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Types of Errors in Old Testament Manuscripts


Old Testament scholar and textual critic Kyle P. McCarter has a worthwhile introduction to the problem of errors in the extant manuscripts:


"How did the Biblical text become corrupt? . . . Ironically enough, it was this periodic copying, which was intended to preserve the integrity of the text, that rendered the text subject to corrup­tion.  This was true because of the universal fallibility of manual reproduction of a text.  Manual copying, whether accom­plished with the aid of a stylus or a keyboard, is a coopera­tive enterprise involving the hand, the eye, and the brain ‑ each of which is inclined to play tricks on the others.  Although these tricks are not predict­able, they do fall into general patterns determined by the mechanical requirements of the copying process.  For this reason, it is possible to categorize textual mistakes according to various risks to which an ancient copyist was subject" (Kyle P. McCarter, Textual Criticism:  Recovering the Text of the Hebrew Bible, Guides to Biblical Scholarship series, Fortress Press, 1986).


 We shall briefly survey some of these error categories.  In doing so, McCarter's outline will be followed (pp.26‑62).  Recognize that these errors have been "caught" by translators of our English Bibles – who have, in turn, either corrected them in their translation (see the first example), OR have opted for one text family over another (i.e., some English translations will go with the Masoretic text, others the LXX or Qumran Dead Sea Scrolls). 


Consequently, the examples below are only apparent (in some cases) in the actual manuscripts themselves.




Dittography ("double writing") ‑ the unintentional repetition of part of the text  (p.30, Eze. 48:16)


            (MT) ~ypla t[b raw Xmx Xmx bgn tapw

                (Lit.) "and the south side five five hundred and four thousand"



Glossing ‑ adding words in order to explain unusual or obscure terms (pp.33‑4, 2 Sam.11:4)


            (MT)              htamjm tXdqtm ayhw

                (4QSama                            tXdqtm ayhw

                (Lit.)                  "and she purified herself (from her uncleanness)"


*in case a non-Jewish reader might not understand that "uncleanness" was meant, a scribe would insert words of clarification.   When there is a difference in manuscripts of this variety, it is more likely that the shorter reading would be original.


Conflation ‑ combining readings in different text families into another text (p. 37, 2 Sam. 22:43)


            (MT)         ~[qra  ~qda  "I crushed them and smashed them"

                (LXX)                     ~qda   "I crushed them"

                (4QSama)                 ~[qra             "I smashed them"


* here the scribe / copyist couldn't decide which reading was original, so he combined them in his copy, introducing an error





Haplography ‑ ("single writing") when a copyist misses a set of letters in a sequence by copying them only once (p.39, Jud.20:13)


(MT - Kethiv)  !mynb           wba alw "and Benjamin were not willing"


[obviously, to have the plural verb here makes no sense with a singular subject]


        (MT - Qere)    !mynb ynb wba alw "and the sons of Benjamin were not



[the phrase "the sons of" dropped out in copying because the scribe thought the ynb he was copying belonged to the whole word !mynb]


 Homoioarkton ‑ ("similar beginning") occurred when a scribe's eyes went from one or more words at one point in the sentence to another occur­rence of the same words a little farther on in the sentence (p.40, Gen.31:18)


            (MT)  ~ra !dpb Xkr rXa wnynq hnqm Xkr rXa

           (LXX)  ~ra !dpb                                      Xkr rXa


KJV Gen 31:18  which he had gotten,[ the cattle of his getting, which he had gotten] in Padanaram . . .


* here the scribe's eye slipped from the Xkr he copied to the words that followed the SECOND Xkr





Graphic Confusion‑confusing one Hebrew letter for another  (pp.43‑4­8)


            b k  -  Isaiah 63:6


                (MT)         ytmxb ~rkXaw  "and I made them drunk in my anger"

                (MT mss)   ytmhb ~rbXaw  "and I shattered them in my anger"



Misdivision ‑ when a scribe divided the words incorrectly (p.49, Hos.6:5)


                (MT)   a[y  rwa  $yjpXmw  "and your judgments, light goes forth"

                (LXX)  a[y  rwak  yjpXmw    "and my judgment goes forth like light"


* the Hebrew letter kis written as $ when it occurs at the end of a word (that's why these letters look different above).  In an undivided line, though, the scribe would be looking at this – and then would have to decide where to divide the letters to form words:





Transposition (Metasthesis) ‑ the exchange of positions of consonants within a word (p.50, Dt.31:1)


                (MT)    rbdyw hXm  $lyw  "and Moses went and spoke"

                (4QDtn)  rbdyw hXm  lkyw  "and Moses finished speaking"





The tiqqune soperim ("emendations of the scribes") ‑ when a scribe deliberately changed the text, often in an attempt to protect the charac­ter of God (p.58, I Sam.3:13)


(MT)     ~ynb   ~hl     ~yllqm yk  "that his sons were blaspheming for



* the translation above makes no sense (you can't blaspheme yourself since no one is an object of blasphemy except a deity).  What the scribe did (to "protect" God from blasphemy) is illustrated below.  He took out a few letters from God's name – the aleph a and the yodh y (as the Septuagint proves)!



 (LXX)   ~ynb   ~yhla  ~yllqm yk "that his sons were blaspheming