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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.