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Asbury Bible Commentary – Masoretic Text
Masoretic Text

Masoretic Text

Modern Hebrew texts resulted from centuries of copying and preserving ancient Hebrew sacred documents. Unfortunately, the older copies were always discarded. Scribes who copied the worn-out manuscripts destroyed the old documents because of the confidence they had in the veracity and adequacy of the new ones. Until 1947, when the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) were discovered, the extant Hebrew manuscripts dated no earlier than a.d. 900, with the exception of the Nash Papyrus dated in the first century b.c., which contained little more than the Ten Commandments. Among the manuscripts of the DSS were manuscripts dating before 100 b.c., so that the oldest known Hebrew manuscripts were pushed back by a thousand years.

Perhaps even to this day the most significant find for OT studies was a complete scroll of the Hebrew text of Isaiah (1QIsaa), which is to be dated to the second century b.c. The Jewish community where these were found was in an area northwest of the Dead Sea, known as Qumran (possibly Essenes or closely related to them). The community existed from c. 130 B.C.-A.D. 70, when Jerusalem fell to the Romans. All of the OT books except Esther are represented in these finds.

By the end of the first century a.d. a standard consonantal Hebrew text emerged. This traditional text was safeguarded in various ways by Masoretes, who had produced it (masorah = tradition). These workers were indeed “tradition keepers.” They surrounded the text with notes called “masora” but did not touch the consonantal text itself. Elaborate safeguards had previously been set up, and continued to be set up, to maintain the integrity of each copy. By a.d. 900, vowel points were added to this “Masoretic” text. Other markings indicated punctuation, variant readings, and keṯîḇ / qērē readings. The verse divisions of the Masoretic text go back to very early dates in the Christian era. The Masortic text contains 23,100 verses. The chapter divisions were much later (c. a.d. 1244).

Because of the work of the Masoretes, our modern Hebrew text is called the Masoretic text. The Masoretes lived in Tiberias and Babylonia, and introduced all of these various signs to the heretofore consonantal texts, fixing, to a great extent, the pronunciation and meaning of the text. The masora they supplied helped to interpret and explain the text and any changes they had made. Two masoretic families from the Tiberian textual studies school, Ben Asher and Ben Naphtali, specialized in preserving the best possible text. The Ben Asher text has been accorded preference over the Ben Naphtali text and was the basis for Biblia Hebraica, (BH3) 3d ed. (Stuttgart, 1937).

The most influential early printed Hebrew Bible was Daniel Bromberg's Bible published in Venice, 1410-1417. In 1937, Rudolf Kittel published the third edition of his Biblia Hebraica. This edition became internationally accepted and was based mainly on the Leningrad Codex (c. a.d. 1000-1026) with reference to the codex of the Pentateuch in the British Museum and the Cairo codex of the prophets (late ninth century a.d.). The most recent edition of the Hebrew Bible is the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, edited by K. Ellinger and W. Rudolph (1977). It is close to BH3, but provides a better critical textual apparatus, better editions of the masora parva and magna, and greater fidelity to the Leningrad Codex (L). Other editions of the Hebrew text are, however, under preparation and Snaith's edition produced in 1958 by the British and Foreign Bible Society is still helpful; he tried carefully to reproduce the Ben Asher text.