Hutter’s Variant Font Old Testament (1577) Reveals a Few of Hebrew’s Many Facets

Hebrew Alphabet Diagram

Hebrew Alphabet Diagram

Anyone who doesn’t read Hebrew would most likely take one look at Elias Hutter’s Hebrew Bible, (held at the Burns Library, Call Number: Burns Fine Print Room BS715 1587 Rare Oversize) and realize that Hebrew is a rather complex language.  Hebrew can be especially difficult for most speakers of Romance or Germanic languages to learn for a multitude of reasons. First, the alphabet looks foreign. None of Hebrew’s 22 letters look much like their Latin equivalents and five of them have variant forms for the end of words. Two of the consonants (ו and י) double as vowels, like the “y” in English. Furthermore, written Hebrew didn’t develop vowel markings until the Middle Ages. The Jewish scholars who developed the vocalization system wanted to preserve the original text of the scripture as much as possible, so they indicated the vowels by placing diacritic marks (dots and lines) above and below the text. These orthographic differences are a major hurdle which students must pass before they can start translating Hebrew.

Elias Hutter’s Variant Font Hebrew Bible (1577, Hamburg)

Elias Hutter’s Variant Font Hebrew Bible (1577, Hamburg), BS715 1587 Rare Oversize.

The second difficulty comes from the stark grammatical differences between Semitic and European languages. The grammatical constructions like tense, voice, and mood are only approximately found in Hebrew, which makes tables like the one to the left helpful, but also incorrect. But it is the construction of words which makes Hebrew complicated. Almost all Hebrew words are derived from a three letter root (some have four) and formed by adding and removing consonants and vowels. For example, the verb “to rule” (מָלַךְ) and the nouns “king” (מֶלֶךְ), “queen” (מַלְכָּה), and  “kingdom” (מַמְלָכָה) all derived from the same root מלך.

A third difficulty is the verbal conjugation system. Hebrew has two conjugational patterns which add either suffixes or prefixes to verbs to indicate the person, gender, and number of the subject. To indicate the direct object of a verb, a second suffix is added. A conjugated Hebrew verb can have up to four different patterns adding or subtracting from the simple root. While these patterns are fairly regular, when a student comes across an unknown word they need to work backwards to uncover the root and then identify the unknown word as a noun or verb or adjective. This process is even more complicated with the many “weak” verbs. For example, verbs which start with נ replace the נ with a י or a ת in most conjugations. A final ה often drops out. Thus the verb “he kills” looks like יך even though it is derived from the common root נכה (to strike). But “he kills me” looks different still: וְהִכָּנִי.

One of the more elegant solutions was developed by Elias Hutter  in the late 16th century. Hutter’s Bible , which you can access in the Burns Library, was printed with two different typesets, allowing him to distinguish between the triliteral root and the extraneous letters. In any word, the root was placed in a standard font. When letters were added, he included them in a “hollow” (or outlined) text. When letters were removed, he inserted the missing characters in the superscript to the words. In the highlighted text below (1 Sam 17:9), Goliath taunts the Israelite battle lines, demanding they select a champion to fight him. He shouts: “If [your champion] is able to fight with me and he kills me, then we will become your slaves. But if I overpower him and kill him, then you will become our slaves and you will serve us.”

Excerpt from Elias Hutter’s Variant Font Hebrew Bible (1577, Hamburg)

Excerpt from Elias Hutter’s Variant Font Hebrew Bible (1577, Hamburg)

Notice how Hutter prints the verb “and he kills me” וְהִנכָּהנִי. By outlining the non-root letters, the root כ stands out, as do the superscript נ and ה. Even though the conjugated verb “and he kills me” only includes one of the three root consonants, the root is easily visible to the reader; a student can quickly recognize the common verb נכה “to strike, to kill.” Though the student still has to decode the remaining letters to determine the meaning of the verb, once the root has been identified the bulk of the work has already been done. The object suffix נִי (“me”) is clearly visible, as is the conjunctive וְ (“and”). All that is left to identify is the ה, which intensifies the verb, making it mean “to smite” rather than “to strike.”

By using a more advanced printing technique, Hutter makes identifying a complex word straightforward. Though this printing style would have been both costly to produce (since it requires dozens of specially manufactured printing blocks) and complicated to configure (since it requires detailed placement of each of the printing blocks), it has immense educational value for students of Hebrew. Modern student Bibles tend to focus on vocabulary aids, rather than grammatical aids, which makes Hutter’s four-century-old edition unique. And while the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient Hebrew editions of the Old Testament sometimes cast some doubt on Hutter’s grammatical decoding of the text (remember how complicated Hebrew grammar can be?), the overwhelmingly vast majority of his assistance is correct. Even for those who cannot read Hebrew, the subtle beauty of the printing makes this volume worth examining.

  • Tom Fraatz, Graduate Research Assistant, Burns Cataloging Department & Boston College Ph.d. student in the Department of Theology in Biblical Studies, class of 2014

This book is accessible in the Burns Library Reading Room, during the Burns Library’s open hours. Please call (617-552-4861) or e-mail ( the Burns Library’s Reference Department if you have any questions.


About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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