What is: The Masoretic Text

Monday, November 06, 2006

I am still reading the Introduction section of Terrien’s commentary on the Psalms. I realized that there are many terms that I have very limited knowledge on and I thought I'd start a series of “What is” beginning with the Masoretic Text. I do not want to venture in too deep though – just enough to have a good understanding of what I am dealing with.

The Masoretic Text (MT) is the Hebrew text of the Tanakh and it is the approved text for general use in Judaism. The TaNaKh is an acronym that identifies the Hebrew Bible. The acronym is based on the first Hebrew letters of each of the three parts of the Hebrew Bible: The Torah (Instructions), The Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings).

Its name comes from the Hebrew word masorah which means tradition.

It is also widely used in translation of the Old Testament. The MT was primarily compiled, edited and distributed by a group of Jews known as the Masoretes between the 7th and 10th century AD. The Masoretes were groups of scribes based primarily in Tiberias, Jerusalem and Babylonia.

The text of the Tanakh originally consisted only of consonants and even though it had applied some use of vowels, in was inconsistent. The Masoretes as a result codified the oral tradition for the reading the Tanakh and compiled a system of pronunciation and grammatical guides. The Ben Asher family of masoretes was largely responsible for the preservation and production of the MT.

Compared to the Septuagint, which is used in translations of the Old Testament, the MT has numerous differences of both little and great significance.

The Hebrew word mesorah refers to the transmission of a tradition. While in a broad sense it refers to the entire chain of the Jewish oral law, in reference to the MT, it has a very specific meaning: it has to do with the diacritic markings of the Hebrew Bible text and concise marginal notes in manuscripts which note textual details, usually about the precise spelling of words. A diacritical mark or diacritic, sometimes called an accent mark, is a mark added to a letter to alter a word's pronunciation (i.e., vowel marks) or to distinguish between similar words.

The history of the MT may be divided into three periods:
(1) creative period, from its beginning to the introduction of vowel-signs;
(2) reproductive period, from the introduction of vowel-signs to the printing of the text (1525 AD); and
(3) critical period, from 1525 to the present time.

Picture: The Nash Papyrus (2nd century BC),
which contains a portion of the Masoretic Text,
specifically the Ten Commandments and the Shema Yisrael prayer.


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