Errors in the Masoretes’ “Original” Hebrew Manuscripts of the Bible?

Why critical editions of the Bible—like Biblia Hebraica Quinta—are essential

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2013.—Ed.


 

A MASTERPIECE OF THE MASORETES. The Masoretes established an astoundingly accurate tradition of Bible transmission. This carpet page from the Leningrad Codex (1008 C.E.)—of the tradition of the Masoretes—is the base text for Biblia Hebraica Quinta. The scribe of the manuscript Samuel son of Jacob, one of the Masoretes, even records his name. Photo by Bruce and Kenneth Zuckerman, West Semitic Research/With the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center/Courtesy Russian National Library.

The Hebrew Bible—or Old Testament—that we have today differs from the Hebrew manuscripts of the Bible penned in the first millennium B.C.E. When transmitting any sort of a document from generation to generation, small alterations—some intentional, others not—are made. Even the most careful scribe makes errors, which are perpetuated and often compounded by future scribes. Thus, it should not surprise us that the Hebrew Bible, which has a transmission history of several millennia, contains textual difficulties, corruptions and even mistakes. Critical editions of the Bible examine these differences by looking at varying Hebrew witnesses and try to accurately reconstruct the original Hebrew manuscripts of the Bible. In the November/December 2013 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, David Marcus and James A. Sanders discuss why critical editions of the Bible are necessary and describe the work that goes into creating such an edition in the article “What’s Critical About a Critical Edition of the Bible?”

Marcus and Sanders are both involved with the publication of Biblia Hebraica Quinta, the latest revision of Biblia Hebraica, which refers to the series of critical Bible editions published in Germany since 1905. The base for Biblia Hebraica Quinta is the Leningrad Codex, which dates to 1008 C.E. and was written by Samuel son of Jacob, who was part of a group of rabbinic scribes called the Masoretes.
 


 
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THE MASORETES DOING WHAT THE MASORETES DO BEST. This page comes from the Aleppo Codex. Until a third of it was burned in a 1947 anti-Jewish uprising in Syria, the Aleppo Codex was considered to be the oldest, most complete, and most accurate of the Masoretes’ manuscripts. The Masoretes filled its margins with notes to safeguard against corruption. Credit: David Harris/Ben-Zvi Institute in the Shrine of the Book.

Working in Tiberias during the Middle Ages, the Masoretes recognized the possibility of human error when copying the Hebrew Bible. They tried to combat it by adding supplements to the text. In the margins of the Masoretes’ manuscripts, there are innumerable notes—masorah—to safeguard the text. The precision with which the Masoretes were able to preserve the Hebrew text beginning in the seventh century C.E. is astounding. Nevertheless, the Masoretes were not working with the original Hebrew manuscripts of the Bible. Corruptions had already crept into the versions they copied.

The Masoretes’ efforts preserved the Biblical text in the first millennium C.E. Modern scholarship, with critical editions of the Bible like Biblia Hebraica Quinta, is bringing us even closer to reconstructing the original Hebrew manuscripts of the Bible.

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BAS Library Members: Read the full article “What’s Critical About a Critical Edition of the Bible?” by David Marcus and James A. Sanders as it appears in the November/December 2013 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Sign up today.
 


 
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on October 25, 2013.
 

 

Learn more about critical editions of the Bible and Hebrew manuscripts in the BAS Library:

James A. Sanders, “ReViews: The Art and Science of Textual Criticism,” BAR, May/June 2012.

Yosef Ofer, “The Shattered Crown: The Aleppo Codex Sixty Years After the Riots,” BAR, September/October 2008.

Marc Brettler, “The Masoretes at Work: A Tradition Preserved,” sidebar to James A. Sanders and Astrid Beck, “The Leningrad Codex: Rediscovering the Oldest Complete Hebrew Bible,” Bible Review, August 1997.
 


 
Learn about the Hebrew Bible in a free course of 25 video lectures by Harvard professor Shaye Cohen. Take the course >>
 

 

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  • Twholetruth says

    Actually the Bible test we have today is the most accurate. We know this through the Dead Sea scrolls. The differences between the scrolls and what we have today are not different. The Qumran people added to their scrolls interpreted pieces I. The actual text itself to provide themselves better understanding of the text. These are FACTS . I’ve studied the experts that were and still are very close to the DSS .
    Do the research yourself
    .

  • Suzelle says

    Good day.In my searh for the true name of our Father I came upon a very disturbing accuzation.It is claimed that the name YHWH weather it is pronounced Yahweh/Yahovah/Yehovah,was changed from the original Hebrew Moses spoke,by the Jews(Edomites not Judians)during their time in Babilonia.They changed the holy name of our Father into Yah which is the name of the moongod,Babilonians and Egyptians served.The tetragrammaton appears on tarrotcards and in freemason shrines.YHWH is the name of the moongod.It is also beiing chanted by witshes,and demons answers….Al of our biblescolars and preachers were taught from the changed text which is the aramic hebrew.The strongs also is based on that wrong text.How much truth is in this? Can you please answer me?The one site I came upon who describes it best is http://www.isawthelightminnistree.co.za.Also look at any site Yah the moongod.

  • Si. says

    Deborah, is that a fact? As far as I was aware the King James Bible has as many mistakes as most other Bibles copied from other Bibles who copied from the Greek who copied from the Hebrew.
    There’s enough facts out there to say KJV was a political Bible, Fact even a very good BBC documentary about it.
    Perhaps you shouldn’t use the word fact when in fact it’s not a fact.

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