By: Ronald Hendel
Textual criticism — the comparison of ancient texts of the Hebrew Bible — has been revitalized by the riches of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The latest outcome is a new project that will construct an improved edition of the Hebrew Bible.
In June 2014 the Society for Biblical Literature announced its sponsorship of a new text-critical project, “The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Edition,” of which I am the general editor. The HBCE represents a new model for a critical edition of the Hebrew Bible, although it will be familiar to scholars who use critical editions of other ancient works such as the Septuagint or New Testament. The HBCE will consist of critical texts of each book of the Hebrew Bible, accompanied by extensive text-critical commentary and introductions to each volume. A critical text (sometimes called an eclectic text) is one that contains the best readings according to the judgment of the editor. In the case of the HBCE the editors are eminent scholars from North America, Europe, Africa, and Israel.
The HBCE text will not reproduce a single manuscript (as is the case with the other critical editions, Biblia Hebraica Quinta and Hebrew University Bible Project), but will approximate the manuscript that was the latest common ancestor of all the extant manuscripts. This “earliest inferable text” is called the archetype. This is not identical to the original text (however one defines this elusive term), but is the earliest recoverable text of a particular book. To be more precise, we will approximate the corrected archetype, since the archetype will have some scribal errors that can be remedied.
Many books of the Hebrew Bible – Exodus, Samuel, Kings, Jeremiah, and others – circulated in multiple editions in antiquity. In such cases, the HBCE text will be plural, approximating the archetypes of each ancient edition. The critical text will therefore consist of two or more parallel columns, which will be aligned to indicate the differences between the editions. Editions that exist only in Greek translation will be translated back into Hebrew to the extent possible. (Because these editions largely overlap with the Hebrew edition[s], this task is generally less difficult than it might seem.) The ability to present multiple ancient editions is one of the distinctive innovations of the HBCE compared to the other critical editions.
Our concept of a critical edition extends beyond the establishment of the earliest attainable text of each book. In the extensive commentary that surrounds the critical text, we lay out the reasons for the preferred readings (including warranted conjectures) and analyze the scribal and exegetical issues that gave rise to the secondary readings. In other words, our commentary explores the panorama of inner-biblical interpretations that are embedded in the texts. Although many variants are simply the result of scribal error, others are deliberate revisions, motivated by the desire to explain, update, harmonize, and even expurgate the text. Our critical edition therefore moves both backward and forward in time — backward to the earliest inferable texts and editions, and forward to the plethora of changes and interpretations that occurred during the textual life of the Hebrew Bible.
These innovations in the concept of a critical edition of the Hebrew Bible are the outcome of new scholarship stimulated by the discovery and publication of the biblical Dead Sea Scrolls. American Schools of Oriental Research scholars have played a prominent role here, beginning in 1948 when Mar Athanasius Samuel brought the Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa) to the ASOR School in Jerusalem to see what it was — and what it was worth. The theoretical framework of the HBCE project is also indebted to Frank Moore Cross (a past ASOR president and luminary) for its inspiration.
As a twenty-first century project, the HBCE will have a sophisticated electronic version, which will include all the material from the print volumes plus all the texts and versions, including photographs of important manuscripts. The electronic HBCE will be an interactive polyglot edition. It will be free and open-access, and its open architecture will allow other scholars to use the texts and data for other projects. We will be creating electronic tools for a new generation of biblical scholars.
The HBCE project (under its former moniker, the Oxford Hebrew Bible) has attracted some serious criticism from distinguished textual critics, including Emanuel Tov, Hugh Williamson, and Adrian Schenker. As a new model, it raises many difficult theoretical and methodological issues. I welcome the criticisms of these and other scholars, because their arguments have inspired us to clarify and improve our theory and method. Detailed argument is the lifeblood of good scholarship, and in our case it has helped us to refine our project in its formative stages.
Some scholars hold that a fully critical edition of the Hebrew Bible — featuring a critical text — is an impossible or unimaginable goal. We maintain that the attempt is warranted — and is indeed the point of textual criticism. It will not be a perfect text, but it will be a valuable contribution to scholarship and will create new tools for future research. The HBCE editions will encompass more aspects of the textual life of the Hebrew Bible than the current critical editions, from the archetypes and early editions to the plethora of scribal exegesis. It represents a post-Qumran vision that will enliven the study of the Hebrew Bible.
Ronald Hendel is the Norma and Sam Dabby Professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
Additional Links to Check Out:
Controversy lurks as scholars try to work out Bible’s original text
Oldest known complete Torah scroll discovered miscataloged in Italy
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