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Plowing through History from the Aleph to the Tav

Topics Biblical History

A History of the Masoretic Hebrew Texts (Video)

By Jeff A. Benner


The Hebrew texts of the Bible were originally written with only the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, which only represent consonantal sounds. Examples of this type of writing can be found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. As no vowel sounds were originally included in the text, they had to be memorized.

Around the 10th Century AD, a group of Jewish scribes called Masorites, created a system of dots and dashes, called nikkudot or vowel pointings and added these to the hebrew text. These vowel pointings served to supply the vowel sounds to the text in order to codify the pronunciation. The Masorites also included notes in the margins of the text.

Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest Hebrew manuscript known to exist is the Masoretic text called the Aleppo Codex which was written in 826 A.D. This text is considered the most authoritative Hebrew manuscript and all future editions are based on this text.

Another important Masoretic text is the Leningrad Codex, written in 1008 AD. Both the Aleppo Codex and the Leningrad Codex are called Ben-Asher texts, as they both come from the Ben-Asher tradition of the Masorites. Both of these texts are virtually identical, the only difference being paragraph locations and vowel pointings, but the actual texts themselves are identical. As an example, 0n the left is the Aleppo Codex. On the right is the leningrad Codex. Psalm 113:1 is highlighted in both manuscripts and as you can see, they are identical. In 1947, portions of the Aleppo Codex were burned in a fire, so the Leningrad Codex is used as the authoritative text for those missing portions.

The next major editions to the Masoretic text are the Mikraot Gedolot, meaning Rabbinic Bibles. These Hebrew texts are again identical to the Aleppo and Leningrad Codexes, but include variations in the vowel pointings, paragraph locations and the marginal notes, but also the addition of commentaries. One of these Rabbinic Bibles is Jacob Ben Chayyim's Rabbinic Bible first published by Daniel Bomberg in 1525.

It is this Ben Chayyim Rabbinic Bible that the King James Translators used for their translation. There are only nine textual differences between the Ben Chayyim text and the Ben Asher texts of the Aleppo and Leningrad Codexes: They are 1 Kings 20:38; Proverbs 8:16; Isaiah 10:16; Isaiah 27:2; Isaiah 38:14; Jeremiah 34:1; Ezekiel 30:18; Zephaniah 3:15; and Malachi 1:12." Other than these nine differences, all of the Masoretic texts are identical.

The next major editions to the Masoretic Hebrew Bible was the Biblia Hebraica and the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. The Biblia Hebraica was published in 1906 by Rudolph Kittel and was a copy of the Ben Chayyim Rabbinic Bible , but did not include the marginal notes. The Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia was printed by Paul Kahle in 1977 and is a copy of the Leningrad Codex, but revised the marginal notes. In both cases, the Hebrew texts of the Biblia Hebraica and the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia are identical to each other and to the Ben Chayyim and Ben Asher texts. The bottom line is that while there are many different Masoretic texts, they are all the same when it comes to the text itself.




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