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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

The Hebrew Bible

Geoffrey Khan

The printed editions of the Hebrew Bible that are in use today are based on medieval manuscripts deriving from the school of the Masoretes of Tiberias. The Masoretes were scholars who devoted themselves to preserving the traditions of writing and reading the Bible. Their name derives from the Hebrew term masora or masoret, the meaning of which is generally thought to be ‘transmission of traditions’. The Tiberian Masoretes were active over a period of several centuries in the second half of the first millennium CE. The medieval sources refer to several generations of Masoretes, some of them belonging to the same family. The most famous of these families is that of Aharon ben Asher (tenth century). The Masoretes continued the work of the soferim (‘scribes’) of the Talmudic and Second Temple periods, who were also occupied with the correct transmission of the biblical text.

The Tiberian Masoretic tradition gradually took shape over two or three centuries and continued to grow until it was finally fixed and the activities of the Masoretes ceased at the beginning of the second millennium. During the same period, circles of Masoretes are known to have existed also in Iraq, but the Tiberian Masoretic tradition had become virtually exclusive in Judaism by the late Middle Ages and has been followed by all printed editions of the Hebrew Bible.

The Tiberian Masoretic tradition is recorded in numerous medieval manuscripts. The majority of these were written after 1100 CE and are copies of older manuscripts made in various Jewish communities. The earlier printed editions are based on these late medieval manuscripts. The most authoritative of these early editions was the so-called second Rabbinic Bible (i.e. the Bible text combined with commentaries and translations, known as Miqra’ ot Gedolot) edited by Jacob ben Hayyim ben Adoniyahu and printed at the press of Daniel Bomberg in Venice between 1524 and 1525. This came to be regarded as a textus receptus and was used as the basis for many subsequent editions of the Hebrew Bible.

A small number of surviving manuscripts are first-hand records of the Tiberian Masoretic tradition. The fixed tradition was transmitted by generations of scribes. Some of the modern editions of the Bible are based on these early manuscripts, for example, the Biblia Hebraica from the third edition (1929–37) onwards, The Hebrew University Bible, ed. M. Goshen-Gottstein (1975, 1981), the editions by A. Dotan (1976) and M. Breuer (1977–82), and the modern edition of the Rabbinic Bible by M. Cohen (1992– ).

The Tiberian Masoretic tradition can be divided into the following components:

  • 1. The consonantal text of the Hebrew Bible.

  • 2. The indications of divisions of paragraphs.

  • 3. The accent signs, which indicated the musical cantillation of the text and also the position of the main stress in a word.

  • 4. The vocalization, which indicated the pronunciation of the vowels and some details of the pronunciation of the consonants in the reading of the text.

  • 5. Notes on the text, written in the margins of the manuscript.

  • 6. Masoretic treatises. Some manuscripts have appendices at the end of the biblical text containing various treatises on aspects of the teachings of the Masoretes.

These six items are all in written form. In addition the Masoretic tradition also contained an orally transmitted component in the form of a reading tradition. The reading tradition was partially represented in graphic form by the vocalization and accent signs, but these did not record all of its details. The orally transmitted Tiberian reading tradition, therefore, should be treated as an additional component of the Tiberian Masoretic tradition. The reading tradition complemented the consonantal text, but it was independent of it to a certain degree, and sometimes contained a different reading from what was represented by the consonantal text. In such cases the traditional Masoretic terminology distinguishes the qere (‘what is read’) from the ketiv (‘what is written’).

It is this complex of components, written and oral, that formed the Tiberian Masoretic tradition. A careful distinction must be made between the components of the tradition that the Masoretes had a direct role in creating and the components that were inherited from an earlier period. The core components that were inherited from earlier tradition include the consonantal text, the paragraph divisions, the oral reading tradition, and some of the contents of the textual notes. The other components, i.e., the accent and vocalization signs (but not the reading tradition that the signs represented, and the majority of the textual notes and treatises, were developed by the Masoretes in the Masoretic period. At the end of the Masoretic period the written components of the Tiberian Masoretic tradition had become fixed and were transmitted in this fixed form by later scribes. By contrast, the oral component, that is, the Tiberian reading tradition, was soon forgotten and appears not to have been transmitted much beyond the twelfth century.

Within the Tiberian school there were various streams of tradition that differed from one another in small details and were associated with the names of individual Masoretes. The differences that we know the most about were between Aharon ben Asher and Moshe ben Naphtali, who belonged to the last generation of Masoretes in the tenth century. The points of disagreement between these two Masoretes are recorded in lists at the end of many of the early Tiberian Bible manuscripts. A source from the eleventh century refers to the possibility of following either the school of Ben Asher or that of Ben Naphtali, without any evaluation.

The Ben Asher school finally became supreme only when it was espoused by the influential Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides (1135–1204). When he was resident in Egypt, Maimonides examined a manuscript with vocalization and accents written by Aharon ben Asher and pronounced it to be the model that should be followed. It is likely that the book of differences between Ben Asher and Ben Naphtali (Kitab al-Khulaf) was composed by Misha’el ben ‘Uzzi’el shortly after this pronouncement of Maimonides.

The Tiberian Masoretic manuscripts are codices, that is, books consisting of collections of double-leaves that were stitched together. The Hebrew Bible began to be written in codex form during the Masoretic period. Previously, before about 700 CE, it was always written in a scroll. After the introduction of the codex, scrolls continued to be used for writing the Hebrew Bible. Each type of manuscript, however, had a different function. The scrolls were used for public liturgical reading in the synagogues whereas the codices were used for study purposes and non-liturgical reading. The scroll was the ancient form of manuscript that was hallowed by liturgical tradition and it was regarded as unacceptable by the Masoretes to change the custom of writing the scroll by adding the various written components of the Masoretic tradition that they developed, such as vocalization, accents and marginal notes. The codex had no such tradition behind it and so the Masoretes felt free to introduce into these types of manuscript the newly developed written Masoretic components. We may say that the liturgical scroll remained the core of the biblical tradition whereas the Masoretic codex was conceived as auxiliary to this. This distinction of function between liturgical scrolls and Masoretic codices has continued in Jewish communities down to the present day. Occasionally in the Middle Ages Masoretic additions were made to scrolls if they had, for some reason, become unfit for liturgical use. The scrolls also differed from Masoretic codices in the addition of ornamental strokes called taggim to the Hebrew letters.

The task of writing codices was generally divided between two specialist scribes. The copying of the consonantal text was entrusted to a scribe known as a sofer, who also wrote scrolls. The vocalization, accents, and Masoretic notes, on the other hand, were generally added by a scribe known as a naqdan (‘pointer’, i.e. vocalizer) or by a Masorete. In the early period, coinciding with or close to the time when the Masoretes were active, we can distinguish between various types of Hebrew Bible codices. The type of codex that has been referred to in the preceding discussion is what can be termed a ‘model’ codex, which was carefully written and accurately preserved the written components of the Tiberian Masoretic tradition. Such manuscripts were generally in the possession of a community, as is shown by their colophons, and were kept in a public place of study and worship for consultation and copying. References to various model codices and their readings are found in the Masoretic notes, for example, Codex Mugah, Codex Hilleli, Codex Zambuqi, and Codex Yerushalmi. Sometimes accurately written manuscripts also contain the text of an Aramaic Targum (interpretative translation).

In addition to these model Masoretic codices, there existed numerous so-called popular Bible codices, which were generally in the possession of private individuals. These were not always written with such precision and usually did not include all the written components of the Tiberian Masoretic tradition. Often they contain no accents or Masoretic notes but only vocalization, and this may deviate from the standard Tiberian system of vocalization in a number of details. A conspicuous feature of some popular codices is that they adapt the written consonantal text to make it correspond to the reading tradition more closely. An extreme case of this is represented by a corpus of Hebrew Bible manuscripts that contain an Arabic transcription of the reading tradition. These were used by some Karaite Jews. Some popular Bible manuscripts are no more than aides-mémoire to the reading tradition, in that they were written in a shorthand form known as serugin. In these texts the first word of a verse is written in full, followed by a single letter from each of the other important words in the verse. Some popular Bible manuscripts were accompanied by an Aramaic Targum or an Arabic translation and commentary. There were, therefore, three classes of Hebrew Bible manuscript in the early Middle Ages: (1) scrolls used for public reading in the liturgy; (2) model Masoretic codices, the purpose of which was to preserve the full biblical tradition, both the written tradition and the reading tradition; (3) popular manuscripts that aided individuals in the reading of the text.

We describe here briefly two of the surviving model Tiberian Masoretic codices that have come to be regarded as among the most important and have been used in modern critical editions. They all reflect a basically uniform Masoretic tradition, though no two manuscripts are completely identical. The differences are sometimes the result of scribal errors and other times due to a slightly different system of marking vocalization or accents that is followed by the naqdan.

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