Fixing the Bible–or not?
by James Tabor
“Fixing the Bible” makes a nice headline and the Associated Press story linked here has been picked up by thousands of print media outlets, which just goes to show the Bible continues to draw headlines!
I have recently posted here and here on the latest news regarding the Aleppo Codex, the oldest and most reliable manuscript of the Hebrew Bible. The current AP story is about the remarkable Israeli biblical scholar Menachem Cohen, age 84, who has spent the past 30 years “fixing the Bible.” His project is to collect all known errors in the various editions of the Hebrew Bible, dating back to 1525 when the task was last undertaken. Professor Cohen is relying heavily upon–you guessed it–the Aleppo Codex. His is not strictly a critical edition, such as the one also being produced by the Hebrew University Bible Project, in that he is not showing all the manuscript variations but rather trying to come up with a “final” text that will supersede the printed editions (such as the Koren Jerusalem Bible) of the Hebrew text considered to be the “official” text today. This has nothing to do with the traditional text of the Torah scrolls which is fixed by tradition and will not change. The truth be told, the corrections and “fixes” that Prof. Cohen has compiled have mostly to do with very minuscule matters of letter corrections from copying errors, vowel markings, and cantillation marks–not of much concern to the general readers of the Bible.
Most scholars use the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS), now being revised, which is a critical edition showing thousands of textual variants from various Hebrew manuscripts including alternative readings from the Greek Septuagint (LXX) and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Many general students of the Bible, even those who know a bit of Hebrew, would might find this a bit tough going, but it remains an invaluable resouce. What I recommend is that one get either the latest version of Bible Works or Accordance, depending on whether one favors a PC or Mac, and enter into the delightful world of a sophisticated Bible software program.
You can easily compare the Masoretic or traditional text of the Hebrew Bible at a glance, in parallel columns with the Greek versions, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and other editions, all with English translations. Contrary to the myth of Biblical literalism or “inerrancy,” there are thousands of really interesting and significant variants in our different manuscript traditions, for both Hebrew Bible and New Testament. In other words, there is no single fixed text of either “Testament,” as much as some might imagine it to be the case. Bart Ehrman has made this quite clear in his books dealing with the New Testament, namely, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture and Misquoting Jesus. In fact, as he often points out, his study of the textual variations in the manuscripts of the New Testament was what put him on the road away from the Fundamentalist Christianity in which he grew up. The variations in the Hebrew Bible (Masoretic, Greek, Syriac, Vulgate, Dead Sea Scrolls) are just as fascinating to study. Just a glance at any page of the BHS, noted above, will show one the hundreds of variant readings in the various versions of the Hebrew Scriptures as well. For example, here is a Genesis 1, the very first page of the Hebrew Bible. You can see the variant readings and notes at the bottom of the page.
In that sense, there is no single “fix” for the Bible, what we need to all do is become familiar with its rich and fascinating textual history. In a series of blog posts I want to begin to highlight some of the more interesting textual variants in the various manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible, especially in comparison with texts found in the Dead Sea Scroll corpus and the Greek Septuagint. For example, one of my favorite is Ecclesiastes 2:25 where the important differences in the various translations have to do with which textual tradition one follows, see here and here. Does the verse read:
Apart from God who can eat or who can have enjoyment?
For who can eat, or who can have enjoyment, more than I?
This comparison of our various textual traditions is called “textual criticism,” and it is a fascinating study and one that sheds much light on Christian origins as well, since the versions of the Hebrew Bible used by the early Jesus movement was apparently not always the standard traditional Masoretic text we have today.
The BHS is based on the oldest complete Masoretic manuscript of the Hebrew Bible–the Leningrad Codex (there is a facsimile edition published by Brill), prepared by Aaron ben Moses ben Asher around 900 CE. Although the Aleppo Codex is a few decades older, since it is missing pages, many prefer the Leningrad Codex. For general purposes I favor both the look and utility of the Biblia Hebraica Leningradensia produced by Aron Dotan. It corrects many transcription and typographical errors in the older BHS, and though it does not contain a critical apparatus, I find it usable and appealing for reference and reading. When it comes to close textual work on the Bible, for me at least, nothing beats the basic Accordance Bible software package (and I think users of Bible Works would say much the same) which I use daily, even hourly and carry with me on iPad and iPhone for instant reference if I am away from my laptop.
- The revision, Biblia Hebraica Quinta is not yet complete and is projected to be finished in 2015. [↩]