Saturday, April 23, 2016

My search for the Hebrew Bible in the original

I am an amateur Biblical scholar (emphasis on the "amateur"). I have been trying to learn Greek so I can read the New Testament in the original one day. (Any observations about being a shameless nerd are readily agreed with.) Many are surprised to learn that the oldest manuscripts of the New Testament were originally written in Greek (rather than Hebrew), and a number have asked me why. The reason is actually that Greek was the international language of the time. It was the language that people published in if they wanted to reach a wide audience, and that was the case with the early New Testament.

By contrast, the Old Testament really was written in Hebrew - or at least, most of it was. Scholars believe some of it may have originally been written in Aramaic - a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew. In the words of my church's Bible Dictionary: "The original language of most of the Old Testament is Hebrew, but a few portions ... were written in what is popularly called Chaldee, but more correctly Aramaic." (Source: Entry on Bible itself)

My church's edition of the Holy Bible

I don't have any plans to learn either Hebrew or Aramaic; as they are difficult languages for English speakers, and my primary Biblical interest is the New Testament; but I thought that as long as I had a copy of the New Testament in the original Greek, I might as well complement it with a copy of the Old Testament in the original as well. Thus, I looked into what version to get; and found that this was easier said than done.

Greek New Testament

In my earlier search for the Greek New Testament, I had discovered which version my church's school used by going to the BYU Bookstore website (the Nestle-Aland, in case you're wondering); but this time, I could not access the bookstore's website. Rather curiously, the website said I was not authorized to access required textbook info for BYU's Hebrew Bible courses without special login privileges, which were presumably restricted to BYU students. I actually went through the trouble of creating an account with them, but this did not get me access - BYU Bookstore was an obstacle to my search. I soon discovered that I would not be able to obtain this information this way.

I surfed around the BYU website to see if they publicly displayed what version was required; and thought I had found it when they gave an external link to a site with Biblical Hebrew resources. (Here's the page they linked to, and here's BYU's page linking to this page, to show their endorsement of it.) This page further linked to the Hebrew Bible online in searchable format; and investigation of this link revealed this version was from the Jewish Publication Society. I went online and actually found their hardcopy version, but it had both Hebrew and English; and I wanted something with just the Hebrew. Thus, I kept on searching.

A number of sites led me to an edition called the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, which I soon discovered was made by the German Bible Society (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft), the same people who had prepared my Nestle-Aland version of the New Testament. It seemed like a good version, but Wikipedia had some criticisms of the edition suggesting frequent errors. My dad pointed out to me that errors are inevitable in a work as large as the Old Testament, and this was not necessarily something to worry about; but I wanted to make sure this version was good before committing to getting it.

Thus, my dad suggested that I do something else, which was contact the BYU Hebrew professors and ask their opinion. In my earlier search for the Greek New Testament, I had been reluctant to do this; as I was unsure whether the Greek New Testament professors' primary interest was the New Testament and the scriptures (one part of the Greek-language literary tradition), or the many other literary classics of the Greek language from Ancient Greece. But this was not so much a problem with the BYU Biblical Hebrew professors, as I felt I could safely assume right off the bat that they were professors of the Hebrew Bible. (Not many learn Biblical Hebrew for any other purpose than reading the Hebrew scriptures - with the exception of the Bible itself, Hebrew-language literature is not canonized in the West the way Plato, Homer, and Aristotle are; allowing me to more safely assume that their interests were Biblical ones.)

My dad suggested that I look through the faculty webpages for the BYU Hebrew and Religious Education departments, and select one professor that seemed most qualified to answer the question. I did so; and while they did not publicly display any email addresses (presumably for privacy and/or spam reduction reasons), they did allow me to fill out an electronic form that would allow me to email him and ask him my question. Thus, I sent him the following email on a Saturday, which said (in part) that "I thought I might seek the advice of a Latter-Day Saint scholar of Biblical Hebrew & Aramaic, and/or the Old Testament, to see what they recommend. Could you tell me what version of the Hebrew Bible is used in the BYU Biblical Languages and Ancient Scripture programs? There are several versions of the Masoretic text available online, and I'm not sure which one is the best."

A few days later (the following business day), I got a response from him. Here is the exact text, with the professor's name omitted:

"Dear Jeffrey,

Thank you for your email. There are two good options for a standard, authoritative, and academic edition of the Hebrew Bible (Masoretic Text). The most common edition used in university classrooms is:

For students who are a little less advanced and who could use additional tools (such as lexical entries) along the way, the following can also be helpful:

I hope that helps! Good luck, and please let me know if I can be of further assistance.

Best Wishes,
[Professor's Name]"

I was quite satisfied with his answer. Many Amazon reviewers of the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (presumably people of other Judeo-Christian faiths than mine) had said it was the standard edition used for scholarly purposes; and had praised it for its accuracy and faithfulness to known manuscripts. Thus, I felt fairly confident that I had obtained good version information.
I thought others might find this story interesting, even if they do not want to get a copy of the Hebrew Bible themselves, so I now send this out for the world to see. If there are any others who are likewise interested in doing this, I hope this account of my experiences has been helpful.

Why I am learning Ancient Greek

My search for the Greek New Testament

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