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Dominique Barthélemy on the RSV

May 21, 2012

If we count the months by the academic calendar, 2011-12 has been bumper year for Hebrew Bible text criticism textbooks.  In October, the third edition of Emanuel Tov’s classic (and indispensible) Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible was released.  As I mentioned yesterday, Shalom Paul’s intertextual commentary on Deutero-Isaiah has just appeared in English.  Matti Friedman’s popular book on the Aleppo Codex has reportedly gone into multiple printings and received rave reviews.  And today I received what might be the highlight of the season, Jean-Dominique Barthélemy’s Studies in the Text of the Old Testament:  An Introduction to the Hebrew Old Testament Text Project (STOT).

This book was formed from the introductions penned by Barthélemy to the first three volumes of the United Bible Societies’ Hebrew Old Testament Text Project’s (HOTTP) Critique Textuelle de l’Ancien Testament, now freshly translated into English.

Barthélemy’s colleague on HOTTP James Sanders contributes an introduction to STOT, which he begins in the first sentence by quoting Emannuel Tov from his review of Biblia Hebraica Quinta, reprinted in an anthology of Tov’s writings:  “At the same time, it should be noted that when taken together, Barthélemy’s masterly introductions to the individual volumes form an almost complete introduction to textual criticism.”

By Sanders’s account, Barthélemy’s secret tool for text criticism was ability to use early medieval Jewish commentators:

Barthélemy, especially helped us realize that many problems in the text had been neutralized or sterilized, so to speak, by the text being too quickly declared unintelligible or corrupt and hastily supplied with a solution from later versions (which also had had to solve the same problem), or by conjecture.  There are a number of sources that have seldom been exploited in textual criticism but which we found important to our work.  Among these are the issues of Hebrew syntax and style.

We would have to fend for ourselves.  But in doing so, we found immense help in two sources seldom probed:  the medieval exegetes who wrote in Judaeo-Arabic; and the six medieval Hebrew-Old French glossateurs in northern Europe who dated even before Rashi.  Barthélemy immersed himself in the Judaeo-Arabic commentaries of Yefet ben Ely, Daniel al-Qumisi, Saadya Gaon, David Z. Lichaa, and Salmon ben Yeruham.  Yefet lived in Palestine between 950 and 1000 C.E. and had an intimate acquaintance with the mentality of his contemporaries, the Masoretes themselves; and most all his work, though little is edited or published, is available in microfilm from libraries in Europe and New York.

Probing such rarely used sources, the team was able to address the full history of the text where problems occur and in doing so found that many texts that had been thought unintelligible or corrupt were actually examples of the intricacies of Hebrew grammar and syntax long since forgotten. (pp. xviii-xix)

Barthélemy’s work (and that of of his HOTTP colleagues) directly lead to the latest critical edition of the Hebrew Bible, still in progress, the Biblia Hebraica Quinta.  To read Barthélemy is to get a direct insight into the motivations behind the new Biblia Hebraica Quinta edition.


As an example of the gems contained in the Barthélemy, here is an example of critical (and, perhaps, slightly gossipy) remarks on a Bible translation well known to most BLT readers, the Revised Standard Version (RSV):

Although the RSV is at some remove from the KJV, characteristics of the KJV appear throughout.  However, three observations may be made:

(1)  Following several other translations of the sixteenth century, the KJV used italics to set off words added to the text for the purpose of making the translation more explicit.  This graphic device was continued in the ASV, but was dropped in the RSV, when the additions were simply incorporated into the text.  The problem is that many of the additions in italics had been suggested to the translators of the KJV by the ancient versions, primarily the Vulgate.  The RSV thus inserted a large number of elements not in the Hebrew without making note of them.

(2)  It is commonly agreed that the vocalization of Hebrew manuscripts first took place at a relatively late date.  In emphasizing the weak traditional authority of the vocalization, the RSV follows in the footsteps of the ASV.  As we have seen in Part One, Luther also placed little confidence in these Jewish vowel “points.”  Calvin likewise often questioned them in his commentaries.  From Cappel’s time to the present, critics have generally held the opinion that the consonants should be respected (because they are more ancient), but the vowels can be treated more freely.  We have also seen that Masclef and Houbigant were even prparing a Hebrew grammar based exclusively on the consonants.  This led Kennicott to limit his extensive collation of medieval manuscripts to consonantal variants.  The RSV thus has numerous early models in its low estimation of vowels.  Departing from these precedents, in the course of its work the committee became increasingly convinced that the Masoretic vocalic tradition is much more ancient than its written fixation.  Those who have the patience to follow this study will reach the same conclusion.

(3)  When the RSV offers a different reading from the Masoretic Text, if frequently translates [the Masoretic Text] in a note.  But the translation is sometimes a mere caricature that seems to serve as a foil to the RSV’s choice, as can be seen in a comparison of the RSV translation and interpretations of proposed by the committee.  Here again the RSV is not acting independently.  Rather it depends upon recent commentaries.  This is because dictionaries and grammars of the last hundred years or so have not attempted to resolve exegetical difficulties that had previously been avoided by correcting the text.  So a vicious circle is established:  a difficult text becomes more and more unintelligible because the exegetical tools that would contribute to our understanding of it have fallen into disuse.

(Emphasis added, p. 148)

Barthélemy’s approach here is level-headed and points out difficult issues with the RSV translation that I rarely see mentioned. 

Overall, I think Barthélemy’s book is an unusually useful book on Hebrew Bible text criticism.  I think a wide number of readers would enjoy it.

In future posts, I may quote some other equally juicy excerpts from Barthélemy.

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