Mr. Hebrule Poirot

Doing text criticism is sometimes like detective work. You have to weigh evidence, follow leads, interrogate witnesses, and make your way into the darkest corners of the library. The reason you have to do all this is because prior to the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press in 1453, the Bible was transmitted by hand. That’s a lot of material to copy down and even the most faithful scribes made mistakes in their manuscripts. However, due to the vast number of Scriptural manuscripts available today, text critics can use methods that have been perfected over centuries to discern what the original text was. But it can be some tricky work.

Dr. Smith gave us such an assignment in our Old Testament Textual Criticism class. I’ll walk you through it. The Hebrew Bible that everyone uses these days is called the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, named after the place where it was compiled, and called BHS for short.

Here’s a typical page from BHS:

You can see the main Hebrew text, and then at the bottom there’s what’s called the “apparatus.” That’s where you’ll find whatever text critical information there is for your passage. In order for the BHS editors to squeeze so much information down there, they’ve developed a whole system of symbols and Latin shorthand that can sometimes be as much work to interpret as the Hebrew itself.

For my assignment, I was given Ruth 1:19a. In the ESV it says, “So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem,” the two of them being Naomi and Ruth. There is one text critical problem in that passage and you can see it here:

The word right in the middle there has a little superscript “a” to the left of it. If you didn’t know, Hebrew is read from right to left so that superscript is attached to the end of the word. The word there is shetayhem, and it means “the two of them.” Now what’s weird here is that words that end with –hem are masculine words. The word, then, should be referring to two men, but it’s referring to Naomi and Ruth. You are inclined to think that this is a mistake, but that “a” means that there’s a footnote.

Here’s what the footnote says:

You see there following 19a, “l c mlt Mss, –hen (that’s that little Hebrew bit). Like I said, Latin shorthand. What it says in Latin is, “lege cum multi codices manuscripti –hen.” Which means, “readings in more than twenty medieval manuscripts, –hen.” Which, again, means that there are a whole bunch of manuscripts that say shetayhen instead of shetayhem. Now that’s nice because words that end with –hen are feminine ones. So, you conclude, there’s the answer. For whatever reason, some scribe many centuries ago put a masculine ending on the word on accident, and all of the scribes that copied his work simply repeated his mistake.

But that’s wrong. What immediately tosses your neat conclusion out the window is the fact that all the very best Hebrew manuscripts, those that have come to us from the most trustworthy scribal traditions, have shetayhem, the masculine word. Then you notice that the Hebrew letters for “m” and “n” look nothing alike. That would be like writing “bunch” instead of “munch.” It isn’t likely that a scribe misread the word, or misquoted it. Those mistakes do happen, but not to the best of the best. The other alternative is that some sneaky scribe went ahead and threw a masculine ending on the word for fun. Again, not likely. Scribes have changed the text in the past to suit their own purposes, but what would be the purpose of the change in this passage? There’d be no theological consequences at all, just some goofy grammar.

Ok, so what’s going on then? Is it shetayhem, or shetayhen? This is where those dark corners in the library come in handy. You consult a bunch of books that just don’t seem to have the popularity of the others, and there you find your answer. In text criticism, if there are two different readings, like we have here, scholars go with the assumption that the more difficult reading is the correct one. The reason is that as manuscripts were copied, scribes tended to fix what they perceived to be errors, or they cleared up what they believed to be ambiguous. Because of this, texts tend to become simpler with time.

So you’ve got two options. Either the scribe saw the masculine word and believing it to be a mistake he changed it to the feminine word, or, he saw the feminine word and changed it to the masculine. Because the word refers to Naomi and Ruth, the latter is highly unlikely. The most likely explanation is that the manuscripts with the feminine word resulted from scribes seeing the masculine word and believing it to be a mistake. So the masculine word, then, is probably original.

You’re not quite done yet. You still haven’t answered “why.” Why in the world would there be a masculine word here? Back to that neglected book. There you are reminded of something you had forgotten about. In Hebrew everything is either masculine or feminine. “Hand,” for instance, is feminine, but “son” is masculine. When words are made plural, they also have masculine and feminine endings. Mostly. What you had forgotten about were the dual endings. These are plural endings for things that occur naturally in pairs. Hand, for instance, although feminine in the singular, has a dual ending when used in the plural. The same goes for eyes, ears, feet, and, apparently. . . Naomi and Ruth! There’s our answer. It happens every so often that a dual ending looks exactly the same as the masculine ending, and that’s what you’ve got here. But many medieval scribes did not have your neglected book. They saw what they believed was a masculine ending, and thus a mistake, and changed it to the feminine. But like I said above, the best scribes – and this is one of the reasons why they were the best – knew exactly what was going on and left the ending as it was.


2 thoughts on “Mr. Hebrule Poirot

  1. Hi Rev. Schouten,

    It is a fascinating field, and I’m happy there are those out there willing to do it. I find it enjoyable to do from time to time, like with the above assignment, but it’s a little too tedious to hold my attention for long. I’m thankful for the minds that have been created for this sort of work.

    Thanks for the comment!

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