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Editions of the Masoretic Text

Charles L. Echols, Ph.D.

This document is an overview of the history of some of the most important editions of the Hebrew Bible. Here, an “edition” is the redaction of a number of individual Hebrew manuscripts by an editor. [1] 

1.   The First Rabbinic Bible of Felix Pratensis

Felix Pratensis edited the first Rabbinic Bible which was published in Venice by Daniel Bomberg in 1516-1517. Rabbinic Bibles contained “the Masoretic Text (with masora), the Targums, and rabbinic commentaries all on the same page.” [2]

2.   The Second Rabbinic Bible of Jacob ben Chayyim (BHS: ƒ)

The second Rabbinic Bible was edited by Jacob ben Chayyim, and is referred to as Bombergiana. It was published in 1524-1525, also by Bomberg. (Apparently, ben Chayyim was “a Jewish refugee from Tunis who later became a Christian.”[3]) “The special feature of the Bombergiana is that it also includes the large, the small, and the final Masora, which the editor had painstakingly assembled with tremendous labor from a number of manuscripts which were largely defective and copied without any understanding of the Masoretic material.”[4] Such was its importance that “it remained the standard printed text of the Hebrew Old Testament until the twentieth century.”[5]

3.   Daniel E. Jablonski

In 1669 Daniel E. Jablonski published an edition “with an apparatus including the most important readings of the five Erfurt manuscripts . . . and of a number of published editions.”[6]

4.   Johann Heinrich Michaelis (BHK: V(ar)M)

Johann Heinrich Michaelis used Jablonski’s edition for his own edition which was published in 1720.

5.   Benjamin Kennicott (BHS: VKen69etc)

The Oxford theologian Benjamin Kennicott, assisted by a team, produced an edition from 1776-1780 with an apparatus that reflected “the variants from the consonantal text in more than six hundred manuscripts and fifty-two editions of the Hebrew text, and in sixteen manuscripts of the Samaritan [Pentateuch].”[7]

6.   Giovanni Bernardo de Rossi (BHS: de Rossi)

De Rossi culled some 1475 manuscripts and editions to produce not an edition but a list of consonantal variants. First published from 1784-1788, a supplemented edition appeared in 1798. As a testament to its ongoing importance, it was reprinted in 1969-1970.

7.   S. Baer (BHK: VarB)

From 1869-1895, S. Baer and Franz Delitzsch worked with early editions and manuscripts to reconstruct the Masoretic Text, excluding Exodus-Deuteronomy, as precisely as possible. Baer’s idiosyncratic handling of the Masora, however, undermined the accuracy of the edition.

8.   Christian D. Ginsburg (BHS: G)

Like Kennicott, Ginsburg mustered a team of assistants to help him produce his edition (London, 1908-1926), which was based largely on ben Chayyim’s edition. He studied manuscripts from the thirteenth century onwards that were in the British Library. Although a sizeable body of material, Würthwein discounts its importance for textual criticism because of the “unevenness of the material . . . and the absence of any attempt to weigh or group it.”[8]


In the interest of coming full circle, a few words about the standard Hebrew text that we read today are in order.

1.   Biblia Hebraica (BHK)

At the turn of the 19th century, Rudolf Kittel called for the creation of a standard text of the Hebrew Bible that could be used by all of its readers. He saw two options: a “diplomatic” text, using the Masoretic text and recording emendations at the bottom of each page, or a “critical text” that surveyed as many manuscripts as possible to reconstruct the best possible text and register Masoretic notation likewise at the bottom of the page. He deemed the latter option to be preferable but impractical, and gathered a team of eight colleagues who selected ben Chayyim’s edition as the text. This first edition was published in 1906 and revised in 1909. It quickly became the standard text of the Hebrew Bible. From the beginning, Kittel recognized the limitations of his choice and called for further revisions in the light of ongoing research. From 1929-1937, Albrecht Alt and Otto Eisfeldt worked on a thorough revision of Kittel’s text. They kept with a diplomatic text, but switched to Codex Leningradensis (L) and expanded the critical apparatus, distinguishing between minor and substantial variants. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the late 1940s made it possible to incorporate 1QIsaa in a 1951 revision.

2.   Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS)

The 1967-1977 edition retained L as the base text and revised the critical apparatus by taking a more cautious approach to conjectures. Würthwein remarks that “the individual books vary considerably in their scope and quality, so that in many books the use of BHK is recommended.”[9]

3.   Biblia Hebraica Quinta (BHQ)

This revision of the BHS is being published gradually in fascicles. Like the BHS, it is based on the Leningrad codex. It has a much fuller critical apparatus, a Masorah magna as well as parva and a commentary on textual issues. Many of the variants from Hebrew manuscripts which were cited in BHS are ignored as being of little value. 

4.   Hebrew University Bible Project (HUBP) and Oxford Hebrew Bible (OHB)

The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is still producing a critical edition which was inaugurated with the publication of a sample back in 1965. It uses the Aleppo Codex, including the Mp and the Mm, as it base text. Of distinction are its six critical apparatuses: (1) early variants, (2) the texts of the Judean desert and rabbis, (3) medieval manuscripts, (4) orthographical anomalies, and (5-6) critical remarks.

5.   Oxford Hebrew Bible (OHB)

The Oxford Hebrew Bible project has commenced work on a critical eclectic edition - i.e. it is picks the best readings from various manuscripts rather than transcribing a single manuscript. It has published as samples Deut 32:1-9; 1 Kgs 11:1-8; and Jer 27:1-10.[10] The scope of both of these projects in conjunction with the unceasing publications on textual criticism make it likely that the publication of both editions is not forthcoming.

[1] When reading in the area of textual criticism, one sometimes encounters the phrase “the editions.” Page LXIX of BHS 5, for instance, lists the abbreviation “Ed, Edd,” which denotes “One or several editions of the Hebrew Old Testament.” On page XLVII, the abbreviation “Ed(d)” refers to “edition(s) of the Hebrew text according to Kennicott, de Rossi and Ginsburg cf. Ms(s).” On page XLIX, “Ms(s)” designates the editions of B. Kennicott, J. B. de Rossi, and C. D. Ginsburg. Page L seems to say that for 1-2 Samuel (“1/2 S”), Ms(s) includes the same editions as well as fragments from the Cairo Geniza. The terms “edition(s)” and “manuscript(s)” are thus used somewhat interchangeably. Incomplete and complete editions exist that predate those named by BHS, e.g., an edition of the Psalms in AD 1477 and the Soncino Bible of AD 1488. In any case, all of the editions were based on medieval manuscripts. On p. LI of BHS5, “Vrs” stands for “versions all or most of.”

[2] William R. Scott, A Simplified Guide to BHS: Critical Apparatus, Masora, Accents, Unusual Letters and Other Markings (3rd ed.; N. Richland Hills, TX: BIBAL Press, 1995; orig. publ., 1987), 18.

[3] E. Würthwein, The Text of the Old Testament (2nd ed.; trans. Erroll F. Rhodes; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 39, n. 85.

[4] Würthwein, Text of the Old Testament, 39.

[5] Würthwein, Text of the Old Testament, 39.

[6] Würthwein, Text of the Old Testament, 40.

[7] Würthwein, Text of the Old Testament, 40.

[8] Würthwein, Text of the Old Testament, 41-42.

[9] Würthwein, Text of the Old Testament, 43.

[10] For a review, see Ronald Hendel, "The Oxford Hebrew Bible: Prologue to a New Critical Edition," VT 58 (2008: 324-51). Download the review at,%20OHB%20VT.pdf. is created and supported by Bible scholars at Tyndale House, Cambridge
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