Often today, people justify their lack of trust in the bible with the claim that the text of the bible has been “corrupted” and we can no longer be sure about what it originally said. I wanted to take a moment to look at one of the more challenging texts where there it is truly reasonable to assume that there really may have been textual “corruption” so that we can understand what kind of issues biblical critics are really talking about and why there is so little merit to their claims. These textual issues are not big, earth shattering changes. They are typically very minor issues that hardly affect the meaning of the text. The vast majority of known issues affect only spelling. With that being said, let us look at one of the more difficult verses.
In the NIV, Psalm 2, verses 11-12 read:
Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him. (Psa 2:11-12 NIV)
The BHS[i] lists a number of variant texts in Hebrew, Greek, and Syriac for verses 11/12; the division between these verses is in question and although this Psalm is among those in the DSS[ii] (Dead Sea Scrolls) collection, the end of this Psalm is missing so the DSS offer no help to resolving this problem.
Here are some of the possible alternative readings in Hebrew followed by the MT reading for comparison:
עבדו את-יהוה בשמחה (“serve the Lord with gladness”)
עבדו את-יהוה ביראה (The MT reads “serve the Lord with fear”)
וגדלו שמו ברעדה… (“make his name great. With trembling…”)
וגילו ברעדה ( The MT reads “rejoice in trembling”)
ברעדה נשקו ברגליו (“with trebling kiss his feet”)
נשקו בר ( The MT reads “kiss a son”)
Here are some possible variant translations:
1) Serve the Lord with Gladness, Make his name Great. With trembling kiss his feet lest he becomes angry and you are destroyed in your way.
2) Serve the Lord with Gladness, Make his name Great. With trembling kiss [the] son lest he becomes angry and you are destroyed in your way.
3) Serve the Lord with fear, Rejoice in trembling. Kiss [the] son lest he becomes angry and you are destroyed in [your] way.
4) Serve the Lord with fear, Rejoice in trembling. Kiss his feet lest he becomes angry and you are destroyed in [your] way.
Here is how this reads in an English translation of the LXX[iv].
“Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice in him with trembling. Accept correction, lest at any time the Lord be angry, and ye should perish from the righteous way”
The biggest argument against the MT[iii] (Masoretic Text) reading stems from the use of the Aramaic בר (bar) for “son” rather than the Hebrew בן (ben). The two primary problems that are raised because of this usage are 1) בן is already used in this Psalm in vs. 7 and changing to Aramaic in vs. 12 would be inconsistent and 2) this Psalm is believed to have been authored early enough that should it should be free of these kinds of Aramaic influences. That being said, Peter Craigie argues that MT reading is original and believes the change from Hebrew to Aramaic was a tool used to draw attention to the change in context between foreign and domestic audiences. One additional problem exists because of the lack of the preposition ל (or ב) that would be typically used with the object of נשק (to kiss). In Hebrew if I say, “Kiss Me!” it is lit. “Kiss to me!” (נשק לי); one would expect “kiss to the son” (נשקו לבן) if that had been what was intended. The lack of the preposition and definite article and the use of Aramaic here make this reading difficult. I prefer option 4 above because it is only a slight emendation to the text i.e. נשקו בר becomes נשקו ברגליו, it means essentially the same thing, it is in harmony with the Messianic nature of the entire Psalm, it deals with the issue of the unexpected Aramaic, and it reflects a very common type of copyist error that has frequently been identified in other manuscripts. That being said, I do not think that the MT reading is without merit; it could be original.
Overall, it is important to recognize that, even in a difficult passage like this one, the best manuscript evidence offers readings that are remarkably similar. Most differences we see in manuscripts are far less difficult i.e. a change in spelling, the use of a synonym or a contraction, etc… The next time you hear someone challenge the reliability of Scripture based on the claim that there are “thousands” of variant texts and we do not know which ones are correct, realize that, in the vast majority of these cases, most of these variants say exactly the same thing! When there are truly difficult passages, like the one above, even then the differences are not critical. A real examination of the challenging texts of the bible leads to the conclusion that the preservation of the original text of the bible has been remarkable despite what critics may tell us.
[i] BHS (Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia) is the standard critical text of the Hebrew OT and lists most of the variant readings in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, etc… It was produced before the majority of the DSS were published and so does not cover those variants well. The BHQ deals with these newer manuscript discoveries.
[ii] The DSS are the earliest witness we have of the Hebrew text of the Bible