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The textual tradition of the Hebrew Bible, an official registration of its words, consonants, vowels and accents

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Massorah, the textual tradition of the Hebrew Bible, an official registration of its words, consonants, vowels and accents. It is doubtful whether the word should be pointed MSRT (from, ASR “to bind”) or MSRT from the New Hebrew verb, MST “to hand down”). The former pointing is seen in Ezech. xx, 37; the latter is due to the fact that, in the Mishna, the word’s primary meaning is “tradition”. Our chief witness to Massorah is the actual text of MSS. of the Hebrew Bible. Other witnesses are several collections of Massorah and the numerous marginal notes scattered over Hebrew MSS. The upper and lower margins and the end of the MS. contain the Greater Massorah, such as lists of words; the side margins contain the Lesser Massorah, such as variants. The best collection of Massorah is that of Ginsburg, “The Messorah compiled from MSS. alphabetically and lexically arranged” (3 vols., London, 1880-85). This article will treat (I) the history and (II) the critical value of Massorah. For the number and worth of Massoretic MSS., see Manuscripts of the Bible.

I. HISTORY OF MASSORAH.—Their sacred books were to the Jews an inspired code and record, a God-intended means to conserve the political and religious unity and fidelity of the nation. It was imperative upon them to keep those books intact. So far back as the first century B.C., copyists and revisers were trained and employed to fix the Hebrew text. All had one purpose,—to copy `LPYHMSRT i.e. according to the face-value of the Massorah. To reproduce their exemplar perfectly, to hand down the Massorah,—only this and nothing more was purposed by the official copyist of the Hebrew Bible. Everything new was shunned. There is evidence that false pronunciations were fixed by Massorah centuries before the invention of points such as are seen in our present Massoretic text. At times such early translations as those of Aquila, Theodotion, the LXX and the Peshitto give evidence of precisely the same erroneous pronunciation as is found in the pointed Hebrew text of today.

(I) The Consonantal Text.—Hebrew had no vowels in its alphabet. Vowel sounds were for the most part handed down by tradition. Certain consonants A, V, Y and sometimes H were used to express some long vowels; these consonants were called Matres lectionis, because they determined the pronunciation. The efforts of copyists would seem to have become more and more minute and detailed in the perpetuation of the consonantal text. These copyists (grammateis) were at first called Sopherim (from MPR “to count”), because, as the Talmud says, “they counted all the letters in the Torah” (Kiddushin, 30a). It was not till later on that the name Massoretes was given to the preservers of Massorah. In the Talmudic period (c. A.D. 300-500), the rules for perpetuating Massorah were extremely detailed. Only skins of clean animals must be used for parchment rolls and fastenings thereof. Each column must be of equal length, not more than sixty nor less than forty-eight lines. Each line must contain thirty letters, written with black ink of a prescribed make-up and in the square letters which were the ancestors of our present Hebrew text-letters. The copyist must have before him an authentic copy of the text; and must not write from memory a single letter, not even a yod,—every letter must be copied from the exemplar, letter for letter. The interval between consonants should be the breadth of a hair; between words, the breadth of a narrow consonant; between sections, the breadth of nine consonants; between books, the breadth of three lines.

Such numerous and minute rules, though scrupulously observed, were not enough to satisfy the zeal to perpetuate the consonantal text fixed and unchanged. Letters were omitted which had surreptitiously crept in; variants and conjectural readings were indicated in side-margins,—words, “read but not written” (Qere), “written but not read” (Kethibh), “read one way but written another”. These marginal critical notes went on increasing with time. Still more was done to fix the consonantal text. The words and letters of each book and of every section of the twenty-four books of the Hebrew Bible were counted. The middle words and middle letters of books and sections were noted. In the Talmud, we see how one rabbi was wont to pester the other with such trivial textual questions as the juxtaposition of certain letters in this or that section, the half-section in which this consonant or that was, etc. The rabbis counted the number of times certain words and phrases occurred in the several books and in the whole Bible; and searched for mystic meanings in that number of times. On the top and bottom margins of MSS., they grouped various peculiarities of the text and drew up alphabetical lists of words which occurred equally often, for instance, of those which appeared once with and once without waw. In Cod. Babylon. Petropolitanus (A.D. 916), we have many critical marginal notes of such and of other peculiarities, v. g. a list of fourteen words written with final He which are to be read with Waw, and of eight words written with final Waw, which are to be read with He. Such were some of the painstaking means employed to preserve the consonantal text of the Massorah.

(2) The Points.—Rolls that were destined for use in the synagogue were always unpointed. Rolls that were for other use came in time to receive vowel-points, and accents; these latter indicated the interrelation of words and modulation of the voice in public cantillation. One scribe wrote the consonantal text; another put in the vowel-points and accents of Massorah. The history of the vocalization of the text is utterly unknown to us. It has been suggested that dogmatic interpretation clearly led to certain punctuations; but it is likelier that the pronunciation was part of Massorah long before the invention of punctuation. The very origin of this invention is doubtful. Bleek assigns it to the eighth century (cf. “Introd. to O. T.” I, 109, London, 1894). Points were certainly unused in St. Jerome’s time; he had no knowledge whatsoever of them. The punctuation of the traditional text was just as certainly complete in the ninth century; for R. Saadia Gaon (t 942), of Fayum in Egypt, wrote treatises thereon. The work of punctuating must have gone on for years and been done by a large number of scholars who labored conjointly and authoritatively. Strack (see “Text of O. T.”, in Hastings, “Dict. of Bib.”) says it is practically certain that the points came into Massorah by Syriac influence. Syrians strove, by such signs, to perpetuate the correct vocalization and intonation of their Sacred text, Their efforts gave an impulse to Jewish zeal for the traditional vocalization of the Hebrew Bible. Bleek (“Introd. to O. T.”, I, 110, London, 1894) and others are equally certain that Hebrew scholars received their impulse to punctuation from the Moslem method of preserving the Arabic vocalization of the Koran. That Hebrew scholars were influenced by either Syriac or Arabic punctuation is undoubted. Both forms and names of the Massoretic points indicate either Syriac or Arabic origin. What surprises us is the absence of any vestige of opposition to this introduction into Massorah of points that were most decidedly not Jewish. The Karaite Jews surprise us still more, since, during a very brief period, they transliterated the Hebrew text in Arabic characters.

At least two systems of punctuation are Massoretic: the Western and the Eastern. The Western is called Tiberian, after the far famed school of Massorah at Tiberias. It prevailed over the Eastern system and is followed in most MSS. as well as in all printed editions of the Massoretic text. By rather complicated and ingenious combinations of dots and dashes, placed either above or below the consonants, the Massoretes accurately represented ten vowel sounds (long and short a, e, i, o, u) together with four half-vowels or Shewas. These latter corresponded to the very much obscured English sounds of e, a, and o. The Tiberian Massoretes also introduced a great many accents to indicate the tone-syllable of a word, the logical correlation of words and the voice modulation in public reading. The Eastern or Babylonian system of punctuation shows dependence on the Western and is found in a few MSS.—chiefest of which is Cod. Babylon. Petropolitanus (A.D. 916). It was the punctuation of Yemen till the eighteenth century. The vowel signs are all above the consonants and are formed from the Matres lectionis Y,V,A. Disjunctive accents of this supralinear punctuation have signs like the first letter of their name; Z, zaqeph; T, tarha. A third system of punctuation has been found in two fragments of the Bible lately brought to light in Egypt and now in the Bodleian Library (cf. Kahle in “Zeitschrift fin- die Alttestam. Wissenschaft”, 1901; Friedlander, “A third system of symbols for the Hebrew vowels and accents” in “Jewish Quarterly Review”, 1895). The invention of points greatly increased the work of scribes; they now set themselves to list words with a view to perpetuating not only the consonants but the vowels. Cod. Babyl. Petropolitanus (A.D. 916), for instance, lists eighteen words beginning with Lamed and either Shewa or Hireq followed by Shewa; eighteen words beginning with Lamed and Pathah; together with an alphabetical list of words ending with H, which occur only once.

II. CRITICAL VALUE OF MASSORAH.—During the seventeenth century, many Protestant theologians, such as the Buxtorfs, defended the Massoretic text as infallible; and considered that Esdras together with the men of the Great Synagogue had, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, not only determined the Hebrew canon but fixed forever the text of the Hebrew Bible, its vowel points and accents, its division into verses and paragraphs and books. Modern text-critics value Massorah, just as the Itala and Peshitto, only as pne witness to a text of the second century. The pointed Massoretic text is witness to a text which is not certainly earlier than the eighth century. The consonantal text is a far better witness; unfortunately the tradition of this text was almost absolutely uniform. There were different schools of Massoretes, but their differences have left us very few variants of the consonantal text (see Manuscripts of the Bible). The Massoretes were slaves to Massorah and handed down one and one only text. Even textual peculiarities, clearly due to error or accident, were perpetuated by rabbis who puzzled their brains to ferret out mystical interpretations of these peculiarities. Broken and inverted letters, consonants that were too small or too large, dots that were out of place—all such vagaries were slavishly handed down as if God-intended and full of Divine meaning.


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