Monday, February 26, 2007

The Masoretic Textual Tradition

In our ongoing series on textual criticism, we now turn our attention to the Masoretic Text. Actually, it would be better said "Masoretic Texts or Textual Family."

What is the Masoretic Text? As the above linked article says "the Masoretic Text (MT) is the Hebrew text of the Tanakh as generally used in Judaism." I found the best (but partial because I don't have a membership) definition from the Encyclopedia Britannica:
traditional Hebrew text of the Jewish Bible, meticulously assembled and codified, and supplied with diacritical marks to enable correct pronunciation. This monumental work was begun around the 6th century AD and completed in the 10th by scholars at Talmudic academies in Babylonia and Palestine...

From what Orthodox Jewish sites I've read on the web, it seems textual critical issues with the Tanakh aren't fully understood. As that article says, "The Torah has nine spelling variants - with absolutely no effect on the meaning of the words."

But as the above Wikipedia article mentions:
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. The explanation of this phenomenon is given in the expression ("Scripture has used euphemistic language," i.e. to avoid anthropomorphism and anthropopathism).

Rabbi Simon ben Pazzi (third 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 Masoretic works these changes are ascribed to Ezra; to Ezra and Nehemiah; to Ezra and the Soferim; or to Ezra, Nehemiah, Zechariah, Haggai, and Baruch. All these ascriptions mean one and the same thing: that the changes were assumed to have been made by the Men of the Great Synagogue.

The term tikkun Soferim has been understood by different scholars in various ways. Some regard it as a correction of Biblical language authorized by the Soferim for homiletical purposes. Others take it to mean a mental change made by the original writers or redactors of Scripture; i.e. the latter shrank from putting in writing a thought which some of the readers might expect them to express.

The assumed emendations are of four general types:

* Removal of unseemly expressions used in reference to God; e.g., the substitution of ("to bless") for ("to curse") in certain passages.

* Safeguarding of the Tetragrammaton; e.g. substitution of "Elohim" for "YHVH" in some passages.

* Removal of application of the names of false gods to YHVH; e.g. the change of the name "Ishbaal" to "Ishbosheth."

* Safeguarding the unity of divine worship at Jerusalem.

I am in no way belittling the Masoretic textual tradition. As the ESV (a recent Christian Bible translation) philosophy statement says:
The currently renewed respect among Old Testament scholars for the Masoretic text is reflected in the ESV’s attempt, wherever possible, to translate difficult Hebrew passages as they stand in the Masoretic text rather than resorting to emendations or to finding an alternative reading in the ancient versions.

The goal of textual criticism, at least as many and I see it, is to get as close as possible to the original words of the texts. Other sources complement the Masoretic tradition and help us do this. We'll explain more about this when I introduce other textual sources, like the Septuagint.

More, next time. Please feel free to leave questions in the comments section.

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Blogger beckalippy said...

Dear Goy for Jesus,
I don't have much time right now but I have to admit that I am so intrigued by your blogs. Anyone interested in discussing the Tanakh over a good beer has my attention. I plan on reading more of your blog, and if I'm ever in the Philly area I'll look you up. :)

2/26/2007 04:06:00 PM  

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