The Hebrew texts of Ben Sira, Critical edition, translation philological, paleographical and codicological commentaries

The Hebrew texts of Ben Sira, Critical edition, translation philological, paleographical and codicological commentaries


The Hebrew texts of Ben Sira, Critical edition, translation philological, paleographical and codicological commentaries

Participants : Jean-Sébastien Rey, Jan Joosten, Eric Reymond

Until the end of the 19th century, the book of Ben Sira was essentially recognized through ancient translations into Greek, Syriac and Latin from an original Hebrew which has been lost. Then, and until very recently, the original Hebrew text became partially known directly through six fragmentary manuscripts of the Cairo Genizah and several fragments of the Dead Sea scrolls (Qumran and Masada). During the 20th century these manuscripts have been edited by several scholars, but none of these editions is today complete. Moreover, they do not offer a translation of the Hebrew text as it is preserved, nor a philological, paleographical and codicological analysis. The present project aims to fill this gap.

Methodology of the edition

The edition does not intend to reconstruct a hypothetical archetype, but rather to present with equal consideration all the transmitted witnesses, underlining their multiformity and individual identities. The perspective is therefore dynamic and aims at showing the vitality of the text during its transmission, expansion, successive transformations and re-readings. The object is to edit each textual witness independently, to translate and to clarify each linguistic, literary, philosophical and religious specificity.

  • By editing them together yet independently, we emphasize their dynamic dimension. It allows us to photograph a text at different stages of its transmission: at the Hellenistic period with the Masada and Qumran manuscripts, and at the medieval period with the Genizah witnesses.
  • The edition will provide a triple apparatus: (1) paleographical notes, missing in preceding editions, not only to provide more accurate dating of the witnesses, but also to give more precise readings, as former editions are often divergent; (2) the variant readings of the other Hebrew witnesses; (3) a philological commentary.
  • The edition will concentrate only on Hebrew witnesses and will avoid correcting the text, even if we are convinced that it is not the “original,” or at least not the oldest, state of the text. The edition will distinguish between certain, probable and possible readings and will discuss cases where preceding editions diverge; it will give the manuscript reference, the shelf-mark, as well as the numbers of verses, and of lines of the edited manuscript.
  • Older translations (Greek, Syriac, Latin or Syrohexaples) will only be used in the philological notes when they can clarify a corrupted and/or unintelligible Hebrew text.
  • The philological commentary is crucial and unparalleled. Ben Sira uses language dated between the end of Classical Hebrew and the beginning of Rabbinic Hebrew. Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, this linguistic period was not well-known due to lack of sources. Today Hebrew linguists have made great progress in this domain and these new elements should be integrated in the philological analysis of the text. Furthermore, the distinction we make between witnesses helps to identify the linguistic evolution of the text. This commentary will be useful not only to exegetes, but also to grammarians and lexicographers.
  • Finally each Hebrew manuscript will be translated independently. The existing translations are mainly based on an eclectic text reconstructed via Greek, Syriac and Latin translations, with some Hebrew witnesses. This methodology can no longer be considered pertinent, especially with this text. Not only does this kind of translation presuppose a hypothetical text, it also destroys the specific identity of each version.

Scientific issues of the critical edition

These manuscripts present significant divergences and raise many questions related to the supposed original and the transformations the text has undergone in time. After the first discoveries of the Hebrew manuscripts, an important debate took place among scholars about the authenticity of these witnesses, many arguing that they represent “translations of Ecclesiasticus made from the Syriac and a daughter version of the Greek.” While the discovery of the Masada and Qumran fragments, which date back to the second century BCE, has undermined this assumption, it has not answered the question of textual plurality and, despite this exceptional discovery, problems related to the history of the Cairo Genizah Hebrew texts, and, in particular, the relationship between these texts and the supposed original, have not been resolved. This textual plurality raises numerous pragmatic and theoretical questions for a critical edition. Until now, the different Hebrew witnesses and their old translations, have mainly been compared by scholars in order to reconstruct an “original” Hebrew text of Ben Sira, the so-called Urtext. While such an approach is useful, little attention has been paid to the textual plurality and fluidity of these medieval witnesses from a linguistic, philological and hermeneutical point of view. Our edition of the Hebrew fragments is meant to participate in this important discussion, focusing on each fragment and the transformation the text has undergone through its transmission.

Our first goal is to offer the scientific community a reliable edition, as a necessary basis for future research. Indeed, this text is of great importance for the Hellenistic period and could contribute to research on Antiquity in such areas as the history of Hellenistic Judea, philology, Hebrew linguistics, ancient Jewish literature or theology. In addition, the reception of this text in Rabbinic and Christian, as well as medieval, literature is well known. This edition will permit deeper understanding of the evolution, transmission, rereading and impact of this text in these different corpora.

Different elements have to be analyzed: the comparison of the different witnesses from a hermeneutical point of view, the analysis of textual transformations perceptible through marginal notations and scribal paratext, linguistic innovations (syntactical, semantic, historical, cultural), retroversions to the Hebrew, doublets, rewriting, additions, etc. We hope thereby not only to provide a reliable edition of the Hebrew text of Ben Sira, but also to emphasize how textual transformations can be identified.

The Introduction of the edition will synthesize the results and try to explain the relationship between the different witnesses. All these elements will highlight scribal practices in Antiquity and the medieval period and their impact, not only on transmission, but also on the transformation of the text transmitted.