HEBREW TEXT: Who Were the Masoretes?

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Edward D. Andrews
EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored ninety-two books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

Isaiah 40:8 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God will stand forever.

God had promised that he would preserve his Word, the Bible. The apostle Peter quoted Isaiah 40:6, 8. For, “All flesh is like grass, And all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, And the flower falls off, But the word of the Lord endures forever.” And this is the word which was preached to you as good news.” (1 Peter 1:24-25.) However, we must consider Satan, the enemy of God, who has likely played a significant role in attempting to corrupt it and destroy it. (Matthew 13:39) Nevertheless, what we have today is a mirror-like reflection of what was penned and published by the original authors. The Masoretes (Mas·o·retes  \ ˈma-sə-ˌrētes) scribe-scholars (‘preservers of tradition’) who worked between the 6th and 10th centuries C.E., based primarily in early medieval Palestine in the cities of Tiberias and Jerusalem. The Masoretes have not been adequately appreciated for their accomplishments. These nameless scribes copied the Hebrew Old Testament Scriptures with meticulous and loving care.

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The Masora

These Masoretes were early Jewish scholars, who were the successors to the Sopherim, in the centuries following Christ, who produced what came to be known as the Masoretic text. The Masoretes was well aware of the alterations made by the earlier Sopherim. Rather than simply remove the alterations, they chose to note them in the margins or at the end of the text. These marginal notes came to be known as the Masora.  The Masora listed the 15 extraordinary points of the Sopherim, namely, 15 words or phrases in the Hebrew text that had been marked by dots or strokes. A number of these extraordinary points have no effect on the English translation or the interpretation. However, others do and are of importance. The Sopherim had a superstitious fear of pronouncing the divine name of God, Jehovah (Yahweh). Therefore, they altered it to read Adonai (Lord) at 134 places and to read Elohim (God) in some cases. The Masora lists these changes. The Sopherim or early scribes are also guilty of making 18 emendations, what they thought were helpful corrections, according to a note in the Masora. It appears that there were even more. It seems that these emendations were not done with bad intentions, as the Sopherim simply felt the text at these places were showing irreverence or disrespect for God or his human representatives.

HEBREW TEXT: Preservation of the Text

Genesis 18:3 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

3 and said, “Jehovah,[a] if I have found favor in your eyes do not pass by your servant.

[a] This is the first of 134 places where the Jewish Sopherim changed JHVH to Adonai. This replacement was made out of misplaced veneration of God’s name.

Genesis 16:5 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

5 And Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done me be upon you. I gave my maid into your bosom, but when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her eyes. May Jehovah judge between you and me.” [a]

[a] “And you!” in the Masoretic text, is marked with extraordinary points by the Sopherim (scribes) to show that the reading “and you” is uncertain and should read, “and her.”

Genesis 18:22 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

 22 And the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom: but Abraham stood before Jehovah.[a]

[a] This is the first of the Eighteen Emendations of the Sopherim, the only one in Genesis. An ancient Hebrew scribal tradition reads “but Jehovah remained standing before Abraham.” Masoretic text, “but as for Abraham, he was still standing before Jehovah.” The Sopherim might see have perceived this as Jehovah standing before Abraham, as showing irreverence or disrespect for God because it would appear to put Jehovah in a subservient position. Our Creator, sovereign of the universe, does not need to deliver a message to humans here on earth. In the Old Testament, we find many occasions where He has sent an angelic messenger in his stead.

vowel ppoints aleppo codex

The Masoretic Text

Between the 6th and 10th centuries C.E., the Masoretes setup a vowel point and accent mark system. (e.g., אִשָּׁה ishshah woman, wife, female) In the image of the Aleppo Codex above, all of the vowels appear below the line except Cholam ( ֹ), which is placed above, and Shuruk ( ִ), which appears in the bosom of Waw (וּ = u). This would help the reader to pronounce the vowel sounds properly, meaning that there would be a standard, and no need to have the pronunciation handed down by oral tradition. Because the Masoretes saw the text as sacred, they made no changes to the text itself but chose to record notes within the margins of the text. Unlike the Sopherim before them, they did not take any textual liberties. Moreover, they drew attention to any textual issues, correcting them within the margins.

The devotement of the vocalizing and accent marking of the Masoretic text throughout this period was done by three different schools, that is, the Babylonian, Palestinian, and Tiberian. The Hebrew text that we now possess in the printed Hebrew Bibles is known as the Masoretic Text, which came from the Tiberian school. The Masoretes of Tiberias, a city on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, established this method.

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Unlike the Tiberian school, which placed their vowel signs below the consonants, the Palestinian school positioned the vowel signs above the consonants. Only an insignificant number of such manuscripts came down to us from the Palestinian school, showing that this system of vocalization was flawed. The Babylonian method of vowel pointing was likewise placed above the consonants. A manuscript possessing the Babylonian pointing is the Petersburg Codex of the Prophets, of 916 C.E., preserved in the Leningrad Public Library, U.S.S.R. This codex contains the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, as well as the “minor” prophets, with marginal notes. Textual scholars have readily studied this manuscript and compared it with the Tiberian text. While it uses the system of vocalization that places the vowels above the text, it follows the Tiberian text as regards the consonantal text and its vowels and Masora. The British Museum has a copy of the Babylonian text of the Pentateuch, which is substantially in agreement with the Tiberian text.

The vast majority of these Masorete scribes remain nameless even today. However, the name of one family of Masoretes is well known, the Ben Asher family. Below is what little we know of them and other Masoretes.

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The Ben Asher Family

For the most part, the Hebrew Scriptures were copied faithfully by Jewish scribes. Hebrew for centuries was only written with consonants, as it was the reader who supplied the vowels (e.g. building would be bldng) By the time we come upon the Masoretes, however, the Jewish people were no longer fluent in their own language, so the pronunciation was being lost. Therefore, groups of Masoretes, in Babylon and Israel, added vowel signs (nikkudot), cantillation (the ritual chanting of readings from the Hebrew Bible, chants are written and notated with special signs or marks), and accent marks (taamim) to the text, to show the proper pronunciation of vowels, which became known as the Masorah. There were at least three different systems that were developed. However, only one would become the most influential, the Masoretes in Tiberias, which was by the Sea of Galilee, the home of the Ben Asher family.

HOW THE BIBLE SURVIVED Careless and Even Deceitful Bible Copyists?

Ben Asher was descended from five generations from this unique family, starting with someone called Asher the Elder of the eighth century C.E. However, little is known about them other than their names. The father of Asher the Elder, Moses ben Asher, has been credited with writing the Cairo Codex of the Prophets (895 C.E.). In Hebrew ben means son; therefore, Ben Asher is the son of Asher. The others were Nehemiah Ben Asher, Asher Ben Nehemiah, Moses Ben Asher, and, finally, Aaron Ben Moses Ben Asher of the tenth-century C.E. The last two are certainly most prominent and important members of this family, and their work is the highest or climactic point of attainment after a long process. Accordingly, we might say that these Masoretes were among the forefathers of our modern Hebrew grammarians. It was Aaron, the last Masorete of the Ben Asher family tradition, who was the first one to record and edit this information. He did so in the first book of Hebrew grammatical rules entitled “Sefer Dikdukei ha-Te’amim.” This book would become the foundation for the other Hebrew grammarians over the next few centuries. However, believe it or not, there was a more important work by the Masoretes.

DEFENDING OLD TESTAMENT AUTHORSHIP Agabus Cover BIBLICAL CRITICISM

The Phenomenal Masorete Memory

The Masoretes were very much concerned with the accurate transmission of each word, even each letter, of the text they were copying. Accuracy was of supreme importance; therefore the Masoretes use the side margins of each page to inform others of deliberate or inadvertent changes in the text by past copyists. The Masoretes also use these marginal notes for other reasons as well, such as unusual word forms and combinations. They even marked how frequent they occurred within a book or even the whole Hebrew Old Testament. Of course, marginal spaces was very limited, so they used abbreviated code. They formed a cross-checking tool as well, where they would mark the middle word and letter of certain books. Their push for accuracy moved them to go so far as to count every letter of the Hebrew Old Testament.

The Hebrew text as printed with all the points and accents is called the Masoretic text. Masorah, or better, Maccoreth, is derived from a root meaning “to hand down” (Nu 31:5). This tradition began early. Rabbi Akiba (died 135) called it a “hedge about the Law.” It tells the number of times a particular expression occurs, and mentions synonymous expressions, and so forth. The remarks placed in the side margin of the codex, often merely a letter denoting the number of times the word occurs, are called the Masorah parva. The notes were afterward expanded and placed in the top and bottom margins and called the Masorah magna. Notes too long for insertion in the margin were placed sometimes at the beginning, generally at the end of the codex, and called the Masorah finalis. The Masorah differs with different manuscripts; and there is an Eastern and a Western Masorah. – Thomas Hunter Weir

HEBREW TEXT: The Hebrew Language

In the Masoretic text, we find notes in the side margins, which are known as the Small Masora. There are also notes in the top margin, which are referred to as the Large Masora. Any other notes placed elsewhere within the text are called the Final Masora. The Masoretes used the notes in the top and bottom margins to record more extensive notes comments concerning the abbreviated notes in the side margins. This enabled them to be able to cross-check their work. We have to remember, at this time there were no numbered verses and they had no Bible concordances. Well, one might wonder how the Masoretes were able to refer to different parts of the Hebrew text in order to have an effective cross-checking system. They would list part of a parallel verse in the top and bottom margins, to remind them of where the word(s) indicated were found. Because they were dealing with limited space, many times they could only list one word in order to remind them where each parallel verse could be found. In order to have an effective cross-reference system by way of these marginal notes, the Masoretes would literally have to have memorized the entire Hebrew Bible.

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There were lists that were too long for the margins, so they had to be moved to another section of the manuscripts. For example, as can be seen from above, we have the Masoretic note in the side margin of Genesis 18:23, which shows three Hebrew letters קלד. The Hebrew letters correspond to our number 134. There is a list that appears in another section of the manuscript, which shows us where the pre-Masoretic copyists had purposely removed the personal name Jehovah from the Hebrew text. The Jewish Sopherim changed JHVH to Adonai, “Lord.” Giving us honesty and accuracy, the Masoretes, being well aware of these purposeful change, they did not alter the take that had been handed down to them. Yes, the Masoretes indicated these changes in their marginal notes, for they were nothing like their predecessors who had willfully altered the text.

destruction of jerusalem_03

What Did the Masoretes Believe?

There was a deep-seated ideological battle brewing during this period of Masoretic progression. Beginning in the first century C.E., rabbinical Judaism had greatly impacted the Jewish people. For the next 150 years after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the academies of rabbinic sages throughout Israel had to find a new form of Jewish practices now that the temple had been destroyed. This led to much debate in order to consolidate their oral law. In this process they set new boundaries, conditions, and obligations for Judaism, giving direction for a day-to-day life of holiness. This would eventually become the Mishnah, which was compiled by Judah ha-Nasi by the beginning of the third century C.E. The conclusions and judgments of the rabbis quoted in the Mishnah would change the day-to-day lives of Jews everywhere. The Mishnah would become Israel’s constitution.

HEBREW TEXT: Earliest Translated Versions

Now, the question was, did the ruling of the sages in the Mishnah line up with the Hebrew Scriptures? The rabbis now needed to demonstrate that teachings of the Tannaim (“repeaters,” “teachers” of the oral law), which were found in the Mishnah were in complete agreement with the Hebrew Scriptures. This led to further commentary in order to justify the Mishnah, in order to prove that it was in alignment with the Mosaic Law. The rabbis sought to show that the oral law and the written law were one in agreement and purpose. Thus, the Mishnah became the foundation for the making of the Talmud. The rabbis who accepted this new hurdle became known as Amoraim (200-500 C.E.), that is, “interpreters,” or “explainers,” of the Mishnah. It is this development within Judaism that was pushing the biblical text to be secondary to the rabbinic interpretation of the oral law. Therefore, if it were not for the Masoretes careful, meticulous care for the Hebrew Old Testament text, it could have lost its relevance altogether.

There was a change in the offing during the eighth century C.E. when a group known as the Karaites (located chiefly in the Crimea and nearby areas) rebelled against the rabbinic interpretation of the oral law as having precedence equal to or over Scripture. Rather, they emphasized the importance of literal interpretation in their study of the Bible itself. They rejected the interpretation of the rabbis and the Talmud. Sola Scriptura (Latin: by scripture alone) is a theological doctrine that was held long before Martin Luther (1483-1546), as the Karaites accepted the Hebrew text alone as their authority, rule of faith and practice. For this reason, the need for having an accurate text took on far greater meaning, and, therefore, the Masoretic studies took on a renewed life impetus.

Why Can We Trust the Transmission of the Hebrew Text?

The Masoretes viewed their copying of the Word of God as holy work. Certainly, they were motivated to a degree by their deeply held religious beliefs, it seems that their work of copying the Hebrew text was above any system of ideas and ideals that they may have had. We never see any attempt at a theological debate within their marginal notes. The Hebrew text alone was their life’s work; they refused to interfere with it in any way. The reformers of the sixteenth-century (Luther, Tyndale) certainly benefited from their work when they rejected the authority of the church and chose to make a translation into the common languages of their people, they had the well-preserved Hebrew text as the basis for their Old Testament.

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Vocalization of the Hebrew Text

The search for the best method of documenting vowel signs went on for centuries among the Masoretes. Thus, we find that each generation of the Ben Asher family continued to develop these vowel signs. However, the manuscripts that are still extant only have the methods of the last two Masoretes of the Ben Asher family, namely, Moses and Aaron. When we examine these manuscripts, we find that Aaron formed rules of pronunciation that deviated from his father, Moses on certain minor points.

Codex Cairensis (896 C.E.) also known as the Cairo Codex contains the books of the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings) and Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the book of the Twelve Minor Prophets). This is an example of Moses’ methods. The Aleppo (c. 925 C.E.) and Leningrad (1008 C.E.) codices are examples of Aaron Ben Asher’s methods.

English Bible Versions King James Bible KING JAMES BIBLE II

Ben Naphtali was a rabbi and Masorete, a contemporary of Aaron Ben Asher, who carried out his work about 890-940 C.E., probably in Tiberias. Ben Naphtali is credited many of the readings found in the Cairo Codex of Moses Ben-Asher. Thus, it must be reasoned that either Ben Naphtali studied under Moses Ben-Asher or they both maintained a more ancient common tradition. There is no single Ben-Asher method, as there are differences between the Ben Asher and the Ben Naphtali systems. Aaron Ben Asher’s methods did not become the final form because they were inherently superior. Rather, it was because of the praise that came from the twelfth-century Talmudic scholar Moses Maimonides, giving preference to an Aaron Ben Asher text.

HEBREW TEXT: Early Period of Manuscript Copying

None of the Hebrew Old Testament manuscripts contains identical wording. How, then, is it possible for us to know what the original text contained? Can the Hebrew text be trusted?

Chapter 40 of Isaiah’s book in the Dead Sea Scrolls (dated from 125 to 100 B.C.E.)Chapter 40 of Isaiah’s book in the Dead Sea Scrolls (dated from 125 to 100 B.C.E.) Hebrew Manuscript

When we compare it with Hebrew manuscripts from about a thousand years later, we discover that there are only minor differences found, which are mostly in spelling.

Chapter 40 of Isaiah’s book in the Aleppo Codex, an important Hebrew Masoretic manuscript from about 930 C.E. - Hebrew Manuscript

Chapter 40 of Isaiah’s book in the Aleppo Codex, an important Hebrew Masoretic manuscript from about 930 C.E.

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Hebrew Text: The forthcoming Updated American Standard Version (UASV) (2005-2021) is based on the updated editions of the Hebrew text, namely, Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia and Biblia Hebraica Quinta, which included recent research based on the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient manuscripts. These reproduce the Leningrad Codex in the main text along with footnotes that contain comparative wording from other sources of the Old Testament: such as the Greek Septuagint, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Aramaic Targums, the Latin Vulgateand the Syriac Peshitta. Both Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia and Biblia Hebraica Quinta are being considered as we prepare the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

HEBREW TEXT: How Were the Inspired Books of the Hebrew Old Testament Preserved from Moses Down to Ezra?

Bibliography

  • Paul D. Wegner, A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible: Its History, Methods & Results (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006).
  • Brotzman, Ellis R.; Tully, Eric J.. Old Testament Textual Criticism: A Practical Introduction. (Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Publishing Group, 2016).
  • Walter C. Kaiser Jr., The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable & Relevant? (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2001).
  • Ernst Würthwein, The Text of the Old Testament: An Introduction to the Biblia Hebraica, ed. Alexander Achilles Fischer, trans. Erroll F. Rhodes, Third Edition. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014).
  • Emmanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, Third Edition: (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 2011).
  • Jobes, Karen H.; Silva, Moisés. Invitation to the Septuagint (Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Publishing Group, 2015).

Evaluation of the Hebrew Old Testament Texts and Ancient Versions as to Their Usefulness for Textual Criticism

OLD TESTAMENT TEXTUAL STUDIES: Accuracy of Transmission

TEXT OF THE OLD TESTAMENT: Earliest Form of Writing In Israel

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