proto-rabbinic period. He also notes that the text was fluid and that there was a possibility that it could have been altered in future. All in all, McCarter provides a clear and succinct account of his criticism of the manuscript by offering clear arguments in logical arrangement to assist the reader in understanding the case he is trying to build. He ensures that it is in a simplistic form that can be well understood by sophisticated academicians or the average person reading it.

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