Why is the Masoretic Text Important?

My last post, Who were the Masoretes?, described the work of the Masoretes. Now I want to focus on why their work is important to Biblical scholarship.

The great, indeed all-important, question which now meets us is this—Does this Hebrew text, which we call Masoretic, and which we have shown to descend from a text drawn up about AD 100, faithfully represent the Hebrew text as originally written by the authors of the Old Testament books?1

The Masoretes standardized the Hebrew Bible. Some readers may be dismayed to learn the Bible we have today isn’t an exact copy of what the biblical authors wrote. (If any atheists are reading this, they might be thinking “I knew the Bible wasn’t God’s word!”) What’s important is the content (meaning) hasn’t changed, even if the form (look) has.

The Rabbis long ago recognized the possibility of human error when a text was being copied. They warned scribes of the dangers of confusing similar letters like beth and kaph (ב/כ), or resh and dalet (ר/ד) or yod and waw(י/ו). They recognized that haplography (omission of a letter or a word) or dittography (duplication of a letter or word) sometimes occurred. A scribe could make an incorrect division of letters, especially in a text where letters were written close together, thus producing different words. An ancient scribe, like a modern one, could make an error of metathesis, that is, transposing letters within a word, writing cavalry instead of calvary or brid instead of bird.2

The Hebrew Bible has 24 books and the traditional Protestant Old Testament has 39 books.3 How come the Hebrew Bible is so much shorter? What did the Protestants add? Nothing. The contents are the same, but the books are divided differently. The Hebrew Bible has a single book Samuel, while the Christian Bible splits it into 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel; the same is true for Kings and Chronicles. The Hebrew Bible has a single book for the minor prophets, while the Christian Bible splits them into 12 different books, one for each prophet. The Christian books Ezra and Nehemiah are a single book in the Hebrew Bible. It’s the same content, just presented differently.4

Other common changes are with spellings. As languages change, so do spellings. The British use the word colour, but in the United States the word is spelled color. Neither is wrong, but one may be more appropriate for the intended audience. Imagine a Hebrew Bible made its way to Rome, and several scribes wanted to copy it. There may be one person reading the text aloud while the scribes are writing it. Rome was an international city, and the scribes could have been from different places in the Roman empire (or outside the Roman empire, I suppose). As the scribes wrote what they heard, they would use spellings they were familiar with. Again, it’s the same content, just presented differently.

I’ll also point out that the scriptures were often transmitted orally, not in written form. There were undoubtedly many people who memorized scripture without knowing how to read, so they wouldn’t have known a correct spelling from an incorrect one. Spelling is not a consideration when wondering if the Bible is God’s revelation to people.

Just to belabor the point, anything that was spoken in the Bible before being written down doesn’t really have a “correct” spelling. Spoken words aren’t spelled.

Mistakes did happen in copying the Bible. Some times a scribe may have misunderstood a word and written something incorrectly. A tired scribe may have accidentally skipped a few words. A scribe may have tried to clarify a passage by adding a word. Sometimes the mistakes are obvious and can easily be corrected. If you saw the sentence “What colir is the rose?” You would quickly realize the correct word is color (or colour), not colir 5

Sometimes a change would be obvious because it has no meaning. An Internet search is showing colir is a Romanian word meaning “eye wash”. If a Romanian scribe was copying Hebrew and saw something like the colir example, he would know there was a mistake (besides having a Romanian word in Hebrew text). “What eye wash is the rose?” just doesn’t make sense.6

There are times when changes do have meaning. If color was changed to scent, the question “What scent is the rose?” is a viable reading, although not the correct one. If there are 9 copies of a text with “What color is the rose?” and 1 text with “What scent is the rose?” there a good chance the original text was color, not scent. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that easy, because those 9 copies might have been made from the one with the original mistake. When there are multiple meaningful possibilities for a text, which one is correct?

Using multiple sources, it’s easy to confirm the vast majority of the text in the Bible is consistent across the sources. It may be easy to fix spelling errors, and look for nonsensical phrases. Determining if words were added or removed can be difficult. The Masoretes copied the text they had received, but made extensive note indicating their opinions of the correct readings.

Where it appeared to them that a copyist’s error had occurred, they left the error written in the text (a kethib wording—that which is written) but put vowel markings with it for a preferred wording (qere—that which is to be read) and inserted the consonants for that reading in the margin. They also indicated a limited number of words that probably should be omitted altogether.7

For over 1,000 years, the works of the Masoretes have been considered by Jews to be the most accurate reading of the Hebrew Bible. The Masoretes struggled with the issues above (and undoubtedly more) to produce the Masoretic Text. Aaron ben Moses ben Asher is considered the epitome of the Masoretic scholars. The text attributed to ben Asher has been the standard by which all modern Hebrew Bibles are copied, or translated into other languages.

Within the field of textual criticism, the Masoretic Text is usually considered the central text because it is the best-preserved text of the Hebrew Bible. All scholarly and non-scholarly editions of Hebrew Scriptures revolve around MT, and many commentaries and introductions focus on that version.8

Until 1947, the Aleppo Codex (written about A.D. 920) was the best ancient resource available. In 1947, scholars started becoming aware of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are 1,000 years older than the Aleppo Codex. When scholars compare the Dead Sea Scrolls with the Masoretic Text (such as the Aleppo Codex), they find few differences, and none of them are theological.

The tradition of the MT [Masoretic Text] is significant for the following reasons: (1) It provided the only textual witness to the Old Testament for more than 1,000 years (ninth century AD to 1947); (2) Its internal consistency clearly attests to the care, precision, and systematic rigor with which the Masoretic scribes copied the manuscripts…; (3) The MT tradition allows the textual critic to reasonably posit a prior tradition going back to as early as AD 70; and (4) It provides the primary textual witness by which all other textual witnesses are measured….9

Resources

  • 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?

Footnotes

  1. Kenyon, Frederic George. Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts (London, England: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1897) 42.
  2. Marcus, David and James A. Sanders. What’s Critical About a Critical Edition of the Bible? (Biblical Archaeology Review: November/December 2013; Website subscription required) Accessed 17-Feb-2019.
  3. The Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches include Deuterocanonical books which are not recognized by most Jews or Protestants as being part of scripture. The Protocanonical books are accepted by all Jews and Christians as be scripture.
  4. See Books of the Bible (Wikipedia) for more information.
  5. Not being a gardener myself, maybe roses do have a colir.
  6. Maybe it would make sense to a gardener or an optometrist, but I’m doubtful.
  7. Elwell, Walter A., editor. “Masora, Masoretes” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Baker Book House Company, 1988) Beatitudes. (Logos Bible Software)
  8. Barry, John D., editor. “Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, History of Text” Lexham Bible Dictionary (Lexham Press: 2016) YHWH. (Logos Bible Software)
  9. McDowell, Josh and McDowell, Sean. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017)  101-102. (Amazon)

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