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

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

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.


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.


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 >>

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


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  • Ian says

    Good to know. Keep up the good work Biblical Archaeology Society.

  • michael says

    Thank you for your comment Deborah. You really helped to keep the focus where it should be for this conversation.

    BAS is basically a secular perspective of the Bible in its postings. This article is just another instance of using false intellectualism to cast doubt on the truth that God has in fact preserved His Written Word throughout human history.

  • Cg says

    It’s simple. EVERY time you see CAPITALIZED words in your Bible such as God or Lord, it means the Hebrew name for ‘ieue’ (pronounced Yahweh) the Hebrew name for ‘God’ or Elohim was purged from the translation and replaced with a more acceptable name for “ieue”. (See I am that I am in all caps as well.)

  • 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

    • David says

      The dead sea scrolls do not include the entire text of the Hebrew OT. The portions that are represented do however support the remarkable accuracy of the text.

      There are some errors in the later Masoretic text that many of the modern English Translations rely on (i.e. Genesis 6 genealogy dates, leaving out 100 years in several passages). However, these can be corrected using other older manuscripts.

  • 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 look at any site Yah the moongod.

    • Stephen says

      Poppycock! Even if any of what you write is true, there is no proof that what it was before it was changed or after it was changed is a or the name of God at all.

    • Ian says

      I suggest you go back to the basic investment of seeing the Bible for inerrancy and Truth and not man’s interpretation of the truth. (Research skills are very important and knowing the difference is all the more important.) Strengthen your knowledge about what and how more importantly in research. Sites can be confusing and the weak knowledge of Scripture coupled feeble convictions about Scripture pose doubt and make for easy manipulation of what God’s Word says about all things. Especially about your life, promises, and relationship with your Lord. Focus on God’s Word as paramount in and over your perspective, as oppose continued biases that you don’t even embrace. Godspeed beloved.

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