Steps to a New Edition of the Hebrew Bible

Steps to a New Edition of the Hebrew Bible

By Ronald Hendel
(Atlanta: SBL Press, 2016), 388 pp., $60.95 (hardcover), $45.95 (paperback)
Reviewed by Gary A. Rendsburg

Ronald Hendel has written a wonderfully erudite book about the arcane world of textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible. He demonstrates mastery of the subject on every page, as he cites not only the standard surveys of the field (from Julius Wellhausen of yore to Emanuel Tov of today), but also more obscure and narrower studies on particular passages, along with general treatments that reach beyond Biblical studies into other fields within the humanities.

With such an opening paragraph, one might expect me to give this book a glowing review. And, of course, I would, except that I personally hold to the polar opposite view to the one promoted by Hendel.

About 20 years ago, Hendel conceived of a new project—nothing less than a new edition of the Hebrew Bible, starting from scratch. To appreciate what that entails, some background is required.

There have been two types of editions in the history of the humanities: diplomatic and eclectic. With a diplomatic edition, the scholar (or team of scholars) decides which historical manuscript is the best one. This manuscript is then painstakingly transcribed into regular printed font and presented as the main text, with any variants that appear in other manuscripts relegated to the bottom of the page, in what scholars call the critical apparatus.

For an eclectic edition, the scholars sift through all of the available manuscripts and select the best reading for each verse or passage. With this approach, the final product is posited to be the best possible reconstruction of the Urtext (the original text), whether or not such a text ever existed.

In the history of Biblical studies, the former route has dominated, with scholars typically choosing the St. Petersburg [Leningrad] Codex (L) or the Aleppo Codex (A). Hendel is bucking the trend, however. His project, known as the Hebrew Bible Critical Edition (HBCE), presents to the reader an eclectic text, with each reading justified in the critical apparatus. To his credit, Hendel has amassed a superb team of scholars to produce this edition, with one volume already published.1

The book under review is a collection of essays—almost all of them previously published—in which the author attempts to justify his approach. Hendel argues very well for the eclectic approach, and he also addresses the objections of his critics (Emanuel Tov, Hugh Williamson, et al.).

The central problem, however, remains: The produced text is one that does not exist, nor ever existed, but which rather has been fashioned by the text-critical scholar in his or her study. Hendel and his colleagues may believe that it is possible to reconstruct the Urtext, but if the field of ancient Near Eastern studies has taught us anything, such an enterprise is a “pursuit after the wind.” Not a single composition from the ancient world, for which we have multiple copies, bears a single uniform version. Instead, given the manner in which ancient texts were composed and transmitted—not by a scribe at a desk, but rather in an oral-aural manner or, to be more accurate, somewhere along the oral-written cline—we cannot speak of a single text-type, or prototype, but rather of a plurality of versions from the outset.

Scholars will learn much from this scholarly book, which stands as an important statement in support of an eclectic edition of the Biblical text. But while I was reading this book, all that came to mind was a story related to me by my teacher Cyrus Gordon. His teacher Max Margolis (on the faculty of Dropsie College) was the foremost text-critic of his day in the field of Septuagint studies with his five-part work The Book of Joshua in Greek (1931–1992) standing as his magnum opus. The work’s goal was to use all the surviving Greek manuscripts and the daughter versions (in Coptic, Ethiopic, etc.) to reconstruct the “original” Old Greek version of Joshua. One fine day (c. 1929), Gordon entered Margolis’s office for an appointment, to find him hard at work on his project, at which point, the great master put down his pen and said, “There has to be more to life than this. This truly is reʿut ruaḥ” (“pursuit after the wind,” quoting Ecclesiastes 2:11, 2:17).



1. Michael V. Fox, Proverbs: An Eclectic Edition with Introduction and Textual Commentary (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2015).

Gary A. Rendsburg is the Blanche and Irving Laurie Professor of Jewish History at Rutgers University, NJ. In addition to authoring six books and numerous articles, Rendsburg has also been featured on podcasts and video lectures, and he has codeveloped three digital humanities projects working with ancient manuscripts.

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