A Thought on Steps to a New Edition of the Hebrew Bible

Most people who might be reading this blog will be aware of the new edition of the Hebrew Bible now being produced under the moniker of The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Edition—it started out as the Oxford Hebrew Bible. The main distinction of the project is its aim to produce eclectic editions of books in the Hebrew Bible, rather than the now traditional diplomatic editions of Codex Leningradensis (so largely BHS/BHL) or the Aleppo Codex (so HUB). Ron Hendel, the general editor, is to be congratulated for publishing alongside these new critical editions a monograph discussing the theoretical framework within which the editorial work is being carried out. The book has garnered quite a bit of attention since its publication and has been a topic of discussion within the scholarly community.

I have been working through the book rather closely for a while now since I am doing a large amount of text critical research these days. One of the difficulties in designing the purview of a project like this new edition of the Hebrew Bible is to define the and defend its constraints. One of the innovations of this Hebrew Bible edition is that it works to establish one or more literary archetypes which it presents in Hebrew script and language. This is, of course, problematized by the fact that some archetypes may currently be derived only from Greek texts (or the so called daughter versions of the Septuagint) and thus translation (back?) into Hebrew becomes necessary. A discussion of that decision notwithstanding, I would like to focus on a different problem that Hendel rightly connects to this editorial practice of trying to represent archetypes: the usage of Tiberian pointing.

Hendel acknowledges the logical difficulty to be overcome as follows:

The copy-text will be L, our oldest complete manuscript of the Hebrew
Bible. Since the accidentals of vocalization and accentuation in L are the
product of medieval scribes, our critical text is open to the complaint of
anachronism. (p. 31)

Hendel then goes on to lay out the following arguments in defence of this decision:

There are several ameliorating factors that lessen this dissonance. First, biblical scholars already know that the consonantal text is older than the medieval vocalization system. So a critical text with this overlay is not
strange. Second, critical editions in other fields use anachronistic accidentals, including editions of Greek texts (including the New Testament, the LXX , and classical literature) that use rough breathings, accents, punctuation,
and miniscule letters, all of which were scribal inventions of the Carolingian era (ninth century CE), roughly contemporary with the Tiberian Masoretes. Third, the phonology of the Tiberian vocalization system is not wholly or even mostly anachronistic. (p. 32)

I find this defence quite surprising, especially in regard to the Greek material. The Greek rough breathings, accents, and punctuation were most certainly not the product of the Carolingian era, though their ubiquitous usage in scholarly transmission is established at that point in time. The accents, breathings, and punctuation can be already found in various usages two centuries before the common era, and appear in our earliest Greek Bible codices and some of the papyri as well. That means, at least in the case of Septuagint, some of those markings could possibly stem from the first penning of the translations, though I do not expect that to be so. The minuscule letters alone belong to the 9th century.

The second surprising claim is that “the Tiberian vocalization system is not wholly or even mostly anachronistic.” I don’t know by what measure we might make decisions about the similarity of one phonological system to another, but even if the books of the Hebrew Bible were written over as short a time span as a few hundred years and a small geographical region, comparative evidence would suggest that the phonology of those individual works would have varied. Certainly the phonology imposed by the transmitters, and redactors, of these works would vary as well. Some of the spellings in Qumran belie phonologies more in line with that found in the Babylonian system. Attenuation of a -> i (maqtal -> miqtal) occurred in the Byzantine era. I could go on and on discussing the problems of reconstructing Hebrew phonology from a diachronic perspective, but the real crux is that the whole defence seems rather ad hoc.

I have no problem with anachronistically using Tiberian phonology as indicated by the accents in transcriptions. Ahituv did this in his Echos from the Past, where we find Moabite and other NWS languages/dialects presented with Tiberian pointing. The “point” is that the Tiberian phonology in that book was being used to help readers associate the “proper” lexeme and morphological parsing to any given word, not some historical phonological reconstruction such as that attempted in K. Beyer’s “Die Sprache der moabitischen Inschriften,” KUSATU 11 (2010): 5–41. But I find it untenable to claim that the phonology of the Tiberian vocalization system is quite similar to the vocalization of the archetypes of all the books in the Hebrew Bible as witnessed in the manuscript tradition. Perhaps Hendel should have stopped with his first argument in favor of the policy, a statement which contrary to the others is both factually correct and reasonable: we Bible scholars (should) know that the the Tiberian points are a late addition to traditions that only had consonants and we are nevertheless accustomed to editions with the those points. My only quibble is that I would change “the consonantal text” in his statement to a plural “the consonantal texts,” something that will certainly be clarified by the presentation of parallel versions in the HBCE and the accompanying notes (see also the discussion on p. 29).

The really nice thing about Hendel’s book is that it provides a clearly stated rationale behind the editorial policies of the project, and relates them to the currents within the larger field. I would agree that such an enterprise is worthy of book-length treatment, which can be far more detailed than the customary introductory chapter in the editions themselves. Such an expanded discussion enables the reader to use the editions much more judiciously and at times to infer the rationale behind certain editorial decisions in the absence of explicit commentary.

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