Thursday, May 7, 2009

Background on Mechon Mamre Hebrew Bibles

I recently exchanged some emails with the creator of the Mechon Mamre site (from which I retrieve the Hebrew Bible content for my Hebrew Bible iPhone Application). I was discussing with him the sources that he used for developing the different Hebrew Bible versions on his site. He sent me an interesting explanation which I've reproduced here (with his permission). My previous email comments (which he was replying to) are interspersed in his reply and I've highlighted my comments in italics (there are several email exchanges that I've merged together as a single conversation for this post). I've also added some links that were not in his email and slightly edited the post:

I took a look at your web page and noted a glaring error or two:

The Hebrew versions are NOT just based on the Leningrad Codex, but are our own syncretic works based on several fine old Tiberian manuscripts, with emphasis on the Aleppo Codex (rather than the Leningrad Codex, which was consulted, however). The Aramaic is based on the Yemenite versions (tijaan) of Targum Onkelos.

> I've changed the web page. Could you please have another look
> at it and let me know if it is correct now? Also, you mentioned
> "several fine old Tiberian manuscripts" but I don't remember
> seeing mention of other Tanakh documents anywhere on your
> site. Are they listed somewhere on your site or can you point
> me to an online reference? I would like to make certain I am
> accurate in my description. On the web page, I revised my
> comment to read: "The Hebrew versions are syncretic works
> based on several fine old Tiberian manuscripts, with emphasis
> on the Aleppo Codex, and with consultation of the Westminster
> Leningrad Codex (WLC)."

Actually, the BHS version of the Leningrad Codex was consulted, but not the WLC.

> Would it be better to say:
> "The Hebrew versions are syncretic works based on the
> Westminster Leningrad Codex, corrected with content from
> the Aleppo Codex and several fine old Tiberian manuscripts."
> Does that sound better and would it more clearly represent the
> Tanakh content on Mechon Mamre?

Not better in my opinion and not correct, due to my not even having the WLC (other than in the "Sword Project", which I did not consult in preparing our Bibles).

> I am assuming that you originally started with the WLC
> version (since it was already available in digital form)
> and corrected that copy with the Aleppo Codex and other
> manuscripts - is that accurate?

No, I did not start with it, and in fact do not even have a copy of it. I actually started with the "BHS" of CCAT at Shamash which is much much older than the WLC. From that 1970s ASCII set of texts I generated a set of letter only, letter+vowel, and letter+vowel+cant versions in various encodings from macros in a DOS editor (I wrote and maintain the site in that DOS editor from written originally in about 1987). It took only about 8 hours to turn the funny ASCII files into a whole Bible with cantillation marks in standard HTML4 UTF-8 encoding. But then there were years of editing. @:-D

> It would be nice to know what other Tiberian
> manuscripts were used - you have sparked my interest!

You can see them all described and explained in the works of the Rav Mordechai Breuer, such as "The Aleppo Codex and the Accepted Text of the BIble" (Mosad Harv Kook, Jerusalem, 1976), his notes to Da`at Miqra' (same publisher), his various Bible editions and their notes (same publisher and Chorev), BHS notes, Jerusalem Crown notes, and the like. I used Breuer's data and other data, but here and there came to different decisions from Breuer's on what the best text is; most of the time my versions and the various Breuer editions are very close to each other (as would be expected). Clearly, the text in "modern full spelling" without vowels is rather subjective, as full spelling is wont to be. The letter text of the Torah is identical to the best Yemenite manuscripts and scrolls, aside from poTi fera` (3 times), which is poTifera` (no space) in the Yemenite nosaH.

This project, by the way, started way back in 1990 when I worked in DOS3.3 without lots of the resources that became available much later allowing lots of fine tuning of the originally letter-only texts. Still more added resources may become available and be used to further tweek the texts. Who knows? @:-D

I have compared our letter texts with other electronic versions and was consistently shocked by the low quality of electronic texts (a Bible from a famous publisher in the US had 87 errors in spelling in the Torah alone, including `asitem spelled without the y-t-m ending!!!). Many such texts were obviously typed and not proofread, including those from the most famous electronic publishers, who demand hundreds of dollars for their badly broken texts.

Fascinating to hear some of the history of the creation of the Hebrew Bible texts on Mechon Mamre! I've since revised the description on my Hebrew Bible iPhone Application) web page to read:
"The Hebrew versions are syncretic works based on several fine old Tiberian manuscripts, with emphasis on the Aleppo Codex, and with consultation of the Leningrad Codex. The English versions are based on the original Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation of 1917. The French version is based on the "La Bible du Rabbinat Fran├žais" translation. The Aramaic versions are based on the Yemenite versions (tijaan) of the "Targum Onkelos" translation."