I've read this article several times and thought it was great each time, but I always seem to forget what it says. I thought maybe blogging about it would help me remember.
Philip S. Alexander, “Why No Textual Criticism in Rabbinic Midrash? Reflections on the Textual Culture of the Rabbis,” in Jewish Ways of Reading the Bible (JSSSup 11; ed. George J. Brook; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 175–90.
In this paper, Alexander first explains that rabbinic literature lacks any discussion of text critical issues related to scripture. This absence of text-critical reflection is not due to their doctrine of the inspiration of the text, because the similar doctrine in Christianity allows for corruption in the text subsequent to the autographs (p. 176).
Neither is it due to rabbinic ignorance of text-critical principles (pp. 176–81). In fact, sophisticated forms of textual criticism were developed in Alexandria, Egypt, beginning in the third century BCE, and these were inherited and applied to the Bible by the likes of Origen and Jerome (pp. 176–77). The Rabbis knew of differences in manuscripts: the reading of Gen. 3:21 in R. Meir’s Torah as reported in Gen. Rab. 20:12; the different readings to be found in Christian and Samaritan copies of the Torah; the changes introduced by the translators of the LXX (cf. b. Meg. 9a–b); the traditions of the tiqqunei soferim; and the development of the ketiv/qerei apparatus; the textual plurality attested by the Dead Sea Scrolls; the lemmata in rabbinic literature which diverge from the MT; the variants to be found in the different MT manuscripts themselves; the rabbinic awareness of superior manuscripts such as the three scrolls in the Temple (pp. 177–78). The Masorah would seem to be a first step toward textual criticism, but actually serves the opposite purpose—the preservation of inconsistencies and oddities of the biblical text. Nevertheless, the Masorah evidences signs of an earlier stage of textual scholarship: ketiv/qerei; the extraordinary points (nequdot); the inverted nuns; the suspended letters; all of which may have indicated textual variants but have now become part of the immutable divine text (pp. 179–80). On the other hand, the Rabbis did practice textual criticism on rabbinic texts, such as the Talmud (pp. 180–81). Thus, the absence of biblical textual criticism in rabbinic literature demands an explanation.
Alexander suggests three possible responses to the obvious textual divergences in the Jewish scriptures. First, the Rabbis may have viewed all textual variants as inspired. This is a problematic position (how can every scribal alteration be the word of God?), but something like it seems to have been held at Qumran and, perhaps, by the Apostle Paul. Alexander compares the al tiqrei passages in rabbinic literature (pp. 181–82).
A second response would be to produce an eclectic text (pp. 182–83). This is apparently how the proto-Masoretic Text came to be, during the Maccabean Age (says Alexander)—the creation of an authoritative text based on “heavy editorial intervention”.
But, Alexander says the Rabbis largely followed a third path: they merely chose a single textual tradition and deemed it alone authoritative and inspired. “Textual variants could and did arise in the copying of the Masoretic text, and these had, of course, to be corrected, but once the ‘original’ Masoretic text had been recovered the process of correction abruptly stopped. That Masoretic text, itself, with all its inherent textual problems which were carefully noted in Midrash and Masorah, was regarded as absolutely fixed and inviolable” (p. 183).
[Alexander does not here address how this choosing of one textual tradition would actually have taken place. Why did they choose this particular text? Was this text a unit even before the Rabbis chose it? In other words, we think of the MT of Genesis as textually similar to the MT of Daniel because they are both found in the MT. But, would a prerabbinic sage have had any reason to relate these two scrolls (a particular textual form of Genesis and a particular textual form of Daniel) together as of similar textual type? Perhaps they were both housed in the Temple? Or were they of distinct textual types, so that the Rabbis had to choose a textual type for the Torah, another for Proverbs, another for Psalms, another for…every biblical book? Would this choosing have practically amounted to the election of one particular manuscript of each biblical book from which all subsequent rabbinic biblical texts should be copied?]
Alexander discusses three reasons for choosing one textual type (pp. 184–187). (1) Tradition—the [proto-] Masoretic text [of most biblical books] was already widely accepted as authoritative prior to the rabbinic movement. (2) Apologetic—it is easier to “sell” an ancient text than to win approval for a newly edited text. (3) Theology—the rabbinic doctrine of scripture rested on an understanding of the biblical text as immutable and divine. “Was it the rabbinic doctrine of Scripture that led the rabbis to declare the Masoretic text as authoritative and unchangeable? Or was the doctrine, at least in part, a working out of the implications of that declaration? Or was there some sort of mutually reinforcing dialectic between the doctrine and the declaration? As it developed the rabbinic doctrine of Scripture located inspiration ever more precisely in the graphic form of the consonantal text as it is found in the Synagogue Sifrei Torah” (p. 186). This textual position became extreme in the later rabbinic period with an emphasis on the cosmic significance of the Torah.
“It is no accident that textual criticism is absent from Midrash. Its absence was one of a range of strategies which together constitute the textual culture of the rabbis. Its absence is inextricably linked to the very essence of the midrashic enterprise” (p. 187).
Alexander closes (pp. 187–90) with a series of observations that summarize the main points of the paper. (1) The Rabbis picked one form of the “Torah of Moses” as true and correct. (2) Theological and apologetic reasons and especially tradition contributed to this decision. (3) The divine status of the Torah came to be attributed to every facet of the written text, including the script, orthography, scribal notations (e.g., inverted nuns), etc. (4) The Masorah developed in order to ensure the preservation (not the elimination) of anomalies in the manuscripts. (5) Although the MT in theory represented the authentic Torah of Moses, in practice it was still impossible to make exact copies of this ideal MT, so textual criticism to a limited extent was still necessary for the elimination of errors in the MT manuscripts. [Alexander (p. 189 n. 22) identifies Samuel David Luzzatto (1800–1865) as the first Jew to practice true textual criticism on the MT.] (6) Textual anomalies were theologized midrashically rather than correct text-critically. (7) The signs within the MT of previous textual criticism (e.g., ketiv/qerei, nequdot, etc.) were explained away or theologized so that the inviolability of the MT was preserved.