Torah Scholars Seek Original Version of Bible — But Does It Exist?

Critics Say Effort Is Misleading and Doomed To Fail

shutterstock

By Anthony Weiss

Published May 16, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(JTA) — According to Jewish tradition, the Torah is so sacred that even a single error made on a single letter renders the entire scroll unusable.

And yet the Hebrew Bible — including the Torah, its first five books — is riddled with corruptions and alterations that have accrued and been passed down over the millennia.

Now an international team of scholars is working to fix all that.

For the past 14 years, the team behind “The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Edition” has been laboring on a project to sift through the text and reverse the accumulated imperfections and changes, returning the books of the Hebrew Bible to something like their original versions. The first volume is due out later this year.

“It is a little chutzpadik,” acknowledged Ronald Hendel, HBCE’s general editor and a professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of California, Berkeley.

It’s also a messy, painstaking and controversial endeavor that has been criticized by some of the world’s leading biblical scholars. The critics argue that what Hendel and his team are attempting to do is misleading, counterproductive or flat-out impossible.

“I think it will actually end up causing more problems,” said Michael Segal, a senior lecturer in Bible at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The difficulties in the project stem from the Bible’s long history of transmission from scribe to scribe through the centuries. HBCE is trying to reverse engineer that process, to sift through the various extant texts of the Bible and — by analyzing grammatical glitches, stylistic hitches and contradictions of the texts — establish a reading closer to if not the original, then at least the archetype on which the subsequent copies were based.

The goal is to rewind the clock as far as possible toward the time when the various biblical texts attained their canonical form, around the start of the Common Era.

The text of the Hebrew Bible now being used descends from what is called the Masoretic text, which was assembled between the sixth and 10th centuries by Jewish scribes and scholars in present-day Israel and Iraq. But even among the various versions of the Masoretic text there are subtle differences.

Many of today’s printings of the Hebrew Bible come from the Second Rabbinic Bible, a text assembled in 16th-century Venice. The Jewish Publication Society uses the Leningrad Codex, which at approximately 1,000 years old is the oldest complete surviving text. Still others use the 10th-century Aleppo Codex, which the Torah scholar Maimonides praised for its accuracy but has been missing much of the Torah since a 1947 fire.

Contemporary scholars seeking to understand the history of the Hebrew Bible’s text utilize a range of other sources, including ancient Greek and Syriac translations, quotations from rabbinic manuscripts, the Samaritan Pentateuch and others. Many of these are older than the Masoretic text and often contradict it, in ways small and large.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "If Netanyahu re-opens the settlement floodgates, he will recklessly bolster the argument of Hamas that the only language Israel understands is violence."
  • Would an ultra-Orthodox leader do a better job of running the Met Council?
  • So, who won the war — Israel or Hamas?
  • 300 Holocaust survivors spoke out against Israel. Did they play right into Hitler's hands?
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen. http://jd.fo/d4unE
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.