Masoretic Text

The ‘Masoretic Text’ is the name given to the standard Hebrew text that has been printed in most Hebrew Bibles since the 15th century, with very slight variations.

It is so called because the editors who established it in the 10th century CE and before are known as the Masoretes. The word Masorete comes from the Hebrew verb, m-s-r, to pass on.

Most of our English versions of the Old Testament are based mainly on the Masoretic Text. Notes, normally at the bottom of the page, indicate where the translators have chosen to use another text instead (see last section).

Contents of a Masoretic Text

The Masoretes undertook to pass on not only a definitive text of the Hebrew Scripture, but also the traditions regarding the way this text was to be copied and read. A masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible is, therefore, a text of the Bible that gives the letters of the Hebrew Bible—usually referred to as the ‘consonantal text,’ although some of the letters are in fact pronounced as vowels—along with at least one, and normally at least the first two, of the following:

  1. Markings that indicate the punctuation of the text into clauses and sentences (often referred to as ‘biblical accents’).
  2. Markings that indicate all the vowels that go with each consonant and the precise way in which that consonant is to be pronounced (often referred to as ‘pointing’).
  3. Notes at the side of the text to indicate different ways of reading the text and unusual features in it (often referred to as masora parva – the lesser masora).
  4. Notes at the top and bottom of the pages with references to other verses that have the unusual features noted in the masora parva (often referred to as the masora magnum – the greater masora).

A masoretic text is different from the texts of the scriptures read in synagogue worship. According to Jewish tradition, these must be written on leather scrolls, and only the letters of the text are written. Masoretic texts supplement these synagogue scrolls to ensure that the text of the scrolls has been accurately copied and is recited according to established tradition, and they are bound as books.

The system of masoretic symbols was developed by the Masoretes of Tiberias on the sea of Galilee around the 10th century CE. The Tiberian masoretic system superseded the Palestinian and Babylonian systems, which date to the 6th century CE and are less detailed.

Some fine examples

There are thousands of Tiberian masoretic manuscripts held in the major library collections of the world. Most of them are written on parchment and many of these are works of great beauty as well as precision. A particular fine example of the Pentateuch is found in the British Library (B.L. Or. 4445) and is dated to the 10th century. The oldest complete manuscript of the entire Hebrew Bible is the Leningrad Codex (B19a in the Firkovitch collection of St Petersburg). In its colophon, the scribe Samuel ben Jacob says he finished writing it in 1005/1006 CE. A third very famous codex is the Aleppo Codex. The Aleppo Codex was the oldest complete text (probably written before 950 CE) but about a quarter of its pages were lost during the anti-Jewish riots of 1948.

Is the Masoretic Text the ‘original text’?

All the best masoretic manuscripts are identical in all the letters that are actually pronounced as consonants, though they do vary to a small extent in their vowel letters, as well as in some of the biblical accents and pointing, and in the marginal notes. This level of scribal accuracy is unparalleled prior to the invention of the printing press. This is the reason why the text of the Hebrew Bible in use today is called the ‘Masoretic Text.’ It is uncertain whether this uniformity was achieved before the time of the Tiberian Masoretes, but it has remained the case since.

It is another question how closely this text, which was copied so carefully once it was established, represents what was originally written. The majority of the biblical texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls are sufficiently close to the Masoretic Text to indicate that the consonants of the Masoretic Text are representative of a major textual tradition current in the 1st century CE, and this is by far the most important source for anyone seeking to decide the correct text.

There were variant traditions alongside this, represented by the Septuagint and other ancient versions, supported by some biblical texts amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls, and some rabbinic quotations and references, which differ more or less from the Masoretic Text: not very much in the Pentateuch, widely in some other books, particularly 1-2 Samuel, Jeremiah, Job, and Proverbs. Sometimes readings from these non-Masoretic traditions appear to be superior to the Masoretic Text.

Further reading

Tov, Emanuel. Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible. 3rd ed. Minneapolis: Fortress; Assen: Royal Van Gorcum, 2012.