A New Critical Edition of the Hebrew Bible

By Ronald Hendel
Norma and Sam Dabby Professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies
University of California, Berkeley
August 2014

Recently the SBL 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 generally 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. 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, BHQ and HUBP), 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, the HBCE critical text 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 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 retroverted 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 traits 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 text-critical commentary that surrounds the critical text, we lay out the reasons for the preferred readings (including warranted conjectures) and we 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.

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, including the HBCE critical text and commentary. 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 goal 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.

The first completed volume of the project, Michael V. Fox's edition of Proverbs, will be out this fall. It's a magnificent work. The other volumes will appear over the next decade. According to our plan, the electronic versions will follow each volume within a couple of years. We believe that our project will be an innovative resource and a stimulus to good scholarship for many years to come.

Comments (5)

Congratulations on having the courage and determination to undertake such a difficult project. It has always amazed me that no one has tried it before. I will be very interested in the resulting text, and hope the project will not take as long as, say, the critical editions of the Septuagint. :-)

Again, congratulations -- and thanks.

#1 - Robert B Waltz - 08/19/2014 - 12:32

As an archaeologist who needs to deal with biblical texts as sources of ethnohistorical data, I highly appreciate this project. While I have a copy of BHS and can usually muddle through the Greek and Latin notes despite a lack of formal training in Greek or Latin (my linguistic training is limited to Semitic languages and Hieroglyphic Luwian given the period I deal with), I am not a biblical scholar and therefore not qualified to make judgments as to what degree the present MT critical editions reflect actual pre-Hellenistic data I can use vs. later scribal modifications of these data.

While I understand that the critical edition will still ultimately reflect textual recensions later than the periods I deal with, I look forward to the extensive commentary that will allow me to make better-informed decisions as to which passages may preserve reliable data from the Iron Age and Persian periods.

#2 - Robert M. Jennings - 08/19/2014 - 17:12

Ron would you care to say a bit more about this:

"Editions that exist only in Greek translation will be retroverted 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.)"

You're translating from Greek to Hebrew and counting that as an aid to the recovery of the oldest texts?


#3 - Jim West - 08/20/2014 - 18:47

Dear Jim,

This refers to books like Jeremiah where the LXX has a different (in this case, mostly earlier) edition than MT. Both editions will be presented in Hebrew (in parallel columns). As I note, this is less difficult than it may seem because of the overlap between the editions. For instance, the shorter edition of Jeremiah for the most part corresponds to Hebrew text in the expanded edition in MT. In other cases, retroversion can be more dodgy. All retroversions not supported by a Hebrew reading will be marked with an asterisk as a reconstruction, and the Greek supplied. We'll always signal what we're doing and what the Hebrew represents.

I hope this clarifies somewhat.


#4 - Ron Hendel - 08/20/2014 - 20:24

Ron, I have heard you talk about this for years now and this essay clarifies things considerably and represents a stage of thinking that is far ahead of some of those initial ideas we threw around in the "old days." I really appreciate this overview and the fact that you and your team have responded to valid criticisms and continued to refine and improve your methods and goals. Can't wait to see the first product!

#5 - James D. Tabor - 08/20/2014 - 21:29

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