The post for February 6, “Rereading Psalm 100:3: In Search of a Better Translation,” generated several comments and questions from readers (to read the post, click here). Instead of answering all the questions and comments individually, I have decided to provide a brief explanation of what is involved in dealing with textual problems in the Old Testament and how the scribes knew that errors of transmission had crept into the biblical text.
The scribes who copied the text of the Old Testament were called the Sopherim, “Men of the Book.” Their main responsibility was to copy the manuscripts and make sure that they were preserved for posterity.
Another group of scribes was called the Masoretes. The Masoretes transmitted the traditional reading of the text, counted the number of words and letters on the different books of the Old Testament, and catalogued the errors found in the text. This is the reason the text of the Hebrew Bible is called “The Masoretic Text.” In addition, the notes and information placed on the margins of the Hebrew Bible is called “The Masorah.” The word “Masorah” means “tradition.”
Describing the work of the Masoretes, Norman K. Gottwald, in his book The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), p. 119, wrote: “Included in the marginal and final Masorah was a great mass of technical information and instruction that served to alert copyists to the minutest details and peculiarities of the text so that they might be copied with unfailing accuracy. The Masoretic notes identified unusual spellings, words, and grammatical forms, and often took account of their frequency of occurrence and exact locations throughout the biblical text.”
Because the Masoretes knew the text and the sounds of the words by memory and because they transmitted the traditional reading of the biblical text from generation to generation, it was easy for them to notice an error in transmission. This is what happened with Psalm 100:3.
According to the Masoretes, there are fifteen places in the Old Testament where the problem with the homophone containing the word lô (Hebrew Al) and the word lo’ (Hebrew al) appear. In future posts, I will be dealing with some of texts where these homophones occur.
As for which version is better, it is important to remember that all translations are good, but some translations may translate a verse or a word better than others. Some versions attempt to translate the Bible in today’s English, since the “thees” and “thous” of the King James are hardly used today. The Bible is the Word of God and no textual problem, error in transmission, or language used will change that. God’s Word was written to help believers know God and his divine plan for humanity. Thus, every Bible, no matter what translation is used, will help readers know what God has accomplished in the history of Israel and in Jesus Christ.
Biblical scholars and Old Testament professors may debate how to translate a word in the Bible or how to understand a text in a biblical book. They also may debate what was the original text or the original intent of a biblical writer. This is the reason biblical scholars write so many books, and at times, why they cannot agree on their final conclusions. The average person, however, desires mostly to discover God’s will for their lives and how to live according to God’s teachings. This can be accomplished by studying God’s Word in the King James Version (KJV), in the English Standard Version (ESV), the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), or in any other version.
It is for this reason that students of the Bible should not allow the different versions to confuse or scare them. In the end, those who love the Bible should remember this: The Bible is the Word of God, no matter what version one uses and no matter what textual problems may be present in a text of Scripture.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary.
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