When Bible scholars want to study the text of the Hebrew Bible, they turn to Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. BHS, as we call it, is the fourth edition of Biblia Hebraica, a scholarly edition of the Hebrew Bible based on the Masoretic Text (MT). The first edition was published in 1902 by Rudolf Kittel, the fourth in 1966/1977 by Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft in Stuttgart (thus the S of BHS). A fifth edition (Biblia Hebraica Quinta), which I have helped prepare with a team of other scholars, is currently in the works and should be completed within the next five years.

Above is page 409 from BHS. Here the reader will find the end of the story of Jael and Sisera, in which Sisera’s mother is waiting impatiently for her son to return (Judges 5:28–31), followed by the calling of Gideon (Judges 6:1–12). (Note the large number 6 in the right margin, which divides these two chapters.) But no matter what biblical passage we may turn to, all 1,574 pages of BHS look very much like this one. Each page has two primary components: first, the biblical text (with notations) as preserved by the ben Asher family of Masoretes in the sixth to tenth centuries C.E.; and second, at the very bottom of the page, the two scholarly apparatuses, or sets of notes, assembled by modern biblical experts.

Let’s begin with the first of these two components, the MT. As the accompanying article points out, the MT has five basic elements: the consonants; the vowels, which the Masoretes placed below and above the consonants; other marks on each word, which indicate the inflection of the pronounced words and often make a crucial difference in the way the text is to be parsed, read and even understood; the spacings between words and between sections of the text; and finally, the coded messages known as the masorah, which ensured accurate copying of the text from generation to generation.

The consonants, vowels and accent marks in BHS are those found in the Leningrad Codex, our earliest complete edition of the MT. Compare, for example, Judges 6:7–10, highlighted on this page from BHS, with the same verses in the Leningrad Codex (outlined in blue in the photo of a page from the Leningrad Codex, see sidebar to this article). With respect to the spacings in BHS, however, caution is in order, for they do not necessarily reflect what is found in the MT. Some of the spacings were created by modern scholars; as a result, they sometimes convey a particular scholar’s understanding of the text rather than that of the Masoretes. In BHS the MT spacings are occasionally indicated on the page by symbols rather than actual spaces. For example, on this page from BHS, the small Hebrew letter peh (p, circled in purple) appears before Judges 6:7 and after 6:10—that is, at the beginning and end of the highlighted passage that Professor Hendel would erase from the text. In the MT manuscript known as the Leningrad Codex, however, these same verses are even more clearly set off by the wide spacings known as petuhot (see sidebar to this article). The different kinds of spacings found in the MT indicate how the Masoretes parsed the text and how they understood it. If a student knows the spacings in the Hebrew text of the Bible only from printed scholarly editions such as BHS, he or she may never know what the Masoretes really understood the text to be about.

The case of the masorah, the above-mentioned fifth component of the MT, is even more complex. The masorah is made up of three parts: the small masorah, the great masorah and the masorah notes at the end of each biblical book. In BHS the lists of the great masorah have been compiled by a modern editor and thus do not appear the way they do in original MT manuscripts.

Taken together, the three elements of the masorah were designed to help scribes copy the text faithfully and avoid any further changes in the text, intentional or unintentional.1 The tiny markings in the margin to the left of the text are called the masorah qatanah (small masorah). These tiny markings point out words that appear only once in the Bible and offer cross-references to words that appear multiple times. Standing in the margin like sentinels, the markings guard the text not only from scribal error, but also from the scribal tendency to assimilate or harmonize biblical texts that are similar in structure and wording but exhibit certain differences or variations.

The first apparatus, or set of notes, written in small script at the bottom of the page is a coded index to the masorah gedolah (great masorah), which consists of lists of passages in other parts of the Bible where the same words, phrases or characteristics may be found. Originally penned by the Masoretes in the top and bottom margins of each page of MT manuscripts (see photo of Aleppo Codex), the lists of the masorah gedolah may be thought of as even larger, more vigilant sentinels guarding the text’s integrity from harmonization and assimilation. For example, scribes might attempt to harmonize the Bible’s many doublets—passages that occur in different parts of the Bible and contain essentially the same text, but with slight differences (such as the two lists of the Ten Commandments, found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5). The lists guard against such attempts at harmonization by reminding scribes of each textual variation. The French scholar Gerard Weil, an expert in the masorah, compiled the masorah gedolah in BHS.

In addition to the small masorah and the great masorah, there is a masorah note at the end of each book of the Hebrew Bible. The note gives the total number of verses in the text of that book, the verse and word precisely in the middle of the book and other information intended to protect the text from scribal alterations.

The most significant difference between a page of the MT and a page from the scholarly BHS edition is visible at the very bottom of each page of BHS. Here we find a brief history of the given text as it appears in various ancient manuscripts and versions. Compiled by the German biblical scholar Rudolf Meyer, this history also contains Meyer’s judgments as to which readings of the text are the most critically responsible ones. The notes are written in a scholarly shorthand. For example, at the bottom of this page from BHS, Meyer’s brief history appears on the last five lines. In the first of these five lines, the number 29 connects the note to the text of Judges 5:29. The raised letter a after the number refers to the first Hebrew word in verse 29 (remember, Hebrew is read from right to left). The abbreviation “pc Mss” followed by a Hebrew word indicates that a “few manuscripts” have that word as a variant reading. Another slightly different reading may be found in the Syriac and Vulgate translations of the verse, as indicated by the gothic letters S and V.

Unfortunately, this second apparatus also perpetuates errors by scholars, which have become, as it were, part of the tradition of the text itself. There is no substitute for checking each notation in this apparatus against films or digitized images of the manuscripts cited; failure to do so only perpetuates the errors.

Sometimes this apparatus suggests a better reading for a given text, but one should bear in mind that these suggestions tend to reflect the academic biases of the scholars who have made them. Professor Hendel recommends moving such scholarly judgments into the text itself. A better approach, I believe, is the one being taken by the editorial teams preparing Biblia Hebraica Quinta (BHQ) and the Hebrew University Bible. Both of these forthcoming critical editions will include scholarly apparatuses that offer judgments based, not on the thinking of one scholar, but on the discussion and debate of several scholars from differing schools of thought. But they do not emend the text.

Like BHS, BHQ and the Hebrew University Bible will combine scholarly judgments with a healthy—and altogether appropriate—respect for the unique contributions of the Masoretic tradition. The Masoretes believed strongly that every word, indeed every letter, of the Bible was divinely inspired. This belief did not arise until the first century C.E., but it was fully developed by the time the Masoretes began transmitting the biblical text in the sixth century.2 Each word was precious to them; and no word could be erased or eliminated for any reason. They even viewed the harmonization and assimilation of texts with a sort of horror. They thus guarded and vigorously kept all the contradictions, anomalies and discrepancies in the biblical text. Whether we agree with their view of the biblical text or not (and I don’t), we can nonetheless be very grateful for the extreme care they took in transmitting it and in passing down their understanding of how it was to be read, pronounced and interpreted. There is simply no other literature in the world quite like it, which is why scholars will continue to turn to the Masoretic Text in scholarly editions such as BHS, BHQ and the Hebrew University Bible.