The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Edition


(By Chris with a "C") This is very exciting.

I recently came across this news article (courtesy of Dr. William Varner over at the Nerdy Language Majors Facebook group) which details a new edition of the Hebrew Bible that a group of scholars have been working on for more than a decade.  Why is a new Hebrew Bible exciting?  Because it is a critical edition, something that has been needed for quite some time in Biblical Studies.

So, what is a critical edition and why is it important?

Well, let's start with what we currently have.  The Hebrew text with which most scholars work and which underlies most modern Bibles is found in the Leningrad Codex (an 11th century manuscript that contains the entire Old Testament).  If you were to look at a modern printing of the Hebrew Bible and look at the Leningrad Codex side-by-side, you would basically be looking at the exact same text.  This is called a Diplomatic Edition, that is, our Hebrew Bible is a transcription of a single manuscript which has been judged to be an authoritative, trustworthy source.  The problem with a Diplomatic Edition, though, is that there will inevitably be errors and mistakes.  As scribes copied the biblical text throughout the centuries, they would occasionally miss out a word or sentence or misspell or miswrite something.  These mistakes would then get compiled as the next scribe copied the text and so on!  Another problem more specific to the Old Testament is that there were different literary traditions for some books.  So, while the Leningrad Codex has one version of Jeremiah or Samuel, the Septuagint has different versions!

This is where Textual Criticism comes in to play.  Textual Criticism is the study of differences between manuscripts to try to determine what "reading" is the most original.  In Old Testament studies, Textual Criticism is applied after the fact, that is, we have our Diplomatic Hebrew Bible set and then we compare it to other manuscripts and versions.

Contrast this with New Testament studies.  For the most part, our modern printings of the Greek New Testament are not based on one codex.  Rather, textual critics have applied textual criticism before the fact, that is, they look at all the different codices and manuscripts and decide which readings are superior.  They then compile these together to form the Greek New Testament.  This is called an Eclectic Edition.  Now, the resultant text is not set in stone — textual critics will argue and debate over this or that issue, which is why updated versions will be produced every so often — but on the whole, it is accepted as representing the most original text of the New Testament as our evidence allows.

So, what is a Critical Edition?  Basically, a Critical Edition very similar to an Eclectic Edition except that a Critical Edition selects a primary text as its basis against which everything is compared, in this case the Masoretic Text as represented in the Leningrad Codex.  This has the potential to be a huge step forward in Old Testament Studies.  Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a Critical or Eclectic Edition of the Hebrew Bible was simply not possible; we did not have sufficient evidence and many scholars were still not quite sure what to do with these different versions like the Septuagint or Samaritan Pentateuch.  With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, though, we were given an abundance of textual evidence that showed agreements with the Masoretic Text in some places but also agreement with other textual traditions (like the Septuagint).  For years, Old Testament scholars have benefitted from this evidence when they do their text-critical work, but this is the first time a concerted effort has been made to apply insights from Textual Criticism in order to produce a Hebrew Bible that represents the most original text that our evidence allows.  This means that the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Septuagint, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Old Latin, and the Peshitta will all be on equal footing with the Masoretic Text.  Every reading will be considered and whichever is judged to be superior will then be represented in the resultant Hebrew Bible.  Very, very exciting indeed.

I will be honest, though, that even more exciting to me than the Critical Edition was the last paragraph of the article:

"Hendel’s team uses a two-fold approach: In the case of the more limited variations, they make the correction in the text according to their best judgment while noting the variants and the reasoning in the accompanying notes. Where entirely separate versions seem to exist, as in Jeremiah, HBCE will reproduce both side by side, indicating multiple editions." (Emphasis mine)


This is fantastic; I don't think I can communicate how happy it makes me that different literary versions will both be represented.  Hendel et al. will certainly receive backlash on this, but I commend them for their commitment and am very grateful for the work they are doing.