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The group of manuscripts known as the Masoretic Text developed over an extended period of time, beginning in the second century AD (Ashby, Go Out and Meet God, 5). It received its final form in the 10th century AD under Aaron Ben Asher of the Tiberian Masoretes (Tov, Textual Criticism, 24.) It is currently best represented in the Leningrad Codex, which is the base text for the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS) and the ongoing work of the Biblia Hebraica Quinta.
The term “Masora” itself can mean either “to bind,” referring to a protection for the scriptures, or “to hand down,” referring to traditions (Scott, A Simplified Guide to BHS, 8). Either definition communicates that the intention of the Masoretic Text was to prevent the corruption of the text.
From around AD 500–1000, a group of scribes known as the Masoretes held the responsibility of textual transmission for the Jewish people. Their primary task was to fix a final form to the Hebrew text of the Old Testament that was faithful to the text that they had received. The final product became known as the Masoretic Text (Harrison, Introduction, 212).
The Masoretic Text appears to have developed from a consonantal text (meaning that the words consisted of only consonants) that was likely fixed around the second century AD. The Masoretic system of accents and notations was likely established in the ninth and 10th centuries AD as the result of centuries of close and careful development and practice. Today, the term Masoretic Text usually refers to the text represented in the BHS, which is based on the Leningrad Codex.
The Masoretes accomplished their work in several geographic locations. In the second century ad, the growing popularity of Christianity in Palestine, among other issues, forced Jewish Bible scholars to relocate to Babylon. From there, Jewish Bible scholars succeeded in producing two separate vocalizations of the text between the third and 10th centuries AD (Brotzman, Old Testament Textual Criticism, 49). The Islamic conquest of Palestine in AD 638 allowed for the work that was done in the city of Tiberias in Galilee, which would eventually eclipse all of the previous work (Kahle, Cairo Geniza, 57–64). It is primarily the work of these Tiberian Masoretes that is known as the “Masoretic Text.”
Several different schools and centers of work were in operation at the time of the development of the Masoretic Text under the Tiberian Masoretes. The Ben Asher family was most notable for their manuscripts, among which were the highly regarded Codex Cairensis and the Aleppo Codex (Würthwein, The Text of the Old Testament, 24). The Ben Naphtali family also provided a system that was quite similar to that of the Ben Ashers but had fewer attestations and was not as widely used.
The Tiberian Masoretes’ best-known contribution was the establishment of a written vowel system that was placed around the consonantal Hebrew text. Prior to the work of the Masoretes, the pronunciation and vowel designations were primarily oral. The Masoretes’ vowel system offered some finality as to the way the text should be read. The Tiberian Masoretes were primarily interested in keeping and solidifying the tradition that they had received, as attested by the way pronunciations and spellings are maintained in the more literal translations of the Septuagint, which is an earlier text than the oldest extant Masoretic Text (Brotzman, Old Testament Textual Criticism, 51). The Tiberian Masoretes’ vowel-pointing system is so fundamental to the Masoretic Text that Martin argues the term “Masoretic Text” primarily refers to this vowel-pointing system (Martin, Multiple Originals, 84).
Another major contribution of the Masoretes was a system of symbols designed to help Hebrew readers better understand the structure of sentences and meanings of text. Some of these symbols served as accents, which were designed to help readers recognize which syllable of the Hebrew word they should stress. Other symbols served as punctuation and interpretive markers, which were separated into two different divisions: one for the prose books of the Old Testament and another for the three poetic books—Psalms, Proverbs, and Job. This system of symbols can be further separated into conjunctive and disjunctive symbols. Those that function disjunctively operate much like the English comma, semicolon, and period. Those that operate conjunctively work to force the reader to read the words closely with no real break in thought, similar to the hyphen.
The Tiberian Masoretes’ final major contribution was a three-part method for making textual notes, designed to enable a trustworthy transmission of the text. These notes, called the Masorah, had the following functions:
- providing critical notations about the received text
- providing suggested readings of the text
- providing critical data for ensuring that an accurate copy of the text is made every time
They fall into three categories or forms:
- Masorah Magna
- Masorah Parva
- Masorah Finalis
The Masorah Magna acts as a concordance that provides readers with an overview of places where a certain word form is used in relation to the text that has been marked. For example, the Masorah Magna compares the five instances of the phrase “in the beginning” (ﬨשיﬧﬡב, ﬨshyﬧﬡb) with other texts in the BHS that have similar features. This enables readers to make textual connections regarding possible allusions between biblical texts.
The Masorah Magna is not printed in the BHS but is published in a separate volume called the Masorah Gedolah. Circles over a word direct readers to the Masorah Parva, where a numbered notation directs readers to the Masorah Magna note. Although these notes are no longer printed in the current text, they do appear below or above the biblical text in ancient manuscripts.
The Masorah Parva notes appear in the outside margin of the Hebrew text. These notes are mostly written in Aramaic, with rare occurrences of Hebrew. A circle above a word in the biblical text alerts the reader that there is a note regarding that word in the Masorah Parva. If more than one word in the same line has a marker, the markers are separated by a period. The paragraphs below outline the different components of the Masorah Parva.
Ketib and Qere. The Ketib (כׄ, k) symbol marks the traditional way that a word was written, while the Qere (קׄ, q) symbol marks what the Masoretes believed was the correct wording. Since the Masoretes were obligated to maintain the consonantal text they had received, they used the Qere symbol to indicate a potentially corrupted word and what they believed was the proper reading. There are hundreds of these within the biblical text and numerous reasons for their occurrence. Sometimes they are used to protect the name of God or to bar readings that were understood to be irreverent. Others mark euphemisms and offensive words. The Qere symbol is also used to provide corrections for outdated spellings and the regular form of a word when an unusual or defective spelling is used.
Unique Words and Phrases. The Masorah Parva marks unique words and phrases with a circle over the word and the symbol lamedh (לׄ, l). The symbol stands for Hebrew terms meaning “There is none” or “There is no other” (לית, lyt; Scott, A Simplified Guide to BHS, 14). This symbol can also be used to mark out unique groups of words. In cases of word groups, the circles will appear between the words in the grouping.
Seberin. In the Masorah Parva, the term “expected” (ﬧסבי, ﬧsby) will appear before a correction. Though the exact meaning of this marker is debated (compare Yeivin, Introduction, and Roberts, The Old Testament Text and Versions), it is believed that the seberin reveal corrections made by scribes prior to the Masoretic movement but that were opposed by the Masoretes. Thus, instead of offering a correction, the seberin indicate that the text in its current state is correct and the note is incorrect. Tov suggests that the term means “it has been suggested wrongly” (Tov, Textual Criticism, 64).
Tiqqune Sopherim. It appears that early in the formation of the text, scribes made changes to the text in order to correct readings that appeared irreverent toward God. These Tiqqune Sopherim, or scribal corrections, appear in the Masora Parvah with what the Masoretes expected the original text said. The exact number of these corrections differs between scholars, ranging from 8–18 instances.
Itture Sopherim. Itture Sopherimi denote scribal omissions of the conjunction waw (ו, w). There are instances where the waw is expected, but it does not appear. Tov suggests that there are five of these. Traditionally, it is understood that the scribes removed a waw that they believed was wrongly included in the text. However, Würthwein, Ginsberg, and Yeivin provide differing opinions.
As part of their goal to preserve and accurately transmit the text, the Masoretes offered notations at the end of each book, called Masorah Finalis, that provided critical information to ensure an accurate transmission. The Masorah Finalis includes information such as the number of verses, words, and letters in a given book. Many books include information regarding what word appears at the midpoint of the text. The number of sedarim—markings that suggest yearly readings in the Masoretic Text—are marked as well. These readings, which were likely established for synagogue observance, are marked by a large and bold samech (ס, s) in the biblical text. There is also a Masorah Finalis for the Torah.
The Masoretic Text appears to have developed primarily as a response to Christianity. As Rabbi Akiba stated, “The Masora is a fence about the Law” (Würthwein, The Text of the Old Testament, 19). It appears that Rabbi Akiba intended to use the Masoretic Text to defend Judaism against Christianity by shoring up its traditions and text. However, the Masoretic Text has proven to be one of the most useful tools for the Christian study of the Old Testament.
The only full texts of the Hebrew Old Testament are relatively young. The oldest full text of the Hebrew Old Testament, the Leningrad Codex, dates to around AD 1000. Yet when compared to older translations of the Old Testament, it is clear that the textual tradition represented in the Masoretic Text are likely a major source of those translations. The Dead Sea Scrolls may have even relied to some extent on this textual tradition.
Selected Resources for Further Study
- Ashby, Godfrey William. Go Out and Meet God: A Commentary on the Book of Exodus. International Theological Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.
- Brotzman, Ellis R. Old Testament Textual Criticism: A Practical Introduction. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994.
- Ginsberg, C. D. Introduction to the Massoretic-Critical Edition of the Hebrew Bible. New York: Ktav, 1966.
- Harrison, Roland K. Introduction to the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969.
- Kahle, Paul. The Cairo Geniza. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959.
- Martin, Gary D. Multiple Originals: New Approaches to Hebrew Bible Textual Criticism. SBL Text-Critical Studies 7. Edited by Sidnie White Crawford. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010.
- Mynatt, Daniel S. The Sub Loco Notes of the Torah of Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. BIBAL Dissertation Series 2. North Richland Hills, Tex.: BIBAL, 1995.
- Roberts, Bleddyn J. The Old Testament Text and Versions. Cardiff: University of Wales, 1951.
- Scott, William R. A Simplified Guide to BHS. 3rd ed. North Richland Hills, Tex.: BIBAL, 1987.
- Tov, Emanuel. Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible. 2nd Edition. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001.
- Waltke, Bruce K., and M. O’Connor. An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1990.
- Weil, Gerard E. Massorah Gedolah. Vol. 1. Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1971.
- Würthwein, Ernst. The Text of the Old Testament: An Introduction to the Biblia Hebraica. Translated by Erroll F. Rhodes. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.
- Yeivin, Israel. Introduction to the Tiberian Masorah. Translated by E. J. Revell. Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press, 1980.
Kenny E. Hilliard III, “Masoretic Text,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).