Who Were the Masoretes?
JEHOVAH, “the God of truth,” has preserved his Word, the Bible. (Psalm 31:5) But since Satan, the enemy of truth, has tried to corrupt and destroy it, how did the Bible reach us essentially as written?—See Matthew 13:39.
Part of the answer can be found in a comment by Professor Robert Gordis: “The achievement of [the] Hebrew scribes, called masoretes or ‘preservers of tradition,’ has not been sufficiently appreciated. These nameless scribes copied the Sacred Book with meticulous and loving care.” Although the majority of these copyists remain nameless to us today, the name of one family of Masoretes has been clearly recorded—Ben Asher. What do we know about them and their fellow Masoretes?
The Ben Asher Family
The portion of the Bible originally written in Hebrew, often called the Old Testament, was faithfully copied by Jewish scribes. From the sixth to the tenth century C.E., these copyists were called Masoretes. What did their work involve?
For centuries Hebrew was written only with consonants, the vowels being supplied by the reader. By the time of the Masoretes, however, the proper pronunciation of Hebrew was being lost because many Jews were no longer fluent in that language. Groups of Masoretes in Babylon and Israel invented signs to be placed around the consonants to indicate accents and proper pronunciation of vowels. At least three different systems were developed, but the one that proved most influential was that of the Masoretes in Tiberias, by the Sea of Galilee, the home of the Ben Asher family.
Sources list five generations of Masoretes from this unique family, beginning with Asher the Elder of the eighth century C.E. 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.a These men were in the vanguard of those perfecting the written symbols that would best express what they understood to be the proper pronunciation of the Hebrew Bible text. To develop these symbols, they had to determine the basis of the Hebrew grammatical system. No clear system of rules for Hebrew grammar had ever been recorded. Therefore, one might say that these Masoretes were among the first Hebrew grammarians.
Aaron, the final Masorete of the Ben Asher family tradition, was the first to record and edit this information. He did so in a work entitled “Sefer Dikdukei ha-Te’amim,” the first book of Hebrew grammatical rules. This book became the basis for the work of other Hebrew grammarians for centuries to come. But this was only a by-product of the more important work of the Masoretes. What was that?
A Phenomenal Memory Required
The major concern of the Masoretes was the accurate transmission of each word, even each letter, of the Bible text. To ensure accuracy, the Masoretes utilized the side margins of each page to record information that would indicate any possible change of text made either inadvertently or deliberately by past copyists. In these marginal notes, the Masoretes also noted unusual word forms and combinations, marking how frequently these occurred within a book or within the entire Hebrew Scriptures. These comments were recorded in a highly abbreviated code, since space was limited. As an additional cross-checking tool, they marked the middle word and letter of certain books. They went so far as to count every letter of the Bible in order to ensure accurate copying.
In the top and bottom margins of the page, the Masoretes recorded more extensive comments regarding some of the abbreviated notes in the side margins.b These were helpful in cross-checking their work. Since the verses were not then numbered and there were no Bible concordances, how did the Masoretes refer to other parts of the Bible to make this cross-check? In the top and bottom margins, they listed part of a parallel verse to remind them of where the word or words indicated were found elsewhere in the Bible. Because of space limitations, often they would write just one key word to remind them of each parallel verse. For these marginal notes to be useful, these copyists would virtually have to know the entire Hebrew Bible by heart.
Lists that were too long for the margins were moved to another section of the manuscript. For example, the Masoretic note in the side margin of Genesis 18:3 shows three Hebrew letters, קלד. This is the Hebrew equivalent of the number 134. In another section of the manuscript, a list appears indicating 134 places where pre-Masoretic copyists had deliberately removed the name Jehovah from the Hebrew text, replacing it with the word “Lord.”c Although aware of these changes, the Masoretes did not take the liberty of altering the text handed down to them. Instead, they indicated these changes in their marginal notes. But why did the Masoretes take such extreme care not to alter the text when previous copyists had altered it? Was their form of Jewish belief different from that of their predecessors?
What Did They Believe?
During this period of Masoretic advancement, Judaism was involved in a deep-rooted ideological battle. Since the first century C.E., rabbinical Judaism had been increasing its control. With the writing of the Talmud and interpretations by rabbis, the Biblical text was becoming secondary to rabbinic interpretation of the oral law.d Therefore, the careful preservation of the Bible text could have lost its importance.
In the eighth century, a group known as Karaites rebelled against this trend. Emphasizing the importance of personal Bible study, they rejected the authority and interpretations of the rabbis and the Talmud. They accepted the Bible text alone as their authority. This increased the need for accurate transmission of that text, and Masoretic studies gained renewed impetus.
To what degree did either rabbinical or Karaite belief influence the Masoretes? M. H. Goshen-Gottstein, an expert on Hebrew Bible manuscripts, states: “The Masoretes were convinced . . . that they were keeping up an ancient tradition, and interfering with it purposely would have been for them the worst crime possible.”
The Masoretes viewed proper copying of the Bible text as a holy task. Although they personally may have been highly motivated by other religious considerations, it seems that the Masoretic work itself was above ideological issues. The very concise marginal notes left little room for theological debate. The Bible text itself was their life’s concern; they would not tamper with it.
Benefiting From Their Work
Although natural Israel was no longer God’s chosen people, these Jewish copyists were totally dedicated to the accurate preservation of God’s Word. (Matthew 21:42-44; 23:37, 38) The achievement of the Ben Asher family and the other Masoretes is well summed up by Robert Gordis, who wrote: “Those humble but indomitable workers . . . performed in obscurity their herculean task of guarding the Biblical Text against loss or variation.” (The Biblical Text in the Making) As a result, when such 16th-century Reformers as Luther and Tyndale defied the authority of the church and began to translate the Bible into common languages for all to read, they had a well-preserved Hebrew text to use as a basis for their work.
The work of the Masoretes continues to benefit us today. Their Hebrew texts form the basis for the Hebrew Scriptures of the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures. This translation continues to be translated into many tongues with the same spirit of dedication and concern for accuracy that was shown by the ancient Masoretes. We do well to show a similar spirit in paying attention to the Word of Jehovah God.—2 Peter 1:19.
a In Hebrew “ben” means “son.” Ben Asher therefore means “the son of Asher.”
b The Masoretic notes in the side margins are called the Small Masora. The notes in the top and bottom margins are called the Large Masora. Lists placed elsewhere in the manuscript are called the Final Masora.
c See Appendix 1B in the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures With References.
d For more information on the oral law and rabbinical Judaism, see pages 8-11 of the brochure Will There Ever Be a World Without War?, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
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The System for Hebrew Pronunciation
THE search for the best method of recording vowel signs and accent marks lasted for centuries among the Masoretes. Hence, it is not surprising to find continuing development with each generation of the Ben Asher family. Existing manuscripts represent the styles and methods of only the last two Masoretes of the Ben Asher family, Moses and Aaron.e A comparative study of these manuscripts shows that Aaron developed rules on certain minor points of pronunciation and notation that differed from those of his father, Moses.
Ben Naphtali was a contemporary of Aaron Ben Asher. The Cairo Codex of Moses Ben Asher contains many readings that are attributed to Ben Naphtali. Therefore, either Ben Naphtali himself studied under Moses Ben Asher or both of them preserved a more ancient common tradition. Many scholars speak of the differences between the Ben Asher and the Ben Naphtali systems, but M. H. Goshen-Gottstein writes: “It would not be too far from the truth to speak of the two subsystems inside the Ben Asher family and to term the contrast of readings: Ben Asher versus Ben Asher.” So it would be inaccurate to speak of a single Ben Asher method. It was not the result of inherent superiority that Aaron Ben Asher’s methods became the final accepted form. Only because the 12th-century Talmudic scholar Moses Maimonides praised an Aaron Ben Asher text was preference given to it.
Part of Exodus 6:2 with and without vowel points and diacritical marks
e The Cairo Codex (896 C.E.), which contains only the former and latter prophets, furnishes an example of Moses’ methods. The Aleppo (c.925 C.E.) and Leningrad (1008 C.E.) codices are considered examples of Aaron Ben Asher’s methods.
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Tiberias, the center of Masoretic activity from the eighth to the tenth century
Pictorial Archive (Near Eastern History) Est.