MOSES THROUGH TIME

 

If Moses had a copy of today’s Hebrew Bible, he wouldn’t be able to read it.

Just imagine . . . You discover a time-machine, you travel back to the year 1425 B.C., and you meet Moses face-to-face. You excitedly tote along your favourite Hebrew/English interlinear Bible, complete with the Masoretic text and its English translation. You look forward to showing Moses his own writings in print, transported over three thousand years in time.

To your surprise and disappointment, Moses just shrugs at the text, and leers at you with an odd look on his face. You show him the Ten Commandments, yet Moses has no clue how to read it. He gladly acknowledges his encounter with God on Mt. Sinai, but he says this text looks nothing like what God wrote on those two stone tablets.

In desperation, you focus on the most important word in the entire Old Testament. The Tetragrammaton. The all-holy four-letter name of God. YHWH. Surely Moses will immediately recognize the Hebrew inscription for God’s name!

 

 

To your dismay, Moses says this word is just as foreign as everything else you have shown him. Moses writes the Lord’s name himself, hoping to teach you the proper way to write it. This word, too, is four letters. But it looks as foreign to you as your text looks to Moses.

You return home, disappointed, but wiser. The next time someone gushes with excitement about the “ancient Hebrew text”, and the ability to “read the same words Moses wrote”, you don’t share their excitement. You hold your peace, and you meditate on God’s awesome ability to preserve His Truth from generation to generation, even if He has not preserved the original text of Scripture.

 

Most of the Old Testament scriptures were written in Paleo-Hebrew, or a closely related derivative. Generally considered to be an offshoot of ancient Phoenician script, Paleo-Hebrew represents the pen of David, the script of Moses, and perhaps even the Finger of God on the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments.

 

Modern Hebrew, on the other hand, is not quite so ancient.  Israelites acquired this new alphabet from Assyria (Persia), somewhere around the 6th-7th century B.C.    This was the same general time period as Israel’s exile to Babylon . . . many centuries after most of the Old Testament was written.

Initially, the Old Testament Scriptures were exclusively written in Paleo-Hebrew.
Then, after borrowing the new alphabet from the Assyrians, the Jews began transliterating large portions of Scripture into the newer version.

The Samaritan Pentateuch uses the Samaritan alphabet, which is closely related to Paleo-Hebrew. It is likely that much of this text looks similar to what Moses and David saw in the original copies of the Old Testament. The Masoretic Text differs from the Samaritan Pentateuch in over 6,000 places.

But old habits die hard.  Especially with religion. Especially in regard to the name of God. For a period of time, Jews transcribed the majority of the Old Testament using the new Hebrew alphabet, while retaining the more ancient way of writing God’s name. Thus, for a while, the Hebrew Scriptures were written with a mixture of two different alphabets. Even after the Jews began exclusively using the new Assyrian letters to copy the text of Scripture, the more ancient Paleo-Hebrew letters persisted in some corners of Jewish society. As late as the 2nd century A.D., during the Bar Kokhba revolt, Jewish coins displayed writing with the ancient Paleo-Hebrew script.

 

~135 A.D. – This coin struck during the Bar Kokhba revolt demonstrates usage of the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet in the early 2nd century.

 

Eventually, though, the newer Assyrian alphabet won the day. No new copies were being made of the ancient text, and the earliest copies of Scripture eventually disintegrated. By the time of Christ, the only existing copies of the Old Testament had either been transliterated into modern Hebrew, or translated into Greek (in the Septuagint). One exception is the Samaritan Pentateuch, which continues to be written in the ancient form, even to this day. However, Jews and Christians both rejected the text as being of questionable accuracy.

 

Today, many people are under the false impression that the Masoretic Text represents the “original Hebrew”, and that the Septuagint is less trustworthy because it is “just a translation”.  In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.  The Septuagint is actually more faithful to the original Hebrew than the Masoretic Text is.  We no longer have original copies of the Old Testament.  Nor do we have copies of the originals.

 

We now have copies of the Scriptures transliterated into modern Hebrew, edited by scribes, compiled by the Masoretes in the 7th-11th centuries, and embellished with modern vowel points which did not exist in the original language.  This is what we now call the “Masoretic Text”.

 

We also have copies of the Old Testament Scriptures which were translated into Greek, over 1000 years earlier than the oldest existing Masoretic text.  During New Testament times, Jesus and the Apostles quoted from this Greek translation frequently, and with full authority.  They treated it as the Word of God, and as a faithful translation.  This is what we now call the “Septuagint”.

 

Here is a sample of the differences between the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint.

 

While many Protestant bibles rely heavily on the Masoretic Text, the Orthodox Church has continued to use the Septuagint for the past 2000 years.  The Orthodox Study Bible is an English copy of the Scriptures, and its Old Testament is translated from the Septuagint.  It is very good, and comes highly recommended!

 

I used to believe the Masoretic Text was a perfect copy of the original Old Testament.  I used to believe that the Masoretic Text was how God divinely preserved the Hebrew Scriptures throughout the ages.

I was wrong.

The oldest copies of the Masoretic Text only date back to the 10th century, nearly 1000 years after the time of Christ. And these texts differ from the originals in many specific ways. The Masoretic text is named after the Masoretes, who were scribes and Torah scholars who worked in the middle-east between the 7th and 11th centuries. The texts they received, and the edits they provided, ensured that the modern Jewish texts would manifest a notable departure from the original Hebrew Scriptures.

 

Historical research reveals five significant ways in which the Masoretic Text is different from the original Old Testament:

1.                  The Masoretes admitted that they received corrupted texts to begin with.

2.                  The Masoretic Text is written with a radically different alphabet than the original.

3.                  The Masoretes added vowel points which did not exist in the original.

4.                  The Masoretic Text excluded several books from the Old Testament scriptures.

5.                  The Masoretic Text includes changes to prophecy and doctrine.

We will consider each point in turn:

Receiving Corrupted Texts

Many people believe that the ancient Hebrew text of Scripture was divinely preserved for many centuries, and was ultimately recorded in what we now call the “Masoretic Text”. But what did the Masoretes themselves believe?  Did they believe they were perfectly preserving the ancient text?  Did they even think they had received a perfect text to begin with?

History says “no” . . .

Scribal emendations – Tikkune Soferim

Early rabbinic sources, from around 200 CE, mention several passages of Scripture in which the conclusion is inevitable that the ancient reading must have differed from that of the present text. . . . Rabbi Simon ben Pazzi (3rd century) calls these readings “emendations of the Scribes” (tikkune Soferim; Midrash Genesis Rabbah xlix. 7), assuming that the Scribes actually made the changes. This view was adopted by the later Midrash and by the majority of Masoretes.

In other words, the Masorites themselves felt they had received a partly corrupted text.  

A stream cannot rise higher than its source.  If the texts they started with were corrupted, then even a perfect transmission of those texts would only serve to preserve the mistakes. Even if the Masoretes demonstrated great care when copying the texts, their diligence would not bring about the correction of even one error.

In addition to these intentional changes by Hebrew scribes, there also appear to be a number of accidental changes which they allowed to creep into the Hebrew text.  For example, consider Psalm 145 . . .

Psalm 145 is an acrostic poem. Each line of the Psalm starts with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Yet in the Masoretic Text, one of the lines is completely missing:

Psalm 145 is an acrostic psalm where each verse begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In the Aleppo Codex the first verse begins with the letter aleph, the second with the beyt, the third with the gimel, and so on. Verse 13 begins with the letter מ (mem-top highlighted letter), the 13th letter of the Hebrew alphabet; the next verse begins with the letter ס (samech-bottom highlighted letter), the 15th letter of the Hebrew alphabet. There is no verse beginning with the 14th letter נ (nun).

Yet the Septuagint (LXX) Greek translation of the Old Testament does include the missing verse. And when that verse is translated back into Hebrew, it starts with the Hebrew letter נ (nun) which was missing from the Masoretic Text.

In the early 20th century, the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in caves near Qumran. They revealed an ancient Hebrew textual tradition which differed from the tradition preserved by the Masoretes. Written in Hebrew, copies of Psalm 145 were found which include the missing verse:

When we examine Psalm 145 from the Dead Sea Scrolls, we find between the verse beginning with the מ (mem-top) and the verse beginning with the ס (samech-bottom), the verse beginning with the letter נ (nun-center). This verse, missing from the Aleppo Codex, and missing from all modern Hebrew Bibles that are copied from this codex, but found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, says: נאמןאלוהים בדבריו וחסיד בכול מעשיו (The Lord is faithful in His words and holy in all His works).

The missing verse reads, “The Lord is faithful in His words and holy in all His works.” This verse can be found in the Orthodox Study Bible, which relies on the Septuagint. But this verse is absent from the King James Version (KJV), the New King James Version (NKJV), the Douay-Rheims, the Complete Jewish Bible, and every other translation which is based on the Masoretic Text.

In this particular case, it is easy to demonstrate that the Masoretic Text is in error, for it is obvious that Psalm 145 was originally written as an acrostic Psalm. But what are we to make of the thousands of other locations where the Masoretic Text diverges from the Septuagint? If the Masoretic Text could completely erase an entire verse from one of the Psalms, how many other passages of Scripture have been edited? How many other verses have been erased?

 

God’s name is shown here in Paleo-Hebrew (top) and in modern Hebrew (bottom). Modern Hebrew letters would have been unrecognizable to Abraham, Moses, David, and most of the authors of the Old Testament.

 

A Radically Different Alphabet

 

If Moses were to see a copy of the Masoretic Text, he wouldn’t be able to read it.

As discussed in a recent post, the original Old Testament scriptures were written in Paleo-Hebrew, a text closely related to the ancient Phoenician writing system.

The Masoretic Text is written with an alphabet which was borrowed from Assyria (Persia) around the 6th-7th century B.C., and is almost 1000 years newer than the form of writing used by Moses, David, and most of the Old Testament authors.

 

Adding Vowel Points

 

For thousands of years, ancient Hebrew was only written with consonants, no vowels. When reading these texts, they had to supply all of the vowels from memory, based on oral tradition.

In Hebrew, just like modern languages, vowels can make a big difference. The change of a single vowel can radically change the meaning of a word. An example in English is the difference between “SLAP” and “SLIP”. These words have very different definitions. Yet if our language was written without vowels, both of these words would be written “SLP”. Thus the vowels are very important.

The most extensive change the Masoretes brought to the Hebrew text was the addition of vowel points. In an attempt to solidify for all-time the “correct” readings of all the Hebrew Scriptures, the Masoretes added a series of dots to the text, identifying which vowel to use in any given location.

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

“The Masoretes 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.”

Another early scholar who investigated this matter was Louis Cappel, who wrote during the early 17th century. An article in the 1948 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica includes the following information regarding his research of the Masoretic Text:

“As a Hebrew scholar, he concluded that the vowel points and accents were not an original part of Hebrew, but were inserted by the Masorete Jews of Tiberias, not earlier then the 5th Century AD, and that the primitive Hebrew characters are Aramaic and were substituted for the more ancient at the time of the captivity. . . The various readings in the Old Testament Text and the differences between the ancient versions and the Masoretic Text convinced him that the integrity of the Hebrew text as held by Protestants, was untenable.”

Many Protestants love the Masoretic Text, believing it to be a trustworthy representation of the original Hebrew text of Scripture. Yet, at the same time, most Protestants reject Orthodox Church Tradition as being untrustworthy. They believe that the Church’s oral tradition could not possibly preserve Truth over a long period of time.

Therefore, the vowel points of the Masoretic Text put Protestants in a precarious position. If they believe that the Masoretic vowels are not trustworthy, then they call the Masoretic Text itself into question. But if they believe that the Masoretic vowels are trustworthy, then they are forced to believe that the Jews successfully preserved the vowels of Scripture for thousands of years, 

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