Who were the Masoretes?

Genesis 1:1 in English Standard Version, Dead Sea Scrolls, Leningrad Code and Modern Hebrew.

The Masoretes were Jewish scribes and scholars who made it their life’s work to accurately copy the Hebrew Bible. They worked approximately from the A.D. 600’s to A.D. 950, primarily in the areas of Jerusalem, Tiberius and Babylonia. The name Masoretes comes from the Hebrew word masorah, which means “tradition” or “to hand down”.

During the first century A.D. Rome ruled over Israel. In A.D. 66, the first Jewish revolt occurred, and much of Jerusalem was destroyed by Roman solders in A.D. 70, along with the Temple. With Jerusalem turned into rubble and the Temple gone, many Jews went into exile, in what’s called the Jewish diaspora1. In A.D. 132, another Jewish revolt occurred, called the Bar Kokhba revolt. After four years of fighting, Rome had a decisive victory, and all Jews were banned from living in Jerusalem.

With the Jews dispersed in many areas, they integrated into the local cultures and used local languages. Over the course of a few centuries, Hebrew became an extinct language.2 Hebrew was, of course, the language the Hebrew Bible was written in, so it was still studied by scholars and scribes.

The early Masoretes were determined to make accurate copies of the Hebrew Bible and went to elaborate lengths to ensure mistakes are not made.

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.3

The later Masoretes made an even more important contribution to the text which had been handed down carefully for over a millennia. Originally Hebrew was written without vowels, and over time the proper pronunciation of many words was forgotten. The Masoretes did not change the consonants, but added vowel dots, or niqqud, above or below the consonants to indicate the pronunciation of words. Several styles of vocalizations were created, but the one which became the standard is known as Tiberian Hebrew.

Although the spelling of a word may be consistent in Hebrew, in the absence of vocalization (more commonly called the vowel “dots”), there can be variations as to how the letters are pronounced. Take the letters s, f, r, for example, which can variously be read as sefer, sapar (nouns), siper, safar, saper  (verbs).4

The Hebrew letters for s, f and r are ספר, and I found some examples of those letters with these vowel dots and meanings5:

The special contribution of the Masoretes was to provide the text with vowels and accent marks. This they achieved with a system of dots and strokes. Their task was not to invent pronunciations but to pass on received or accepted pronunciations and to decide between debatable ones. Of course, the issue was not merely correct pronunciation, because a slight change in vowel pointing or pronunciation would, for instance, turn a noun into a participle.6

Unfortunately the pictures aren’t very clear, but you may be able to see the Dead Sea Scrolls version doesn’t have the vowel dots, and the Leningrad Codex, based on the work of the Masoretes, does have them. Modern copies and translations of the Hebrew Bible are based on the Leningrad Codex, since is the oldest known complete copy of the Hebrew Bible.

The Masoretes . . . sought to preserve the text of the Hebrew Scriptures as faithfully and accurately as possible, and by adding vowel signs and punctuation to establish an authoritative interpretation of the text. In this respect four integral components of the medieval MT [Masoretic Text] may be distinguished: the consonant text, vocalization, organization of the text (spacing and accents), and marginal notes (Masorah parva and magna). By about the 10th century C.E. the Masoretes had achieved a textually controlled and excellent form of the text that could be called normative.7

Resources

  • Dead Sea Scrolls. Genesis fragment (4QGenesisg) (The Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library; Website) Accessed 14-Feb-2019.
  • Edwards, Brian H. “Trusting the Text” Answers: Building a Biblical Worldview. Dale Mason, Publisher (Answers in Genesis: January-February 2019) 44-47.
  • Leningrad Codex (Archives.org; Website) Accessed 14-Feb-2019.
  • McDowell, Josh and McDowell, Sean. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017) Chapter 4: Have the Old Testament Manuscripts been Transmitted Reliably? (Amazon)

Footnotes

  1. The northern Kingdom of Israel was conquered by Assyria  in 733 B.C. and many people went into exile then. The southern Kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Neo-Babylonian Empire and there were mass deportations in 597 B.C. and 586 B.C.
  2. Some Jews started speaking modern Hebrew in the 1800’s as a way of gaining interest in creating the new nation of Israel. The State of Israel became a nation on May 14, 1948.
  3. Barry, John D., editor.  “Masoretic Text” Lexham Bible Dictionary (Lexham Press, 2016) (Logos Bible Software)
  4. Leviant, Curt. Jewish Holy Scriptures: The Leningrad Codex (Jewish Virtual Library)
  5. I don’t know Hebrew, so I looked up those letters and found variations in the vowel dots. I don’t know if these differences are meaningful or just visual.
  6. Elwell, Walter A., editor. “Masora, Masoretes” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Baker Book House Company, 1988) (Logos Bible Software)
  7. Wurthwein, E. The Text of the Old Testament: An Introduction to the Biblia Hebraica. Translated by Erroll F. Rhodes (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979) 15. Quoted in: McDowell, Josh and McDowell, Sean. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017)  100. (Amazon)
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  1. […] is the last article in a short series that started with the question Who were the Masoretes? and then followed up with Why is the Masoretic Text Important?. This list contains some of the […]

  2. […] last post, Who were the Masoretes?, described the work of the Masoretes. Now I want to focus on why their work is important to […]

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