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.


Update on our projects

It has been over a year since we’ve posted on this blog. That does not mean, though, that we’ve been idle.

First, we both went through promotion reviews this last year and can now drop any qualifiers to our professorial status. For John, I had no doubt of the positive outcome.  For my part, I considered it a trial run and was more than pleasantly surprised by the success.

Second, we (with Phillip Samuel Marshall at Houston Baptist) have finished our Ecclesiastes commentary for Baylor (in the BHHB series). This follows the Ruth and Esther volumes for me (see left sidebar) and the precedes the Biblical Aramaic volume that John is finishing.

Third, we’ve seen some articles come out in print and others finished an submitted. More importantly (because ultimately, our research serves our teaching), we have drafted most of our Intermediate Biblical Hebrew textbook, to follow our Beginning Biblical Hebrew (again, see the sidebar), a large part of our Advanced Biblical Hebrew textbook, and we have both begun drafting respective primers on BH syntax and the BH verbal system. Finally, a reflection of our stance on the use of linguistics to study BH, we have also initiated a volume we’re calling Linguistics for Hebraists, which will include introductions to various linguistic theories (including case studies) aimed at the student of ancient Hebrew.

As some of these projects are completed, we hope to return to a few more blog posts in the next year (at least, more than the zero of last year!). For my part, I’ll be throwing out a few ideas very soon in posts following this one.

Introducing “Beginning Biblical Hebrew” (videos)

Last November at SBL, John and I sat down to record a few videos introducing our textbook (Beginning Biblical Hebrew; see here), its pedagogical approach, and the supplementary materials we’ve made (or are planning).

 There are a few humorous backstory details, but the one I’ll share is that we did this at 8am after a poor night of sleep (I never sleep well in hotels). So, for me at least, keeping my eyes open was the first victory and stringing together coherent comments was the second.

Below are the videos for those who are interested.

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More on our Beginning Biblical Hebrew

The good folks at Baker Academic have set up a website for us to use as a way to support instructors using our new textbook.

The site has a blog, a forum, an area where we will post more draft supplementary materials, and links to the existing materials that Baker has edited and makes available to instructors. 

So, if you’re using our textbook or are interested in using it, stop by the new textbook digs:

We will be putting up more posts there in the coming week.

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Beginning Biblical Hebrew (BBH) is shipping!

Our new textbook, Beginning Biblical Hebrew: A Grammar and Illustrated Reader, is now shipping from Baker Academic (and presumably other booksellers). I received my author copies earlier this week and was holding the book with a mixture of pride (it’s really nicely sized, like a workbook should be, and the layout, type, and binding quality is excellent) and relief (it’s been 13 years since John and I began formally working on Hebrew textbook materials).

A couple months ago, I put a link to the textbook on the left sidebar that takes you to the Baker site for BBH. We describe the principles of our approach herehere, and here. We recognize that our pedagogy may require new effort, even for seasoned instructors. And this is why Baker enthusiastically agreed to host a web page for additional teaching materials to go with the textbook.

Yesterday I noticed that the folks at Baker have now added the pages for resources for students and instructors. For students, there are vocabulary flash cards and audio files. For instructors, already available are sample quizzes and exams (with exam answer keys). Coming soon will be sample lessons plans, vocabulary cards to print out for in-class games or drills, and a full instructor’s manual and answer key.

We hope those of you already using the textbook will find these resources useful. For those not yet using the textbook, we hope you’ll check it out. Perhaps knowing that we’re creating a significant support framework for using it in a highly-interactive, communicative, fun BH learning environment will encourage you.

Biblical Hebrew Pedagogy

For the 2012 annual Society of Biblical Literature meeting I was asked by Randall Buth to participate in a panel of the Applied Linguistics for Biblical Languages Group on the question, “Where Do We Set the Bar in Biblical Language Training?”.

I was flattered and intrigued. I haven’t participated in this group in the past and didn’t quite know what to expect. However, since our Biblical Hebrew textbook is coming out in the early Summer with Baker Academic and I am currently teaching intro BH using the draft textbook, I thought I’d throw in my 2¢, listen carefully, and hopefully learn something I could apply.

Perhaps for those who have attended this group in the past, it was more of the same tune. For me, it was stimulating, encouraging, and energizing. As I listened to the presentations of the other panelists (and listened as I read my own presentation!), it dawned on me that I’d been slipping into old, lazy patterns in the last few weeks of my BH class. That realization was combined with Daniel Street‘s presentation in which he drove home the point that reading proficiency (the widely-agreed goal of biblical language learning) only comes after conversational proficiency. That is, you can’t get to real reading without first learning to communicate by speaking and hearing. (By the way, Daniel has begun his round-up of the relevant sessions at SBL on his blog, here). [Update Dec 7, 2012: Daniel has continued his post-SBL report here.]

The result of the experience was that I returned with a renewed dedication and refreshed energy to create a better communicative classroom environment. So far, it’s been a lot better. I happened to mention the panel to one of my students after class last week and her response was encouraging: “So that’s why you’ve been using more Hebrew in class” (and, I will add, why I put an abrupt stop to their increasing habit of coaxing English glosses out of me if they didn’t immediately get the meaning of our vocabulary icons).

Below is my presentation for the panel. I hope it provokes a productive discussion. (One of the comments after the presentation was a concern that my learning outcomes would not fit that instructor’s context; to be clear, my proposed learning outcomes are about “setting the bar” generally and I acknowledged to the audience that a good and wise teacher will also adapt to his or her contextual needs.)

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Pedagogy and the Lesser-Taught (Ancient) Northwest Semitic Languages

In late September I sent out a survey via Jack Sasson’s Agade list. The topic was the pedagogy of less-commonly-taught ancient Northwest Semitic languages (that is, courses in Hebrew epigraphy, Phoenician and Punic, Aramaic, and Ugaritic). My interest is to learn from others by determining a sort of ‘best practices’ short list for teaching these languages.

You may wonder why I am concerned. It’s not because I’ve had poor teaching results. Final exam results and the quality of research projects illustrate that my students are learning about as much as is possible in a term (indeed, they might say is that my “as much as possible” is actually “inhumanly” possible, based on how hard I push them!). Rather, what drives the survey and this post is my own dissatisfaction with how the course unfolds. I become … I hesitate to admit it … bored with my own techniques about half way through the term. There must be a better way (or ways)!

As with my undergraduate Biblical Hebrew courses, I am always looking for better techniques—techniques that are both more effective and more fun. For BH this motivated our second textbook, which recognizes the student interest in learning to “read Bible” but also tries to draw what we reasonable can from modern language techniques. The question is, can we do something similar for the less-commonly-taught ancient NWS languages? Is that even possible, given the nature of the evidence? For example, Ugaritic has a large corpus, but little narrative and very little vocalization. How could it be taught more “communicatively”. And if we could find a way, would the method serve our teaching goals (i.e., would the [mostly graduate] students learn enough of what we want them to learn)? [For a thought-provoking blog discussion of this issue on BH, I suggest starting here and following the various links.]

I wrote the simple survey to probe others who teach NWS languages regarding their goals, curricular structure, and pedagogical style. I received only 8 replies, but they were instructive and represented an interesting distribution (seminary and research university, North America, Europe, and Israel).

I used the survey comments to provoke a discussion at the just-finished MICAH gathering (that is, the Mainz International Colloquium on Ancient Hebrew**). Many commented and below I have summarized both the email survey responses.

** What a blast this event was! The level of expertise, and thus papers, on Hebrew and Semitic languages represented by the participants was impressive and inspiring. So much to learn …

I am indebted to the organizer, Dr. Reinhard Lehmann for inviting me to speak and participate in the panel discussion. I will also take this chance to thank publicly those who organized the event with Dr. Lehmann: Dr. Johannes Diehl, Dr. Anna Zarnacke, Kwang Cheol Park, Anna Schneider, Karoline Ehinger, and Editha Lefebre. Vielen Dank!

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