The Idea of the Sanctity of the Biblical Text
and the Science of Textual Criticism 

by Menachem Cohen (Professor of Bible, Bar-Ilan University).


Professor Cohen's article has been awarded the Biblical Heritage Recommended Reading Award for December 2000The professor tackles the thorny problem of the conflict between the traditional beliefs about the biblical text and the discoveries of modern science.  Even though this article's focus is on the Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament), it is very much related to current issues regarding a scientific approach to the New Testament.  Below are a few introductory quotes from Dr. Cohen's article (emphasis has been added).  

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"The discipline of textual criticism as developed over the last two centuries has become one of the pillars of modern Bible research and interpretation. In the field of scientific Bible study it is commonly accepted that one of the first questions to be addressed before real interpretation can be undertaken is the nature of the text itself and what changes it has undergone during the long course of its transmission. The assumption underlying this approach is, on the face of it, seemingly simple: the Scriptural text is an entity that has been handed down over the centuries and is therefore subject to the same sort of errors as any other transmitted text. . . .

"But, due to the sanctity of the Holy Scriptures, the text-critical approach was shunned by religious students of the Bible, and its use as a tool of interpretation summarily dismissed. Even those scholars who were willing to adopt some aspects and conclusions of scientific Bible study stopped short of textual clarification in the scientific manner.

"The strong opposition to textual criticism stems from the feeling that such practice contradicts the accepted religious view of the sanctity of the text, with no possibility of reconciliation. This ideal, as rooted in popular perception, is generally given an historical interpretation: the Bible text, down to the last of its letters, reached us unchanged from the time of its authorship. This idea gained currency through the generations, thanks to Halakhic and Aggadic statements and writings in the area of Jewish thought. Therefore, any method that casts doubt on the absolute reliability of the transmitted text arouses instinctive rejection on the part of believing Jews.

"Even so, in an age where scientific awareness has become second nature to many religious Jews and so many subjects are treated in light of science and religion together, there is reason to bring up the issue of textual criticism of the Bible for renewed discussion. From both practical and educational standpoints, it is unhealthy for Judaism, which has long recognized the value of scientific method and its ability to provide answers in the empirical field, to place any empirical topic beyond the pale for fear of confrontation with prevailing religious views. In the natural sciences intelligent religious Jewry has long ago overcome the barrier of confrontation between scientific conclusions and accepted religious beliefs. Orthodox scientists work with the assumption that binding religious authority cannot be granted to traditions and statements in areas which are subject to empirical scientific study. Does it make sense to be exclude any empirical field from this rule?"

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We recommend that you print a copy of the complete article to study and keep for your permanent files.  
Also, please make sure you read footnote 15.  
Click Here For Complete Article



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