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The oldest complete MSS of the Hebrew Bible is from about the tenth century C.E.? We have portions of manuscripts from the years between 200 B.C.E. and 200 C.E.(the Dead Sea scrolls) but nothing like a whole manuscript. How do we know the Old Testament in our Bibles which are based on the Masoretic texts of the tenth century are accurate? Copies of the Greek Old Testament are said to be more accurate than the Masoretic texts and it is pointed out that the early Christians used the Septuagint and not the Hebrew manuscripts when quoting scripture from the Old Testament. The saying goes something like this, "If it was good enough for the apostle Paul and Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, then it is good enough for me."

Does then the Septuagint have precedence over the Hebrew manuscripts? The Hebrew Manuscripts doesn't have virgin in Isaiah 7:14 but the LXX does. It is claimed the writers of the Christian Greek Scriptures quoted exclusively from the Septuagint and not from the Hebrew text.

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    The dead Sea Scrolls are more than 1000 years older than this. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_Sea_Scrolls
    – Dottard
    Jan 27, 2022 at 22:05
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    Pick almost any historical book (other than the Bible) written two thousand years ago. It's almost certain that there are no ancient manuscripts for it. Yet everyone accepts its reliability and accuracy without question. The Bible on the other hand has a relatively huge number of full or partial manuscripts, so perversely it is the one book whose reliability is most questioned. Jan 28, 2022 at 4:52
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    For those of us who haven't studied, but are curious, would you please define (or link to a definition) of "MSS" and "LXX". Brief internet searches bring up various uses of the abbreviations (and add "VSS" to the mix), but none explain what they mean or refer to.
    – FreeMan
    Jan 28, 2022 at 13:10
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    What does MSS mean? MSS = manuscript (the actual form of the Greek word in the text, is from community.logos.com/forums/t/22806.aspx
    – PatS
    Jan 28, 2022 at 14:27
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    @FreeMan LXX is an abbreviation for the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament Jan 28, 2022 at 16:41

3 Answers 3

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39+ different answers

The Old Testament is not a single book, but a collection of 39 books (or 46, depending on who you ask).

Some of these books are well-attested in Hebrew before the 10th century, courtesy of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Great Isaiah Scroll preserves almost the entire book of Isaiah and dates to the 2nd century BC. If we grant that the book of Isaiah was written in the late first-temple era (see Isaiah 6:1), that puts our earliest manuscript for Isaiah within about 600 years of the text's composition (that's actually not that long a timespan for an ancient document).

Other texts are not so well-attested at this early date; for example, the Book of Esther was not found at all in the Dead Sea Scrolls, putting our earliest copy of Esther closer to 1500 years after the text's composition.

The textual attestation of each book of the Old Testament (and in some cases, different portions of the same book) will vary based on the quality and quantity of manuscript evidence. Though the number of years is greater, this is not dissimilar to the textual transmission of the New Testament. There's a fragment of the Gospel of John that dates to approx. AD 125 (see P52 manuscript), only a few decades after original composition, whereas our earliest copy of 3 John is Codex Sinaiticus (see here), 2.5 to 3 centuries after the letter was composed.

Quality of textual transmission

The Great Isaiah scroll (from the Dead Sea Scrolls) has served as an effective way to gauge the accuracy with which the Masoretes preserved the text--as ancient documents go, they did a rather excellent job and were meticulous and careful. That said, there are approx. 2600 variants between the Great Isaiah scroll & the Masoretic text (see here), most of them quite minor.

The discipline of textual criticism seeks to reconstruct the original text based on the surviving manuscripts--it is not an entirely precise science, and scholars vary in their opinions, but it is generally acknowledged that for the NT, 95-99% of the autographical (original) text can be fully reconstructed from the manuscripts.

The figure for the Old Testament is subject to greater variation and debate, but would be somewhat lower. Nonetheless, the relatively small variation between the Old Testament texts we do have from the Dead Sea Scrolls & the Masoretic text speaks well for the Jewish scribes' careful preservation of their sacred texts.

Is the text we have today a 100% perfect copy of the original? No, but that is true of all ancient documents. What we do have is in remarkably good condition compared to other documents from antiquity.

New Testament use of LXX

The overwhelming majority of the New Testament's OT quotations are, as mentioned in the OP, from the Septuagint (The Gospel of Matthew is something of an exception, in that it draws from both the Greek & the Hebrew - I did a ~5-minute segment on this feature of Matthew in this video from 24:15-29:43).

This is what we would expect in documents written in Greek--the Septuagint was the accepted Greek rendering of the Tanakh to late 2nd-temple Jews. However, that does not mean early Christians did not know or did not use the Hebrew Tanakh. I make the case in this post that Jesus would indeed have been familiar with the Old Testament in Hebrew.

Conclusion

Whether or not the Masoretic text or the Septuagint more accurately preserves the original wording is a debate that will vary book by book and even passage by passage. The vicissitudes of textual transmission & textual reconstruction are such that there is no single blanket answer to this question.

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You're asking two questions:

  • How can we trust the Hebrew text?
  • Should the Old Greek be given preference?

Let me answer the questions that order:

Is the Hebrew Bible Reliable?

In addressing this issue It's important to speak about how textual criticism works. We make a distinction between a manuscript and a textual stream. A manuscript is dated to the generation it is written. True. But the far-more-important matter is the text that is preserved within the hand-copied-document (manuscript). If it can be shown that the manuscript faithfully preserves the words of a much earlier copy (textual stream), then the date it is found (even if it's much later) is not that important.

So the question is whether the Masoretes preserved the Hebrew faithfully for us (because, yes, indeed, if there's a 1000 year gap, there's much room for error to creep in).

What we find in the Leningrad Codex (and even more so in the Aleppo Codex) is a textual stream that is faithfully transmitted. This is shown to us in a couple of ways:

  • People thought that the Dead Sea Scrolls would prove that there were many, many different versions of the Bible floating around. And after all the research was done, if one has a look, for example, at the 'great Isaiah scroll' that was found. There's maybe a dozen examples where it called the Masoretic text into question. And most of these variants we knew about already. It ended up validating the text we already had—even though the manuscript was 1000 years beyond the date it was initially copied.
  • Recent work in 3D imaging has helped too. Scrolls that were unable to be unrolled, due to their fragility, have been imaged. And, if people were expecting a massive shift from the Masoretic text, they were sadly disappointed. In a fairly recent example, the text that was revealed was 99% in line with the Masoretic text.

What authority does the Greek Translation have?

In the intertestamental times, they slowly produced a Greek Translation of the Hebrew. They termed it "LXX" after the supposed 70 translators who came up with it. Even though the LXX has been used more broadly, the term, LXX really only applies to the Pentateuch (first 5 books of the Bible). Some of the later books of the Old Greek were translated way deep into the NT era (especially the 12 minor prophets). This heavily diminishes its authority.

The other obstacle that the LXX faces is that there were a number of versions of the LXX. Some are more formal (carrying over Hebrew idioms into Greek) and others are more functional (carrying over the thoughts, not the words). Only those that are more formal help us recover the original text. As an example of making use of the LXX, Here is a similar post walking through an example of what it is actually like to work with the LXX in its context.

What about the NT citations of the LXX.

There are times that the NT authors cite a version of the LXX closely. Other times the so-called use of the LXX is dubious and debatable.

But the better question is why. Why would the author of an NT book cite the LXX? Nowhere do we have an accurate answer to that question. Augustine was more than happy to let us know that the Old Greek was better than the Hebrew. But, as Jerome reminded him, Augustine didn't even know Hebrew. So we are left wondering why the NT authors made use of it (to varying degrees).

Options:

  1. They used it and made it authoritative in the sections (and only in the sections) of the LXX that they cite.
  2. They used it because it was the translation that the people were used to.

Of the two options, the second is more appealing. The NT authors usually quote a context (they give snippets of an entire chapter instead of word for word citations of verses). Almost no Jews could read the Hebrew anymore by the time the NT books were copied. So, the NT authors quote the Old Greek because it was the Bible the people had in front of them. As a similar example, there were many pastors in the 70's that made use of the King James Version almost exclusively. But they didn't do so because it was a perfect translation. They did so because it was basically the "only game in town."

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We can be fairly sure that the Hebrew scriptures have been preserved for the last 2000 years at least.

The copying of the Hebrew scrolls has always been meticulously supervised, even using methods such as tracking exact character counts to detect errors, the equivalent of "check-sums" in modern computing hardware.

Erroneous scrolls were rejected, but since they contained the holy word of God they weren't simply dumped in the garbage, but were given a "burial". It is often these rejects that are found by today's archaeologists, giving the false impression that there were many variations in existence at the same time.

Following the destruction of the Temple in the year 70, there was no longer any priesthood or any central authority for Judaism. At that time, the Pharisees formed a loose organization that is essentially the same as modern Judaism, with independent congregations scattered throughout the Roman Empire. Each was headed by a Rabbi (teacher), and each had its own set of biblical scrolls.

New scrolls were continually copied, both to replace old ones and to supply new congregations.

Significantly, since there was no central authority, the text produced at one location could be compared with that at other locations. If a discrepancy was found, the two versions could be compared with those at other sites, almost certainly revealing that all were in agreement except for the one that contained the error.

This process ensures that accidental transcription errors can't creep into the system, which over the centuries would have resulted in increasingly divergent versions.

Interestingly, this method of preserving the original text using decentralized authority is how blockchain works in the modern financial world (e.g. Bitcoin).

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