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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

The Hebrew Bible and the Masoretic Text

We often speak of ‘the Hebrew text of the Bible’, as though there were one Bible and one Hebrew text. Both assumptions are problematic. Against the notion of ‘one Bible’, we only need to remind ourselves of the use of deutero-canonical books by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Rite churches, preceded by Hellenistic Jews and by the Dead Sea Scrolls community, where the ‘apocryphal’ or ‘pseudepigraphic’ works of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), Tobit, 1 Enoch, and Jubilees are attested in their original Hebrew and/or Aramaic forms. As for ‘the Hebrew text’, the evidence of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the LXX is that a variety of Hebrew text traditions existed prior to 70 CE (see Tov 2001; Abegg, Flint, and Ulrich 1999). In short, the picture we have of Judaism from the third century BCE to the first century CE is that of diversity—in beliefs and practice, in canon, and in text.

After 70 CE, one text became overwhelmingly dominant in Judaism (and, especially after the Reformation, in Christianity). That text underlies the so-called Masoretic Text (MT), found today in standard editions of the Hebrew Bible. ‘Masorete’ may be understood as ‘tradent’ or ‘one who hands down’ the biblical text. Individual Masoretes were associated with one of the various Masoretic ‘schools’ or traditions that were active from the sixth to the tenth century CE.

The MT is the result of the fixing, by Masoretes, of the consonantal text into a particular linguistic shape through the ‘pointing’ of the text with this secondary information. Pointing denotes the overlaying of marks on the consonantal text in order accurately to represent its liturgical recitation, grammatical structure, and pronunciation (see Yeivin 1980). It is obvious that once the exact linguistic shape is thus fixed, so also, to a large extent, is the interpretation of the text. The Masoretes also incorporated into biblical manuscripts the masorah, a detailed system of notes relating to the text, mainly of a statistical-linguistic nature (see Kelley, Mynatt, and Crawford 1998). The Masoretic tradition that became by far the most important was associated with the town of Tiberias. Because all Masoretic manuscripts, Tiberian or other, rely in principle on the same consonantal text, differences among later biblical manuscripts and, ultimately, printed editions are relatively minor.

That consonantal text (or one very similar to it) preceded the start of Masoretic activity by up to eight centuries, as evidenced by the existence of biblical texts among the Dead Sea Scrolls that vary very little from the MT. This text, which we shall call for convenience ‘MT precursor’, can be compared and contrasted with other ancient consonantal texts that display some degree of substantive difference from it. In some cases, these different Hebrew texts are directly available to us: for example, the Samaritan Pentateuch and those biblical manuscripts from the Dead Sea Scrolls that differ from MT precursor. MT precursor can also be compared with the hypothetical Vorlage (underlying Hebrew text) of the LXX or other ancient versions (obtained by ‘retroverting’ or back-translating into Hebrew).

In practice, when biblical scholars or Bible translators speak of ‘the Hebrew text’, they mean in general the Tiberian MT, although they will rather often diverge from it in respect of boundaries between clauses and (somewhat less) in the vocalization of words. Here, then, scholars might be said to have returned to MT precursor. Less frequent, but hardly uncommon, is the adoption of a reading (extant or retroverted) that differs even from that text. For example, if we combine the footnotes referring to the Dead Sea Scrolls in NRSV, REB, CEV, and NIV, we find that in some 135 different verses (the majority being from 1 and 2 Samuel and Isaiah) evidence from the Scrolls has been utilized.

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