What Is the Masoretic Text?
IN WHATEVER language you read the Bible, part of the book was likely translated directly or indirectly from the Masoretic text, which covers the Hebrew Scriptures, or the “Old Testament.” Actually, there was more than one Masoretic text. So which one was selected, and why? In fact, what is the Masoretic text, and how do we know that it is reliable?
The Word of Jehovah
Bible writing began at Mount Sinai in 1513 B.C.E. Exodus 24:3, 4 tells us: “Moses came and related to the people all the words of Jehovah and all the judicial decisions, and all the people answered with one voice and said: ‘All the words that Jehovah has spoken we are willing to do.’ Accordingly Moses wrote down all the words of Jehovah.”
The Hebrew Scriptures continued to be recorded for more than a thousand years, from 1513 B.C.E. down to about 443 B.C.E. Since the penmen were inspired by God, it is reasonable that he would guide matters so that his message would be faithfully preserved. (2 Samuel 23:2; Isaiah 40:8) However, does this mean that Jehovah would exclude all human error so that not a single letter would be changed as copies were made?
The Door to Inaccuracy Cracked Open
Although men with deep respect for God’s Word copied it from generation to generation, some degree of human error did nevertheless creep into manuscripts. The Bible writers were inspired, but the copyists did not do their work under divine inspiration.
After returning from Babylonian exile in 537 B.C.E., the Jews adopted a new style of writing that used the square letters learned in Babylon. This major changeover brought with it the inherent problem that certain letters with similar appearance could be mistaken for one another. Since Hebrew is a language based on consonants, with vowel sounds added by the reader according to his understanding of the context, a change of one consonant might easily alter the meaning of a word. In most cases, however, such errors would have been detected and corrected.
The vast majority of Jews did not return to Israel after the fall of Babylon. Thus, synagogues became the spiritual centers for Jewish communities throughout the Middle East and Europe.a Each synagogue needed copies of the scrolls of the Scriptures. As copies multiplied, so did the potential for copyist error.
Attempts to Shut the Door
Beginning in the first century C.E., scribes in Jerusalem attempted to establish a master text by which all other Hebrew Scripture scrolls could be corrected. Yet, there was no definitive system for differentiating between the original of a text and manuscripts that contained copyist errors. From the second century C.E. onward, the consonantal text of the Hebrew Scriptures seems to have been fairly well standardized, although it had not yet been authoritatively fixed. Hebrew Scripture quotations appearing in the Talmud (compiled between the second and the sixth centuries C.E.) quite often indicate a source different from what later became known as the Masoretic text.
The word “tradition” in Hebrew is ma·soh·rahʹ or ma·soʹreth. By the sixth century C.E., those who guarded the tradition of accurately copying the Hebrew Scriptures became known as Masoretes. The copies they made are referred to as Masoretic texts. What was special about their work and the texts they prepared?
Hebrew had faded as a living, national language, and many Jews were no longer conversant with it. Hence, the very understanding of the consonantal Biblical text was endangered. To protect it, the Masoretes developed a system of vowels represented by dots and dashes, or points. These were placed above and below the consonants. The Masoretes also developed an intricate system of marks that served both as a form of punctuation and as a guide for more accurate pronunciation.
Where the Masoretes felt that the text had been altered or copied incorrectly by previous generations of scribes, instead of changing the text, they made notes in the side margins. They noted unusual word forms and combinations and the frequency with which these appeared within an individual book or within the entire Hebrew Scriptures. Additional comments to help copyists in cross-checking were also noted. A system of abbreviated “codes” was developed to record this information with extreme brevity. In the top and bottom margins, a type of miniconcordance listed parts of related verses that were commented on in the notes in the side margins.
The most renowned system was perfected by the Masoretes in Tiberias, by the Sea of Galilee. The families of Ben Asher and Ben Naphtali of the ninth and tenth centuries C.E., possibly Karaites, became particularly prominent.b Although differences existed between the pronunciation methods and notes of these two schools, the consonants of their texts differ in fewer than ten places in the entire Hebrew Scriptures.
Both schools of Masoretes, of Ben Asher and of Ben Naphtali, made a great contribution to textual scholarship in their time. After Maimonides (an influential Talmudic scholar of the 12th century) praised the Ben Asher text, others gave it exclusive preference. This was so even to the point that no Ben Naphtali manuscript can presently be found. All that remains are lists of the differences between the two schools. Ironically, Maimonides’ comment was related to stylistic considerations, such as paragraph spacing, and not to the more important aspects of accurate transmission.
Can We Find a “Pure” Masoretic Text?
There is much dispute among scholars as to which codex available today is the “pure” Ben Asher text, as if this would then give us the “true” Masoretic text. Actually, there never was one unique, “pure,” and authoritative Masoretic text. Instead, there were many Masoretic texts, each one slightly different from the others. All extant codices are mixed texts, with both Ben Asher and Ben Naphtali readings.
The task facing any translator of the Hebrew Scriptures today is formidable. He must familiarize himself not only with the Hebrew text but also with all reasonable options where the text may have been altered through copyist error or otherwise. While the various Masoretic texts serve as a base, he needs to consult other valid sources that could reasonably represent more ancient and perhaps more accurate versions of the consonantal text.
In the introduction to his book The Text of the Old Testament, Ernst Würthwein explains: “When faced with a difficult passage we cannot simply gather together the various readings and select the one which seems to offer the simplest solution, at times preferring the Hebrew text, at other times the Septuagint, and yet other times the Aramaic Targum. Textual witnesses are not all equally reliable. Each has its own character and its own peculiar history. We must be familiar with these if we hope to avoid inadequate or false solutions.”
We have a firm basis for full confidence that Jehovah has preserved his Word. By the combined efforts of many sincere men over the centuries, the substance, the content, and even the details of the Bible’s message are at our fingertips. Any slight changes in letter or word have not affected our ability to understand the Scriptures. Now, the important question is, Will we live by God’s Word, the Bible?
a Since many Jews outside Israel were no longer fluent readers of Hebrew, such Jewish communities as the one in Alexandria, Egypt, soon saw the need for translations of the Bible into the vernacular. To meet this need, the Greek Septuagint version was prepared in the third century B.C.E. This version would later become an important source for text comparison.
b About the year 760 C.E., a Jewish group known as the Karaites called for stricter adherence to the Scriptures. Rejecting the authority of the rabbis, the “Oral Law,” and the Talmud, they had greater reason to guard the Bible text systematically. Certain families from this group became expert Masoretic copyists.
[Picture on page 26]
The Aleppo Codex contains the Masoretic text