Can We Trust the Masoretic Text?
Here lately I have seen many attacks on the Hebrew Masoretic Text. Many people out there claim that it contains certain readings that were altered after Yeshua's time, in order to combat the teachings of the early Believers. It is said that these sections alter prophecies that are applied to Yeshua in the NT. These people also say that the Greek Septuagint (LXX) is more accurate, because it does not contain these later alterations. They state that the NT writers quoted not from a Hebrew text, but from the LXX, and that the early "church" used the LXX far more than any Hebrew text. Thus, they conclude, we should trust it more than we do the Masoretic. Is this true? Is this indeed the route we should be taking in our quest for the Truths of Scripture? Surely no one wants a corrupted text. If your base text is corrupt, then any and every translation of it will also be corrupted (unless corrected based on a different text).
If you have not yet read my series, How We Got Our Scriptures, I suggest you go and do that first. That series will lay a foundation for what is going to be discussed here. If you already have an understanding of who the Masoretes were, what they did, and so on, then you probably know enough to continue reading. I just don't want to thrust the reader into an issue he/she knows little about.
Infallibility and Reliability
For starters, there is no doubting that a small handful of readings in the Hebrew Masoretic Text have been altered at some point. Some, no doubt, on purpose, while others were more likely accidental. We can see these alterations by comparing the Masoretic not only to the LXX, but also to the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS), the Samaritan Torah (ST), the Syriac Peshitta (SP), and the Latin Vulgate. Not only that, but in a number of these we have quotes from the NT writers that seem to quote the verse from a text other than the Masoretic.
So I will not be claiming the Masoretic text is 100% infallible. But then, without any of the autographs, I do not believe any of the texts we have today are completely infallible. I know, that may wreck your world. But, before you prepare to stone me, please let me explain. I personally believe that in the era we are now in, we have access to the 100% truth. I truly believe that. However, accessing the 100% truth may take a lot of effort. Although I do not believe any one text contains the entirely original reading, I believe that by comparing these texts and using all the evidence available to us, that we will indeed be able to achieve an original-esque text. I will explain that in this article, as well. For now, how about an example of somewhere we KNOW the Masoretic is corrupt?
Psalm 22:16 (SQV) - For dogs have surrounded me. A company of evildoers have enclosed me. They have pierced my hands and feet.
Well that seems straightforward, right? Yet the SQV uses the text of the LXX, DSS, SP, and LV. A direct translation of the Masoretic can be found in the Jewish Publication Society's (JPS) Tanakh:
Psalm 22:16 (JPS) - For dogs have encompassed me; A company of evil-doers have enclosed me; Like a lion, they are at my hands and my feet.
See the difference? And there is a reason for that, as well. You see, the Masoretic text uses the word כָּאֲרִי (ka'ari) here. This is the word ארי (ari), meaning "lion" with the kaf (כ) prefix, meaning "like/as."
So that makes sense then, right? Yet we know this verse is a rather strong reference to Yeshua's death on the tree. His hands and feet really WERE pierced. Yeshua even referenced this verse when He cried out, "My El My El, why have You forsaken Me?" (see 22:1). So what is the deal with the "lion" reference, then? Well, here is how the other versions work out.
Psalm 22:16 (Syriac Peshitta) – For dogs have encompassed me, and a congregation of evil ones has gone around me. They pierced my hands and feet.
Here, the word in question in Syriac is בזעו (b'za), meaning "to rend, dig, pierce." Now if this was meant to read "lion" it would use the word אריא (arya), but it does not. Therefore, it clearly reads, "pierce" and not "lion."
Psalm 22:16 (Greek Septuagint) - For many dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked doers has beset me round: they pierced my hands and my feet.
Here the word for "pierced" is the Greek word ωρυξεν (oruxen), which means again, "to dig." See Matthew 25:18 or Mark 12:1 for an example of how this word is used in the NT (it is translated as "dug" past tense). Note this is not the word λεων (leon), which means "lion."
Psalm 22:16 (Latin Vulgate) - For many dogs have encompassed me: the council of the malignant hath besieged me. They have dug my hands and feet.
The word for "dug" here in Latin is vinxerunt, which literally means "to dig, to bore." Notice that Jerome chose this word, and not the Latin word for "lion" which is leo.
Psalm 22:16 (Dead Sea Scrolls) - For dogs have surrounded me. A company of evildoers have enclosed me. They have pierced my hands and feet.
Here is where we find a major difference. This is the best comparison we have (in my opinion), because the Dead Sea Scrolls are Hebrew, and therefore they are not a translation, but a copy of the Hebrew text. They also predate the Masoretic by over 1,000 years.
While the other versions are translations and therefore can only be counted as secondary witnesses, the DSS should be counted as a primary witness. And in them, we find two different spellings of the word in question. Most notably, however, neither of these two spellings spell ari (lion).
These two words are: כרו (karu, found in 4QPsf), and כארו (ka'aru, found in Nahal Hever, dated to about the 1st century CE). These two spellings are the same word, the proper spelling of which is כארו. This is a form of the word כרה (karah), which means "to dig" as it is used in Gen. 26:25 to describe the digging of a well.
Now sure, it is possible that over the many years the letter Vav/Waw (ו) was mistaken for a Yod (י) in the copying process. But it is also just as likely that this minor alteration was made to combat the teachings of early believers. So this is an example of a corruption (whether purposeful or not, we cannot determine with 100% certainty) in the Masoretic text. Yet the other versions are also not without their own faults, the LXX chief among them. However, let me be clear on this point: we do not know when the text was altered. As you will see by the end of this article, we have many reasons to believe that in fact the Masoretes themselves did NOT make this alteration, but were merely copying the text that had been passed down to them.
Now before you decide to jump ship from the Masoretic and run to the loving embrace of the LXX, consider the following.
Leviticus 24:16 (SQV) - He who blasphemes the Name of YHWH, he shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall certainly stone him: the sojourner as well as the native-born, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death.
This is how it is translated from the Masoretic text. This is also how it is translated from the Dead Sea Scrolls (4QLevb), the Samaritan Torah, and the Latin Vulgate. The Syriac Peshitta uses the word פרוש (parush), which means "to separate, to depart from" the Name. In Hebrew, the word for "blaspheme" found in the Masoretic and DSS, is נקב (naqav), which means "to blaspheme, to curse." It is defined literally as, "to puncture or perforate." It implies making holes in something. This is where the LXX fails, however, to convey the actual meaning. And not only does it fail to convey the meaning of the original Hebrew word, it also goes outside the meaning of the verse and states something completely different. Note that there is a word for blaspheme in Greek, βλασφημεω (blasphemeo). It is not used here. Rather, here the word used is ονομαξον (onomaxon), which literally means "to name." Therefore the LXX reads, "Whoever names the Name of YHWH…"
Clearly this is a problem, as the Scriptures are clear that Naming the Name of YHWH is not an offense punishable by death (sorry, Rabbis). And if that were the case, then Moses, Joshua, David, Ezra, and all others would have to be put to death, because they broke this law. But clearly, as can be seen from the other texts, that is not the case.
All this to say, yes, I recognize that the Masoretic text has a few issues. However, there is no text out there that is free of issues. I intend to show that the Masoretic is, indeed, trustworthy.
The Nikkudot ('vowel points')
The next section of this article will primarily focus on the vowel system of the Masoretes. Do we know they preserved the proper pronunciation of words? How can we be sure? Why should we trust them, when we know they altered the vowels on the Name of YHWH? As we have already discussed the basic history of the Hebrew Masoretic Text in the How We Got Our Scriptures series, let's dig down a little deeper, and look at the Masoretes themselves, as well as their predecessors. Then we'll examine the innovation of their vowel pointing system.
After the destruction of the 2nd Temple in 70 CE by the Romans, the Jews were left to pick up the pieces of a shattered home, shattered religion, and shattered life. While prior to this most scribes copied the scrolls of the Tanakh inside the Temple, the new copies would have to be produced somewhere. Not much is known about the next couple of centuries in regards to copies of the Scriptures. We do know that the Greek Septuagint (LXX) became widely popular. This may, in part, be due to the fact that it was Greek and not Hebrew. The Aramaic Targumim also became popular at this time, including the Targum of Onkelos.
Then, around the 4th century CE, the process of the creation of the Talmud began. (Note: there are two Talmuds. One written in the Persian-controlled area of Babylon, and one written in Tiberias and Caesarea in Judea. Thus 'Babylonian Talmud' and 'Jerusalem Talmud'). The Talmud (discussed in a subsequent article) consists of two different compositions: The Mishnah, written in its own style of Hebrew (Mishnaic Hebrew), and The Gemara, written primarily in Aramaic. This was primarily completed by a group of ספרים (sopherim), or "scribes."
You see, beginning around the time of Yeshua (ca. 10 CE – 220 CE), the group of scribes and Rabbis were called Tannaim. Tannaim (תנאים) is the plural of Tanna (תנא), which means "repeater" or, in one sense, "teacher" (Scharfstein). This designation was used because they "repeated" (taught) the Biblical texts, as well as their traditions. After this group was a group called Amoraim (אמוראים) in Aramaic, the plural of Amora (אמורא), meaning "those who say" or, also, "spokesmen." These were the primary codifiers of the Talmud, and they existed from about 220 CE (the end of the Tannaitic era) to about 500 CE.
Around the time the Talmud was being compiled, we begin to see new vocalization systems put in place. These two major academies, Tiberias and Babylon, developed their own respective vowel pointing or "vocalization" system. Prior to these vowel systems, however, most Hebrew texts utilized what is called matres lectionis, a Latin term meaning "mothers of reading." It refers to three letters that were included in words to indicate specific vowels. These are: Waw/Vav (ו), Hei (ה), and Yod (י), respectively. The matres lectionis is frequently found in older Hebrew texts, and actually lends much credibility to later vocalization systems. We'll address that in a moment.
The reason these vocalization systems needed to be instituted was because Hebrew was being spoken less and less as a daily language. At this point, it had essentially become a strictly liturgical language. In previous times the way a word was pronounced was learned by oral tradition. This was passed down from all the Scribal eras (beginning with Ezra, according to tradition), down to the Tannaim, to the Amoraim, and then to the Masoretes.
When a Rabbi taught his student (or a father his son) the Tanakh, he would also be teaching him the way the words are pronounced. Just like I tell my son, "Say 'Dog'" and he pronounces it 'dog' even though he does not know how it is spelled. He does not pronounce it 'dug' or 'dig' or anything like that. He merely repeats the way I pronounce it when speaking to him. Now this works fine for as long as the language is living and being spoken by numerous people, but what happens when the number of native speakers begins to dwindle? The Jewish scribes recognized this problem. Even in Tiberias and Babylon the primary languages of the Jews were Aramaic and Arabic (itself being a descendant of Nabataean, which was a descendant of an Aramaic dialect) (Powell).
Thus to preserve the proper pronunciation of the Biblical Hebrew text, somewhere around the 6th Century CE, the academies began to develop what became known as nikkudot ('vowel pointings'). The earliest of these systems that scholars have identified are the "Palestinian" and "Babylonian" vocalizations. These two systems were very similar, in that they developed a system of dots and dashes that were placed above a letter to indicate its vowel. The way these worked was depending on what symbol was above a letter, the vowel following that letter would be pronounced a certain way. So for example, if the letter Lamed (ל) had a qamats vowel point (resembles a small English letter "T") over it, then you would pronounce it as "la." If it had a cholam vowel point (resembles two small vertical dots) over it, then it would be pronounced "lo." And that is how the vowel system works even today.
However, the Masoretes of Tiberias developed their own system: a modified form of the Babylonian system, called the Tiberian system. This system placed most of the symbols below the letters, rather than above them. Some are still reserved for placement above (cholam, for instance), and others are placed inside a letter (dagesh marks and shuruq vav, for instance), but for the most part, they are placed below the letters. This system became the standard for all Hebrew texts.
Now let's take a moment to review a couple things. First off, the pronunciation as we have it today has been preserved by the Masoretes, but prior to them it was preserved by oral tradition. So a certain level of faith must be exercised in trusting the Masoretic vowels. HOWEVER, we have more than just faith to believe they are CORRECT in their system, for the majority of readings. We have evidence that leads us to believing their system is correct, and we will be reviewing that. Now do keep in mind that there is also evidence to show that in some cases, readings did vary slightly in their pronunciation. This can be seen by comparing the Babylonian vocalization system as we have a handful of manuscripts that contain it, with the Tiberian system. We can also look at transliterated words in the LXX and Vulgate, as well as other early writings (such as those from Jerome). Now that in all cases, however, the different readings come about from the vowel points, and not from the consonants.
In his monumental work, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, Dr. Emanuel Tov, Hebrew language scholar, editor of the Dead Sea Scrolls project, and a chief Septuagint authority, noted the following:
"Accordingly, beyond the general agreement with regard to the understanding of the consonants, differences are recognizable in details which derive from different exegetical traditions in each of the sources in which the vocalization is expressed, including the medieval manuscripts of [the Masoretic Text]. Nevertheless, the group of [Masoretic Texts] (that is, Hebrew medieval manuscripts and such versions as the Targumim, Aquila, and Theodotion) is rather uniform, even though one should note such instances as Jer 7:3,7 recorded on p. 274. A single reading tradition for [the Masoretic Text] is also reflected in the practices of Qere and 'al tiqre, for which see pp. 58-59." (Emphasis added)
Note: the bracketed section I have included was added. In his book, Dr. Tov refers to the Masoretic tradition with a stylized M symbol which does not show up correctly in webform. Thus I have replaced this M symbol (which he uses as a short-hand form of standing in for the Masoretic Text) with the bracketed sections above.
Dr. Tov notes that despite there being different traditions existing, they are still in overall agreement. This includes agreement between Aquila's Septuagint, written early in the 2nd Century CE, and Theodotion's Septuagint, written about 150 CE, as well as the Aramaic Targumim (most likely Targum Jonathan and Targum Onkelos). The similarities between Targum Onkelos and Aquila's Septuagint may be expected, if Aquila is indeed the same person as Onkelos, as many believe.
But as for the similarities between these early Greek texts with the Masoretic of the medieval period, this gives great credence to the text preserved by the Masoretes. In fact, Origen and Jerome both praised Aquila's version of the LXX, and Origen incorporated both it and Theodotion's versions in his Hexapla (Chrisholm).
Now what Dr. Tov indicates when he makes reference to Jer. 7, is the slight difference in wording in the Masoretic majority vs. some manuscripts of the LXX (though not all), a handful of Masoretic manuscripts, and the Latin Vulgate. The difference is found in two Hebrew words, particularly in 7:7. These are וְשָׁכַנְתִי (ve'sha'khan'ti) and אִתְכֶם (it'khem), meaning "and I shall dwell with you." This reading is found in one particular Masoretic manuscript, and it agrees with the Latin Vulgate. The majority of Masoretic and Septuagint manuscripts, however, read וְשִׁכַּנְתִי (ve'shi'kan'ti) and אֶתְכֶם (et'khem), meaning "and I shall cause you to dwell." Notice the major theological difference here. One reading states that Elohim will cause the people to dwell in the land, while the other says He will dwell WITH THEM in the land.
While many people will claim that context alone is sufficient to determine which set of vowels are correct, that is not always the case. In the case of the above, note that the consonants are identical, and the vowels are the only difference. In our above examples, the Greek versions of the standard Septuagint, as well as the Targumim, and the Syriac Peshitta, all agree with the majority Masoretic reading. However, the Latin Vulgate, Aquila, and a small number of fragmentary Masoretic manuscripts agree with the alternate reading. So with that evidence present, then we must decide: which reading is more likely to be original? In the Jer. 7 example, scholars are still divided as to the original. Jerome seems to have taken the minority view and followed with Aquila's version, though the majority of evidence still swings in favor of the Masoretic's originality, especially since the original Septuagint also reads the same way. Jerome may have believed Aquila's rendering to be more accurate, and thus copied it. Or perhaps it suited his theology better. Either way, it is my view that the evidence is in support of the Masoretic having preserved the better reading. Unfortunately we cannot turn to the Dead Sea Scrolls, as no known fragment has preserved these particular verses. Surely the reader can see now the importance of having the correct vowel pointings. Even without altering the spelling of the word, different vowel signs indicate different parts of speech.
Another reason the vowels were seen as necessary was to prevent perversion of the text. As we have already seen, depending on the vowels used we can see differences in how the wording of the text can change. So while many may accuse the Masoretes of inventing these, or altering these, WHAT IF they merely preserved the accuracy of the text, seeking to KEEP IT FROM being perverted? A great example can be seen in the 7th century CE, during the rise of the Arab Caliphate.
Arabic was rising to prominence as a spoken language, and with it all the translations of classical Greek works. While Europe had mostly been spared the influence of Greek literature at this time, the Arabs had translated much of it into their own tongue. As their language spread, so did access to these works, which the Jews viewed as a threat to Judaism. In 636 CE, Tiberias (which had been under Byzantine control) fell to the Arab armies. Aristotelian and Platonic philosophy and ideology began to spread throughout Jewish communities. The Christian church had already seen this influx when it mixed with Rome, but Judaism had worked hard to distance itself. Pseudepigraphal works produced by Gnostics, as well as books such as Sefer Yetsira (Book of Creation, claimed to be by Abraham the Patriarch) began to circulate and gain traction. Many of these works re-told the Genesis account of Creation, but filled it with Platonic and neo-Plantonic theories and philosophies. A Persian Jew, Hivi al-Balkhi, a Gnostic convert, even produced a version of Scripture in which all "offensive" material had been removed. This was being passed along as Scripture! (British & Foreign Bible Society).
This led to an even great push to standardize the vocalization of the Hebrew text. With so many leaving the faith and pushing back against the tradition that had been handed down, people began to read and interpret the text however they wanted to suit their ideals. Thus the need for a text that was not only pronounced the same, but also INTERPRETED the same was felt.
Now then, back to the Masoretes. Let's review the information regarding the people themselves. For one, they did not speak Hebrew as natives. As already mentioned, they spoke primarily Aramaic languages. And yet we see very little Aramaic influence in the spelling and pronunciation of Masoretic Hebrew texts. Now to be fair, there are entire sections of the Bible that were written in Aramaic (half of Daniel, a verse in Jeremiah, a section of Ezra, etc.). Yet in the vocalization we find that the Masoretic style of pronunciation does not follow the guidelines of Aramaic pronunciation.
Comparison: MT and the DSS (Photo of Exodus 9:29 from the Dead Sea Scrolls (main image) and Joshua 1:1 from the Aleppo Codex, a 10th Century Masoretic manuscript.)
This brings us back to the matres lectionis. When comparing many words in the Masoretic Text to those found in the Dead Sea Scrolls (which are 1000 years older, and contain no vowel pointing), we find something very interesting. We find that many words that are written in the Masoretic text actually contain extra letters in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Here's an example.
This is how the Masoretic Text, with vowel points, writes the name of Moses in Exodus 9:29: מֹשֶׁה. Note the cholam vowel (dot above the top left of the mem (מ)) pronounced "oh," and the shin dot (dot on the top right leg of the shin, (ש)) making it sh instead of s, as well as the segol vowel (three dots under the shin) making an "eh" sound. So in pronouncing it, we get Moh-sheh, or Mosheh. Now let's look at it in 2Q2EXa (Qumran scroll 2 from cave 2, Exodus, fragment a).
This is how this scroll records the name of Mosheh: מושה. Mem, vav (waw), shin, hei. Note that it contains an EXTRA waw? That is because this is matres lectionis, the process of adding additional consonants that can double as vowels. Here the waw is used to represent a vowel sound. You can actually see this difference in the image above, where I have drawn red lines between each letter. Note that the Masoretic has mem-shin-hei, and the DSS has mem-waw-shin-hei.
Here's another example, this time the word Elohekha from Deut. 16:6. This is the second-person possessive form of "Elohim" meaning "your Elohim."
In the Masoretic text, it appears thusly: אֱלֹהֶיךָ. It has the chataf segol vowel under the alef ('e), the cholam vowel just to the left of the lamed (oh), the segol vowel under the hei (eh), and the qamets vowel under the final khaf (ah). This produces the following, according to Masoretic Hebrew: 'E-lo-he-khah, or Elohekha. Now let's look at it in 1Q4DEUTa.
This is how this scroll records this word: אלוהיכה. Note not one, but TWO additional letters: the vav (waw) after the lamed, and the hei at the very end. This is still pronounced the same way, it merely alters the spelling using matres lectionis. Here the added waw carries the long o, like the cholam vowel, and the hei at the end carries the "ah" sound that is produced by the qamets vowel.
So we can see from these examples that the Masoretes seem to have preserved the pronunciation of pre-Masoretic texts, even BEFORE there was a vowel system in place. And there are many such variations as these.
The Waw/Vav/Uau Conundrum
Next, on to one major question that seems to REPEATEDLY come up: what sound does the 6th letter of the Hebrew alphabet make? You may have noticed that I go back and forth between vav and waw. This is because there is a quite heated debate as to the pronunciation of this letter. To be sure, modern Hebrew uses the letter as a vav (v), without a doubt. But most grammarians, Semitic linguists, and lexicographers will all agree that originally, the letter was a waw (w). So what about that uau (u) thing? Well let's address that too, because it seems to be coming up a lot.
If you haven't yet heard, there are a number of people out there teaching that the letter is not a waw or a vav, but a uau, pronounced solely as a "u." (Like the "oo" in "moon"). This is the basis for the understanding that most people who say "Yahuah" instead of "Yahweh" or "Yehovah" use to claim the sound is a "u" not a "w" or "v." But we must ask the question…is there any merit to this? By far, the most prominent supporter of this theory is Lew White, some of whose teachings I have addressed elsewhere. Now I'm not just picking on Lew, but his reasoning seems to be that which is most often repeated by those who believe this theory.
Now you will need to note something before we dig into this: you will not find the letter waw (vav) expressed or written as 'uau' in any Semitic grammar, lexicon, or language text. You may see it as wau, but never as uau. However, those that support this claim will say that modern grammarians are wrong, because they base their understanding on the Masoretic Text, which was corrupted. They will then say that originally, it was a uau, and made the "oo" sound mentioned above. They will also generally point out how the Greek alphabet was a descendant from the Phoenician (which was also borrowed by the Hebrews; this is what is known as Paleo-Hebrew). They will tell you that the letter Upsilon (Υ) in Greek (pronounced as a U ("oo") in Ancient Greek) actually derived from the 6th letter of the Phoenician / Paleo-Hebrew alphabet, uau. This, they say, supports their claim that the 6th letter is actually a uau, not a waw or vav, since the Greek alphabet, which contains vowels, clearly uses it as such.
Now any linguist will tell you there is very little difference in the sound a w and a u make when pronounced as a vowel. You may be sitting there now thinking, "w isn’t a vowel!" Well actually, that is not true. The phrase we learned in school when learning English used to go, "A, E, I, O, U. And sometimes Y and W." Later, we dropped the w and only left the "sometimes Y" in there. But there is actually an English word whose sole vowel IS a w, and that is the word cwm (pronounced koom). It is defined as, "a half-open steep-sided hollow at the head of a valley or on a mountainside, formed by glacial erosion." (OxfordDictionaries). So this may seem silly, but it illustrates my point that the consonant 'w' as we know it, CAN have a functioning vowel sound of "oo." So does this, then, support their claim that waw is actually a uau? No.
If we take the time to study other Semitic languages (Akkadian, Ugaritic, Aramaic, Ethiopic, etc.) along WITH Hebrew, we tend to notice some very interesting similarities. For instance, the Hebrew word El ("God") is represented by the Akkadian 'Il, and the Arabic Al. The Hebrew Eloah is found in the Syriac Aramaic Alaha, the Arabic Allah, and so on. These words are called cognates, and refer to words that share a root. When we study these other languages together, we find that many of them share very similar alphabets as well. For instance, Ugaritic has a primary alphabet of 30 characters, but it shares a reduced alphabet of 22 characters in common with most other later Semitic languages. The Hurrian language was actually written in the Ugaritic alphabet (and such was common practice; just as Hebrew is now written in the Aramaic script). Akkadian had close to 20 different letters, but its cuneiform script was written with hundreds of different symbols to represent entire sounds and, in some cases, words, rather than a sound for each letter.
Aramaic of course has the exact same alphabet as Hebrew, as does Phoenician. The Ethiopic alphabet has 26 letters. The Sabaean language was written in the South Arabian alphabet (as was early proto-Ge'ez Ethiopic), which contained 29 letters.
So, all that to say, we can take a look at these languages (particularly for our example Aramaic, Phoenician, Ugaritic, and Ethiopic) to see how the ancient Near Eastern languages developed together. We could also include Egyptian, but there were MANY dialects, and MANY writing styles, both in script and in hieroglyphics.
So for starters, let's look at the letters that these four other languages have in common with Hebrew, and the name of each letter. For the sake of clarity, Ar = Aramaic, Ph = Phoenician, Ug = Ugaritic, and Et = Ethiopic. I will give the Hebrew name of the letter, then list the name of the letter in each of the four languages here:
· Alef (Ar: Alap; Ph: Alep; Ug: Alpa; Et: Alf)
· Bet (Ar: Beth; Ph: Bet; Ug: Beta; Et: Bet)
· Gimel (Ar: Gamal; Ph: Gaml; Ug: Gamla; Et: Gaml)
· Dalet (Ar: Dalat; Ph: Delt; Ug: Delta; Et: Dant)
· Hei (Ar: Hei; Ph: He; Ug: Ho; Et: Hoy)
· Waw/Vav (Ar: Waw; Ph: Wau; Ug: Wo; Et: Wawe)
· Zayin (Ar: Zain; Ph: Zai; Ug: Zeta; Et: Zay)
· Chet (Ar: Cheth; Ph: Chet; Ug: Chota; Et: Chawt)
· Tet (Ar: Teth; Ph: Tet; Ug: Tet; Et: Tayt)
· Yod (Ar: Yud; Ph: Yod; Ug: Yod; Et: Yaman)
· Kaf (Ar: Kaf; Ph: Kaf; Ug: Kaph; Et: Kaf)
· Lamed (Ar: Lamedh; Ph: Lamd; Ug: Lamda; Et: Lawe)
· Mem (Ar: Mem; Ph: Mem; Ug: Mem; Et: May)
· Nun (Ar: Nun; Ph: Nun; Ug: Nun; Et: Nahas)
· Samekh (Ar: Samekh; Ph: Semk; Ug: Samka; Et: Sat)
· Ayin (Ar: Ain; Ph: Ain; Ug: Ain; Et: 'Ayn)
· Pei (Ar: Pei; Ph: Pe; Ug: Pu; Et: Psa)
· Tsade (Ar: Tsade; Ph: Sade; Ug: Sade; Tsaday)
· Qof (Ar: Qof; Ph: Qof; Ug: Qopa; Et: Qaph)
· Resh (Ar: Resh; Ph: Rosh; Ug: Rasha; Et: R'es)
· Shin (Ar: Shin; Ph: Shin; Ug: Shin; Et: Shawt)
· Tav (Ar: Taw; Ph: Tau; Ug: To; Et: Tawe)[i]
So we can see here that every letter in the Hebrew language has a counterpart with essentially the same consonantal pronunciation as Hebrew. (Note: Ethiopic and Ugaritic contain other letters in addition to these 22).
Note especially how the letter waw has a counterpart in each of the four other languages, ALL of which are pronounced as a waw (w), not a uau (u), or even a vav (v). Now it is true, numerous Jewish communities both in the Land and outside of it around the 1st Century and just prior, did see a shift from the waw to the vav, so this letter is attested fairly early. Samaritan Hebrew also saw this shift. But as we can see from these older languages, the original was a w.
Also, one more point should be made. In Ugaritic, as mentioned, there are some additional letters. This includes the second-to-last letter of the Ugaritic alphabet, called simply "U" (OO). That's right, the Ugaritic alphabet contains a separate letter for "u" than its letter Wo (equivalent to the Hebrew Waw, or W). Now, if this letter (Wo) were pronounced as the "uau" that people claim it is in Hebrew, we must wonder why they would have a separate one for the "u" sound.
Now then, as for the Greek letter Upsilon: does it derive from the Semitic Waw / Uau? In fact yes, it does. But only out of necessity for a "u" vowel. As already mentioned, the waw consonant CAN carry a vowel sound of "u." However, what these people tend to forget is that the Greek alphabet present today is NOT the same alphabet that existed when it first borrowed the Phoenician characters. In fact, the Archaic Greek language of the Southern dialect (others existed, but the oldest is the Southern, found primarily in and around Crete. This is because the Phoenician trade routes ran along coast of the sea and up into Crete. Later, more northerly dialects came about after that, when the language began to spread north across the Aegean Sea), did not even have the letter Omega (Ω). In this early Archaic Greek dialect, they actually INCLUDED an extra letter that is not present in the Greek alphabet today, as well as excluded the letters Omega, Psi, and Phi. (Kirchoff).
In particular, this added letter is called Digamma, and looks like our letter F. This letter produces a "w" sound, and was the 6th letter of the Greek alphabet. (Woodard). Now you may wonder why you've never heard of this before. Well, simply put, it generally has no bearing on the Bible. You see, the letter digamma (waw) fell out of use prior to the Classical Period, even before the 7th Century BC. The Greek Septuagint was not translated until hundreds of years later, and the NT even later than that. So this letter was not present in the Koine Greek alphabet used to transcribe Biblical texts. The letter DID, however, remain in use in its alternate form, identical to final sigma (ς), which resembles the letter "C." This was used to denote the number 6 in some NT manuscripts, as it was, at one time, the 6th letter of the alphabet. This can actually be seen in Papyrus 115, a fragment of Revelation, where the mark of the beast is said to be the number 616. This is given as three letters: Xi (Ξ) = 600, Iota (Ι) = 10, and digamma [also called stigma] (ς) = 6. This is not the time or place to discuss why it reads 616 and not 666, but I'll sum it up by saying that is a common variant found among many manuscript copies of Revelation. However, the reading of 666 is still more prevalent and contains perhaps the best evidence.
So the Greek Digamma (waw) actually backs up the theory that the Hebrew letter is a waw instead of a vav or uau. The Greek borrowed their original alphabet from the Phoenicians, including their 6th letter, which was a 'w.'
I hope this is enough sufficient information on the topic, though I have no doubt there will be many that will claim this is all not true. I invite anyone to disprove it. And if you can, I will amend the article.
Outside Support for Masoretic Pronunciation
The next thing I want to look at in regards to the Masoretes and their pronunciation, is how well other languages attest to that pronunciation. What I mean by this is, when Hebrew words were transliterated into Greek, Latin, or Aramaic, how were THOSE words pronounced in the language they were carried into? This also goes into why I pronounce certain names the way I do. For instance, writing the name Hoshea in English (as I just did) is easy, as we possess all the necessary letters to make the proper sounds. This is not so easy in other languages, however. For instance, Greek has no "sh" sound, nor does it have a letter for "h" (though later produced by adding a diacritical mark above the preceding letter). So the closest I can spell "Hoshea" in Greek is Osea. In fact, we find that the Greek form in the LXX is Ωσηε (pronounced Oh-say-eh, or Ose'e).
Among today's Torah Observant folks, a lot of misinformation is circulating. Also a lot of assumption. I have shared a wonderful article written by a friend of mine already regarding the Name of Messiah and its pronunciation. However, I want to reiterate a point. There is a REASON scholars pronounce the Name of Messiah as Yeshua. Now we have countless "Armchair Theologians" and "Blog University" Ph.Ds out there (yes, that is sarcasm) who claim otherwise. They come up with neat exegetical tricks, and "fascinating" linguistic gymnastics and in the end, they "prove" how they pronounce the Name is "correct." Yet it has been my experience that not even one of these has any experience in actual linguistics, and indeed most can hardly even read Hebrew. I challenge people to find a single Semitic, Hebrew, Greek, Biblical or even theological scholar out there who actually says the Messiah's true name is "Yahshua" or "Yahushua." You won't find one. Not because they "deny" what His real Name is, or because they've been deceived. Real Biblical and language scholars agree: His Name is Yeshua. And there are concrete REASONS for that. But still, I continue to encourage people to pronounce (or not) the Messiah's Name however they desire. I simply want to be as accurate as possible.
That rant was all to lead into the next section. I do not say "Yahushua" or "Yahudah" or "Yahshayahu" or "Yashar'al" or "Yah'rmeyahu" or anything like that. I say "Yehoshua" and "Yehudah" and "Yeshayahu" and "Yisra'el" and "Yirmeyahu." Why? Because that is how the Masoretic vowels on those names are pronounced. But not only this, they are also backed up in the early translations. Let's look at them.
Anglicized form: Joshua.
Masoretic form: Yehoshua.
Greek Septuagint (LXX) form: Iesous.
Latin Vulgate form: Iosue.
Syriac Peshitta form: Yeshua (interesting, isn’t it?).
Anglicized form: Judah.
Masoretic form: Yehudah.
LXX form: Ioudas.
Vulgate form: Iudas.
Peshitta form: Yehudah.
Anglicized form: Isaiah.
Masoretic form: Yeshayahu.
LXX form: Esaias.
Vulgate form: Isaiae.
Peshitta form: Eshaya.
Anglicized form: Israel.
Masoretic form: Yisra'el.
LXX form: Israel.
Vulgate form: Israhel.
Peshitta form: Isra'iyl.
Anglicized form: Jeremiah.
Masoretic form: Yirmeyahu.
LXX form: Ieremias.
Vulgate form: Hieremias.
Peshitta form: Eremya.
Note the similarities in all these various forms. For instance, they generally always preserve the first vowel sound, though in some cases they skip the first vowel and only preserve the second. In Yehoshua, the schewa vowel (a very short vowel, like the 'a' in "about") is sometimes written with an apostrophe instead of with an e, as Y'hoshua. It is sometimes also written with an upside down 'e' as ə. Note in all the variants listed, none of them include a long "a" vowel, as we would expect to find in "Yahushua." In Greek, Yehoshua is written as Ιησους (Iesous, pronounced 'iay-soos); yet if the proper pronunciation were Yahushua, we would expect it to be written as Ιασους (Iasous, 'iah-soos), or even as Ιαυσους (Iausous, 'iah-oo-sous). It is not. In Jerome's Vulgate, he preserved the second vowel sound, the long o, (YehOshua) in his form: Iosue. Note that he did not write it as Iasue, or Iahusue, or anything like that. Lastly, the Peshitta borrows from the later form of Yeshua (ישוע) and uses it. Again, they could have written it as Yashua, or as Yahushua, but they did not.
Next we see the same thing for Judah, except this time both Greek and Latin preserved the second vowel sound, the "oo" and the last vowel, the long a "ah" sound. The Peshitta merely transliterates this name with the same letters it is written in in Hebrew.
For Isaiah, we note that the Greek form, Esias, would be pronounced Ee-sa-yas, or (without the mandatory Greek sigma suffix) Eesaya. This actually preserves the sound very well, given that Greek has no "sh" or "y" sounds. In the Vulgate the Latin form Isaiae would be pronounced Ee-sa-ya-e, or Eesayae. Close, though closer to the LXX than it is the Masoretic. The Peshitta here actually spells the name without a Yod, but otherwise preserves the sound.
For Israel, the Greek form is spelled 'Ισραηλ ('Israel) which is as close to the Masoretic pronunciation as you can get. It is pronounced 'Ees-ra-el. The Vulgate adds an extra "h" into it, but otherwise pronounces it the same: Ees-ra-hel. The Peshitta spells it with an Alap at the beginning, not a Yud, but the pronunciation it gives is Ees-ra-eel. All of these forms could have written it with a long a "ah" vowel, as Yasrael, or Yasra'al, yet none of them did.
For Jeremiah, the Greek form Ieremias is pronounced Eer-em-yas, or (without the mandatory Greek sigma), Eer-em-ya. This almost perfectly preserves the vowel sounds. The Vulgate adds an odd "h" to the beginning, and it gives a pronunciation of Heer-em-yas. The Peshitta again takes liberty with its spelling, and gives the pronunciation of Er-em-ya.
It is also worth noting that both the LXX and the Peshitta were translated by Jews. (Burkitt). That being the case, why would Jews of that time purposely alter their own Scriptures?
All this to say, the Masoretic text preserves what is clearly pre-Masoretic pronunciation of names. The Syriac Peshitta can be dated to around the early 2nd Century AD, nearly 800 years older than our best Masoretic text. The Latin Vulgate dates to the 5th Century AD, about 500 years older. And the Greek Septuagint dates to about the 3rd Century BCE! That predates the Masoretic by more than 1,200 years! And what is more, is that the LXX seems to agree with the Masoretic in its pronunciation MORE than the others. The LXX attests to a pre-Christian era Hebrew text, which predates the Masoretic by more than a millennium. This alone should give us great confidence in the vowel system that was perfected by the Masoretes, as it is "backed up" by the LXX.
The Masorah and Qere / Kethiv (Note the variant spellings in the margins of Masoretic manuscripts, highlighted in the image shown in blue and yellow.)
The next thing we will look at is what happened when the Masoretes made changes. The Masoretes were, indeed, traditionalists. They were wonderful, scrupulous scribes, and they went through great lengths to produce a pure text. Somewhere between Ezra the scribe and the time of the Masoretes, the scribes would count every letter. (Green). In Hebrew, each letter has a numerical value. Think of it like Roman numerals. I = 1, V = 5, X = 10, and so on. So one of the ways the scribes would ensure that every text contained the same readings, was to add up the values of every letter on every line. So for instance, if Genesis 1:1 filled one entire line on a Hebrew Torah scroll by itself, and the value of all of the letters in 1:1 added together equaled 2721, then the scribe would know what value that line should have at the end of the day. Now if the scribe, or someone overseeing the project, came later and the value for that line only added up to 2718, then they would know the copyist messed up. In most cases, this meant the entire scroll had to be thrown out.
Now as already mentioned, the Masoretes were copyists. That is, they produced copies of the Tanakh. However, their original and primary occupation was as redactors and emendators. That is, they edited existing copies of the Tanakh which contained errors, and primarily they added the vocalization (vowel) markings. One of the ways they did this was by instituting what is known as qere and kethiv. These are two words, qere (meaning "what is read") and kethiv (meaning "what is written.") In our printed copies of the Tanakh today, this is generally noted by using parentheses and brackets, but back then the simply wrote in the margins. A qere/kethiv variant is where a word is misspelled in the text. Rather than scrap the text, they would write the proper spelling in the margin, and place a little circle on the word that was incorrect. A qere is how the word should be pronounced, that is, how it should be read. A kethiv is how the word should be written. The Masoretes would not alter the text as it was written, even if their tradition had taught it should be spelled otherwise. Even in places where the vowels for pronunciation they added were disputed (such as Yerushalayim, vs. Yerushaleim), they did not alter the consonants of the text. (Tov). Rather, they would write the corrected spelling in the margin, allowing the reader to know to read the variant from the margin, rather than the original in the text. This is yet another testament to the reliability of the Masoretic Text.
And on the subject of these marginal notes, that is perhaps the greatest gift the Masoretes have had to give. The margin is usually split into two types: the Masorah magna and the Masorah parva. These Latin terms mean "great" and "small" respectively, and refer to the upper and lower margins of the manuscripts. In these margins the Masorete scribes wrote down everything they did. Every correction they made, every variant spelling, and even noted when a word occurred only a handful of times throughout the Tanakh (Google "hapax legomena").
By now, you may have heard or read that the Masorete scribes changed the Hebrew Name of YHWH to "Adonai" over 130 times, and about a dozen times from YHWH to "Elohim." Well that is true, they did copy it as Adonai (or Elohim) instead of YHWH over 130 times. But do you know how we KNOW they did? Even prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we already knew about the 134 places that had been changed. And how did we know that? Because the Masoretes TOLD US! That's right, they made notes about those alterations, just as they did everything else. Now various reasons have been given as to WHY those changes were made, but perhaps the most prominent theory being that the Masoretes believed the ORIGINAL reading to actually not contain YHWH's Name, but rather the word which they sought to alter it to. Think about it. These scribes and emendators were so careful, they knew the numerical value for every line in the Hebrew text. If they were in on some conspiracy to alter YHWH's Name or even remove it from the text, don't you think they would have done that to the other 7000 times His Name occurs? Do we honestly think they changed 130 places out of malicious intent, and yet LEFT nearly 7000 other places untouched? Absurd.
Scribal Requirements (Image shows a professional sofer [scribe] working on a Torah scroll)
One last thing to look at. You may have heard that there are various laws dictated in Judaism (in fact, and entire section of the Talmud is devoted to it) to determine how a copy of the Tanakh scroll must be produced. Here are those laws (Wegner):
· Only parchment made from clean animals, joined together by thread made from clean animals.
· Each column could have no fewer than 48 lines, and no more than 60, and the breadth of each line must consist of 30 letters.
· The page first must be lined, and the letters suspended from it.
· The ink must be black, prepared according to a specific recipe.
· Not even a single letter could be written from memory: it must be copied from the source text exactly.
· Various spacing rules, such as the space of a hair between letters, and the space of a small letter between words.
· The scribe must was himself entirely and be fully clothed before commencing.
· He could not write the Name YHWH with a newly dipped brush, and could not take notice of anyone, even a king, while writing the Name. (Note: This means once he began to write the Name, even if the king demanded his attention, he could not stop until the Name was completed)
· No obsolete characters (such as Paleo-Hebrew) could be used, or characters other than the shared Hebrew/Aramaic alphabet (called the Ashuri script).
· No letter could be written in gold.
· A scroll written by a Sadducee, convert, slave, woman, minor, or madman (lit. "crazy person") could not be used in an "official" capacity at the synagogue.
· The following words could not be erased: El ('God'), ad (first two letters of 'Adonai'), Yah (first two letters of YHWH, as well as the poetic short form of the Name), Shaddai, Tsevaot (commonly "Sabaoth" meaning "hosts, armies."), and ehyeh asher ehyeh ('I am that which I am').
More rules were developed later that dictated how to care for a scroll, how to preserve it, and how to remind the scribe that what he was copying was sacred. Due to the fact that they truly believed they were copying and transmitting a sacred text, we have yet further reason to trust that they did so correctly. Even though there were slight stylistic changes to the language itself (the eventual change from waw to vav, for example), the language has still been so carefully preserved. (Gesenius).
In conclusion, I hope you can see now that the Masoretic Text truly is the most reliable text we have. I personally believe that we should still study the LXX, Samaritan Torah, Peshitta, Vulgate, and especially the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, I believe these should supplement our base text for translations, not replace it. To be sure, a complete understanding of the history of the transmission of the Tanakh shows WHY the Hebrew text, even now, can be considered reliable. And even those handful of textual corruptions can be identified through the process of textual criticism, and by comparing the various other versions. This does not mean these versions are better, however, as they contain corruptions of their own.
As to the supposed v/w/u controversy, I also hope this article has offered some clarity. Of course, I don't want you to just take my word for it. I want everyone to go out and look it up for themselves. The resources are freely available on the Internet. Don't take my word for it, and don't take the word of those that are teaching "new" and "sensational" teachings, as well. Look it up. It is our responsibility as Believers to look into these matters, and to test everything. We have access to an infinite wealth of information due our access to the Internet. The Truth is out there. Don't let it become clouded by the faux-scholars and Armchair Theologians that are gaining such popularity for having the "next big thing."
I pray this study has blessed you. Be Berean. Shalom.
 All letter names from the UNICODE Standard 8.0, from Unicode.org.
British & Foreign Bible Society. The Masoretes and the Punctuatin of Biblical Hebrew. 2 May 2002. .pdf.
Burkitt, Francis Crawford. Early Eastern Christianity. 1904.
Chrisholm, Hugh. Encylopaedia Britannica, 11th Ed.; "Aquila". 1911.
Gesenius, Wilhelm. Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar. London: Clarendon Press, 1909.
Green, William Henry. General Introduction to the Old Testament - The Text. n.d.
Kirchoff, Adolf. Studien zur Geschichte des griechischen Alphabets. 1867.
OxfordDictionaries. Oxford English Dictionary; "Cwm". n.d. 01 08 2015.
Powell, Herbert Harry. The Supposed Hebraisms in the Grammar of Biblical Aramaic. University of California, 1907.
Scharfstein, Sol. Torah and Commentary: The Five Books of Moses. 2008.
Tov, Emanuel. Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2001.
Wegner, Paul. The Journey from Texts to Translations. Baker Academic, 1999.
Woodard, Roger D. "Phoinikeia grammata: An Alphabet for the Greek Language." Bakker, Egbert J. A Companion to the Ancient Greek Language. Oxford: Blackwell, n.d. 30.
5/30/2017 07:52:02 pm
So if the number of the beast in Revelation is 616 and not 666 how do we recognize this symbol today? In the greek or paleo hebrew ? And accordingly , what would the Name of the Beast ,given to us from the number 616 be? What is the number 616 telling us so that we o have eyes to see and understand His wisdom?
2/5/2019 10:04:41 am
Thank you for your thorough and diligent study of the Masoretic Text. It was excellent and galvanized my adherence to this rendering of the Scriptures. Blessings and shalom!
2/5/2019 10:07:48 am
6/5/2019 08:50:18 am
I would like to add to your sentence above on Leviticus 24:16 "Rather, here the word used is ονομαξον (onomaxon), which literally means "to name." Therefore the LXX reads, "Whoever names the Name of YHWH…" - In the interlinear translation Apostolic Bible (www.apostolicbible.com) Leviticus 24:16a is "And the one naming the name of the LORD to death let him be put to death!" - in a such a way the translation implies that the one who uses the name of the Lord for cursing or similar with the intention to cause death. It is not a simple "naming" or just "to name", but an use with a specific purpose to cause death. Appropriate translation and the context helps in the understanding and clarifies the meaning. What do you think about that?
5/15/2022 03:56:10 pm
Septuagint all the way!
5/17/2022 04:54:28 am
Thank you for confirming what I wrote!
Thank you for this article. About the writing "מושה", I checked the Dead Sea Scrolls and I saw in a number of places the normal writing משה. I know Hebrew from birth. And even in the picture you chose from the scrolls, it’s possible to see that if we take the first line off, the one that separates the מ and a supposed ו, it’s really just a big מ. God bless you!
6/23/2019 03:14:45 pm
Yes, the Dead Sea Scrolls are a rather eclectic mix of writings and styles, and run the gauntlet of languages, even. Hebrew, Chaldean, Greek, and even Nabataean writings. There are plenty of them that do not employ the matriis lectionis, though there are plenty that do. The one I included in the example you referenced is from 2Q2, which can be observed on the Dead Sea Scrolls site. If you need another example, there is also the Exodus 19 fragment found in 2Q3, which similarly includes the additional vav in the name of Moshe.
2/12/2023 04:24:44 pm
The only issue I have with this detailed article is that it is no longer is a legitimate authority on the original Hebrew Bible. It was fashioned intentionally by MEN, who made it a language NOBODY KNEW during the days of ABRAHAM, MOSES, and OTHERS! In other words, the text changed from a biblical inspired language, to one NO ONE SPOKE except MEN who added dots, dashes and vowels.
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J. A. Brown