When words have gone missing from the Bible …

Today’s Old Testament REAP reading is fascinating because it is an interesting example of missing words in the bible.  When you read 1 Samuel 13:1, you will notice from the footnotes and if you dig around textual criticism books, that there are some missing words. In the Hebrew Masoretic Text (the most original Hebrew text as scholars see it), we find the original says:

Saul was a son of a year in his reigning

and two years he reigned over Israel

(MT of 1 Sam 13:1)

Now this is a problem because :

  1. Saul was not one year old when he became king – we know his was a full grown adult (1 Samuel 9), and
  2. he reigned more than two years – especially when viewed against Acts 13:21.

Normally, scholars can handle these kinds of problems quite easily. Scholars normally  detect the error in the text, then work to find out how it came about, and consult other manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible for the solution. But in the case of 1 Samuel 13:1, there are no other reliable manuscript readings. ie all other manuscripts we have come later than the Masoretic Text and so we can only assume they would have tried to smooth over and fix the presenting problem.  In fact in later editions of the LXX (the greek version of the hebrew OT) they drop verse 1 out altogether!  We just have to make do with the reality that today,  the words are just lost. We just don’t have any manuscript evidence for the coherent and plain reading.

As a result, different translations have tried to deal with this issue differently:

  1. ESV “Saul was … years old when he began to reign, and he reigned … and two years over Israel.”
  2. HCSB “Saul was 30 years old when he became king, and he reigned 42 years over Israel.”
  3. NIVSaul was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel forty– two years.”

So what does this all mean?

  1. I believe that there was an original 1 Samuel 13 without these errors which was coherent and whole.  That was produced by a process of God’s inspiration to the writer and was perfect and complete.  However, since that time, transmission of the text was left to human beings, and now we have a missing word or words.
  2. When we come across this kind of textual issue (and there are not many of this kind of super difficult ones), we can also rely on the coherency of the Bible as a whole – we can trust the inspiration and inerrancy of the whole Bible.  For example in this case, Acts 13:21 and 2 Samuel 5:4 are used by scholars to reconstruct the reality of what is now “missing”.  Whilst this point seems a little circular, it’s reasonable to live with.
  3. Finally, when we come across this textual issue, we will find that although they call into question the legitimacy of our received texts (by showing there is a textual problem).  However, you will find that the words that are in question do not actually change the flow and message of the whole bible.  What I am saying is that although this problem could be a possible show-stopper for some kinds of scholars (and people who love throwing the baby out with the bathwater), the reality is that the overall message of the Bible is unaffected.
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