Uncertainty and Undecidability in Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible

Matthieu Richelle (Louvain-la-Neuve)


While textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible is a dynamic field, bolstered by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the renewed study of the Septuagint in the last decades, it is less “stable” than it might appear. This paper shows that the very manner in which scholars practice textual criticism hinges on the answers they provide to three epistemological questions, that is, questions that are all related to the limits of our knowledge. First, what model about the origins of the biblical books should we adopt? The most pervasive model is that of an Urtext, still defended by Emanuel Tov and Eugene Ulrich in Textual History of the Bible. Yet many Dead Sea Scrolls specialists prefer the model of early parallel texts, according to which there existed from the start parallel forms of the same biblical book, which would explain at least part of the textual plurality. Second, even when we assume that there existed one archetype for a given book, to what extent is it possible to reconstruct it? This question divides scholars and makes the HBCE project, which aims to reconstruct archetypes, controversial. Third, how can hesitations be acknowledged when dealing with variants? Although text critics know very well that the data often do not allow us to decide between readings, they rarely represent this in their critical editions.

These three issues are interrelated and this paper argues that they require more variegated answers than scholars often admit. In the end, text critics should integrate the realities of uncertainty and undecidability into their work.