This term refers to text of the Hebrew Scriptures (commonly called the Old Testament) found in a number of Hebrew manuscripts produced by Jewish scholars and scribes. These men, who guarded the tradition of accurately copying the Hebrew text, became known as Masoretes. (The Hebrew word ma·soh·rahʹ means “tradition.”) These manuscripts were made from the sixth century C.E. onward. The Masoretic text is the basis for many modern Bible translations of the Hebrew Scriptures.
The Masoretes sought to transmit the Hebrew text faithfully. For example, they meticulously counted the number of words and even the number of letters to make sure that no errors crept in. Since the original Hebrew text was written with consonants only, the Masoretes devised a system of vowel pointing and accenting in order to preserve the traditional pronunciation. They also made notes in the margins and at the end of the manuscripts concerning certain variations found in the text. Those notes are helpful to scholars who study how the Hebrew text has been transmitted over the centuries.
Of the over 6,000 existing manuscript copies of the Hebrew Scriptures, the majority contain the Masoretic text. Among the oldest and most authoritative Masoretic texts are the Cairo Codex of the Prophets (originally dated 895 C.E., though researchers have recently suggested an 11th century C.E. date), the Aleppo Codex (c. 930 C.E.), and the Leningrad Codex (1008-1009 C.E.).—See ALEPPO CODEX; LENINGRAD CODEX.
Modern-day scholars have compared the Masoretic text with the portions of the Dead Sea Scrolls that contain Bible passages. Those scrolls are about a thousand years older than the Masoretic text. Yet, the scholars have found that the Hebrew Scriptures were transmitted with remarkable accuracy over the centuries.—See App. A3.