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The Masoretic Text

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OT = Old Testament
NT = New Testament

BCE = Before Common Era (BC)
CE = Common Era (AD)

(in reference to the text below, the term "vowel pointers" includes punctuation marks, and cantillation forms (which are really extensions of the use of vowel pointers).

Firstly, Hebrew as a language (as all languages in the world) have vowels.

If Hebrew had no vowels it would be unpronuncable. Period. If any language is unpronuncable, not only is it impossible to understand anyone, it becomes obselete very quickly because no-one can speak it.

Ever since Hebrew has been around (as a development from Northern Semitic - Canaanite language grouping), it has had vowels.

The question over vowels is a misnomer in scholarly circles. Nobody disputes that Hebrew has vowels...Hebrew has vowels... The question is how vowels ARE REPRESENTED IN THE TEXT. These are what scholars call: Vowel pointers.

There are three Vowel-pointing systems. These systems were developed much much later than Hebrew (obviously), because as Hebrew became less used (supplanted by Aramaic as the Lingua Franca of the Ancient World, and later Ancient Greek), the general population began to forget the pronunciation of the text. This means that the average LITERATE population was forgetting, gradually. It does not mean that suddenly everyone forgot, but gradually, over time, people lost touch with the language (much like Latin fell into disuse). Thus three major systems were developed to counteract this problem. The three systems were an (older) Jerusalem/Palestinian system, the Tiberian system, and the Babylonian system (the later).

These systems were used concurrently by Jews in both the Diaspora and in Palestine.

by the 8th Century, the Palestinian system lost favour, and out of it developed the Tiberian system, from which Ben Asher and the ben Asher family come into prominance. Meanwhile in Babylon (the largest population of Jews in the Diaspora) had their own system, that was also based on an old Jerusalem style system, which was used to read the text, was also gaining prominence.

What is remarkable, is that by the 10th Century, the Masoretes - the Ben Ashers (mainly), had completed their analysis of the three different vowel pointing systems, and had developed a standard vowel pointing system which essentially included all three major systems that were known, and had carefully mapped out each individual changes in the vowel system.

This is entirely separate from the actual text (letters themselves).

During the same time as the Ben Asher family, another person (whether he was from another school or the same school of ben Asher, is difficult to ascertain) - but this school again, became a later deviance, and has been incorporated into the text.

The question is of course, what did they actually do, and what happened between the 10th century and the 15 th Century?

Masorah means "transmission", and the implication of "transmitting tradition" is obvious. The Masoretes were entirely concerned with preserving the text and ensuring that it would continually maintained and standardised.

This is what they did. They standardised the pointing system, so that the various systems would be conglomerated into a single system, that would be both understandable, easy to teach, and above all, preserve the original pronunciation of the text. Of course this is stylised. In reality, they preserved it so well, the three different systems were reproduced and can be found in the Sephardic, Ashkenazic, and Yeminite communities, the different prounciations, all based on a single system.

This is only in reference to the vowels.

They also saw that over time, the text (through the natural process of copying) began to recede, and deviences, (however slight) were unavoidable. Over a period of 1500 years, copying in the text were going to produce mistakes, human beings are fallible. The question is, firstly, how to stop the process, and secondly, how to ensure that when there are mistakes, they only apply to vowels and not the actual meaning and letter order and number.

Firstly you make a note of every single letter, the number, the occurance, and the odd peculiarities in the text (such as repeated words/letters).

Secondly, any obvious devience, you note on the side, indicate what they held to be the correct pronunciation (qere), and leave the text as is.

Thirdly where a doubt occurs you make a note of that doubt, indicate the alternatives, and ensure that the reader is aware of the differences with a footnote indicating such.

Fourthly, you standardise rules of copying such that the copyist is accutely aware of mistakes, and that he may not erase the work, but restart it completely. The copyist maynot work for more than a designated time, and he must use specific materials.

Fifthly, you gather as much manuscript evidence and sort out the correct, from the incorrect by favouring a majority of two out of three, if there is a 51% majority, it must be footnoted. and the 49% noted.

What you get out of this process (remarkably) is three major Hebrew texts: the Leningrad Codex, (of which the BHS is based), the Aleppo Codex (the text favoured by Bruener, and is used by most Jews today) And the Venice 1525 text (favoured by Christian Ginsburg).

Each of these three different texts differ by a fraction of about 97%. And that is only as a result of marginal vowel errors. The texts matches to about 98.9% to that of the Qumran Dead Sea Scrolls.

But what about prior to 250 BCE texts. For reference lets look at the Pentateuch section of the Septuagint (the oldest Greek translation, and very reliable and is amongst the best of translations of the period). In the legitmately old parts, the text matches again to about 99.2 %.

Thats an average of 98.4 % the remaining 1.6 % is deviance (based on the entire Tanakh (Hebrew Scriptures)) and that devience is all about vowels. Regarding the letters? well we know of the recensions. The Masoretes did their job so well, we know of the variances and we can compare them. In fact, that is just what Paul Kahle, and Rudolph Kittel did, and they formulated the BHS one of the best textually critical texts available prior to this decade.

And what about today? We have one of the oldest complete manuscripts, because of research made by scholars, discoveries in Qumran, Masada, and Cairo and Archaeological discoveries of the Biblical period, we can say that the BHS is accurate, but the Aleppo Codex is by far one of the best, if not the best manuscript evidence, for the text of ben Asher. It compares to Qumran so much so, that it is now argued that ben Asher represents a much earlier tradition, dating back to 250 BCE. Comparisons to the Greek Septuagint, confirm that the Masoretic text can be traced to an original masorete of 500 CE. Interestingly, the Mishnah (Jewish Oral Law and tradition) states the original masorete - Ezra - the last head of the Men of the Great Assembly, for which we owe the entire Tanakh, and its preservation.

So then, the question comes: firstly, is there a way to work out the original masoretic text? and secondly, are there other non-Masoretic texts.

As I have noted: the Masoretic tradition represents many traditions...three main ones are deciphered, but there are hundreds more representing deviences, different understandings, that go back to the time of Moses. There is no one masoretic tradition, and there is no one masoretic text, all have masoretic influence, Every Bible ever made, has got the masoretic tradition at its core. Even the Septuagint and Vulgate. What has changed is the way people interpret, understand and utitilise the Masoretic text, and how, over time, the translations have deviated from the original as a result of interpolation, recension etc. There probably are pre-masoretic texts, we do not have them, and we certainly have very little knowledge about them. The nature of Masoretic textual criticism is more absorption rather than specific rejection. Thus, you will find that three or four separate notes exist on the text, because of the different traditions they represent.

Thus I hand it to anyone who tries to read the Hebrew text firstly, without vowels, secondly without the Masoretic text, and thirdly, I'd be interested in the text he/she uses, since all have masoretic components and elements. He/she will be at pains to read anything at all.

The next question applies to where does this idea that the text itself is problematic?

There are two strands. Firstly the basis of the Protestant movement (NOT THE REFORMATION), is the base of itself solely on the bible. At the time of the protestant assertion of this doctrinal creed, there were a number of bibles available, some more accurate than others. The need for making a bible both accurate and in the common tongue was paramount for Protestantism to spread.

in the 16th Century, Printing became, a somewhat expensive, but more widely accessible affair, and through the work of a "Jacob Ben Chayyim", who gathered manuscripts and a Masoretic commentary, printed the first of what became "Mikraot Gedolot". from this original of 1525, a number of subsequent printings made in 1527 and 1529, were used, by christians, as the authentic Jewsish Bible. By 1611, the King James Version of the Bible was authorized and completed, amidst fervour, rebellion and religious turmoil was raging Europe. However, the Geneva Bible, and the later Tyndale Bible became circular, as well as Challoner's Douay-Rheims Bible (later).

These translations had an origin based on Jewish text (that of ben Chayyim's 1525 text), with editing based on a incorrect Septuagint, and the Latin Vulgate by Jerome (which underwent recensions).

In order to legitimise the text to catholic audiences, and to woo Protestants, the Jewish origins and Latin origins were hidden, but the Authors - Wycliffe and Tyndale both knew full well the problem of translation and how an original-language source was so imperative to a translation's accuracy and posterity. Their knowledge of Hebrew was problematic (since they were well before any meaningful discoveries), and sources were scarce, so above all, their work today has little accurate value but, they revolutionised translation.

Catholics based their text on the Latin Vulgate which has been held as sacrosant ever since the church made it the Latin official bible. Jerome went to Jewish scholas (who based their text on a work similar to that of the Masoretic text, and has a strong connection to Origen. I would say that the Leningrad Codex is similar to that Hebrew text perhaps 99.97 % the same.

Where there is a dispute is between Christians in the 1st & 2nd Centturies over the Greek translation - the Septuagint, and subsequent Greek translations made - Aquilla, Theodotion and Symmachus are three of many, Jewish Greek translations made in response the growing need of a Greek translation in Judaea, in response to the growing deviences of the Septuagint, and to act as a counter translation, since christians were favouring the Septuagint. Scholars have suggested that the Septuagint represents an alternative to the Masoretic text, based on this assumption. This is inaccurate. The Masoretic text by definition has represented varying traditions, including the tradition that the Septuagint was originally based on. There is little dispute prior to the christian movement over the Septuagint. It has always been maintained that the Hebrew (what ever tradition) was the authoritative text.

By the 11th Century, the Masoretes and the process was known throughout the Jewish world. However, this is the same time that the Crusades ravaged Europe and the Moorish lands. Jews often fell victim to burnings at the stake, and it is unfortunate, but many who did not understand the Talmudic process began to seize copies of the Talmud and other Jewish texts, and both burn them, and censor them for 'perceived anti-Jesus' statements. Ironically, it is the very Talmud that supported the Masoretes, from which all bibles are based was burned, the very acknowledgement that the OT the Christians used was to a large extent, mostly accurate was burned. However, the Talmud was not lost, but the myth that the Jews were changing the Hebrew text (by Jewish-christians who misinterpreted and mistranslated the Talmud).

The wealth of Jewish learning spread to Muslim lands, and with that, the Masoretes also moved. When the inquisitions began (mainly in Spain), again, antisemitic misunderstandings of the Masoretic tradition continued.

It was only during the age of the Enlightenment, and on other works of literature, that textual criticism entered into scholarly circles. By the end of the 19th Century, all christian biblical scholars, basing their (seemingly newfound) ideas on translation, and textual criticism began to return to the masoretic tradition. The ideas however were based on a methodology that denied both the divine nature of the text and also G-d Himself. Textual criticism became infused with ideas of language evolution and social darwinism.

Again when antisemitism again ravaged Europe, the Biblical text once again came under scrutiny, and scholars became divided over those that rejected the Masoretic text and those that accepted it.

When Kittel and later Kahle proved to the world that the Leningrad codex was authorative, it seemed as though the Masoretic debate was finally closed.

It was 1937, the evening of World War II.

Just ten years later, the discovery that would stun the Biblical world, would revolutionise Biblical scholarship was born.

Today, the notion that the masoretic tradition is in fact a plot to change the meaning of the text has firstly been discredited, and secondly has been shown to be based on ignorance, antisemitism and fear.

Today, all scholars are in agreement that the Masoretic tradition represents an ancient tradition that dates at least to 300 BCE.

Today it is possible to choose between the Babylonian system of vowel pointing, and the Tiberian system. However, the former is still in its infancy and a manuscript copy of the alternative is not available, it is all locked in the Masoretic notes, and pointing. Also the pointing difference is so slight and indistinguishable, it would take an expert scholar about 4 lifetimes of continual work to find it in the entire text.

And the meaning? The meaning is the same, the spelling is just different and so is the pronuncation, much like the American: favor versus the English favour.

A more real example is Shakespearean English spelling - Thyne as apposed to Thine. or nyht as opposed to night

To summarise :

  1. The Masoretic text is a text representing hundreds of variations, of which 3 major ones are obvious.
  2. There is no single Masoretic tradition, and there never will be.
  3. The Masoretes did not change the text, but noted copyist errors, deviances, and alternative readings.
  4. There are vowels and pronunciation in Hebrew, its just that vowels are not part of the meaning, they merely aid pronunciation, and flow of the language.
  5. Modern Hebrew speakers don't use vowel pointers because they know the system, and its easy to remember once it is known (they learn it from birth)
  6. The basis that the Masoretic text is in someway satanistic or changed to favour one group over another, shows ignorance, and fear, and is based on antisemitism.
  7. All Bibles have a masoretic base.
  8. The Aleppo Codex is the most accurate, and oldest extant manuscript of the Hebrew text we have.
  9. No text is 100% accurate, the nature of copying and time makes it so, but we have a text that is nearly 100% accurate - 98%, and thats good enough for me, when it means that 2% is merely differences of vowels, and of the sentence. (i.e. the meaning remains the same).
  10. There is no alternative to a Masoretic Text, it is the most accurate Hebrew text.
  11. If G-d has made sure His Chosen People (the Jews), have ensured its survival, and they have maintained its accuracy up to this point, then its good enough for me.


  • Encarta Encylopedia 2001 (Microsoft).
  • Ginsburg, C. "Masoretes and Masoretic Tradition".
  • Breuer, M. "Ta'amei Ha-mikra", 2nd Ed. Yerushalayim, Horev, 1989.
  • Ginsburg, Christian D. (Christian David),
  • Introduction to the Massoretico-critical edition of the Hebrew Bible, by Christian D. Ginsburg.
  • With a prolegomenon by Harry M. Orlinsky: The Masoretic text; a critical evaluation.
  • Kahle, P. "The Cairo Geniza", 2nd Ed. Oxford B. Blackwell, 1959.
  • Diringer, D. "The Alphabet: A Key To The History Of Mankind", 3rd Ed.
  • London: Hutchinson, 1968.
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Milis sword-devel, 11 Juni 2002. Oleh Daniel Freedman.
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