Scholarly Bible Editions

Not all printed Bibles are identical; there are several differences in vocalization and more rarely in the consonantal text between various biblical editions. The standard critical biblical text is called Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (abbreviated BHS), and was published as a complete work in 1977. It uses as its basis a biblical manuscript from the year 1008 or 1009 CE, called Leningrad B19 A. This is the earliest extant, complete, vocalized biblical manuscript. An earlier manuscript, called the Aleppo Codex, is more accurate than Leningrad B19A, but unfortunately, it is no longer complete, having been partially burned during a pogrom in Syria in 1947.

The issue of the history of the biblical text is complex, and cannot be explained in detail here. As background, you are encouraged to read my "Old Testament Manuscripts from Qumran to Leningrad," in Approaches to the Bible: The Best of Bible Review, Vol. 1, ed. Harvey Minkoff (Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1994), 198-204. Take out a copy of BHS. Skim through it, and open up to p. 31. The typical page of BHS may be divided into four parts:

  1. The biblical text, which is in the center. This text is vocalized and is marked with cantillation marks, following the Leningrad Codex. In addition, following Leningrad, some letters have small circles above them, which key the text to the marginal Masoretic notes. This may be seen, for example, on the word in Genesis 22:1. Additionally, some words are marked with superscripted English letters; see for example the a after in 22:1. These numbers refer to the textual notes at the bottom of the BHS page, and will be explained below.

  2. The very bottom of the page is the critical apparatus, which is connected to the main text through English letters. The history of the biblical text is complex; it is sufficient to note that the text which appears in Leningrad B19A, which is an example of what may be called the Masoretic Text (abbreviated MT) is not the only biblical text we have – it is simply the earliest complete vocalized Hebrew text. There are much earlier partial Hebrew texts, such as Dead Sea scroll fragments, which have a consonantal text which differs at points from Leningrad. In addition, the Bible was translated into several languages in antiquity, and these translation sometimes differ from MT in ways that suggest that the text being translated (called the "Vorlage," the text which lies before a translator) differed from the MT. Some of these ancient translations (also called "versions") are attested in copies which predate Leningrad B19A by several centuries. BHS has culled what its editors feel are the most significant differences between MT and other versions and has put these in its short critical apparatus. It sometimes also notes whether it feels MT is incorrect, and a reading preserved in one or many of the versions is superior. Finally, there are cases where the MT is difficult, and the editors suggest changing it without support of the versions; this is called a "conjectural emendation."

    This section of the BHS is very important, though it takes a good deal of training and understanding of a discipline called "textual criticism" to use it properly. One example from Genesis 22 will illustrate the type of material contained in this critical apparatus. The note to verse 1, "prb ins c 2 Mss Mss means "probably insert with 2 Hebrew manuscripts, the Septuagint (the main, ancient Greek Bible translation--the gothic G is for "greek"), manuscripts of the Vulgate (--the Gothic V is for the "Vulgate"-- the main ancient Latin Bible translation) the word . The second part of verse 1 (what we call 1b; the first part is 1a) would then read


    This creates symmetry between verse 1 and v. 11.


    and also fits certain other cases where God begins a speech by repeating someone's name (see Exodus 3:4 and 1 Samuel 3:10).

The question that needs to be asked is what is more likely:

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