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The oldest extant manuscripts date from around the 9th century.[b] The Aleppo Codex (once the oldest-known complete copy but since 1947 missing the Torah) dates from the 10th century. The Masoretic Text defines the Jewish canon and its precise letter-text, with its vocalization and accentuation known as the Masorah.
The ancient Hebrew word mesorah (מסורה, alt. מסורת) broadly refers to the whole chain of Jewish tradition (see Oral law), which is claimed (by Orthodox Judaism) to be unchanged and infallible. Referring to the Masoretic Text, mesorah specifically means the diacritic markings of the text of the Hebrew Scriptures and the concise marginal notes in manuscripts (and later printings) of the Tanakh which note textual details, usually about the precise spelling of words.
Modern scholars seeking to understand the history of the Tanakh’s text use a range of sources other than the Masoretic Text. These include early Greek (Septuagint) and Syriac (Peshitta) translations, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Dead Sea Scrolls and quotations from rabbinic manuscripts. Most of these are older than the oldest surviving Masoretic text and often contradict it. Which of the three commonly known versions (Septuagint, Masoretic Text, Samaritan Pentateuch) is closest to the alleged (but unsubstantiated) Urtext is not determinable. The Dead Sea Scrolls have shown the Masoretic Text to be nearly identical in consonant text to some texts of the Tanakh dating from 200 BCE but different from others. Although the consonants of the Masoretic Text differ little from the text generally accepted in the early 2nd century (and also differ little from some Qumran texts that are even older), it has many differences of both greater and lesser significance when compared to the manuscripts of the Septuagint, a Greek translation (about 1000 years older than the MT made in the 3rd to 2nd centuries BCE) of the Hebrew Scriptures that was in popular use by Jews in Egypt and the Holy Land (and matches the quotations in the New Testament of Christianity, especially by Paul the Apostle). A recent finding of a short Leviticus fragment, recovered from the ancient En-Gedi Scroll, carbon-dated to the 3rd or 4th century CE, is completely identical with the Masoretic Text.[c]
The Masoretic Text was used as the basis for translations of the Old Testament in Protestant Bibles such as the King James Version and American Standard Version and (after 1943) for some versions of Catholic Bibles, replacing the Vulgate translation, although the Vulgate had itself already been revised in light of the Masoretic text in the 1500s.
Origin and transmission [ edit ]
The Talmud and Karaite manuscripts state that a standard copy of the Hebrew Bible was kept in the court of the Temple in Jerusalem for the benefit of copyists; there were paid correctors of Biblical books among the officers of the Temple (Talmud, tractate Ketubot 106a). This copy is mentioned in the Letter of Aristeas (§ 30; comp. Blau, Studien zum Althebr. Buchwesen, p. 100), in the statements of Philo (preamble to his "Analysis of the Political Constitution of the Jews"), and in Josephus (Contra Ap. i. 8).
A Talmudic story, perhaps referring to an earlier time, relates that three Torah scrolls were found in the Temple court but were at variance with each other. The differences were then resolved by majority decision among the three.
Second Temple period [ edit ]
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran, dating from c. 150 BCE–75 CE, shows that in this period there was not the scrupulous uniformity of text that was so stressed in later centuries. According to Menachem Cohen, the Dead Sea scrolls decided these issues 'by showing that there was indeed a Hebrew text-type on which the Septuagint-translation was based and which differed substantially from the received MT'. The scrolls show numerous small variations in orthography, both as against the later Masoretic text, and between each other. It is also evident from the notings of corrections and of variant alternatives that scribes felt free to choose according to their personal taste and discretion between different readings.
However, despite these variations, most of the Qumran fragments can be classified as being closer to the Masoretic text than to any other text group that has survived. According to Lawrence Schiffman, 60% can be classed as being of proto-Masoretic type, and a further 20% Qumran style with a basis in proto-Masoretic texts, compared to 5% proto-Samaritan type, 5% Septuagintal type, and 10% non-aligned. Joseph Fitzmyer noted the following regarding the findings at Qumran Cave 4 in particular: "Such ancient recensional forms of Old Testament books bear witness to an unsuspected textual diversity that once existed; these texts merit far greater study and attention than they have been accorded till now. Thus, the differences in the Septuagint are no longer considered the result of a poor or tendentious attempt to translate the Hebrew into the Greek; rather they testify to a different pre-Christian form of the Hebrew text". On the other hand, some of the fragments conforming most accurately to the Masoretic text were found in Cave 4.
Rabbinic period [ edit ]
An emphasis on minute details of words and spellings, already used among the Pharisees as basis for argumentation, reached its height with the example of Rabbi Akiva (died 135 CE). The idea of a perfect text sanctified in its consonantal base quickly spread throughout the Jewish communities via supportive statements in Halakha, Aggadah, and Jewish thought; and with it increasingly forceful strictures that a deviation in even a single letter would make a Torah scroll invalid. Very few manuscripts are said to have survived the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. This both drastically reduced the number of variants in circulation, and gave a new urgency that the text must be preserved. New Greek translations were also made. Unlike the Septuagint, large-scale deviations in sense between the Greek of Aquila of Sinope and Theodotion and what we now know as the Masoretic text are minimal. Detailed variations between different Hebrew texts in use still clearly existed though, as witnessed by differences between the present-day Masoretic text and versions mentioned in the Gemara, and often even halachic midrashim based on spelling versions which do not exist in the current Masoretic text.
The Age of the Masoretes [ edit ]
The current received text finally achieved predominance through the reputation of the Masoretes, schools of scribes and Torah scholars working between the 7th and 11th centuries, based primarily in the cities of Tiberias, Jerusalem, and in Babylonia under the Rashidun, Umayyad, and Abbasid Caliphates. According to Menachem Cohen these schools developed such prestige for the accuracy and error-control of their copying techniques that their texts established an authority beyond all others. Differences remained, sometimes bolstered by systematic local differences in pronunciation and cantillation. Every locality, following the tradition of its school, had a standard codex embodying its readings. In Babylonia the school of Sura differed from that of Nehardea; and similar differences existed in the schools of the Land of Israel as against that at Tiberias, which in later times increasingly became the chief seat of learning. In this period living tradition ceased, and the Masoretes in preparing their codices usually followed the one school or the other, examining, however, standard codices of other schools and noting their differences.
Ben Asher and Ben Naphtali [ edit ]
In the first half of the 10th century Aaron ben Moses ben Asher and Ben Naphtali were the leading Masoretes in Tiberias. Their names have come to symbolise the variations among Masoretes, but the differences between ben Asher and ben Naphtali should not be exaggerated. There are hardly any differences between them regarding the consonants, though they differ more on vocalization and accents. Also, there were other authorities such as Rabbi Pinchas and Moshe Moheh, and ben Asher and ben Naphtali often agree against these others. Further, it is possible that all variations found among manuscripts eventually came to be regarded as disagreements between these figureheads. Ben Asher wrote a standard codex (the Aleppo Codex) embodying his opinions. Probably ben Naphtali did too, but it has not survived.
It has been suggested that there never was an actual "ben Naphtali"; rather, the name was chosen (based on the Bible, where Asher and Naphtali are the younger sons of Zilpah and Bilhah) to designate any tradition different from ben Asher's.
Ben Asher was the last of a distinguished family of Masoretes extending back to the latter half of the 8th century. Despite the rivalry of ben Naphtali and the opposition of Saadia Gaon, the most eminent representative of the Babylonian school of criticism, ben Asher's codex became recognized as the standard text of the Bible. See Aleppo Codex, Codex Cairensis.
The Middle Ages [ edit ]
The two rival authorities, ben Asher and ben Naphtali, practically brought the Masorah to a close. Very few additions were made by the later Masoretes, styled in the 13th and 14th centuries Naḳdanim, who revised the works of the copyists, added the vowels and accents (generally in fainter ink and with a finer pen) and frequently the Masorah.
Considerable influence on the development and spread of Masoretic literature was exercised during the eleventh, twelfth, and 13th centuries by the Franco-German school of Tosafists. Rabbi Gershom ben Judah, his brother Machir ben Judah, Joseph ben Samuel Bonfils (Tob 'Elem) of Limoges, Rabbeinu Tam (Jacob ben Meïr), Menahem ben Perez of Joigny, Perez ben Elijah of Corbeil, Marne, Judah ben Isaac Messer Leon, Meïr Spira, and Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg made Masoretic compilations, or additions to the subject, which are all more or less frequently referred to in the marginal glosses of Biblical codices and in the works of Hebrew grammarians.
Masorah [ edit ]
By long tradition, a ritual Sefer Torah (Torah scroll) could contain only the Hebrew consonantal text – nothing added, nothing taken away. The Masoretic codices however, provide extensive additional material, called masorah, to show correct pronunciation and cantillation, protect against scribal errors, and annotate possible variants. The manuscripts thus include vowel points, pronunciation marks and stress accents in the text, short annotations in the side margins, and longer more extensive notes in the upper and lower margins and collected at the end of each book.
These notes were added because the Masoretes recognized the possibility of human error in copying the Hebrew Bible. The Masoretes were not working with the original Hebrew manuscripts of the Bible and corruptions had already crept into the versions they copied.
Etymology [ edit ]
The Hebrew word masorah is taken from the Book of Ezekiel 20:37 and means originally "legcuffs". The fixation of the text was considered to be in the nature of legcuffs upon its exposition. When, in the course of time, the Masorah had become a traditional discipline, the term became connected with the verb מסר "to hand down" and acquired the general meaning of "tradition."
Language and form [ edit ]
The language of the Masoretic notes is primarily Aramaic but partly Hebrew. The Masoretic annotations are found in various forms: (a) in separate works, e.g., the Oklah we-Oklah; (b) in the form of notes written in the margins and at the end of codices. In rare cases, the notes are written between the lines. The first word of each Biblical book is also as a rule surrounded by notes. The latter are called the Initial Masorah; the notes on the side margins or between the columns are called the Small (Masora parva or Mp) or Inner Masorah (Masora marginalis); and those on the lower and upper margins, the Large or Outer Masorah (Masora magna or Mm[Mas.M]). The name "Large Masorah" is applied sometimes to the lexically arranged notes at the end of the printed Bible, usually called the Final Masorah, (Masora finalis), or the Masoretic Concordance.
The Small Masorah consists of brief notes with reference to marginal readings, to statistics showing the number of times a particular form is found in Scripture, to full and defective spelling, and to abnormally written letters. The Large Masorah is more copious in its notes. The Final Masorah comprises all the longer rubrics for which space could not be found in the margin of the text, and is arranged alphabetically in the form of a concordance. The quantity of notes the marginal Masorah contains is conditioned by the amount of vacant space on each page. In the manuscripts it varies also with the rate at which the copyist was paid and the fanciful shape he gave to his gloss.
There was accordingly an independent Babylonian Masora which differed from the Palestinian in terminology and to some extent in order. The Masora is concise in style with a profusion of abbreviations, requiring a considerable amount of knowledge for their full understanding. It was quite natural that a later generation of scribes would no longer understand the notes of the Masoretes and consider them unimportant; by the late medieval period they were reduced to mere ornamentation of the manuscripts. It was Jacob ben Chayyim who restored clarity and order to them.
In most manuscripts, there are some discrepancies between the text and the masorah, suggesting that they were copied from different sources or that on