The Bible: Texts and Versions
The Masoretic Text
The basic text for the Bible in both the Jewish and scholarly communities today is the Mas‐oretic Text (MT), an edition of the Hebrew that was standardized in the second half of the first millennium CE by rabbinic scholars (called “Masoretes,” from masorah, probably “what is handed down,” that is, “tradition”). The Masoretic Text accomplished two main things: It settled upon a consonantal text, that is, it established specific choices for the letters of the Hebrew words in the text; and it pointed those consonants with a system of markings that indicated which vowels should be read with the Hebrew consonants. It also offered cantillation and accentual marks, showing how words were to be sung or chanted and grouped together into phrases; and it included a set of marginal notes to assure that the text would be copied properly. (See “The Development of the Masoretic Bible,” pp. 2077–84.) The decision to add vowel points was necessary because biblical Hebrew writing was in effect a system of consonants, with only a few ways of indicating vowel sounds. Words with the same consonants but different vowels would look the same, as would the English words “untrained” and “interned” if they were both spelled “ntrnd.” Modern text critics are sometimes less hesitant to emend the vocalization of the text, on the theory that the vowel points are more recent than the consonants, and therefore less venerable, even though they may represent an ancient tradition of pronunciation.
All Hebrew copies of the Tanakh that were known until recently reflected the Masoretic Text. With a few exceptions (most notably biblical texts found in the Cairo Genizah), this remained the case until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (the documents of the Qumran community) in 1947. Among the scrolls were manuscripts of most books of the Bible that were over a thousand years older than the oldest manuscripts available up to that point. These more ancient copies of the Hebrew text have shed light on some passages in the traditional form of the biblical text. For example, at 1 Sam. 10.27–11.1 in the MT there is no indication of the background to the conflict between king Nahash of Ammon and the men of Jabesh‐gilead. But in a Qumran manuscript of 2 Samuel (4 QSama) there is a continuation of 10.27 and an opening phrase for 11.1 that explains the context. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translates this as follows:
Now Nahash, king of the Ammonites, had been grievously oppressing the Gadites and the Reubenites. He would gouge out the right eye of each of them and would notgrant Israel a deliverer. No one was left of the Israelites across the Jordan whose right eye Nahash, king of the Amorites, had not gouged out. But there were seven thousand men who had escaped from the Ammonites and had entered Jabesh‐gilead. (11.1) About a month later,….
This text, which most scholars believe to be more original than the preserved MT, is found in the NRSV, but is absent from NJPS, which follows the MT.