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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  • Bill says

    That’s because God has allowed only a few people on earth to know this is just school, base of appreciation and raising God’s kids time. He is letting us see what a mess we made with our religions and our governments. But He is on track with his plan to make us like him as he said was happening when Eden was disallowed. And most astounding is how people cant believe the plain scriptures of us all being resurrected and shocked spitless. B is right on one point….God did stay involved in one little nation as their God as part of his plan.

  • B.Grissom says

    I am also very surprised that so many people don’t think about the fact that if God was so powerful and outspoken and supposedly the god that created everything then how come the Chinese or the Japanese or the people from India, Russia or ANYWHERE outside of the Middle East ever had any writings about him speaking to anyone there??? Everything about that God was contained in a small area about the size of one of the states of the United States and would never of been known outside that region if it hadn’t of been useful for European leaders to use the belief as a method of control.

  • B. says

    Needless to say my speech to text made a few mistakes above but you know what I’m saying. I said, Cruch instead of Crotch for one.

  • B. says

    What surprises me is that so many don’t seem to understand about the Christian God is that in the Old Testament he was doing no more than helping Hebrew Jews through hard times and the enemies of the Hebrew Jews were the enemy of that God as well which pretty much included ALL outsiders to the Hebrew Jews. He was THEIR GOD ALONE, but nowadays they push him as Everyone’s God which is definitely NOT the actual story told in the scrolls.
    Also in the New Testament I don’t know why religious leaders allow the name of Jesus to be accepted as the name of the son of God which is a Latin name and not the actual Hebrew name as well as the names of all of the disciples which are mostly European names substituted in. According to the end of revelations it is a great sin to alter the word of God in any manner And much of the Bible used today is altered in MANY ways.
    I believe it’s time for humanity to grow up. And face the truth without the crotch of religion. When you die, that’s it just like with any other animal on this planet just because we became intelligent doesn’t make us any more special just superstitious, and it actually takes us further away from what we actually are, which is just another animal on this planet.
    Those of us not suckered in by the Christian religion realized it was so widely spread because it was used to better empower European leaders of those days. If Hinduism or some other belief had done as well a job of controlling the masses it would have been used instead. I’m surprised that so many educated people still believe that these things actually happened and are patiently awaiting the return of this God and his son. I’m also surprised that Jews don’t tell people that it’s THEIR God and not anyone else’s as it is written.

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