The Masoretic Texts

The modern Hebrew text of the Old Testament is called the Masoretic Text because it is based upon the Masora—the Hebrew textual tradition of scholars known as the Masoretes (or Masorites).

The Masoretes were the first to separate what we now refer to as apocryphal books from canonical books. They were likewise the first to divide the Torah into the twenty-two books, 22 being the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet, which has subsequently morphed into what is now the 27 books of the Old Testament. After the division into books, the books were further subdivided into chapters and verses. Like the Septuagint, the Masoretic Texts were translated directly from the Ancient Hebrew Scriptures.

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The Masoretic Text has become a modern Hebrew translation of the Scriptures and is the basis of the present-day Old Testament materials. Likewise, earlier English Bible translations like the Wycliffe Bible in 1382 AD and the King James Authorized Version in 1611 used the Masoretic Texts for the 27 Books in today’s Bibles, but these Bibles also included the Septuagint books that are now referred to as apocryphal. When the popular King James Version removed the apocryphal books in 1885 AD, the Masoretic Text became universally accepted as the authentic Hebrew Bible. This text is the only text quoted in rabbinic writings and the only text used by organized Judaism since the 10th century AD. The oldest complete version of the Masoretic Text is the Leningrad Codex produced in 1009 AD. In comparison to the Septuagint the Masoretic Text are a very late manuscript.

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This table compares the Genesis 5 and 11 genealogies of the Masoretic Texts and the Septuagint.

Who Were the Masoretes?

The Masoretes were groups of Hebrew scribes from the latter part of the 5th through 10th centuries AD. They primarily lived in early medieval Palestine in the cities of Tiberias and Yerushalayim (Jerusalem) and in Babylonia (Iraq). Each group devised a system of diction and grammatical keys in the construct of diacritical signs on the external form of the Scriptural content in order to standardize the pronunciation, chapter and verse sections, and cantillation of the Hebrew Bible for the global Hebrew society. The Masoretes developed the vowel notation system for Hebrew that is still universally practiced, as well as the trope symbols adopted for the diacritics used in texts that are to be chanted in liturgy.

The ben Asher family of Masoretes were primarily responsible for the preservation and production of the Masoretic Text, although there was an alternative Masoretic text of the ben Naphtali family. There are around 875 differences between the two texts. The halachic authority Maimonides preferred the ben Asher version, and the Egyptian Hebrew scholar, Saadya Gaon al-Fayyumi, endorsed the ben Naphtali system. It is believed that most of the Masoretes were Karaites.

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