The Old Testament was written in Hebrew with a few sections of Aramaic. When we speak of the copies of the Old Testament which have come down to us in Hebrew, we are speaking regarding what has become known as the Masoretic Text (MT).
Almost all English translations of the Old Testament, also called the Hebrew Bible, are made primarily from the Masoretic Text. The Hebrew Bible as reflected in the Masoretic Text contains the same number of books as our Old Testament but not in the same order. The Hebrew Bible is also called the Tanakh on the basis of its major divisions in Hebrew: Torah (Law or Instruction; Genesis through Deuteronomy), Nevi’im [the Prophets; the former or historical prophets (Joshua, Judges, 1 Samuel-2 Kings) and the later prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea-Malachi)], and Ketuvim [Writings; Psalms, Proverbs, Job, the five Megillot or scrolls (Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther), Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and 1-2 Chronicles]. But why is the Old Testament in Hebrew (and parts in Aramaic) known as the Masoretic Text?
“Masoretic” derives from the Masoretes, the name given to a group of Jewish scribes and copyists of the text of the Old Testament from the 7th through 10th centuries of our era. They had received copies of the Hebrew texts from other groups of scribes who had been copying them since the times the texts were originally written. The Masoretes became famous for their diligence in copying the manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible, their dedication to checking copies for errors, and so the copies of the text they produced were highly sought and prized. Two prominent families of Masoretic manuscript types exist, named for Masoretes who developed them: ben Asher (from Aaron ben Asher) and ben Naphthali, although the differences among the families are few. The most famous exemplars of the ben Asher tradition feature Codex Aleppo, dated to around 920, which was the oldest and most complete edition of the Masoretic Text until parts were lost in the middle of the 20th century, and Codex Leningradensis, dated to 1008, which now holds that distinction, and represents the base Hebrew text used in Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS), the modern edition from which almost all English versions today are translated.
The text still bears the name of the Masoretes on account of their diligent work in the masora, a series of markings and notes about the text of the Old Testament and copied all around it in Aramaic. The small or inner masora, often called the masora parva, are written in the side margins of the Biblical text, and feature short comments about the frequency of word usage, potential cross-references, or alternative reading. The large or outer masora, called the masora magna, was written underneath the Biblical text, and involve more expanded comments which would not fit in the masora parva. The Masoretes also developed or preserved all sorts of markings within the Biblical text to assist the reader in pronunciation and cantillation (chanting of the text) and directing the reader to relevant notes on the side. In previous times certain consonants were added to the text to indicate certain vowel markings (called matres lectionis, “mothers of reading”); on top of these the Masoretes developed the vowel marking system within the text used to this day to preserve the vowel sounds used in the reading of the Biblical text.
And so the Masoretes proved excellent textual critics, seeking to uphold the integrity of the Hebrew Bible as handed down to them while attempting to provide necessary corrections and safeguards against any further corruption of the text. We can see them at work in many different ways. The Masoretes fastidiously counted the number of consonants in the text, in whole books as well as in various lines. In so doing they would be able to know if letters or words had been accidentally added or deleted in the copying process. The Masoretes held the text in such high regard that even when they found points in which the Hebrew was manifestly corrupt, they would preserve the text as received but would suggest the reading which they believed made better sense of the text: the text as handed down in such instances is called the ketiv, or “what is written,” and the suggested alternative is the qere, or “what is read.” While the Masoretes were not perfect in their assessments, modern textual critics tend to agree with the Masoretes more often than they disagree in terms of those decisions. The Masoretes were intensely interested in the specific words in the text and how they were used, frequently noting how often infrequent terms are used in the Hebrew Bible and making all kinds of interesting associations between various texts based on the rabbinic tradition which had developed in the years before their efforts.
The Masoretes did their work quite well. Very little was added to the masora after the 10th century; later scribes would simply copy the work of the Masoretes before them. The Masoretic Text remained the gold standard in Hebrew Bibles long after the Masoretes passed into history. The quality of their efforts was validated by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls: most of the copies of the Hebrew Bible found in the Dead Sea Scrolls prove to be the direct ancestors of the Masoretic Text, with convergence often around 90% of the text. We therefore have every reason to believe that the Masoretes preserved the text of the Hebrew Bible as they had received it with almost complete accuracy for over a millennium.
As Christians who gain much encouragement and hope from what has been written beforehand regarding God’s interactions with His people Israel (Romans 15:3), we ought to be thankful for the Masoretes and their diligent work. The Masoretes did well in copying the Old Testament in Hebrew and their efforts in textual criticism to both preserve the text as they had received it as well as to make appropriate corrections and notes regarding the text. The Masoretic Text in Hebrew, in consultation with the Samaritan Pentateuch, Greek Septuagint, Syriac Peshitta, and Latin Vulgate, does well to preserve the Old Testament as written; we have every reason to maintain great confidence in the integrity of the text of the Old Testament, and to learn much from it!
Ethan R. Longhenry
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