I'm known among my classmates as someone with a fondness for the Septuagint (the Ancient Greek translation of the the Hebrew bible; LXX for short). The Septuagint is the earliest surviving translation of the Hebrew Bible into any other language.* I have an Orthodox Jewish friend who is quite partial to the traditional Hebrew text, as one might imagine (not that I don't like it). This friend, Josh, is always asking where anyone would get the idea that the LXX is more authoritative that the traditional Hebrew text. Unfortunately, there has never been the adequate time to explain the issues involved, but I do better in writing than talking anyway.
It is to be said from that start, that it very much depends upon what means by “authoritative.” In such a situation, I hardly feel that it's my place to tell to a Jew what is authoritative for his system of belief. Orthodox Judaism holds the Masoretic Text (MT) as the authoritative version of the Bible for their religion (to simplify the story), and I'm not going to argue that they should do anything different (I might argue that they should believe Jesus is the Messiah, but one thing at a time, I guess).
The question is first and foremost a matter of textual criticism. The problem is that no two biblical manuscripts (prior to the invention of the printing press) say exactly the same thing. Now, in both Old and New Testaments respectively, there is a family of texts to which the vast majority of manuscripts conform, but all of those manuscripts are later than might be desired. In the case of the New Testament, most scholars think that those manuscripts do not best represent the original text, as most of the very earliest manuscripts are somewhat different, and for various reasons, a certain family of ancient manuscripts appear to be the most accurate. Luckly, in the New Testament, we have thousands of manuscripts, many of which are very ancient. Though we can never be sure what the original text was, we have witnesses for most documents quite near to the time of their composition.
For the Hebrew Bible, the traditional text is generally thought to represent the most ancient form of the text. Unfortunately, the earliest of these texts are from the eighth century C.E. The group who produced this text, known as the Masoretes, I would consider to be the greatest scribes who every lived. They took the best Hebrew manuscripts of their time, compared with some of the others, added notes about where vocalization differed from the consonantal texts. They counted words, the counted letters, they counted everything. They invented the system of Hebrew vowels that is still used today (for which first year Hebrew students might hate them). They produced excellent manuscripts, and with an accuracy has never been matched before or after. After doing the world such a great service, they did us almost an equal disservice; the destroyed nearly every Hebrew manuscript prior to their work, locking the Hebrew tradition down to a single family. We don't know what manuscripts they used, and more importantly, we don't know which manuscripts they rejected.
Now, the Masoretes are not wholly to be blamed for this. The Romans, much earlier, had destroyed any documents they found in Hebrew. They also, doubtless, bereft posterity of many Biblical manuscripts, not to mention other interesting documents that would have shed light on second temple Judaism, and probably even earlier times. The Dead Sea Scrolls are, as far as I know, the only substantial Hebrew documents to be preserved from the second temple period. There may be a few others, but they are not so important (or I am very ignorant, which is also possible [remembered later that there has been some good stuff discovered at Masada]). At any rate, they certainly are the oldest biblical texts ever discovered (with the exception of two tiny inscriptions on silver scrolls discovered my one of my teachers a few miles off from where I now sit). Unfortunately, most of the Biblical texts at Qumran are so fragmentary that they are of little use for tracing the history of the text. However, we do have complete witnesses to Isaiah and Habakkuk there, and there are sometimes interesting things to be found in the fragments as well. They are just swell.
However, there are other sources of knowledge about the state of the text in ancient times, and those are the ancient translations. The foremost, as already mentioned, is the Greek, the LXX. The translation of the Torah was in the late third or early second century B.C., and all of the books were probably finished in some kind of fixed form by the middle of the first century B.C., as they appear to have been in wide use throughout the Roman empire by the end of the first century C.E. Naturally, this was a purely Jewish translation, as Jesus wasn't yet born. In the Torah, it is a fairly literal rendering of the Hebrew, and in other books, the style varies, from wooden literalism, to very free idiomatic translation and even paraphrase. The best and some of the earliest manuscripts we have are from the third century C.E., the famous Sinaiticus (א) and Vaticanus (B), produced by the Alexandrian scribal school. Very luckily, this is considered among the best scribal schools of antiquity, and it is also the city where the LXX was originally produced. These manuscripts, though they probably have some corruptions, give a fairly good representation of the original form of the LXX (not that all sections are free from difficulty). Both Jewish and Christian scribes were involved in their transmission, though the Jews had recently rejected the LXX translation, and began sticking more closely to their own Hebrew and Aramaic translations, as well as a new, extremely literal, Greek translation made by one Aquila.
Speaking of Aramaic translations, known as targums, they probably existed orally for a very long time, since the time of Ezra at least, becoming ever more fixed in form, and were written down around the second or third century C.E. Our earliest manuscripts are from the sixth century, as far as I recall. The Targums are fond of paraphrase, and will occasionally add an explanatory note here or there directly into the text. It has also been updated over time to conform more closely to the traditional Jewish interpretation of the Hebrew text. We have much earlier fragmentary targums from Qumran, but they have a lot of differences from the major targums used today, illustrating that this was a somewhat fluid tradition in early times, controlled by the interpretation of the Hebrew.
Though with both the Greek and Aramaic versions, the texts we have are later than one might want, since they are copies of a more ancient translation, they take on a totally different life than the tradition from which they were made. All of the traditions inevitably take on changes as they are passed from hand to hand, but they take on different changes. What this means is that, amongst all of them, we can come closer to what the original version may have been. The more we have, the better.
There are a few other ancient versions of note: The Samaritan Pentateuch. We don't know when the Samaritans first had their distinctive version of the Torah. They claim they have had it since it came from Sinai, and the Jews changed it. However, their text, as far as I know, has more traces of sectarian bias. I haven't done the study myself. It is undoubtedly quite ancient, and should at least be consulted when working on the Hebrew text. The Samaritan communities here in Israel have recently developed a system of vocalization for their text in this past generation. Before that, all of the vowels were transmitted orally. Unfortunately, these texts are very expensive to buy. The first English translation of it with commentary is now at the presses. One of my classmates was involved in the editorial process.
Also to be mentioned are the Latin and Syriac versions, the earliest Christian translations. The Old Latin versions were, unfortunately, based on the Septuagint, and serve us much better to illuminate the history of that text than the Hebrew. The Syriac version his also heavily based on the LXX, but it seems to be conferring with a Hebrew text as well. It must be used very carefully. The later Latin Version, the first commissioned by the church, is Jerome's Vulgate from the end of the fourth century, a translation directly from the Hebrew. It is, overall, a good translation. It appears to represent a Hebrew tradition very closely related to the the traditional version still used in Synagogues today (which makes the divergences even more interesting).
Now, when dealing with all of this evidence there are several things to take into consideration. The translations are very interesting in and of themselves, as they very much represent the theologies and interpretations of the communities that created them (this, perhaps, is where my love for the LXX is really founded. It shows us how Jews were reading the Bible in pre-Christian times). However, if one is simply inquiring as to history of the Hebrew text, One must be very careful how they evaluate the evidence. There are many cases of explanatory words and phrases being added by the translators, and one must be aware of such things. In additions, there can be changes which are clearly scribal errors in the receiving languages. What is most interesting are cases that reveal scribal changes and errors in the Hebrew.
There are cases where the Masoretic text (MT) is very difficult to understand, and the LXX says something totally different. When this happens, one attempts to reconstruct the Hebrew underlying LXX. Sometimes, is seems clear that the translators simply changed the meaning so it would make sense, or a Hebrew scribe added a word (a much more rare occurrence). Other times, you will find that it is the difference of a single Hebrew letter, and when that is amended, the MT makes perfect sense. These are the kinds of the things the textual critic is looking for. There are even times when you find that the meaning is totally different, but the reconstructed Hebrew text is identical. It is only the Vowels that are different. This is even more interesting, since the vowels were only written down in the time of the Masoretes. However, occasionally, the LXX, Targum, or the Latin version will attests a different tradition of vocalization. It is often up to the textual critic to decide which of these vocalizations makes more sense in context, and there are few objective criteria to be used (aside from conventions of Biblical Hebrew orthography, which themselves are hotly debated).
However, I must impress that, overall, there is great unity among the various textual traditions, and the stand as a testament to the good work of the Masoretes and their predecessors. There are some exceptions. Jeremiah and Samuel are huge problems textually. The Psalms are also not great. Still, the messages of these books are not greatly changed by such problems.
This further raises questions about which form of text any particular community should be exegeting. To that, I don't have an answer. Catholics have the Latin versions and the Canons for interpretation, Eastern Orthodox have the Byzantine text of the LXX. Orthodox Jews have the MT and the Midrashim as a source of authority. As protestants, we say that we are trying to reconstruct the original text. However, most of the books of the Old Testament (in contrast to those of the New), went through extremely long periods of editorial process, and it is difficult to say which text is then the “original.” In some books, it seems there are textual witnesses from before the completion of a large part of the editorial work (such as Jeremiah). On the other hand, even the MT represents, in a way, a final phase of editorial and interpretative decisions (as do all translations, ancient and modern). As a student of scripture, this is a fascinating process. As a Christian who goes to scripture as a source of authority, I must admit it causes some perplexity, and leaves me in search of paradigms for inspiration and authority that do justice to the complexity of the text we have. That question, I must leave for others until a later time. I certainly don't have an answer at the moment, and theology isn't exactly my strong suit. Reading the Bible tends to mess up one's theology.
*With the possible exception of some fragmentary Aramaic versions from Qumran, which may be contemporary.
P.S. Having recently read some things by Prof. Emmanuel Tov, this post seems so yucky and inadequate. I really need to look more into OT textual criticism. 8^(