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The Hebrew Masoretic text

This copying of the Hebrew began at the time of Ezra the prophet, where men were trained to write Hebrew. At first they were merely transcribers of God's law for the synagogue readers. The Levites were appointed the teachers and interpreters of God's law under Moses whose responsibility was to teach the Torah.

How Accurate Were the Scribes? From 500 B.C. to A.D. 100, the Scripture was handled by Sopherim (scribes) preserving Israel’s sacred traditions. In the Babylonian Talmud (Qidd. 30a) says, “ The early [scholars] were called soferim because they used to count [sfr] all the letters in the Torah .”

This continues into the Tenth Century A.D., when European Jewish scribes continued a similar method for copying manuscripts of the Old Testament in the original Hebrew language as originated by the scribes before Christ. At this time they included the vowels to help those read the correct pronunciation. The timing of this is important as it was after the Septuagint (the Hebrew translated into the Greek language)

Some rules in copying the Hebrew to Hebrew

The following description of Hebrew practices in copying are very detailed in explaining the intricate process they took in order to preserve Gods Word accurately.

First, the writing must be done on the skins of clean animals and are fastened together, also with the strings taken from clean animals prepared for synagogue use by a Jew only. Each skin must contain an exact number of columns, which must be equal throughout the entire manuscript.

Certain words in the text were not intended to be read out loud, such as the name of God. Yahweh YHWH was considered so sacred to the Jews that they taught it should not be pronounced out loud, lest they take the name of the Lord in vain.

The Sopherim scribes had rules. Before they started copying the Word, the scribe must wash his whole body. When he came across the name of God, (YHWH), he had to stop translating and wash his whole body again, then begin translating again, and this would continue throughout the entire manuscript he was copying. Also before he wrote the name of God it was to be written with a pen newly dipped into the ink. The black ink used was prepared from a special recipe that was used only for the copying of Scripture. This was all, as you can imagine, extremely time consuming.

Nothing could be written from memory (many scribes who did this memorized large portions of the Scripture) the scribe must always look first at the original, before writing his copy. Considering this was the Scribes job or lifelong occupation, they had to be careful not to apply their memory first to the word they were copying. The original that was used to make the copy had to be authentic. The scribe would speak each word out loud as he wrote it down, with the exception of God’s Name.

The letters, words, and paragraphs were counted, a space of a thread must be between each consonant and the document became invalid if two letters touched each other. The middle paragraph, (word and letter) must correspond to the original document. There was constant checking and rechecking of the letters, throughout the entire process of copying.

This was an extremely tedious time-consuming process to make sure everything was correct. One mistake on it, if a letter or word was omitted, the parchment was condemned. Imagine writing a whole page and at the last line making a mistake; you would have to start all over again. Each scroll had to be checked within thirty days of its writing, or it was considered unholy, and if mistakes were made, no document containing God's Word could be destroyed.

The documents could be stored only in sacred places (synagogues, etc.) or a genizah - which means "hiding place," in Hebrew. This would be designated and kept from others.

Ancient Hebrew was only written with consonants, no vowels, called Paleo Hebrew. alphabetic paleo script existed predated Moses. The Hebrew script found in the Dead Sea Scrolls/fragments are basically the Masoretic square script that was adopted following the return from Babylonian captivity in 586-539 B.C. this is the same Hebrew lettering of our day.

Since the Hebrew text traditionally omitted vowels in writing, it was the Masoretes who later introduced vowel signs to guarantee correct pronunciation (5th cent AD). Hebrew versions of the Old Testament continued to exist, even at a time the language wasn't spoken by many.

The Masoretes

For thousands of years the Hebrew language was only written with consonants, no vowels were used, but the Hebrew language was always ‘spoken with vowels.’ While reading these texts, the copyists had to supply all of the vowels based on the oral tradition of the pronunciation of their language, what they were brought up on . Also at this time the Hebrew Scriptures were not divided by chapter or verse.

The later Jewish scribes known as the Masoretes carefully selected, copied, and annotated biblical scrolls, adding these markers. This was their attempt to preserve the Hebrew language and continue the “correct” readings of the Hebrew Scripture. the Masoretes added a series of dots and dashes above niqquida and below called niqquid to the text, identifying vowel to use in pronunciation of the word. Vowel points were tiny markings above and below the Hebrew consonant characters that is read from right to left, (a series of dots and dashes/ combinations above and below the text), to show how each word should be pronounced. This made the Hebrew more readable for those who were not familiar with the language, as a series of consonants would be hard to pronounce correctly without the vowels.

In Hebrew, vowels can make a difference in pronunciation of words. The change of a vowel can change the pronunciation and at times the meaning of a word. An extreme example in English is the difference between “SHIP” and “SHOP”. These words have very different definitions. Written without vowels, both of these words would be written “SHP”. Thus the vowels I and O are important in the word.

For example a dot above this letter   makes this either a ‘s,’or a ‘sh’ sound depending on where it is placed on top; left or right. Without the vowel it would be difficult to know.

18th Century Protestant scholar, Adam Clarke wrote that the vowel-point system is actually a running commentary which was incorporated into the text itself.
In the Preface of his biblical commentary published in 1810, Adam Clarke writes:

The Masorets were the most extensive Jewish commentators which that nation could ever boast. The system of punctuation, probably invented by them, is a continual gloss on the Law and the Prophets; their vowel points, and prosaic and metrical accents, &c., give every word to which they are affixed a peculiar kind of meaning, which in their simple state, multitudes of them can by no means bear. The vowel points alone add whole conjugations to the language. This system is one of the most artificial, particular, and extensive comments ever written on the Word of God; for there is not one word in the Bible that is not the subject of a particular gloss through its influence.”

Textual tradition of the Jewish scholars known as the Masoretes (or Masorites) were (Rabbis) who copied the text.

A tradition had been handed down to carefully copy each letter in order to maintain the highest quality in preserving the written texts. No imperfection, no matter how small, was tolerated.

The Masoretes followed the Sopherim tradition, they not only counted and noted down the total number of verses, words, and letters in the text but further indicated which verse, which word, and which letter marked the center of the text. They employed a system of checks and balances to make sure that the text was copied accurately by the Scribes. Numbers were used, placed at the end of each book, telling the copyists the exact number of words that a book contained in its original manuscript. If there was different number it would then be examined. At the end of each book, the Masoretes also listed the word or the phrase that would have numerically been found in the exact middle of the book. If the copy had a few more words or a few less words than the original, the copy was discarded, stored away.

This rigorous care was taken, in order to produce an accurate consistency of the Old Testament Hebrew texts that were passed down and read in the synagogues. they believed this was the Word of God delivered to them.

The most important change the Masoretes brought to the Hebrew text was the addition of vowel points . To preserve traditional spoken readings, starting in the fifth century C. E. The Masoretic work of the Old Testament has been accepted among the Jews, Scholars today are amazed at the trustworthiness of the earliest printed version (late 15th century A.D.) Biblical scholars believed that the Masoretic texts were the best witnesses to the ancient Hebrew text of the Hebrew Bible with few exceptions. The Masoretic Text (KJV) is the version held as authoritative and used in most synagogues today and in most Protestant Christian churches use this version as their source text for modern translations of the Old Testament.

Compared to the oldest surviving codices (late 9th century A.D.). The Masoretic text is universally accepted as the authentic Hebrew Bible. Only critics and skeptics reject its accuracy.

In the 10th century C. E., the ben Asher scribal family of Tiberias produced a Hebrew manuscript that Maimonides, a famous Jewish scholar, declared to be the best known version of the sacred textThe Tiberian Masoretic text and its particular version of vowels and annotations became the standard, authoritative text of the Hebrew Bible for rabbinic Judaism.

The most significant Masoretic manuscripts are the Aleppo Codex, which dates to the 10th century C. E., and the Leningrad Codex, which dates to 1009 C. E.

Recent discoveries from the Dead Sea fragments, show that there were several different versions of many biblical books in the Second Temple period, but this does not affirm they were used in the temple or synagogues

The New Testament

They loved their culture that was based on their religion, and especially their Hebrew language, of which the Scriptures were written in. The Jews of this period could speak several languages, Greek and Aramaic, but the Jews read, and strictly spoke Hebrew in the Synagogues and the Temple.

In fact, the Hebrew is found all throughout the New Testament Greek translation that was made to non-Jews or Greek speaking Jews is filled with Hebraisms and Hebrew expressions.

Luke 1:26-38 when Gabriel spoke to Mary by what name he should be called, he was not speaking in Greek, but Hebrew. The name “Jesus” is pronounced Yeshua, in the Hebrew, the root-meaning “to save” (In Hebrew His name meaning is “Salvation”)

In Lk. 2 When Jesus is brought to the temple at 8 days old, Simeon (the priest) says ” For mine eyes have seen your salvation” Simeon speaking in Hebrew is saying “my eyes have seen your Yeshua,” the name for Jesus is salvation in Hebrew. Simeon says he is now ready to die because he has finally seen the Messiah.

Jesus in Matt. 5:18: says Not one ‘jot’ and not one ‘tittle’ will pass away…” This is a Hebrew idiom. The ‘jot’ and ‘tittle’ are two letters in the Hebrew alphabet. A ‘jot’ in Hebrew is translated as ‘yod,’ it is the smallest of all the Hebrew letters. The ‘tittle’ is the tiniest stroke of a pen, a small curve at the top of a letter like this `.

We see Hebrew phrases used throughout the New Testament. When Mary first saw Jesus after He had risen, she spoke it in her language Hebrew, “Rabboni” (John 20:16), the teacher.

Numerous times John in the New Testament refers to the Hebrew from the Greek words (Jn.5:2.19:13, 17; Rv.9:11; 16:16) the sign above Jesus in the crucifixion was in 3 language including Hebrew for all the people that were citizens.

For those who think the Hebrew is passe in the New Testament period and they spoke only Aramaic; let me point out God spoke to Paul at his conversion, on the way to Damascus, in the Hebrew language in Acts 26:14.

Paul also spoke to the people in Hebrew, found in Acts 21:37 to Acts 22:2: ‘Just as Paul was about to be taken to the barracks, he asked the commandant, “ May I say something to you?” The commandant replied, “Can you speak Greek? Are you the Egyptian who not long ago stirred up a rebellion and led those 4,000 men who were cutthroats into the wilderness? ” Paul answers, “ I am a Jew from Tarsus … I beg you allow me to address the people .” He grants Paul permission, then Paul spoke to them in Hebrew saying: “ Brethren and fathers, listen to the defense which I now make in your presence.” And when they heard that Paul addressed them in the Hebrew tongue.”

Jesus always referred to the Hebrew Bible especially on prophecy contained in the three divisions. Luke 24:44 "And He said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which werewritten in The LAW of Moses, and in The PROPHETS, and in The PSALMS, concerning Me."

The New Testament Scripture is filled with Hebrew[isms]. Saying ‘Shalom’ a common Jewish greeting translated peace (Gn.43:23). It means more than ‘peace’ as we would understand it from our language today (as no trouble or conflict). It carries the meaning ‘to be completely whole, well and prosperous. It addresses the whole being of a person; spiritually, emotionally, and physically (Lk.8:48; 24:46). Jesus in John 14:27 says, “ Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.” The New Testament Greek carried both grace (a Greek saying) and peace (Hebrew).

The Hebrew New Testament

Some of the early church ‘fathers’ (who were pastors, apologists) on the gospel of Matthew believed it was written in Hebrew to the Jews.

Irenaeus: (170 AD) “ Matthew indeed, produced his Gospel written among the Hebrews in their own dialect .”

Papias: Elder of Hierapolis (circa 150 AD) “ Matthew put down the words of the Lord in the Hebrew language and others have translated them, each as best as he could .”

Eusebius: Elder of Caesarea (circa 325 AD) “ Matthew had first preached to the Hebrews and when he was about to go to other nations, he transmitted his Gospel in writing in his native language .”

Ephiphanius: (circa 370 AD) “ The Nazarenes have the Gospel according to Matthew, complete in Hebrew, for this Gospel is kept among them as it was written, in Hebrew .”

Jerome: (circa 382 AD) “ Matthew Levi, formerly a tax collector became an emissary and an evangelist, composed a Gospel of Messiah in Judea in the Hebrew language and letters for the benefit of the Jews who believed. Who translated the Gospel into Greek is not sufficiently ascertained. Furthermore, the Hebrew writings are preserved to this day in the library at Caesarea, which Pamphilus diligently collected. I was allowed to use this copy in the Syrian city of Borea to copy it .”

History tells us that both Jerome and Ephiphanius translated the Scriptures from the Hebrew into Latin.

We have no early copies of the Masoretic text than from the 9th century. The Isaiah scroll found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, are a good 1,000, possibly 1,100 years apart from each other.  It is more like the Masoretic text than any other family of manuscripts.  Even with a lot of variation, but there is absolutely no change in the meaning.

The text of the Great Isaiah Scroll generally conforms to the Masoretic or traditional version codified in medieval codices (all 66 chapters of the Hebrew version, in the same conventional order). At the same time, however, the two thousand year old scroll contains alternative spellings, scribal errors, corrections, and most fundamentally, many variant readings. Strictly speaking, the number of textual variants is well over 2,600, ranging from a single letter, sometimes one or more words, to complete variant verse or verses.


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