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Emanuel Tov





Key Characteristics of (Proto-) MT



APA e-journal

Emanuel Tov





Key Characteristics of (Proto-) MT






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The (Proto-)Masoretic Text: A Ten-Part Series


Part 7

Key Characteristics of (Proto-) MT


Key Characteristics of (Proto-) MT

Aleppo Codex, 10th c., oldest manuscript (almost complete) of the MT according to the Ben-Asher system.

Proto-MT has a number of key characteristics in its external features (i.e., as distinct from its content):

A. Consistency in Spelling

Above, we focused on aspects of the inconsistent spelling of proto-MT. Here we note that in spite of these inconsistencies, the Masoretic corpus should be taken as constituting one organic unit because in a number of features, early and late books reflect the same practice, in contrast to other texts, mainly those found at Qumran. Thus, it is remarkable that the following words are consistently spelled defectively in MT, and this same defective spelling is found in the proto-MT scrolls as well:

  1. /o/ sounds in אלהים ,כהן ,כח[1] ,משה ,כל ,מאד
  2. /o/ sounds in the same word pattern: בקר ,חדש ,אהל [2],קדש
  3. the archaic form of the name of Jerusalem as [3]ירושלם
  4. /u/ sound in נאם

Likewise, it is remarkable that the following words are always spelled with full spelling (plene):

  1. נביא in the singular.
  2. The word [4]מדוע.
  3. The pattern qatol (vowels a..o..), e.g., [5],כבוד ,טהור [6]שלום.
  4. The full spelling of the name פינחס is especially notable.[7]

It seems to me that these spelling practices were developed first for the writing of the Torah, and were adopted from there to the writing of the later books.[8]

B. Diversity

The internal diversity in the Masoretic corpus described above should not surprise us, since the other collections of the Hebrew and translated Bible, such as the LXX, Peshitta (the Syriac Bible translation) and the Targumim (the Aramaic Bible translations), also are not unified. This lack of unity of the scriptural corpora was created by the combination of a large number of diverse scrolls in the archetype of each corpus. (Proto-)MT was no exception, showing internal diversity in the following practices:

1. Section divisions, named in MT “open section” (parashah petuhah), a space at the end of a line, and “closed section” (parashah setumah), a space in the middle of a line, occur frequently in all the Judean Desert fragments, non-biblical and biblical, the latter of Masoretic and non-Masoretic content.

There is no rule regarding the length of a section demarcated by preceding and following section breaks; that depended much on the scribe’s understanding. The two extremes of frequent and infrequent section divisions can be seen in the Qumran scrolls as well as in MT. While most books in MT average one section unit per 7–10 verses, some books stand out having a substantially lower or higher percentage, when compared with other units in the same literary genre:[9]

Ruth – The book of Ruth has only one section break in MT, after 4:17, separating the main story from the genealogy of David in 4:18-22. Such section breaks are called for at several points in the story.[10]

Genesis – The book of Genesis has far fewer sections than the other narrative books. This relation can also be expressed statistically: In Genesis we find one section per 17.04 verses, while in the other narrative books it is between 6 and 8 verses.

This is illustrated by a comparison of Genesis 14, which has no divisions at all in the MT, with the parallel version in the Genesis Apocryphon (1QapGen ar), which has several such sections.[11] The paucity of sense divisions is visible especially in the Joseph story (Genesis 37–48) in MT;[12] there are no divisions at all between 41:1 and 44:18.

The reason for this difference between the infrequent use of sense divisions in Genesis and the next books is unclear.

Nahum and Jonah – Among the books of the Minor Prophets, Nahum and Jonah stand out as having very few section units—one division after an average of 15.66 and 16.0 verses respectively—in both cases only 3 instances, matched by the Judean Desert scroll MurXII.

Some books of Scripture thus stand out as having many more or many fewer divisions than other books in the same literary genre. Since the different paragraphing systems go back to the personalities of the scribes, the scribes of the MT books must have differed among themselves.

2. Dotted letters. In fifteen places, all the medieval manuscripts of MT denote dots above certain letters and words, and in one place (Ps 27:13) also below them. Ten of these instances are found in the Torah, four in the Prophets, and one in the Writings.

Thus, the Torah contains significantly more scribal dots above letters than the other books. The background of this unusual distribution is unclear. Possibly the custom of canceling letters was more or less discontinued in the later Scripture books.[13]

3. Pisqa be-emsa pasuq. As a general rule, the section divisions in MT coincide with the ends of verses. Nevertheless, MT has 28 instances of a pisqa beemsa‘ pasuq (= pbp), “a section division in the middle of a verse,” noted, e.g., in the Masora Parva to Gen 4:8.[14] The indication of a pbp signifies a break in content similar to that indicated at the end of a section.

The occurrences of pbp are unevenly distributed in the Bible, with 65 percent of them (following the Aleppo codex) occuring in one book, viz., Samuel.[15] The high frequency of this phenomenon in Samuel probably implies that the textual tradition of this book was less stable than that of the other books. These instances show that in some cases the written tradition of the pisqaot clashed with the oral verse division.

4. Spelling. The distribution of full and defective orthography (חסרות ויתרות) shows some peculiarities of the individual books. The Torah and the book of Kings in MT reflect the most conservative (defective) orthography and also contain the greatest degree of internal consistency.[16] In the Torah, this description applies especially to Exodus and Leviticus, in particular the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 21–23).[17]

Among the Minor Prophets, Amos is the most defective, and Jonah is the fullest.[18] The books with the fullest orthography in MT are Qohelet, Song of Songs, and Esther, followed by Ezra–Nehemiah and Chronicles.

5. Orthographic features of the Torah. Four archaic spellings and forms characterize the Torah as a whole:

  1. The Ketiv הוא. The majority spelling (ketiv) of the third person single feminine pronoun in the Torah is [19]הוא. This is accompanied by its qere perpetuum, i.e., the qere that accompanies the term perpetually, in all cases, הִיא (e.g., Gen 2:12).[20] This ketiv (probably pronounced hu’) possibly represents an early dialectal form in which the masculine and feminine forms (both: hu’) were not distinguished.[21] However this ketiv is explained, it is noteworthy that this form occurs mainly in the Torah.
  1. The Ketiv נער. The unusual ketiv נער accompanied by a qere נַעֲרָה occurs twenty-two times in the Torah, as opposed to a single occurrence of נערה in Deut 22:19 (also occurring elsewhere in MT). The archaic spelling of the ketiv is paralleled by the 2nd person masc. perfect forms (like shamarta in 1 Sam 13:14) written without the letter he,[22]but it remains unexplained why this archaic spelling was limited to [23]נערה.

Evidence of the beginning of a process of adding the final he can be seen in Deut 22:15 in 4QDeutf (frgs. 20–23) in the phrase אבי הנערה, referring to a girl. The he was added above the line and appears to have been written in a different hand.

  1. The archaic pronominal suffix ֹה- (instead of with a vav), like in the word אהלֹה (“his tent”, e.g., Gen 9:21) is much more frequent in the Torah than in the later books. The fourteen instances in the Torah should be compared with thirty-seven in the remainder of the books.[24] In addition, the unique spelling כֻּלֺּה also occurs eighteen times outside the Torah.[25]
  1. The demonstrative pronoun הָאֵל for האלה occurs only in the Torah (8x),[26] including three times in the phrase הערים האל (Gen 19:25; Deut 4:42; 19:11) and twice in הארצת האל(Gen 26:3, 4).

According to Steven Fassberg, the evidence shows that the text of the Torah had been fixed (in his words: “canonized”) at an earlier stage than the other books.[27] By the same token, Francis Andersen & Dean Forbes suggested that,

[T]he more archaic the spelling, the earlier the completion and publication (canonization, if you like) of the work, and the greater the veneration that shielded it from drastic changes from that time onward.[28]

6. Mistakes in MT. Scribes err all the time, but when a book contains a high number of mistakes, this feature is part of the scribal character of the book,[29] as in the frequent scribal errors in the MT of 1-2 Samuel, as compared with the LXX and 4QSama.[30] Such mistakes are rare in the Torah.


December 8, 2017


Last Updated

March 29, 2020


View Footnotes

Professor Emanuel Tov is J. L. Magnes Professor of Bible (emeritus) in the Dept. of Bible at the Hebrew University, where he received his Ph.D. in Biblical Studies.  He was the editor of 33 volumes of Discoveries in the Judean Desert. Among his many publications are, Scribal Practices and Approaches Reflected in the Texts Found in the Judean Desert, Textual Criticism of the Bible: An IntroductionThe Biblical Encyclopaedia Library 31 and The Text-Critical Use of the Septuagint in Biblical Research.