Shalom Life | July 01, 2014

Scholars Work to Discover Hebrew Bible’s Purest Form

HBCE Team attempts to correct mistakes and changes made to text in several centuries

By: J.S. Côté

Published: May 14th, 2014 in News » World

While typos in our everyday communications can certainly be a hassle, small mistakes like these can render the sacred text of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible—better known as the Torah—utterly unusable, according to Jewish tradition.

Now and for the past 14 years, a team of scholars behind The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Edition have been sifting through the weighty texts in the hopes to reverse every change and imperfection that have accumulated in its various transmissions over many centuries.

With the first edition due later this year, the HBCE’s general editor and professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of California Ronald Hendel has been hard at work reverting the text to its purest form in what critics call a messy, painstaking, and even controversial procedure.

Though Hendel has admitted that the process is “a little chutzpadik,” Michael Segal, a senior lecturer in Bible at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, believes that “it will actually end up causing more problems.”

While a large part of today’s printings of the Hebrew Bible stem from the Second Rabbinic Bible dating back to 16th-century Venice, the scripts now being used descend from what is known as the Masoretic text assembled by Jewish scribes between the 6th and 10th centuries. Yet, there are even differences among its varied versions as well.

Many problems lie within the subtle and less subtle variations amongst the assorted editions of the text throughout history. While the Jewish Publication Society uses the 1000-year-old and oldest complete surviving text, the Leningrad Codex, others still use the 10th century Aleppo Codex which was praised for its accuracy by Torah scholar Maimonides before losing much of it in a 1947 fire.

The Samaritan Pentateuch, quotations from rabbinic manuscripts, and other sources including Greek and Syriac translations of the Hebrew Bible are all utilized by contemporary scholars hoping to understand its storied history. Though many of those outdate the Masoretic text and often contradict it, some errors are natural byproducts of the transcription—essentially no more than typos or missed words—while others may have been intentional in efforts to make the text more comprehensible.

The level of variation ranges from 5 percent in books like Genesis and can be as high as 20%-30% in the books of Samuel and Jeremiah. In some instances, these mistakes are simple to amend—such as the Masoretic text omitting Cain’s speech to Abel before slaying him. Elsewhere, however, it can become much more complicated.

The book of Jeremiah in the Septuagint, for instance, is approximately 15%-20% shorter than the Masoretic version and appears in a different order. Yet, thanks to the discovery and publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the scholars behind The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Edition believe that they now have enough evidence to make educated judgements about what parts of the text have been vitiated and how to fix them.

“The Dead Sea Scrolls have created a new era in the study of textual history of the Hebrew Bible,” Hendel said. “The kind of thing that we’re doing couldn’t have been done even 15 to 20 years ago because the field wasn’t really ripe.”

Using a two-fold approach, Hendel and his team make corrections in the text using their best judgement while marking down variations and their reasons for the changes. The HBCE will also produce multiple editions of texts where separate versions exits, reproducing them side by side.

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