In my previous post, I gave an example of using a critical edition of the Old Testament, the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. In the comments I mentioned that it would be worth talking a bit about critical bibles generally, in particular the difference between eclectic and diplomatic texts.
A critical edition of the bible isn’t so much the bible text itself, but the footnotes. A critical edition is designed to tell you what variations there are in the text, and how those variations are commonly approached. It should provide a way of jumping off into other resources to find the in-depth debate on a particular verse and, using your personal criteria for how you evaluate the various source texts, allow you to come to a conclusion about how to treat the passage. This is all about the footnotes (called the ‘apparatus’). The text itself should only be there to provide the bits where there is no reasonable disagreement, and it obviously provides one of the alternatives when there are disagreements. Normally critical editions don’t log every spelling mistake or obvious error in every text, but they may point out such problems in the most important text, if the editor thought it worth the note.
The difference comes in how you decide what goes in the main block of text and what goes in the footnote. In a diplomatic text, the main text follows almost exactly some specific manuscript. So BHS is a diplomatic edition, because its main text is the Leningrad Codex. The Hebrew University Bible is another diplomatic critical text (not yet published in full), but it follows the Aleppo Codex. In a diplomatic text, the main text isn’t necessarily the ‘best’ text, you have to read the footnotes to get a sense of what form of words you might want to use. For translation (particularly the kind of translation you do at graduate school) diplomatic texts can be harder work.
In an eclectic text, the editors synthesize the main text from their judgements on the variations. So the total effect is a text that does not reflect any extant manuscripts, but picks and chooses from moment to moment. This puts the ‘best’ form of words in one place (as long as you agree with the editors on what constitutes ‘best’). The main NT critical text: Nestle Aland v.27 is such an eclectic text. There is a project underway to produce an eclectic Hebrew Bible, published by the OUP. For detailed scholarship, eclectic texts can be fiddly, because you have to continually unwind the decisions made by the editor.
This is not to say that eclectic texts bear no relationship to existing manuscripts. Typically the editorial team will favour a particular text tradition, and so the eclectic text will closely follow one particular set of manuscripts. NA27, for example, follows the Alexandria text tradition quite closely (for which it is often criticised by conservative evangelicals who prefer the Constantinople tradition used in their beloved KJV). And on the other hand, editors feel free to correct obvious mistakes even in diplomatic texts, removing obvious scribal errors. So you could say that the diplomatic-eclectic distinction is actually a continuum. So far, however, critical editions do tend to cluster at either end.
But notice, in both cases the text itself is ideally irrelevant. The text, combined with the footnotes, should give you the whole picture. If you just isolate the text itself, you don’t have a critical edition any more, you just have a particular original language version, one that more or less follows some set of manuscripts.
I say ideally, because, in practice the base text does influence the footnotes to some extent. It is difficult as an editor not to be drawn into the mindspace where the base text is the foundation and the footnotes are merely variations. Treating the base text itself as just another variation is a challenge. But in my experience (which by far is with the eclectic NT editions) the editors of critical editions do a great, and unsung job*. Without their hard and grinding work, engaging with the bible would be orders of magnitude more difficult.
Of course, the end reader of an English bible doesn’t see any of this. Most bibles have footnotes that indicate the odd major variation, but you miss out on the decades, or centuries of work compiling variations that went into the critical edition that your translator worked from. It couldn’t be otherwise, of course, but behind the seeming homogeneity of your english translation it is worth keeping in mind the thousands of texts and millions of variations that the critical editors have wrestled with.
I have a soft-spot for folks who do this kind of work. The professor who taught me Hebrew as an undergrad is on the BHQ editorial team. I got a glimpse of the painstaking effort that lies behind a few words of abbreviated latin.