The Bible and the Masoretic Text
The Masoretic Text (MT), whether in its consonantal form (Proto-MT) or its full form, is the commonly used version of the Hebrew Bible, considered authoritative by Jews for almost two millenia. From the invention of the printing press, all Hebrew editions of the Hebrew Bible have been based on a text form of MT, with the exception of publications of the Samaritan Pentateuch or eclectic editions.
The roots of MT and its popularity go back to the first century of the Common Era. Before that period, only the proto-rabbinic (Pharisaic) movement made use of MT, while other streams in Judaism used other Hebrew textual traditions.
In other words, before the first century of the Common Era, we witness a textual plurality among Jews, with multiple text forms conceived of as “the Bible,” or Scripture, including the Hebrew source upon which the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint (LXX), was built.
The First Century C.E.
Around the turn of the era, the consonantal (proto-)MT text was accepted as an authoritative form of Hebrew Scripture by the proto-rabbinic movement, whereas other forms were accepted as authoritative by other groups.
With the advent of Christianity in the first century C.E., the LXX, which began as the biblical text for Greek speaking Hellenistic Jews, was accepted as holy writ by this new group of early Christians, and was concomitantly dropped by other Greek-speaking Jews and ceased to be considered authoritative scripture by them. Around the same time, the Samaritans adopted the version of the Torah known as the Samaritan Pentateuch, and the Qumran community that had assembled texts of different types ceased to exist.
Thus, since the first century C.E., the consonantal (proto-)MT, and subsequently full MT, version of scripture, including all the books that are contained in it, was accepted as authoritative by all streams of the Jewish people. This text is the only text quoted in rabbinic literature (the small deviations are negligible) and Karaite works, and it is the only text used by organized Judaism for the past two millennia.
The Medieval Masoretic Text
The Masoretes and the Codices
In the latter half of the first millennium C.E., groups of Jewish scribes known as the Masoretes, created a system of signs to ensure proper pronunciation and recitation of the biblical text. They also attempted to standardize paragraph divisions and maintain proper reproduction of the text by future scribes by compiling lists of the Bible’s key orthographic and linguistic features. Two main schools (or families) of Masoretes, ben Naftali and ben Asher, created slightly different “Masoretic Texts.” The ben Asher version prevailed and forms the basis of modern biblical texts.
The oldest source of the MT Bible is the Aleppo Codex (Keter Aram Tzova) from approximately 925 C.E. Although it is the closest text to the Ben Asher school of Masoretes, it survived in an incomplete form, as it lacks almost all of the Torah. The oldest complete source for MT is Codex Leningrad B 19A (codex L) from 1009 C.E.
The Contents of MT
MT includes five elements. Two of these were transmitted from previous generations (the proto-MT).
- The consonantal framework, i.e., the letters of the text without any additions.
- Para-textual elements, i.e., elements added to the written text, such as Ketiv-Qere readings and the division of the text into paragraphs.
Three further elements were added by the Masoretes:
- Vocalization, i.e., the vowels that were added to the written text based on oral traditions. Written vocalization signs only started to appear in the eighth century, with the work of the Masoretes, though according to tradition they were already there in a metaphysical sense, as an oral tradition accompanying the written Torah.
- Accentuation (te’amim or trope), the musical signs that added a musical dimension to the consonants and vowels. At the same time, the accents also indicated the syntactic relation between the words.
- The Masorah, an apparatus of instructions for the writing and reading of the biblical text written in the margins of the text as notes to scribes, ostensibly to help avoid copying errors. The Masorah is divided into two parts: The Masorah Parva (מָסוֹרָה קְטַנָּה, “Small Masorah”), which appears in the vertical margins of the codices, contains notes on orthography and statistics on word frequency. The Masorah Magna (מָסוֹרָה גְּדוֹלָה, “Large Masorah”), which appears in the horizontal margins, explicates the Small Masorah with references to some of its notes.
The consonantal framework, i.e., the letters themselves, are the focus of this article.
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December 8, 2017
January 20, 2021
Prof. 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 Introduction, The Biblical Encyclopaedia Library 31 and The Text-Critical Use of the Septuagint in Biblical Research.
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