Scholars in Jerusalem and Rhetoric in the Press

It never ceases to amaze me how ignorant news reporters are when it comes to religion, especially to the academic discipline of biblical studies.  Just recently, I came across this article in the associated press entitled, “In Jerusalem, Scholars Trace Bible’s Evolution."  The article made it sound like there was some new evidence found proving the Bible is unreliable.  In case some of you have come across this article or others like it (when I Googled I came across other reporters basically doing the same thing this article did), I thought it would be helpful to blog a little about it.  


In order to get a better grasp on these scholars in Jerusalem and how the press is hyping their scholarship, I recommend you read the article I linked above just to familiarize yourself with the story.  I hope to show you that it is all shoddy news and anti-biblical rhetoric at work in the media with my following commentary, but first read them for yourself.  Okay, with the article in mind, let me proceed to offer a very brief rejoinder in response.


The first thing to know about this “news” is that it is not new.  Yeah, this is old news. It’s called the HUBP in academic circles (Hebrew University Bible Project). It’s basically a restoration of the Aleppo Codex (a document that contains the Old Testament and many other religious writings). The HUBP aims to have the Aleppo Codex displayed on pages with extensive footnotes contrasting it with other ancient translations like the LXX, Vulgate, Dead Sea Scrolls, etc. Our modern Bible translators who have given us our English Bibles consulted Aleppo in their works. It’s not a secret text, folks know about it. The text that is more important to our English Bibles is the Leningrad Codex, which is the oldest complete manuscript of the Old Testament. 


The HUBP is aimed at Aleppo Codex since it has not had as much press as the Leningrad and it simply is a good area for academicians to research. This article you sent me makes it sound like the Aleppo Codex is a secret, but that is not true. It is available to any scholar or reader to examine. Furthermore, it available to the general public thanks to the facsimile edition of it and the handful of modern publications that follow the Aleppo Codex. Not to mention, there are thousands of visitors who view them every year in the Israel Museum. Translators have been consulting this text for a long time and it is astonishingly accurate and it has survived some tough historical terrain (for example on December 1 of 1947 some Arabs in Aleppo set fire to a set of Jewish Scrolls and it was spared from the flames, in fact, pulled from the ashes). The point here is that this is not some secret scroll that believers are trying to hide. On the contrary, it is a VERY PUBLIC document that believers enjoy. And this is the troubling thing about this article, which claims this codex is “in this out-of-the-way corner” that has “been quietly” kept under cover. That’s NOT TRUE. 


My overall complaint with the article is the author’s misunderstanding of textual work and the beliefs of believers. He says it “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” (Later in the article he writes, “And it has evolved, despite deeply held beliefs to the contrary”). This is sooooo misleading. Yes the Aleppo Codex and the Lennigrad Codex (and others) have differences, but to say they are “not the same” is a stretch. They report the same events, same characters, same stories with the same points, etc. Yes, there are some differences in words here and there, but this stuff is easily harmonized. Many of the people at HUBP are believers! (As the author even notes, “most of the project's scholars are themselves Orthodox Jews”). The article cites examples of errors like the difference between “those who swear falsely” and “those who swear falsely in my name.” That is not a contradiction. His other example was from Deuteronomy, comparing the text that says "to you" which in another text says “to us” and the author claims that this example constitutes “a significant change in meaning.” No it doesn’t. The “you” is plural and so is “us.” It’s talking about a group of people. 


The article makes a rather elementary blunder with this quote: “For many Jews and Christians, religion dictates that the words of the Bible in the original Hebrew are divine, unaltered and unalterable.” The key word is original! We all know that copies of the original are subject to mistake, after all they are solely human reproductions. I don’t know any Christian who believes the copies are error free. We hold to the doctrine of inerrancy, which does not deal with copies, it deals with the original.


The author claims that HUBP has been “tracking every single evolution of the text over centuries and millennia” which also is not true. In fact, that is not even possible given the limits of technology, time and raw data. The author points out that this project alone will take 200 years to finish. 


The fact is, the HUBP is a great thing and Bible scholars are happy about it. The scholars on HUBP are not without their own biases or problems, but overall it is a great project and one that I have consulted in textual work. It gives believers no reason to question the accuracy of the text we have today. On the contrary it affirms that what we have is a solid transmission we have every reason to trust. The author claims this project is “considered controversial, if not offensive, by many religious people”. Well, I know a whole lot of religious people and I do not know one who is offended by HUBP. HUBP is a great thing.  Manuscript work is always a great thing.  Christians have nothing to fear in the studies of texts or their transmission.  God has spoken in the Bible and we have a reliable transmission of His perfect word to us.  So, in conclusion, let me encourage you to spend some time reading the Bible today and enjoying the word of God as you give thanks to Him for the work of Christ.