Excerpts of In Jerusalem, scholars trace Bible's evolution By Matti Friedman, associated press
JERUSALEM (AP) — A dull-looking chart projected on the wall of a university office in Jerusalem displayed a revelation that would startle many readers of the Old Testament: the sacred text that people revered in the past was not the same one we study today.An ancient version of one book has an extra phrase. Another appears to have been revised to retroactively insert a prophecy after the events happened.
Scholars have been quietly at work for 53 years on one of the most ambitious projects attempted in biblical studies — publishing the authoritative edition of the Old Testament, also known as the Hebrew Bible, and tracking every single evolution of the text over centuries and millennia.
And it has evolved, despite deeply held beliefs to the contrary.
The ongoing work of the academic detectives of the Bible Project, as their undertaking is known, shows that this text at the root of Judaism, Christianity and Islam was somewhat fluid for long periods of its history, and that its transmission through the ages was messier and more human than most of us imagine.The sheer volume of information makes the Bible Project's version "the most comprehensive critical edition of the Hebrew Bible in existence at the present time," said David Marcus, a Bible scholar at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, who is not involved with the project.
Bible Project scholars have spent years combing through manuscripts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, Greek translations on papyrus from Egypt, a printed Bible from 1525 Venice, parchment books in handwritten Hebrew, the Samaritan Torah, and scrolls in Aramaic and Latin.
The scholars note where the text we have now differs from older versions — differences that are evidence of the inevitable textual hiccups, scribal errors and other human fingerprints that became part of the Bible as it was passed on, orally and in writing.
The Book of Jeremiah is now one-seventh longer than the one that appears in some of the 2,000-year-old manuscripts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some verses, including ones containing a prophecy appear to have been added after the events happened.
Considering that the nature of their work would be considered controversial, if not offensive, by many religious people, it is perhaps surprising that most of the project's scholars are themselves Orthodox Jews.
"A believing Jew claims that the source of the Bible is prophecy," said the project's bearded academic secretary, Rafael Zer. "But as soon as the words are given to human beings — with God's agreement, and at his initiative — the holiness of the biblical text remains, even if mistakes are made when the text is passed on."