Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia

Not all printed Bibles are identical; different Bible editions show differences in vocalization and more rarely in the consonantal text. The standard complete critical biblical text is Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (abbreviated BHS), and was published as a complete work in 1977. It uses as its basis a biblical manuscript from the year 1008 or 1009 CE, called Leningrad B19A. (A facsimile of this edition can be found here.) This is the earliest extant, complete, vocalized biblical manuscript. An earlier manuscript, called the Aleppo Codex (see link on the bottom of the home page), is more accurate than Leningrad B19A, but unfortunately, it is no longer complete. A student edition of BHS, subtitled A Reader's Edition, was published in 2014 by Hendrickson. You can download sample pages of that here.

The issue of the history of the biblical text is complex, and cannot be explained in detail here. I present a very brief schematic introduction in "Old Testament Manuscripts from Qumran to Leningrad," in Approaches to the Bible: The Best of Bible Review, Vol. 1, ed. Harvey Minkoff (Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1994), 198-204 (you may download this article at my site

Take out a copy of BHS, skim through it, and open up to p. 31, which contains the beginning of the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, or see below:

The typical page of BHS may be divided into four parts:  
1. The biblical text, which is in the center. This text is vocalized and is marked with cantillation marks, following the Leningrad Codex. In addition, following Leningrad, some letters have small circles above them, which key the text to the marginal Masoretic notes. This may be seen, for example, on the word וְהָאֱלֹהִים in Genesis 22:1. Additionally, some words are marked with superscripted English letters; see for example the "a" after אַבְרָהָם in 22:1. These numbers refer to the book editor's textual notes at the bottom of the BHS page, and will be explained below.

2. The very bottom of the page is the critical apparatus, which is connected to the main text through English letters. The history of the biblical text is complex; it is sufficient to note that the text which appears in Leningrad B19A is an example of what is called the Masoretic Text (abbreviated MT).  It is not the only biblical text we have – it is simply the earliest complete vocalized Hebrew text. Much earlier partial Hebrew texts, such as Dead Sea Scroll fragments, which have a consonantal text which differs at points from Leningrad, are extant. In addition, the Bible was translated into several languages in antiquity, and these translations sometimes differ from MT in ways that imply that the text being translated (called the "Vorlage," German for the text which "lies before" a translator) differed from the MT. Some of these ancient translations (also called "versions") are attested in copies which predate Leningrad B19A by several centuries. BHS has culled what its editors feel are the most significant differences between MT and other versions and has put these in its short critical apparatus. The editors sometimes also note whether they feel the MT is incorrect, and a reading preserved in one or many of the versions is superior. Finally, in cases where the MT is difficult, the editors may suggest changing it without support of the versions; this is called a "conjectural emendation." 

This section of the BHS is very important, though it takes a good deal of training and understanding of a discipline called "textual criticism" to use it properly. One example from Genesis 22 will illustrate the type of material contained in this critical apparatus. The note in the critical apparatus to verse 1, marked by Cp 22,1, "prb ins c 2 Mss 𝕲𝖛Mss אַבְרָהָם" means "probably insert with 2 Hebrew manuscripts, the Septuagint (the main, ancient Greek Bible translation--the 𝕲, a Gothic G, is for "Greek"), manuscripts of the Vulgate (--the 𝖛, a Gothic V is for the "Vulgate"-- the main ancient Latin Bible translation) the word אַבְרָהָם. The second part of verse 1 (what we call 1b; the first part is 1a) would then read וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֵלָ֔יו אַבְרָהָם אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּ֥אמֶר הִנֵּֽנִי ׃. This creates symmetry between verse 1 and v. 11. וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו מַלְאַךְ יְהוָה מִן־הַשָּׁמַיִם וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי׃ and also fits certain other cases where God begins a speech by repeating someone's name (see Exodus 3:4 and 1 Samuel 3:10).
The question that needs to be asked is what is more likely:
  • that an אַבְרָהָם has fallen out of the Hebrew text of v. 1 some time after the Septuagint was translated (probably in the third century BCE), and is preserved correctly in the Septuagint and Vulgate and two medieval Hebrew manuscripts;
  • that the MT with a single אַבְרָהָם is correct, and these other texts have (either consciously or subconsciously) added a second אַבְרָהָם to make it fit v. 11 and/or the pattern of name doubling.
As may be seen from this simple example, the issues concerning textual criticism need to be learned gradually and with care, and there are often no clear answers to questions raised by differences between the MT and one of the versions. Those interested in pursuing these issues further are encouraged to look at Ernst Würthwein, The Text of the Old Testament, third edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), which also contains photographs of many manuscripts and editons, J. Weingreen, Introduction to the Critical Study of the Text of the Hebrew Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), P. Kyle McCarter, Textual Criticism: Recovering the Text of the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011) and for more advanced students, Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, third edition (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012). Most versions of BHS come with a quick reference guide, which translates the standard Latin definitions into English. More extensive information is found in Reinard Wonneberger, Understanding BHS (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1984) and in William R. Scott, A Simplified Guide to BHS (Berkeley: BIBAL Press, 1987).

What follows is an explanation of the most common BHS abbreviations:

    add — added
    c — with
    dl — delete
    Edd — early printed Bible editions
    frt — possibly
    ins — insert
    l — read
    mlt — many
    Mss — medieval Bible manuscripts
    om — omit(s)
    pc — a few
    prb— probably
    prp — it has been proposed
    sg — singular
    tr — transpose
    vel — or

BHS refers to many ancient Bibles in different languages (versions); the most common of these are 

— the Greek translation, called the Septuagint
— a reading from one of the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran
— the Samaritan Pentateuch
— the Peshitta, the ancient Syriac (an Aramaic dialect) translation of the Bible
— the Targum(im), various Jewish Aramaic Bible translations
— The Vulgate, Jerome's Latin Bible translation

A more extensive list of BHS abbreviations is in Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, pages 253-254.

3. The מָסוֹרָה קְטַנָּה, is found in BHS on the outside margins of the page. This is also known by its Latin name, the Masora parva. These are notes written in a combination of Aramaic and abbreviations, which helped copyists and readers preserve the text exactly by noting unusual forms. For example, וְהָאֱלֹהִים in v. 1 has a circle above it; this connects it to the marginal note to the left of that verse, the first of which reads ז, representing the numeral 7. (ז is the seventh letter of the Hebrew alphabet.) This means that the word וְהָאֱלֹהִים (with both the definite article and the conjunction) is found seven times in the Hebrew Bible. The system behind these notes is quite complex, and will not be examined here; those interested should consult Israel Yeivin, Introduction to the Tiberian Masorah, translated and edited by E. J. Revell (1985) or his newer Hebrew book המסורה למקרא published in 2003, as well as The Masorah of Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia: Introduction and Annotated Glossary, by Page Kelley (1998).

4. A modified form of the מָסוֹרָה גְּדוֹלָה is found in BHS immediately below the biblical text. This is also known as the Masora magna. The main function of the מָסוֹרָה גְּדוֹלָה was to elucidate some notes in the מָסוֹרָה קְטַנָּה by adding specific biblical references. For example, the מָסוֹרָה גְּדוֹלָה notes that the word וְהָאֱלֹהִים in Gen 22:1 is one of seven occurrences of the word וְהָאֱלֹהִים in that form, and the מָסוֹרָה גְּדוֹלָה might indicate where the other six occurrences were. However, since these notes were compiled before chapter and verse numbers were inserted into the Hebrew Bible, the traditional מָסוֹרָה גְּדוֹלָה would do this by quoting part of the verse of each occurrence. This is no longer necessary, so BHS has created a new type of מָסוֹרָה גְּדוֹלָה, expanding upon the notes in the מָסוֹרָה גְּדוֹלָה in a volume by G. E. Weil, Massorah Gedolah. For example, the מָסוֹרָה קְטַנָּה for 22:1 noted that וְהָאֱלֹהִים is found seven times; that ז is followed by a superscript 1, which is a footnote marker, referring to the 1 which follows Cp 22 (chapter 22) on the first line below the end of the Hebrew text. That note reads 1Mm 145, which means that the seven occurrences may be found by looking up Weil's Massorah Gedolah (1971), number 145. These notes are sometimes useful for finding particular forms or patterns which are noted in the Masorah, but there are usually easier ways to find the same information, such using a concordance (see the page on concordances here).

Since textual criticism is as much an art as a science, and each edition of a scholarly work bears the particular assumptions and understandings of its editors, BHS or any edition of the Bible cannot be considered definitive. In addition, since the time BHS was completed, additional textual evidence, especially from the Dead Sea Scrolls, has been published. It is thus not surprising that at least three other projects to produce critical editions of the Hebrew Bible are underway (see here). Yet BHS remains especially important since it is the most recent complete scholarly edition of the Bible.

The Primary Evidence used by BHS and other Critical Bibles

Each of the versions is also documented in a variety of manuscripts, and exists in critical editions based on what its editors think is the best or most original version.  These non-Hebrew "textual witnesses" are discussed in detail in Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, 23-154. Students who do not have access to the original languages and resources will find the following two resources, helpful:  Eugene Ulrich, The Biblical Qumran Scrolls: Transcriptions and Textual Variants (Brill, 2010) and A New English Translation of the Septuagint, by Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright (Oxford University Press, 2007).