Why critical editions of the Bible—like Biblia Hebraica Quinta—are essential
The Hebrew Bible—or Old Testament—that we have today differs from the Hebrew manuscripts of the Bible penned in the first millennium B.C.E. When transmitting any sort of a document from generation to generation, small alterations—some intentional, others not—are made. Even the most careful scribe makes errors, which are perpetuated and often compounded by future scribes. Thus, it should not surprise us that the Hebrew Bible, which has a transmission history of several millennia, contains textual difficulties, corruptions and even mistakes. Critical editions of the Bible examine these differences by looking at varying Hebrew witnesses and try to accurately reconstruct the original Hebrew manuscripts of the Bible. In the November/December 2013 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, David Marcus and James A. Sanders discuss why critical editions of the Bible are necessary and describe the work that goes into creating such an edition in the article “What’s Critical About a Critical Edition of the Bible?”
Marcus and Sanders are both involved with the publication of Biblia Hebraica Quinta, the latest revision of Biblia Hebraica, which refers to the series of critical Bible editions published in Germany since 1905. The base for Biblia Hebraica Quinta is the Leningrad Codex, which dates to 1008 C.E. and was written by Samuel son of Jacob, who was part of a group of rabbinic scribes called the Masoretes.
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Working in Tiberias during the Middle Ages, the Masoretes recognized the possibility of human error when copying the Hebrew Bible. They tried to combat it by adding supplements to the text. In the margins of the Masoretes’ manuscripts, there are innumerable notes—masorah—to safeguard the text. The precision with which the Masoretes were able to preserve the Hebrew text beginning in the seventh century C.E. is astounding. Nevertheless, the Masoretes were not working with the original Hebrew manuscripts of the Bible. Corruptions had already crept into the versions they copied.
The Masoretes’ efforts preserved the Biblical text in the first millennium C.E. Modern scholarship, with critical editions of the Bible like Biblia Hebraica Quinta, is bringing us even closer to reconstructing the original Hebrew manuscripts of the Bible.
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James A. Sanders, “ReViews: The Art and Science of Textual Criticism,” BAR, May/June 2012.
Yosef Ofer, “The Shattered Crown: The Aleppo Codex Sixty Years After the Riots,” BAR, September/October 2008.
Marc Brettler, “The Masoretes at Work: A Tradition Preserved,” sidebar to James A. Sanders and Astrid Beck, “The Leningrad Codex: Rediscovering the Oldest Complete Hebrew Bible,” Bible Review, August 1997.
Learn about the Hebrew Bible in a free course of 25 video lectures by Harvard professor Shaye Cohen. Take the course >>
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on October 25, 2013.
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