The Story of David and Goliath. Textual and Literary Criticism. Papers of a Joint Research Venture

Written by D. Barthélemy, D. W. Gooding, J. Lust and E. Tov Reviewed By H.G.M. Williamson

Traditionally—and therefore still in many student textbooks dealing with method in the study of the OT—a sharp distinction has been drawn between ‘lower’ and ‘higher’ criticism of the text. The former relates to textual criticism narrowly defined, that is to say, establishing with the help of the ancient versions and, if necessary, conjectural emendation what may have been the original form of the Hebrew text. Higher criticism, by contrast, begins its work only with the text so established and speculates about how that text came to be written by use of such methods as source and form criticism.

In recent years, however, and especially in the light of the finds at Qumran, these two disciplines have been brought closer together and in the case of some books have been thought to overlap. For instance, it is well known that the Septuagint version of the book of Jeremiah is considerably shorter than the Masoretic Text and presents some of the chapters in a different order. Because some of these differences are now seen to be based not on the process of translation or subsequent editorial activity on the Greek text but on a different Hebrew text, there are a number of scholars who have argued that the Greek text bears witness to an earlier stage in the composition of the book. In that case, textual criticism would provide important evidence for unravelling issues which have traditionally been thought to be the province only of the second stage of higher criticism.

In this discussion, the books of Samuel assume an important position. It has been known for more than a century that the Septuagint sometimes differs quite significantly from the Masoretic Text, and that in ways which many argue on text-critical grounds are to be preferred. More recently, some fragments from Qumran have shown that many of these differences are due to the fact that the Greek translation was based on a Hebrew text which itself differed from the Masoretic Text. In most cases, these differences can be explained on the usual ground of faulty transmission of the text in its earliest stages. In the story of David and Goliath, however, the differences are of a more fundamental kind. The Greek text is considerably shorter than the Hebrew (for instance, it omits 1 Sa. 17:12–31 entirely), and by its omissions it removes a number of apparent difficulties in the account which some scholars had argued on higher-critical grounds were due to the combination of sources in the formation of the Hebrew text. The most celebrated example of such a difficulty is the fact that Saul seems unaware of David’s identity in 17:55–56 despite the fact that already at the end of chapter 16 David had been brought into the personal service of the king. In the Septuagint, however, 17:55–18:6a is lacking, so that the difficulty does not arise.

The issues raised by these and similar phenomena are the subject of the book here under review. By way of an experiment, the four authors, who are all Septuagint experts, agreed each to examine the topic, initially on their own and then by way of several responses to their collaborators’ contributions and with a few days spent together in discussion as well. From start to finish they disagree (sometimes quite radically) both over the methods proper to such an investigation and consequently over their conclusions. To oversimplify more than somewhat, Lust and Tov argue that the Septuagint was based on a shorter Hebrew text, and that this shorter text preceded the longer Masoretic Text in the history of composition. For them, the starting-point has to be an evaluation of the textual data. Barthélemy and Gooding, by contrast, start with the Masoretic Text and maintain that it can be understood as a consistent and satisfying story; for them, the Septuagint represents a truncated version, and is therefore secondary. Consequently, they seek to advance reasons why the text should have been thus shortened (basically, a misguided attempt to eliminate just the kind of difficulties which more recent scholars have also found with the longer text). For them, literary criticism must be applied first in a case such as this, because it is the text which is most satisfying from a literary point of view which should have the priority.

Inevitably, much of the discussion is of a highly technical nature, though readers will find that Gooding’s contribution is a brilliant and lucid exposition of the text as it stands which advances our understanding very considerably. (Equally, tribute should be paid to Tov’s detailed examination of the Septuagint’s translation technique in this passage, a study which, like Gooding’s, can stand quite independently of the more specific issues under discussion.) Furthermore, as an experiment in scholarly collaboration this book has an interest all of its own, since by the close interaction between the four authors matters such as method and presupposition come sharply into focus, even if they are not definitively resolved. It is instructive for any reader to have his or her own personal preferences thus exposed.

Because these four experts argue the topic to and fro, it is unlikely that a reviewer’s contribution could be more than yet another statement of personal preference; the substantial issues are fully laid out here for all to see. It is perhaps not a book for those who lack knowledge of the biblical languages, but for any with such knowledge and an interest in modern developments in the critical field this book will provide a most instructive introduction. Readers of Themelios will probably feel instinctively drawn to Gooding’s conclusions, and indeed to this reviewer it appears that he often has the better of the argument regarding this particular passage; but whether one may legitimately extrapolate from this to other examples of differences between the Greek and Hebrew texts is quite another question!

H.G.M. Williamson

Christ Church, Oxford