A basic issue in any interpretation of a biblical pericope is the division of the text into its larger and smaller units. It is not unusual to see substantial differences among scholars about how to divide a particular text into these basic units. Noting in their preface (pp. vii-viii) that the ancient scribes who copied the various biblical books stood much closer in time to the creation of these books, Korpel and Oesch lament the failure of modern scholarship to pay sufficient attention to the various indicators left by these ancient scribes denoting how they divided the text. Most of the articles gathered by the editors in this volume address specific texts, which are used as examples of how paying careful attention to the ancient markers of text division can assist in our understanding of the text. These articles are informative, and collectively help support the importance of close attention to ancient text divisions. Unfortunately, the texts discussed are not broadly representative of the major groups of literature in the Tanak. There is a complete absence of any treatment of texts from the Pentateuch, or from the corpus from Joshua through II Chronicles. One wonders why. This leaves a significant gap, with almost all attention focused on texts from the “writing” prophets and from the wisdom literature of the Tanak.
Despite this gap, most scholars who study this volume will likely acknowledge the importance of studying the textual divisions in the ancient manuscripts, even though not all will see these indicators to be as important as the editors propose (as will be discussed below). In order to highlight both the advantages and the complexities involved in carrying out a detailed study of the division markers in ancient manuscripts, I will focus on two articles from the volume.
Johannes C. de Moor’s “The Structure of Micah 2:1–13: The Contribution of the Ancient Witnesses” (pp. 90–101) addresses the often debated issue of the proper subdivision of Micah 2:1–13. This unit may be divided into two major parts, 2:1–2 and 2:3–13 or, as is often the case in modern scholarship, the unit may be divided into three parts: 2:1–5, 6–11, and 12–13. There also is much debate about the colometric divisions of the text. De Moor claims that a careful study of more than 100 ancient Hebrew manuscripts, along with a smaller number of manuscripts from several major ancient versions indicates that, while the manuscripts of some major ancient versions present interesting alternatives for colometric division of the text, a comprehensive examination of all the manuscript evidence indicates that the colometric text divisions in the Masoretic text are to be preferred (p. 99). Furthermore, de Moor argues that a careful study of the delimitation marks in the ancient texts confirms the preference among most modern scholars for dividing the text of Micah 2 into three primary parts (p. 101)
De Moor also notes that, “with regard to paragraphing, the testimony of the ancient manuscripts cannot be accepted uncritically. One must always weigh the total available evidence very carefully.” (p. 99). This is certainly true, as shown by the substantial disagreement De Moor uncovers between the various ancient manuscripts on Micah 2:1–13. In light of this, he concludes by appealing for a “full collation of all extant manuscripts” (p. 101) and a careful study of their unit delimitations, a goal clearly advocated by the various contributors to this volume (see, for example, de Bruin, p. 88), and also emphasized on the back cover of the book, which discusses the goals of the Pericope series.
De Moor’s comments lead well into the observations of Wim de Bruin in his article “Interpretive Delimiters: The Complexity of Text Delimitation in Four Major Septuagint Manuscripts” (pp. 66–89), which focuses on text delimiters in four major Septuagint manuscripts of Isaiah 1–12. I will highlight some of de Bruin’s points, and add some observations of my own.
De Bruin notes that, unlike the detailed accent system of the Masoretes, which often serves to distinguish between pericopes, verses, cola, and clauses, the versions he examines provide neither an extensive not a fixed system of delimeters. In fact, the use of delimeters varies widely between, and even within, the several version manuscripts treated by de Bruin (pp. 66–67), and he sees this diversity and lack of uniformity of meaning for the delimiters to apply more broadly to ancient version manuscripts (p. 67).
These points indicate the complexity (and potential pitfalls) of attempting to understand delimiters as used by ancient scribes. An interesting question is whether the detailed, mediaeval system of the Tiberian Masoretes (late first millennium ce) has a strong link to text divisions and delimiters in Hebrew manuscripts from the ancient world, or is perhaps the end product of the gradual refinement and standardization of an earlier situation in Hebrew manuscripts that was just as complicated and varied as in the four version texts de Bruin discusses.
De Bruin also notes that version delimiters may have served a variety of purposes, some even liturgical. This leads to a final series of points I wish to make. As valuable as it no doubt is to scan the many ancient manuscripts available to us, can we assume that the scribes had in mind the same purposes in dividing the text into units as modern scholars typically have? These ancient scribes’ intentions may not always have been “exegetical” in the same sense in which we understand that term today, especially if we talk about the “intention” of the writer(s)/editor(s). Reader response criticism reminds us that we must keep in mind the perspective and intentions of both the creator(s) of a text and of each subsequent interpreter, including scribes.
Furthermore, while they stand closer in time to the “origin” of the texts (in itself a complex matter), many ancient scribes typically worked hundreds of years after the final redaction of a text, and they may have had no more an accurate knowledge of the writer/editor’s(s’) intended divisions of the text than we do today. There is no foundation for assuming that intended divisions of the text were passed down from writers/editors to the scribes who copied their texts. That does not mean that these ancient scribes’ attempts to divide the text are not valuable. It just means that we need to be careful not to over-accentuate the importance of their efforts at unit division due to the antiquity of these efforts. No doubt they were striving to understand and interpret the text within the specific contexts in which they lived, just as today we work with our many tools to interpret the text in our own 21st century context.
The importance of this book is that it shows the value of a careful study of text divisions in the many ancient manuscripts we possess, and it accentuates the need to make available to scholars in collated form the text divisions in these manuscripts, as is the laudable goal of the Pericope series. But even given that value, these ancient text divisions can form only one part of contemporary attempts to divide the text into sense units upon which to base our exegesis.
Addendum: List of Chapters in the volume