By the Letter?/Word for Word?
Scripture in the Jewish Tradition
For those interested in reading or consulting the Hebrew Bible, the modern world offers unprecedented opportunities. Modern-language versions are readily available in print or on line, along with editions in the original languages and an array of commentaries on all matters theological and philological.1
At the same time, and paradoxically, this ease of access serves to make abundantly clear that choices have to be made—and probably have been for centuries, if not millennia. How is it possible for so many translations, ranging from interlinear to paraphrase, to exist—all claiming to be a (if not the) true representation of the Word of God? With many of the Dead Sea Scrolls presenting ancient evidence of a Hebrew text at variance with the Masoretic Text (the traditional consonantal text of the Hebrew Bible; in its fullest form, it also includes vowel points, accents, and other notations), is it possible to know the original wording of any biblical passage? And with heightened awareness that certain books appear to have been accepted as authoritative by some Jews but not by others, how can we be certain that the contents (to say nothing of the ordering) of today's Hebrew Bible accurately mirror the circumstances in earlier Jewish communities?
These are among the questions we raise and attempt to answer in this chapter. As is often the case with our most important concerns, we ought to start by defining—or better, describing or delineating—key terms.