The Authenticity of the Hebrew Text

Chris Thomas Doctrine of Scripture, Francis Turretin, Turretin's 21 Questions Leave a Comment

QUESTION 12: Is the present Hebrew text authentic and inspired both as to content and as to words, so that all versions are to be tested by its norm, and corrected if they differ? Or can the text which it offers, if judged to be less desirable, be rejected, and corrected, and brought into agreement with a more acceptable one, either by comparison with the old translations, or by one’s own judgment and critical ability?

I. Since the authenticity of the sacred text is the primary foundation of the faith, nothing should take
precedence among all believers over its preservation inviolate against all attacks, whether they reject it
altogether or weaken it in any way. For this purpose the preceding controversy with the Catholics was
undertaken, and the present question, in which we turn to an examination of the opinions of the reverend
and learned Louis Cappel, deals with the same issue. Just as he began strongly arguing the newness of
the vowel points, as a recent innovation of the Masoretes and hence the result of human effort and study,
in his work Arcanum punctationis revelatum, so in his Critica sacra he tries earnestly to show that we are
not so bound to the present reading of the Hebrew text as to make it improper often to depart from it
whenever we can find a better and more appropriate reading either by comparison with the old
translations, or by the power of right reason, or by one’s own judgment and critical ability. We do not
undertake this controversy in any unfriendly spirit, as if we sought to detract from the reputation of a
man who in other ways deserves esteem from the church of God. We only wish to uphold the conviction
always up to now maintained in our churches concerning the inviolate authenticity of the sacred text,
against those who are trying to adopt these “significant opinions” and new hypotheses, or who speak of
them as inconsequential matters that are of no concern to the faith, or at least of very little.
II. His teaching amounts to this: (1) because the points are a human addition, they may, when the need
is postulated, be changed and others substituted, whenever the meaning which they yield is false or
absurd. (2) Not only may the pointing be changed, but also the substantial text, but there is more
freedom with regard to the points, because the Masoretes often decided on them in accordance with their
own private judgment, to which we ought not to be bound. (3) If, by use of ancient translations, whether
Greek, Aramaic, or Latin, a meaning of the versions can be established that is equally good and
appropriate, or superior to our Hebrew manuscripts, it is permissible to I change the reading, and follow
the other. (4) Not only by comparison with the old translations can this be done, but also, if we are able
to show a weakness in the present reading, and that it is either meaningless, or absurd or false, and are
able to find a clearer or more suitable meaning through another more appropriate reading, whether by
the power of sound reason, or the natural faculty of thinking and discussing, or by conjecture, then it is
per-missible to strike out the present Hebrew text, and substitute the other. That this is his teaching can
be known from various passages, and especially from this one: “It is therefore permissible, if any reading
different from the present Hebrew text, either with regard to consonants or letters, or to words and whole
sentences, has any equally appropriate meaning, for it to be held more genuine, sound, and complete,
wherever it was found, whether in the Septuagint, or the Aramaic Targums, or Aquila, or Symmachus,
Theodotion, or Jerome the translator of the Vulgate, and therefore it is to be followed and accepted rather
than the existing Masoretic text,” a statement which he often expresses in other places.
III. To support this opinion, he makes another hypothesis, namely, that the Hebrew manuscripts which
the seventy and other translators used were different from the present ones, which he disparagingly calls
Masoretic and Jewish, and that the differences between the old translations and the present Hebrew text
are variant readings of the Hebrew text, except perhaps some which arose from the mistakes of
translators who either did not know the meaning of the Hebrew word or did not pay enough attention. So
he denies that our present Hebrew Bible can be regarded as the source, but accepts it only as one form of
the text, and holds that the true and genuine authentic original text must be established at length by
comparison of the old versions. So he distinguishes between the Hebrew text in itself and the present
Masoretic text. The latter is to be found in all copies which exist today, both among Jews and among Christians; the former can be put together by comparing the present text and the old translations, which
in some cases he not only regards as of equal value to the present

[Hebrew], but he also clearly regards
them as superior, since he often holds that the reading they give, as more appropriate and true, is to be
followed in preference to that of the present [Hebrew]. “Not only if the reading of the Septuagint is better
than the present [Hebrew] but if equally good and appropriate, then, because older and of equal
goodness in language and meaning, it should be preferred, because of the version’s age” (Apologia contra
Bootium, p.54). And again, “The authority of Septuagint manuscripts is greater than that of the present[Hebrew] not only in those places where it gives a more appropriate meaning, but also where it provides
one equally good and appropriate, and this because of its greater age. The can and should be said
concerning all codices of old translators.”
IV. But the accepted and usual opinion of our churches is very different, namely, not recognizing [as
authoritative] any text except the present Hebrew, to which, as a touchstone, all versions ancient and
modern must be subjected, and corrected if they differ, while it cannot be emended from them. Although
they hold that individual manuscripts can and should be compared to one another, in order that variant
readings, originating in the carelessness of copyists or librarians, can be discovered and the errors in
these and other manuscripts corrected, and do deny that comparison with the old translations is useful for
the understanding of the true meaning, yet they deny that the old translations are even of equal, much
less superior, value to the original text, to the extent that the meaning which they offer, and which seems
more appropriate to us, can be accepted, and another, which comes from existing [Hebrew] text, be
V. That always, from the beginning, this was the conviction (mens) of all Protestants is clearer
than the light of noon, and the controversy over the authentic text against the Roman Catholics shows
this adequately. Nor can the learned man against whom we argue deny it. In his Critica sacra, book 1,
chapter I, he says, “The first and old Protestants said that everything must be examined and corrected on
the basis of the Hebrew text, which they called the purest source.” Sixtinus Amama confirms this in his
much-praised book (1:3) after giving his own opinion on this question; he says, “We conclude that all
translations, whether ancient or modem, with no exception, are to be tested by it (namely, the Hebrew
text)”; “it is the norm, rule, and canon of all translations.” And in chapter 4: “Therefore no translation, of
whatever kind it may be, can be on a par with the Hebrew text, much less superior to it. This Protestants
hold concerning all versions ancient or modem.”
VI. From the above the status of this question can easily be seen. It is not a question whether versions
may be compared with one another, and with the original, to discover the true meaning. But [the
question is] whether it is permissible to give equal or greater weight to a reading taken from them, which
seems more appropriate for substitution in place of the present reading, when, in our opinion, that gives
either no meaning, or a false and absurd one. It is not a question whether there are differences between
the present text and the old translations, but whether these differences are to be understood as variant
readings of the Hebrew, so that no authentic text can be recognized except that which results from the
comparison of the existing text with the old translations. Finally, it is not a question whether in the study
and comparison of one codex with another, whether manuscripts or printed editions, we can use our
judgment, and our ratiocinative faculty, to discover probabilities, and decide which reading is better or
more appropriate, but whether it is permissible to make critical conjectures about the sacred text no less
than about secular writers, to change letters and points and even words, when the meaning of the
existing [Hebrew] text does not seem appropriate to us, which the learned man maintains; we deny it.
VII. The reasons are (1) from this hypothesis it follows that there is no authentic text in which faith can
totally put its trust, for this would either be the existing Hebrew text or other codices which the old
translators used. But on this hypothesis the existing text is merely one of several forms, and its reading
can be regarded as the authentic Hebrew source only where there is no difference between it and the old
translations, as the learned man says in his apologia against Booth, page 17. As for the other codices
used by the ancient translators–besides the fact that it is arbitrarily assumed that they were different
from the present text, which is his first fallacy, as will be shown later–if we grant that there were such,
they cannot now be the basis of faith, for they cannot be found, and no longer exist except in that translation, which, because it is human and fallible, cannot yield an authentic text. Finally, who could
make anyone believe that the seventy followed their Hebrew text with absolute exactness, and that the
present Greek text is exactly the one they produced?
VIII. (2) [a] If all the discrepancies between the old versions and the present Hebrew text were variant
readings of Hebrew manuscripts different from ours, which the translators used, why was there no
mention of such manuscripts among the patristic writers, and no trace among the Hebrews, who for many
centuries have been so zealous in finding and correcting the smallest variant, as the collections of variants
by Ben Asher and Ben Naphtali, Eastern and Western, give evidence? Who could believe that the variants
of the least significance would have been recorded, and that those now found on the basis of the old
translations had so fully disappeared that no memory of them survived? Since there were so many copies,
it is indeed a marvel that none have survived. [b] It is arbitrary to assume that there is no cause for
these discrepancies, except differences in the codices, when others are far more certain [to have been
present]. On that assumption one would conclude, wrongly, that for the contemporary versions the
translators used different texts, although none except the present one exists, for there are innumerable
differences among the translations. Who does not realize that often they could have rendered the
meaning rather than the words, as Jerome often notes concerning the seventy? Finally, some
discrepancies could have arisen from [the translators’] ignorance or carelessness, because they did not
pay enough attention to the words, and often, therefore, could have confused similar letters and words,
even without a variant text, as Jerome often accuses them. [c] They would have assumed presumptuous
liberties if they read one thing in their manuscripts, and boldly wrote something else, which did not agree
with the meaning and context of the Hebrew, and preferred, with a capricious change, to follow the
meaning that they thought better. [d] The various old versions are no longer in their original state, but
are corrupted and changed remarkably, as is especially true of the Septuagint and the Vulgate. [e] The
negligence or ignorance of the copyists could have introduced into the versions many corruptions, which
therefore did not originate in variant readings.
IX. (3) [On this hypothesis] the various versions are of the same significance as the original text, for if, in
all cases of divergence, the old translations are no more to be subjected to the text than it to them, but
both are subjected to a common canon of more appropriate meaning, so that the reading with the greater
appropriateness of meaning will survive, whether it be found in the Hebrew text or in one or another of
those translations, then the Hebrew text will hold no authority over the old translation except when it is
found to have greater appropriateness of meaning, and indeed it will often be subordinated to the
translations, when its reading is less esteemed than another.
X. (4) If we are not bound to the present Hebrew text, but the true authentic reading must be sought
partly by comparison with the old translations, and partly by our own judgment and critical ability, so that
there is no canon of authentic reading other than what seems to us more appropriate, then the
determination of the authentic reading will be the work of reason and of human judgment (arbitrium), not
of the Holy Spirit. Human reason will be enthroned, and, in the Socinian manner, regarded as norm and
principle of faith.
XI. (5) If conjectures can be made about the sacred text, even when the Hebrew agrees with the
versions, as the learned man argues (Critica sacra 6.8 par. 17), there can no longer be any assurance
concerning the authenticity of the sacred text, but everything will be made doubtful and uncertain, and
the sacred text subjected to the judgment of every individual interpreter. Any prudent person will easily
determine whether or not this will deprive it of all authority. It is useless to reply that conjectures are not
to be accepted unless they depend on, and are demonstrated by, assured reasons and arguments, when
the received reading yields either a false and absurd meaning, or a doubtful and confused one. For there
will be no one who does not think that he can give reasons for his conjecture, and who cannot make a
case for the falsity and absurdity of the reading which he wants to reject. Who can be a judge of these
conjectures, whether they are rightly and truly made? And without a judge there will be continual struggles and disputes among the commentators, since each one will contend for his opinion, and will not
permit others to be preferred to it. If a place is allowed for conjectures in the study of the various codices,
to find out which reading is better and more appropriate, new readings must continually be admitted,
which depend on the authority of no accepted manuscript, but on private judgment, and which can be of
no value, but will be of the greatest danger and the certain discredit of the Scriptures because of the
enormous and rash presumption of mankind. Nor can the example of secular writers, who can be
subjected to criticism without danger, be relevant here, as if sacred and secular criticism were the same,
and there was not the greatest difference between a writing that is human and subject to error, and one
that is divine and inspired, whose majesty should be sacrosanct, because it has been received with the
veneration, preserved with the care, and approved with the widespread agreement, that the origins of its
truth, and the certification of its source, deserve. What indeed will happen to this sacred volume if
everyone is permitted to modify its style like a censor, and to offer criticism, just as with secular books?
XII. (6) If the existing Hebrew text is given no primacy over the old translations, so that it has no more
authority than they, and indeed their readings are often to be preferred, when they seem to yield a more
appropriate sense, then Protestants up to now have struggled in vain against the Roman Catholics when
they affirmed the sole authority of the existing Hebrew text, above all versions ancient or modem; nor
can they any longer insist against them that all versions and especially the Vulgate must be subjected to
it and corrected by it, since the versions often are not only of equal value, but superior.
XIII. A variant reading is one thing; varying interpretation is another. Commentators may give various
interpretations, but it does not follow that these are drawn from variant readings in the codices, rather
than the other causes which we noted.
XIV. It is not necessary for the scribes to have been infallible for there to have been no variants in the
Hebrew codices; it was sufficient for providence so to guard the integrity of the authentic codices, that,
although they could introduce various errors through ignorance or negligence, they either did not
introduce them, or did not introduce them into all copies, or did not introduce them in such a way that
they cannot be restored and corrected by comparison of the various codices with the Scripture itself.
XV. Although we say rightly (bene) that Scripture is made uncertain by diverse variant readings from
different interpreters, based only on conjectures, it is not made uncertain simply by various
interpretations, because the interpreters have interpreted one and the same text in different ways. Thus
the meaning is made doubtful and uncertain, but not the reading of the words and phrases; but if various
and uncertain readings and conjectures are assumed, it becomes more difficult to sustain assurance,
because a double uncertainty-the text and meaning has been introduced. In the first instance a sure
foundation is postulated, on which the differing interpretations are based, but in the second case no sure
foundation is postulated, but everything depends on human judgment and decision.
XVI. It is not necessary to show us the actual writing of Moses and the prophets, without any even minor
discrepancy, in order that we may be bound to the existing text. For to uphold the exact conformity of our
copies with the archetype, it is sufficient that both the words, without which there is no meaning, and
letters, without which there are no words, be the same, nor could the scribes have written without these[words and letters], although some discrepancies in details and punctuation would be possible.
XVII. Although the learned man often declares that all versions must be examined and corrected on the
basis of the authentic Hebrew text, which is to be given precedence over all translations, he cannot be
freed from the charge that has been made against him-that he regards the old versions as of equal
authority with the text, and sometimes as superior, because he does not mean the existing original text, which is in the hands of all, both Jews and Christians, but the Hebrew text in general, which he desires to
put together from the existing text and from the text which he supposes that the old translators used,
which, as said above, is affirmed without solid evidence. Up to now all the theologians who have
discussed the Hebrew text and its authenticity have understood nothing else by it than the text now
XVIII. From the above, to add nothing more, it is clear enough how dangerous the learned man’s
hypotheses are, and with what reason our [theologians] everywhere have resisted the publication of his
work, lest a future which they have foreseen-something harmful to the cause of God-come from it, and
our adversaries be furnished with weapons against the authenticity of the sacred text, which, beyond all
doubt, is not his intention.
XIX. If anyone wants more on this, let him consult the Anticritica of the famous Buxton who opposes the
Critica of this learned man, in which this whole discussion is fully and soundly set forth. Other great men
also offer witness by which it can be known how much their opinions differ from the writings of this
learned man. For instance, James Ussher, the archbishop of Armagh, says, in his letter to Booth, that
they contain a “very dangerous error.” . . . . And Arnold Booth is of the same mind, in a letter to that
venerable leader [Ussher], and in his Vindicium, in which he refers to [Cappel’s] work as “a very evil
writing….” But for us the witness of the great Andrew Rivet, a man of high repute throughout France and
Holland, is enough. Although when he first read the learned man’s Arcanum he was drawn to his opinion,
later, having read Buxtorf’s reply, he speaks very differently in a letter to him from the Hague dated
1645. . . . Many who, although at first favorable to the learned man’s hypotheses, afterward studied the
question more carefully and read the arguments against his speculations by the famed Buxtorf and
others, were not ashamed of abandoning their former opinion, and took a sounder position.
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