Eclecticism: an additional thought

I knew my position on eclecticism (and the way I articulated it) was provocative. But I had received some excellent feedback during the process from trusted readers (at least one of whom is writing a HBCE volume — by the way, why is the list of contributors not freely available?), so besides being confident that I was representing the HBCE project and presenting the problems with eclectic texts fairly, I was hoping that the essay (which will take various forms in more than one publication) would engender thoughtful reflection.

But the negative assessment of this post surprised me (even after it was edited to remove some of the more egregious language). Initially I considered responding to the points seriatim, but I waited and slept on it (some wisdom does come with age) and concluded that it wasn’t a wise use of my time, since the post reflects a knee-jerk reaction, not a substantive engagement with my ideas. (And only later, with a little searching, did I discover that the author had written an MA thesis on the feasibility of eclectic editions of the Hebrew Bible, so in hindsight his reaction is not surprising.) I would ask other readers to step outside their well worn paths of thought and engage with the principles of my essay.

I do, however, want to point out one element in the critical blog post that is worth considering: the attitude of superiority that I’ve seen among some text critics, that the text critic is a “special sort of person.” It is presumptuous and arrogant to imply that “advanced competence in 5-10 ancient languages” makes such a scholar any more philologically rigorous or sophisticated than one who has achieved expertise in 1, 2, or 4 languages. It is also dangerously false to assume that learning numerous languages entails methodological and theoretical sophistication. Finally, “linguistically competent” is such a fuzzy phrase, it should be avoided. The blogger’s use can only refer to being able to “access” ancient languages (at some varying level of competence). He cannot (accurately, at least) be referring to the education it requires to engage the field of linguistics and carry out informed linguistic analysis.

Given that my essay began life as one section in an article about James Barr’s legacy, I think it fitting to conclude with a few a propos thoughts from his Comparative Philology [note that I have inserted “biblical” for “Semitic” in every case below]:

Our arguments here have some effect on priorities in education for biblical scholarship. The strong influence of comparative philological method may have produced an unfortunate overemphasis on comparative study in the training of students. The prestige and fashionableness of the philological approach often cause students to study a larger number of [biblical] languages than they can master. These languages are not mastered properly and all the effort does not lead to a thorough knowledge of the texts. … To observe this, unfortunately, is not enough to put a stop to the tendency. The intellectual prestige of the philological approach is reinforced by the apparent social prestige of linguistic polymathy. It continues to be widely supposed that study of a large number of [biblical] languages is the gateway to competence in biblical studies.

… In spite of our debt to comparative philology, Hebrew does remain a teachable subject in its own right; and, while the student must now always be aware of the contributions of cognate languages, he will, unless he is ready to study these languages thoroughly, be best employed not in gaining a smattering of them but in learning how to evaluate, in relation to his Hebrew knowledge, the suggestions made on the basis of them. This means that eventually adequate modes of communication and co-operation have to be built up between two kinds of scholar: (a) those who really know the cognate languages or some of them (can any now really know them all?) and ( b) those who only assimilate this knowledge within their own grasp of Hebrew. But we can at least do something to depreciate the false prestige which has attached to the polyglot ideal, and rebuild the picture of the Hebraist. The polyglot ideal, we may remind ourselves, by no means obtains in the Indo-European field; no one supposes that to appreciate Greek literature one must study all the Indo-European languages. (1968: 295-296, 298, emphases added)

Barr is here typically acerbic. And while his point was aimed at what he saw as the undue emphasis on comparative Semitic education in Hebrew studies, I obviously think the principles apply to all language study associated with biblical studies. Knowing one thing well is preferable to knowing many things moderately. And even knowing many things well does not mark a particular scholar as someone better or “more special” than those who have chosen to focus their time and skills elsewhere, such as in the equally complex task of reconstructing ancient Israelite history, or the bewildering complex world of archaeology, with its ever increasing technological sophistication. Regardless the number of languages or non-language research tools learnt, the point should always be the methodological rigor, the theoretical sophistication, and the consistent application of logic.

Note that I do not think that this criticism applies to those whose works (and persons) I have personally encountered, such as Michael Fox, whose Proverbs HBCE volume I have unfortunately criticized (I wish other volumes had been released!). It has not been my experience that Michael, for instance, ever considered himself superior to scholars working along different intellectual paths, such as historians of ancient Israel,  BH linguists, or literary critics. He simply set out do perform the highest level of scholarship with the tools he already had or those he committed himself to add to his arsenal. May Michael’s sense of humour and humility, combined with a commitment to the best possible scholarship, be an example to us all.

7 Responses to “Eclecticism: an additional thought”


    Sorry again to come across so harshly at first. You’re right that there is a context to this discussion beyond the specifics of your post, which probably influenced some of the rhetoric. I certainly do not mean to demean either your skill set or research, nor that of others who pursue with excellence different research interests than mine. Duly chastised, I will retreat to the shadows to make sure my Hebrew is up to scratch.

  2. Dewayne Dulaney Says:

    What is your take on the Biblia Mirecurensia edition of the Hebrew Bible (

    • robertholmstedt Says:

      That’s an interesting question. I had to visit the site and when I did I remembered stumbling across it years ago. I confess an admiration for what appears to be a heck of a lot to work for one person. And yet, none of the defenses of an eclectic text given there are at all compelling. And it’s important to understand that when I criticize eclecticism, it’s about producing a scholarly text edition. I really have no principled problem with scholars arguing for emendations to the Leningrad or Aleppo or whatever text is being read. Every scholarly commentary reflects a certain amount of the same kind of reconstructive work that goes in an eclectic edition. As I try to be clear throughout my posts, my scholarly problem with an eclectic text edition is its fundamental useless for linguistic or historical work that depends on primary source data.

      • Pierre maignial Says:

        Dear Mr Holmstedt,

        I am Pierre Maignial, the editor of The reason why I have dedicated « a heck of a lot to work », to the development of Biblia Mirecurensia (to quote your kind assessment of my endeavours) is that I feel a deep concern for the future of Bible reading in the original languages. In that spirit, I designed Biblia Mirecurensia as nothing more than a reading tool, which features an eclectic text meant to boost internalization and motivation, both for students that must progress in their acquisition and for seasoned readers who want to focus on devotional reading.

        In the course of my 40-year long teaching career, I have witnessed a dramatic downturn in the students’ (and even the adults’) ability to approach and analyse any kind of written text (even in their own language!) – although the texts they were confronted with were formatted in a reasonably attractive manner, with some sort of meaning-oriented page layout, no mistakes in spelling, few obscurities of expression, and so on. Now the problem as I see it is that, once they have overcome the initial morphological and lexical hurdles of biblical Hebrew, the students will have to face the tediousness of diplomatic editions that are not in the least conducive to reading. Submitted to the pressures and constraints of a busy pastor’s ministry or other demanding commitments, the would-be hebraists will soon have neither the time, nor the motivation to delve into the Masoretic text as it stands – just clicking over a word in some sort of software will provide the comfortable delusion of approaching the ancient text without actually reading it in depth. This unwillingness/inability to use the scholarly editions of the Masoretic text can only grow as more and more students have begun their learning process with (at last !!) living language approaches : the felt situation will then be something like having to revert to candlelight whereas you were trained to read in the glorious sunshine of halogen lamps …

        I shall not engage into a debate over the « uselessness for linguistic or historical work » of an eclectic text within the framework of academic research. My contention, however, is that an eclectic text is legitimate for pedagogical or/and devotional purposes, just as music teachers or students are familiar with what they call « arrangements » of major pieces of music – not replacing the great masters’ original works of art but allowing appropriation of their music thanks to a reasoned erasing of the technicalities. The main objection to what I am championing here is the argument of « facility », but I think that this argument should be used with extreme care as it cuts both ways …
        My great fear, in view of the dwindling numbers of students of biblical languages, is that we might end up one day with ultra-competent scholars in the field of Masoretic studies at the top of the pyramid, with nobody to constitute the base of it. Or, to apply to biblical scholarship the cruel assessment that was made by the famous French poet Charles Péguy (referring to Kant’s philosophical system) : « Indeed its hands are pure – but it has no hands! » …

      • robertholmstedt Says:

        Dear Mr. Maignial,

        Yes, I understand your concern. This particularly conversation is about use at higher levels of learning, i.e., in seminary or graduate level text courses. For the level of student you’re talking about, I am similarly disturbed. And I readily admit that in the introductory BH textbook we’ve published, we rewrite BH texts to suit the level of learning for each lesson. That is, I believe, the same impulse that has motivated your text. You remove issues that will prohibit the smooth reading of the text. But I confess that I find this problematic for something that is categorized as a text edition — whereas in our communicative learning oriented textbook, we have very specific grammatical and vocabulary constraints (dictated by what has been learned up to that point in the textbook) for each time we rewrite the biblical text, what goal did you set for your text? And even apart from scribal errors or even places where you’ve judged a non-Hebrew version to preserve a better form and so swapped into your text a different Hebrew verb, the resulting text in many places will remain to difficult for 99% of the users (e.g., I just finished reading Isaiah 41 with a friend and it can slow down the most competent scholar). All this to say, unless you dumb down the Hebrew to say, a second year BH reading level, you will never be able to produce something that will work for “pedagogical or/and devotional purposes”. Let’s face it: outside of Genesis and Ruth, the Hebrew Bible wasn’t written for kids. That is to say, in the majority of texts, whether Isaiah, Job, Leviticus, or even 1 Samuel, it will always be the domain of “ultra-competent” readers, who hopefully by the time they reach that level will not want anything to do with a modified text. So though I sympathize with your reasons and pedagogical concerns, I still don’t see the point of an eclectic text edition.

        Kindly, RDH

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