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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Elements of a Modern Edition

Modern editions are concerned with three principal, interrelated elements of the text: (a) consonants and how they are laid out on the page, (b) vocalization and cantillation, (c) Masorah (magna and parva). In addition to these three, a critical edition adds one or more apparatus (d), usually at the bottom of the page. This apparatus gives alternative readings, sometimes evaluates them, and where the edition is diplomatic, indicates whether (in the editor's view) these readings are to be preferred to those of the base text.

a. Consonants and How They are Laid Out on the Page

The consonants are by far the oldest of the text elements, and define the text. For some texts, such as Exodus 15 and Deuteronomy 32, a particular layout is traditional. In books traditionally held to be prose (all but Proverbs, Job, and Psalms) there is a double system of paragraphing, represented rather inadequately in many editions by gaps and letters. This representation problem is largely a consequence of the broader column width adopted in the editions by comparison with manuscripts. Poetic books (Proverbs, Job, and Psalms) in the Tiberian manuscripts have a gap in most lines, but the placing of these gaps is not significant for the sense of the lines. It is possible that an earlier system of poetic layout in some texts similar to that of Exodus 15 has been lost in response to a need to economize space linked with the change from separate scrolls to comprehensive book form (codex) (Yeivin 1969).

b. Vocalization and Cantillation

The biblical text was never a purely consonantal text, but was always a read text. As the centuries passed, it was considered necessary that the reading tradition be noted along with the consonants. The person who wrote the consonantal element of a manuscript was not necessarily or even usually the same person who wrote the vocalization and other elements of the text. The full development known as Tiberian found in medieval manuscripts and modern editions was probably linked with the Karaites, a rigorist Jewish group who came to prominence in the eighth century, and were remarkable for their rejection of sources of authority other than the Bible.

Other systems of vowel notation were developed, and these are linked with Palestinian and Babylonian groups. Although largely lost, or at least forgotten in Europe, they came back into prominence with the discovery of the Cairo Geniza in the late nineteenth century, and the studies of S. Schechter, P. Kahle, and A. Sperber. Study of these fragments, even when they were not extensive, has indicated that various parallel systems were worked on until the Tiberian system was developed, and indeed after that. With hindsight, dominance by the comprehensive Tiberian system seems inevitable. Yet the existence of fine manuscripts such as the Reuchlin written in about 1105 CE show that alternative pointing systems continued to be used (Sperber 1956). The Babylonian tradition of pointing seems to have been used in the Yemen until the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The region subsequently developed its own tradition under the influence of Tiberian pointing (Würthwein 1995: 23; Barthélemy 1992: p. xxxii). Our evidence is incomplete. The endorsement by Maimonides (1135–1204 CE) of the Torah arrangement of a Ben Asher manuscript both attested and furthered the acceptance of this tradition as a whole.

Other elements indicate how Hebrew words might have been pronounced before the Tiberian system of notation was developed. These include transliterations of words (technical terms, place-names, etc.) in ancient Latin and Greek translations and commentaries. Fragments of a transliteration into Greek of the whole Hebrew Bible used in the Hexapla of Origen (prepared in about 240 CE) also help. Each source has its own problems, including the phonetic system of the receptor language and its capacity to express the Hebrew sounds. A clear appreciation of the relationship of the ancient sources to the Tiberian system of pronunciation has yet to be given.

Closely associated with the vowel points which preserved pronunciation, a system of cantillation or accents was developed in the Tiberian tradition. This preserved a tradition of reading the text with word groupings, cadence, sense units, and intonation. At times the rhythms of chant seem to have superseded those of syntax. Perhaps because of this, editions and translations of the Hebrew Bible in Christian contexts have not tended to pay this element sufficient attention. Yet the accent and vowel systems are interconnected. Where the cantillation indicates that two words are to be read closely together, or in disjuncted fashion, the vowel pointing is affected.

The antiquity of the vowel system has been a matter of recurrent controversy, linked with the names of Levita, Buxtorf, Capellus, and Simon, and more generally with Reformation controversies in the Western Church. More recently, the issue of the authority of the vowel points has arisen in the context of textual emendations based on modern philology.

c. The Masorah

This called attention to particular features of the text. Its principal function seems to have been to help readers and copyists to read and transmit the text accurately. There are three principal elements of the Masorah.

In the manuscript, a small circle over or between key words draws attention to a marginal note, called the small Masorah (Masorah parva). This tends to be brief, and frequently records the number of times a particular form occurs in a given context, or gives a brief note about that form. So, for example, if there is a note that a word occurs twice, once with final h and once without final h, the reader and copyist are alerted not to confuse the two forms. It is possible that some of these notes are an expression of a desire to preserve a particular form of the text in the face of known variants. The Masorah parva also indicates the consonants or vowels that would go with the incongruent vocalization noted in the paragraph above on Qere-Kethib.

The great Masorah (Masorah magna) was written in the upper and lower margins of the manuscript. It normally begins with the consonants of the reference word(s) in the text, and the marginal note of the small Masorah. It then makes explicit the information about other instances given as a number in the small Masorah. The texts referred to are identified by a word or sequence of words unique to the context of each. Until the numbering of verses (Pagnini 1527) and the publication of concordances based on this numbering, this was the only way to refer to particular verses. The list is not necessarily found at the place corresponding to the first element in the list. A list is sometimes, but not usually, repeated where an element within it occurs. A concordance of the repeated lists is found in the work of Weil (1971) mentioned below.

The final Masorah (Masorah finalis) is found at the end of a book, or group of books, or even a manuscript. This final Masorah of a book is often brief, and notes matters such as the number of words in that book and the mid-point of the book. The Masorah found at the end of the section or of the manuscript can be very complex and contain various lists and arrangements of lists.

The history of the compilation of these Masoretic notes and lists is unclear. They are not uniform from manuscript to manuscript, but they seem to be related. Conflicts are found between the evidence given in the small Masorah and that of the great Masorah, and again between the observations of either Masorah and the biblical text. Editions of the Bible based on a single Tiberian manuscript have fewer such conflicts than editions in the tradition of Ben Hayyim, but their frequency even in these manuscripts shows that the data of the Masorah have an independent composition and transmission history (Ginsburg 1880–95; Weil 1971; Yeivin 1980).

It is worth noting in conclusion that all of the elements added to the consonantal text (vowels, accents, Masorah) were intended to conserve the traditional biblical text. They did not innovate.

d. The Apparatus of an Edition

This is compiled by the editor of the text, and can be in one or more registers. Traditionally, it presents one or more alternative readings to that presented in the main text. Because of the lack of pre-1000 CE readings available in Hebrew, the critical apparatus of Hebrew Bibles has tended to rely heavily on readings obtained by retroversion from ancient translations, and on conjectural suggestions. These have little or no link with surviving ancient Hebrew readings, but are based on the editor's knowledge of the Hebrew language, sometimes bolstered by a confidence that an inspired text must conform to the grammatical standards of the editor. Some such conjectural readings have been transmitted from edition to edition with ever increasing status. The eighteenth-century edition of C. F. Houbigant was particularly influential here. Both retroversion and conjecture have been widely discussed in recent years, following important treatments of relevant issues by Goshen-Gottstein (1963), Barr (1968) Albrektson (1981) Tov (1981), and Gibson (1981). On the issue of conjectures and the authority granted them in the modern period, the reflections of A. E. Housman (1922) were seminal, even though expressed in the context of classical texts.

From 1947 onwards, a great number of new biblical manuscripts became available (see below and Chapter 6 on Qumran). Some seem to confirm conjectures previously ventured, but the issue is rarely as simple as that. The work of weighing and assessing the Qumran readings, and integrating them with the readings retroverted from the versions has only begun. The process by which this is done will be considered in Chapter 33 on textual criticism. Closer study shows that in many editions of the Hebrew Bible, the ancient versions have principally been brought to bear when there is a perceived difficulty of some sort with the Hebrew text. This has led to an undervaluation of the role of these texts in the history of the communities for which they were made.

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