Eclecticism and the Hebrew Bible: A Critical Edition (HBCE) project

I recently finished an essay for a volume celebrating the legacy of James Barr. In my essay I decided to address two issues that felt directly related to some of Barr’s better known published work: 1) the troubled relationship between linguistics and philology in Biblical Hebrew studies (see here for a background to the “trouble”) and 2) the rise of an eclectic text edition for the Hebrew Bible.

I suspect that most readers will consider the former topic to make some sense for me to address, while the latter topic makes very little. I have never claimed to be a text critic. And yet, I do continue to teach and carry out research on the Hebrew Bible, so it has been an issue bouncing around the hollows of my head for some time. Moreover, I have had to face the issues of diplomatic-vs-eclectic text more directly with my research into Ge’ez and the Abba Garima Gospels. So it was a good opportunity to sort my thoughts out conquering the Hebrew Bible: A Critical Edition (HBCE) project.

In this and 3 subsequent posts (2, 3, 4), I will present my case against eclecticism from the perspective of a linguist.

Part 1: Background

In contrast to almost all other subfields in biblical studies—whether concerning the New Testament, the Septuagint, the Peshitta, or even the Ethiopic Bible—the modern study of the Hebrew text of the Old Testament has begun with scholarly editions that are diplomatic in nature. That is, the text presented is that of a single historical witness with any variants or critical notes placed in marginal apparatuses. Previous to 1937 and the publication of the third edition of Rudolf Kittel’s Biblica Hebraica (BH3), printed editions of the Hebrew Bible used the second Rabbinic Bible, which had been the textus receptus almost since Daniel Bomberg printed it between 1524 and 1525 (Tov 2011: 70-73, 341-46; Brotzman and Tully 2016: 129-47). In the third edition (BH3), fourth edition (BH4, 1983), also known as Biblica Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS), and the most recent edition, Biblica Hebraica Quinta (BHQ, 2004-), which is still in-progress, the text presented was that of the Leningrad Codex (AD 1008). The Hebrew University Bible Project (HUBP, 1955-) is the other major text edition and has been in progress since 1955, with only three volumes so far published (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel); the HUBP uses the once complete but now damaged Aleppo Codex (AD 925) as its base text.1
Though such an endeavor is standard in many other biblical studies subfields, an eclectic text of the Hebrew Bible—an edition in which the text is a reconstruction aimed at presenting some earlier historical stage of the text—is a concept that has never gained serious traction. As Williamson summarizes,

In these cases [of the Greek New Testament, Septuagint, etc.] it has long been standard practice for the editor to gather all the evidence available to him or her, such as different manuscripts, citations in other works and so on, and then to produce what he or she regards as the probable original form of the text—a process which may well also include some conjectural emendation of passages which are deemed to be corrupt but for which no reading has survived that seems to give a satisfactory solution. The apparatus in such an edition documents the evidence from all the available sources while the printed text does not represent any one of those sources in its entirety. What is more, in the case of classical texts, it is far from unknown for the editor to incorporate decisions about later editorial activity and so to omit sections which are deemed not to derive from the original author. The result is known as an eclectic text, whereas in the case of the standard Hebrew Bible editions it is known as a diplomatic text. (2009: 157)

Though there have been previous experiments with an eclectic Hebrew text (Tov 2006: 291), the seeds of the latest push for an eclectic Hebrew text were sown in Hendel 1998, which presents a reconstructed text for Genesis 1-11 and seems to have been an early proof of concept for the Oxford Hebrew Bible (Hendel 2008), later renamed the Hebrew Bible: A Critical Edition (HBCE). In this new eclectic edition, the first volume, on Proverbs, has been published (Fox 2015) as has a thorough description and apology for the project (Hendel 2016). Hendel’s apologia is particularly necessary in the face of incisive criticisms the project has faced (see, e.g., Tov 2000, 2006, 2011, 2014, Williamson 2009, Brooke 2013). Hendel summarizes the raison d’être of an eclectic edition succinctly: “if an eclectic edition is done well, it approximates a particular manuscript, the archetype, though it also reaches behind the archetype when it detects and corrects its scribal errors. An eclectic edition aims at the earliest inferable textual state of a book, which is an empirical and justifiable goal” (2016: 50).

There are numerous principles or details of practice concerning the actual HBCE project, and they are critiqued ably by Tov, Williamson, Brooke, among others. Examples of these run from large questions about what the aimed-at “archetype” actually is and about whether any set of analytical criteria can raise such a project above the charges of subjectivity to arguably smaller (and more easily adjusted) questions about the project’s use of the Leningrad Codex as its base text and the employment of features specific to the Masoretic tradition, such as vowel pointing and cantillation accents, when the goal of the “earliest inferable textual state” of any biblical book presumably predates the Masoretic features by centuries (Williamson 2009: 164). In his prolix apologia,2 Hendel (2016) directly addresses each objection and anticipates others, effectively clearing the way for an eclectic text project. Moreover, the two strongest points in favor of Hendel’s position have, in my opinion, largely avoided challenge. First, as Hendel rightly notes, “from a historical perspective it is more correct to regard the manuscripts as eclectic and the critical text as an attempt to reverse the eclectic agglomeration of primary and secondary readings” (Hendel 1998: 115). This certainly seems to be the case for the Leningrad Codex, which Goshen-Gottstein calls “a none-too-successful effort to adapt a manuscript of a different Tiberian subgroup to a Ben Asher Codex” (1979: 150).

The second point in favor of an eclectic edition is that in practice eclecticism already dominates the field. Almost all modern critical commentaries reconstruct some text behind the Leningrad Codex and present a translation based on that reconstruction (cf. Williamson 2009: 158, n. 10); similarly, as Tov (2000) notes, most modern translations reflect an eclectic approach to the Hebrew text. Thus, eclecticism, whether recognized or not, is the widespread modus operandi in Old Testament studies (Hendel 2016: 20).

In the next post, I will turn to my deep concerns about the project.

1. According to most accounts, the Aleppo Codex was damaged in a fire due to anti-Jewish riots over the creation of the State of Israel in 1947. However, Friedman has recently questioned the fire story, asserting that the evidence supports a mostly complete codex leaving Aleppo (Friedman 2012). Regardless when and how the current form of the codex was established, the result was the loss of most of the beginning and ending of the codex, including the Pentateuch, small portions of 2 Kings, Jeremiah, Minor Prophets, Chronicles, and Psalms, and most of Song of Songs, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah (Goshen-Gottstein 1979: 149).

2. I confess to seeing little relevance in Hendel devoting an entire chapter (chapter 10) to Frank Moore Cross or to the mostly pretentious essay (chapter 12) on the “untimeliness” of philology.

11 Responses to “Eclecticism and the Hebrew Bible: A Critical Edition (HBCE) project”

  1. David Reimer Says:

    Regarding the first of Hendel’s points noted with approval (‘First, as Hendel rightly notes, “from a historical perspective it is more correct to regard the manuscripts as eclectic and the critical text as an attempt to reverse the eclectic agglomeration of primary and secondary readings” (Hendel 1998: 115)’), this was very much John Wevers’ view of his Septuagint editions. I distinctly remember him saying as much (that he was removing eclecticism from the ms tradition) while sitting at his (slippered) feet in the early 80s, working through an Exodus collation book.

    I also recall passing on that anecdote some years ago to a colleague who would be regarded as a “senior” textual critic. He wasn’t impressed, as it happens, so I’m not sure everyone would find this claim equally convincing!

    Thanks for posting this series, btw.

    • robertholmstedt Says:

      That sounds like Wever. I only met him a couple times, but he struck me as an interesting mix of colorful and hardcore.

      You’re quite welcome. As painful as it was to write, being outside my normal activity, it ended up being very rewarding. I’m not sure my grad student in Isaiah 40-55 next winter will appreciate it though, since I’ve pushed myself into a corner where I’m convicted that they need to work with artefacts — meaning, they will have to prepare from photos of the Aleppo Codex with an eye on the Leningrad and the 1QIsa mss. Sadistically, I’m looking forward to informing them of this on the first day of class! ;-)

  2. David Reimer Says:

    But Alex! Why would you want to dodge that one? It sounds brilliant. ;)

    • Alex Kirk Says:

      The devil is in the details, as they say, I like to think of myself as having more of a propensity for macro analysis, big-picture thought. More a forest than a trees guy, which is certainly not to mention the moss. But given the proper time and adequate occasion for relaxation, I can imagine myself enjoying most any intellectual endeavour. Heretofore, however, such chronological leisure has eluded me, so I leave MSS comparison to those with sharper optics and faculties of focus than your truly. (Said in the character of Ulysses Everett McGill, played by George Clooney in “O Brother Where Art Thou?”)

      • robertholmstedt Says:

        And so your study of the thorny issue in Ezekiel was “macro” in what way, precisely?
        I’m quite curious, because you know how I love excuses for avoiding the down and dirty work of rigorous inquiry …

      • Alex Kirk Says:

        Yes, yes, good point… Let’s say that 1.5 years into going through every “jot and tittle” of Proverbs 30 I can’t wait to zoom out a bit and make some pontifications about “wisdom literature” more broadly. There is, of course, no excuse for the down and dirty work, which I myself am still committed to slogging through. I’m not kidding though when I say that I think some people are wired better for doing a certain kind of hairsplitting than I am and heavy text crit. is something I am happy to leave to others when possible (syntax is way more fun, play it where it lies!). If I have a knack it is simply for being thorough and the beauty of that thorny paper you mention is that some guy named Pete Bekins had already written the book on את! :) I digest things more complex than I can produce and apply them to problems I find. But I probably digress… and I have had too much coffee.

      • robertholmstedt Says:

        Alex, I knew this but just wanted to make you admit it publicly. ;-)

  3. Bram Oudenampsen Says:

    Dear Robert,

    Thank you very much for this interesting ‘excurs’. As a theology and semitic languages student myself, I really enjoyed it. ;) It might be good to point out that the principle of an “eclectic” text is nowadays more discussed by scholars in New Testament studies too. To take Stanley E. Porter’s recent book “How we Got the New Testament” (2013) as an example, he has a written a paragraph on this question (“Eclectic or Single Manuscript?”, pp. 72-75). He writes: If [it is correct that] the [text of the NA27] is 99.5 percent the same [as the two major codexes] – that is, with all of the other evidence that has been brought to bear, including papyri and all else, only 0.5 percent different – it seems as if we are already in essence using the text of the two major codexes.” (p. 75). He then proposes to start our research from these original autographs instead of a reconstructed 21st century text. So this whole principle of an “eclectic” text is more widely debated in other fields as well; and for good reasons too, just like the ones you mentioned in this article. Thanks for that!

    • robertholmstedt Says:

      Mr. Oudenampsen,
      Interestingly, I just met Stan Porter at a conference. He was chairing a season at which I read most of my eclecticism essay. I was surprised to find his response to positive, since I wasn’t aware of the work you mentioned.

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