Ron Hendel on Text Criticism, Original Texts, and the Oxford Hebrew Bible

Hebrew Bible Polyglot: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sukisuki/

Ron Hendel has made available the most recent volume of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel which includes his article, The Oxford Hebrew Bible: Its Aims and a Response to Criticisms.” Those familiar with the OHB project are no doubt aware of the many substantive critiques (e.g., H. G. M. Williamson) of the project as originally laid out. Hendel responds, conceding some points and defending others.

I have a couple observations from reading the article, both positive and negative. Both of these concern the issue of an “original” text. First, I note that Hendel puts appropriate emphasis on the “purely theoretical” nature of the enterprise (69).

The original is a chimera, a purely abstract goal, which can never be fully achieved, and we cannot know the extent to which we have achieved it (85). 

Practically, this means Hendel is willing to follow the critiques of those who say we must “give up” the idea of an original text (e.g., Brooke, G. J. “The Qumran Scrolls and the Demise of the Distinction Between Higher and Lower Criticism.” In New Directions in Qumran Studies: Proceedings of the Bristol Colloquium on the Dead Sea Scrolls, 8-10 September 2003, edited by J. G. Campbell, W. J. Lyons, and L. Pietersen, 26–42. LSTS 52. London: T & T Clark, 2005). Theoretically, Hendel still embraces the idea.

Second, Hendel continues to perpetuate a problem I see with Tov’s discussion of the original text which is similar to Hendel’s “archetype.” With Tov, the original status of a text is two-fold. At times, it is something achieved in the past. A scribe would have been aware that their text was “original” or copied from an “original.” At other times, it is something achieved in the present, always subject to change when new text forms require an “earlier” text that can account for all available evidence. Genetically, we can compare these two alternatives to the difference between a historical Adam and Eve on the one hand, and Y-Chromosomal Adam and Mitochondrial Eve on the other. 

In his introduction to the project, Hendel articulates his interest in the “earliest inferable textual state.” He remains committed to that idea, but he describes it in this new article as the “latest common ancestor.” (If we were using the language of science, we would speak of “the most recent common ancestor.”) This indicates that he, more so in my opinion than Tov, understands the archetype/original(Tov) as an accident of history like Y-Chomosomal Adam and Mitochondrial Eve. And yet, when he describes his goal “to come closer to the original literary composition of a book,” he is implying an original model that corresponds more to a historical Adam and Eve, a text that acheives its “original” status in history. (Tov’s perspective is biased toward this model, though he too vacillates.)

Hendel’s response makes me feel better about the OHB project, especially considering the positive response to some of the criticism it received. And yet, I remain unconvinced that Tov and Hendel have successfully responded to critiques against an original text or who have blurred the lines between textual and literary criticism.

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