The Other Torah
A new English translation of the Samaritan Torah offers scholars a different version of the sacred text
Ulrich said after the destruction of the Second Temple, the people split into three groups, each with their own text: The rabbis took the Masoretic text for their own, the Samaritans took theirs, and the early Christians used much of a different version called the Septuagint—a Masoretic version translated into Greek in the 2nd century BCE—in what later become the Christian Bible.
While most differences between the two Torahs are only slight and may not even be apparent to an untrained eye, according to Ulrich, the Samaritan Torah provides a more coherent reading because the story flows better in its text. “There are whole passages of stories missing from the Masoretic version,” he said. “A lot of the stories in Exodus and Deuteronomy are missing parts of the conversation, leaving the reader alone to do much assumption as the story goes on. In the Samaritan Torah, however, these gaps are filled, providing a smoother encounter of what actually happened.”
James Charlesworth, a professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Princeton University’s Department of Biblical studies, said the Samaritan Torah is his preferred version for some readings of the Bible. “As the stories and histories go, the Samaritan Pentateuch appears to be more favorable because the voice of the text reads more clear[ly],” he said. “In my judgment, the Masoretic version has some corrupt parts of it, and the Samaritan Torah is the best reading we have. There are sentences scholars are left to either reinterpret or simply ignore because they seem they don’t belong.”
Charlesworth believes Jews and Christians have not shown the Samaritan text the proper respect it deserves: Thousands of years ago, Samaritans and Jews had a shared interest in both scriptures, but the Samaritan Torah later became shunned. Charlesworth said this English translation would finally provide the academic world insight into the origins of the development of scripture.
The Samaritans claim their Torah is older and more authentic: “It’s more logical that a group of people who’ve lived in one place for thousands of years have kept their Torah preserved,” Tsedaka asserted, “as compared to a people who have moved all over the world.”
But some Bible critics side with the Masoretic version, citing it as older and, indeed, more authentic. Referring to a principal of textual criticism called lectio difficilior potior, which states that a harder reading of a text is preferred to an easier reading, Yeshiva University’s Aaron Koller said some scholars believe the Samaritan Torah’s text, which presents fewer interpretive problems, proves that it had been tampered with. “Some scholars believe someone took an original version of the Torah and simplified it to the Samaritan version,” he explained. “It’s hard to believe a difficult reading of a text is original, because why would someone change a text to make it unclear? Rather, when a text is simplified, it’s easier to believe that the text was altered in order to make it simpler.”
Koller noted that the consensus view held by most Bible scholars is that the Masoretic version of the Torah is the older, original version. The structural changes of the Samaritan Torah give reason to believe it’s been changed, he said, but that should not stop people from studying it. Both should be studied, he said, to understand the history of interpretations of the Torah—a book that continues to unfold with meaning as time goes on.
“Outside of the Samaritan community, most believe the Samaritan Torah was an editorial revision of the Masoretic text,” Koller said. “But they are a group that consider themselves heirs to biblical Israel, just like the Jews. It’s important just to learn the remarkable tradition they’ve preserved for 2,500 years.”
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As the rabbis remind us again this week, the law is the law—whether it pleases you or not