Let’s face it, in the Orthodox Church, the Masoretes and their Masoretic text of the Hebrew Old Testament have gotten a bad name. It is argued almost universally that Orthodox Christians ought to use the Septuagint Old Testament, because (1) It represents a translation of an older Hebrew text, (2) It includes books not found in the Masoretic text, (3) the Apostles used the Septuagint, and (4) the Masoretic text is corrupt due to changes that were made in the text in order to obscure Messianic prophecy. After all, why would you follow a medieval Jewish text when you could follow a Greek text preserved by Christians from the beginning? These are rather strong claims to make, so it is incumbent upon us to investigate if they are true and to what degree they may or may not be accurate. In order to do this, I will write a series of posts investigating these claims in order to paint an accurate picture of what the Masoretic text and the Septuagint really are. This could take some time, so bear with me as I gradually unfold this rather complex issue.
The Masoretic Text
To begin with, let’s look at what the so-called Masoretic text actually is. To speak about the Masoretic text, we are referring to a particularly important point in the transmission history of the Hebrew Bible. For centuries, the Hebrew Bible had been continuously hand-copied by Jewish scribes with the utmost meticulousness and care requiring professionalism which is beyond imagination. It ultimately fell to specially trained scribal schools to do this monumental task, and one of these schools was known as the Masoretes or the בעלי המסורה baˤǝlē ham-massōrā, “the masters of transmission.” In fact, the noun מסורה massōrā, from which we get the word Masorete, means something like “transmission” or even “tradition.” Perhaps the most important thing to realize is that these men were operating within a very strict scribal tradition, perhaps the strictest tradition the world has ever seen.
The Masoretes themselves were comprised of scribes from the 6th-10th centuries CE, which culminated in two family lineages, the ben Asher family and the ben Naphtali family, who produced more or less standardized Hebrew texts. While the received Masoretic text in use today does not follow either one or the other completely, they nevertheless comprised the foundation of what would become the standard Hebrew Bible.
What made this standardization possible were two things:
(1) The Masoretes invented a system of vocalization, punctuation, and cantillation marks for the consonantal Hebrew text. Like Arabic, Hebrew has always been written without vowels, so that the earliest manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible, those found in the Dead Sea Scrolls (more on that later), are without vowels. This inevitably leads to ambiguities and uncertainties when reading the text, as a particular consonantal word can be read in a variety of ways depending on where one might place the vowels. The Masoretes invented a system of vocalization, known today as the Tiberian system of vocalization, which followed with extreme exactitude the pronunciation of Hebrew that they had received in their tradition. This system of vocalization was incredibly precise, noting, for example the difference between a short vowel /a/, a long vowel /ɑ/, and the half short vowel /ă/, and the half short vowel /ɔ̆/. Vowels were indicated using a system of dots, bars, and other marks placed around the consonants known as niqqūd “pointing.” In addition, this system of pointing indicated an elaborate scheme of punctuation as well as a system for noting cantillation for chanting the text in the synagogue.
(2) The Masoretes kept meticulous notes about the Hebrew text in the margins of the manuscripts. There are two of these margins, the large and the small, known respectively as the Masorah Magna and the Masorah Parva. These margins noted, for example the number of times a particular word occurred in the entire Hebrew Bible. For example, if a word occurred only once in the Hebrew Bible, the Masoretes would place a circle over the word and note in the margin ֹל, which is an Aramaic abbreviation for לא אית or לית lā ˀīṯ or lēṯ meaning “there is not (any more of this word).” Also, the Masoretes even kept track of the number of words and letters in a particular book. At the end of a book or a large section, they would note, for example, סכום התיבות של תורה תשעה ושבעה אלף ושמונה מאות וחמשים וששה “The sum of the words in the Torah is 97,856,” or סכום האותיות של תורה ארבעה מאות אלף ותשע מאות וארבעים וחמשה “The sum of the letters in the Torah is 400,945.” This system of accounting assured that not “one jot or tiddle” would be left out.
So the Masoretes were only one link in the chain of a long tradition of the transmission of the Hebrew Bible. They themselves did not change the consonantal text, but only noted it and described it with the kind of precision that we would normally associate with computers. As such, the so-called Masoretic Text existed long before the Masoretes, going back as far as the Dead Sea Scrolls, a text we will call the Proto-Masoretic Text.
The Dead Sea Scrolls serve for us as a snapshot in time of the Hebrew Bible. From the myriad of biblical manuscripts discovered among the Scrolls in the caves surrounding Khirbet Qumran, we find that there was not just one type of Hebrew Bible in circulation from the 3rd century BCE to the 1st century CE, but there were in fact several. This is a basic fact that we have to deal with – there is not just one Hebrew Bible, nor is there just one Greek Bible. There were several of each, all circulating at the same time, and they competed with one another among various Jewish sects. The Proto-Masoretic text was just one of these recensions of the Hebrew Bible, and the Hebrew text that became the basis for the Greek Septuagint was another. Let’s explore this idea a little further.
We might have the rather simplistic idea that each book of the Hebrew Bible came in to existence at one time, and that each book existed as a complete whole from the time of its composition. Unfortunately, this is just not the case, for we have ample evidence that biblical books circulated in more or less a state of flux. For example, we have copies of the Psalter from Cave 11 at Qumran that show a very different order than either the Masoretic or Septuagint Psalters and include non-canonical psalms, the so called Psalms 152-155, which were only known previously from the Syriac tradition. The Book of Jeremiah was written down at various times. A core section of the book, chapters 1-25, comprising the early prophetic oracles of Jeremiah, was composed then destroyed (Jer. 36). Jeremiah’s secretary, Baruch, re-wrote that section as well as additional material, including the Oracles against the Nations, which is variously placed at the end of the book in the Masoretic text, but after chapter 25 in the Septuagint. The Septuagint edition is also about 1/8 shorter, indicating that some of the Jeremiah material had not been included in that recension. The multiplicity in versions of a particular book show that the state of the book was in flux, but it is difficult to determine which is earlier or “more original.” One might think that the Proto-Septuagint version of Jeremiah was an earlier or more original text, but this is not necessarily the case. The Masoretic “additions” could have circulated independently for some time concurrent with the Proto-Septuagint text. In other words, these additions could be just as ancient as the Proto-Septuagint text itself, but because of the lack of manuscript evidence, we cannot know for sure. In fact, it becomes apparent that the very notion of an “original” text does not exist, because it is impossible to point to any particular point in the development of a book and say that it is “original.”
There were other recensions in addition to the Proto-Masoretic and Proto-Septuagint texts, such as the Proto-Samaritan Pentateuch, and a text unique to the cache of manuscripts found in the caves surrounding Qumran. Emanuel Tov summarizes the contents of the Dead Sea Scrolls biblical manuscripts with the following percentage breakdown:†
Qumran-specific texts – 20%
Proto-Masoretic texts – 35%
Proto-Samaritan texts – 5%
Proto-Septuagint texts – 5%
Non-Aligned texts – 35%
This breakdown notes texts that specifically show some variation toward one or another recension. If there is no distinction, a text falls into the non-aligned category. As you can see, among the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Proto-Masoretic text was by far the most popular aligned text, accounting for some 35% of manuscripts. Proto-Septuagint texts account for only 5%. It’s apparent from this picture that, at least in Palestine, the Proto-Masoretic text was gaining superiority, even among sectarian groups, and eventually it won out over the others within the post-70 CE Jewish community.
The Nature of the Masoretic Text
In spite of the fact that the Proto-Masoretic text was the most popular or the most well-respected recension of the Hebrew Bible in Palestine, we cannot see it as being pristine or error free. In fact, the Masoretes themselves noted where certain errors had crept into the consonantal text. Instead of correcting the errors themselves, they left the errors in the text, but noted the correction in the marginal Masorah. This practice gives us two readings for a given instance, the כתיב kǝṯīḇ (often written ktiv) “written” and קריא qǝrēˀ (often written qre) “spoken.”
The actual text of the Masoretic Hebrew Bible comes from a number of medieval manuscripts, notably the Aleppo Codex, dated to the 10th century CE, which comprises most of the Hebrew Bible with the exception of the Torah, part of the Minor Prophets, and a great number of the Writings. The critical edition of the Masoretic text in use by scholars today is a reproduction of the Leningrad Codex, dated to 1008 or 1009 CE. All variants found in other manuscripts of the Masoretic text and any other recension from the Dead Sea Scrolls is collated against the text found in this codex.
Aside from the Masoretic edition of Jeremiah discussed above, the only other major identifying mark of the Masoretic text is a corrupt version of the book of 1 Samuel. When I use the term “corrupt,” I mean only that the consonantal text had experienced a number of errors in the transmission process very early on. These errors occurred well before the time of Christ, and resulted in at least three different versions of the Book of 1 Samuel, the Proto-Masoretic, the Proto-Septuagint, and a unique version found within the Dead Sea Scrolls. There is much to say about this specific issue, and I will deal with it in full in a subsequent post.
What to Take Away
There are a number of things to take away from this cursory look at the Masoretic text:
(1) There were multiple versions of the Hebrew Bible circulating at the same time. They represent “snapshots” of the various stages of the development of the Hebrew Bible that were taking place even up to the time of Our Lord. The Masoretic text was one of these recensions, even the most popular, though it was not the only one. Furthermore, determining what is earlier or more “original” is often fraught with difficulty if not being impossible altogether without more evidence.
(2) While the Masoretic text itself represents the culmination of a tradition of textual transmission in the Middle Ages, the text itself is much older, going back to the time of the Second Temple. In this respect, it is very likely that Our Lord would have known and used the Proto-Masoretic text.
(3) The Masoretic text was meticulously kept, literally down to the letter. Along with the antiquity of the Proto-Masoretic text, it is wrong to claim that the Jews changed the text of their Bible in order to obscure certain Messianic prophecies. Such an accusation is libelous, since there is absolutely no evidence for it. In fact, as I will demonstrate in a subsequent post, there are instances where the Septuagint itself obscures Messianic prophecy! Most of the distinctive readings found in the Masoretic text were introduced long before the Masoretes took stylus to parchment, even being found in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
(4) The Masoretic text is a very good and faithful text of the Hebrew Bible, though it is not perfect. Specifically in the case of 1 Samuel, particular care must be exercised to determine what is the best reading of that book.
(5) For Orthodox Christians, the Masoretic Hebrew Bible may be used as a valuable tool for understanding the text of the Old Testament. Along with the Septuagint, it stands as a parallel witness to the Old Testament, which was never confined to one particular recension or another. The priority of the Septuagint over the Masoretic Hebrew ought to be determined on a case-by-case basis, and even when the Masoretic text can be determined to be more original or an earlier text, the Septuagint may be preferred for reading in church simply because of its place within the Christian tradition, and because the distinctive features of the Septuagint have become important within Orthodox theology, liturgy, and even iconography (e.g. the “Angel of Great Council”).
(6) The preference for the Septuagint in the Orthodox Church cannot be said to be on account of the poor state of the Masoretic text or that the Septuagint is always or even the majority of the time an earlier or more original text. This simply cannot be demonstrated from the facts.
In the next post, we will examine the history and nature of the Septuagint and the phenomenon of Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible in general.
†Tov, Emanuel. Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible. 2nd Rev. Ed. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2001., 114-117.