🔼Masoretes and vowels in the Hebrew Bible
The oft repeated rumor has it that Biblical Hebrew has no vowels, and any now existing vowels were added later. This is incorrect. The great success of the Hebrew language lies precisely in the Hebrew invention of vowel notation. This invention was made around the time of king David (roughly 1000 BC, at the dawn of the Iron Age), and it gave ordinary people access to vast amounts of information. Prior to vowel notation, reading and writing was a magical affair for which one had to train in special priestly schools. Vowel notation allowed ordinary people to access vast vaults of information after a relatively simple education. Upon vowel notation, simply everybody could learn, share and add to what mankind knew, and this in turn led to the surge of human modernity that is still in full swing today.
Even in the Stone Age there was a highly sophisticated wisdom tradition — to give a hint: all domesticated crops such as potatoes, rice and corn, and animals such as sheep, dogs and pigs, were bred from feral ancestors in the Stone Age; folks from the Stone Age also invented metallurgy, music, painting, architecture, international trade, and pretty much everything (shy of the electric grid) that makes modern man modern — but a major problem was how to preserve data. When wisdom was shared orally, it only took an accident, battle or bout of some disease to knock out the village wizard (= wise-ard) and hence delete the village's data. The consonantal alphabet and later vowel notation not only turned every Tom, Dick and Harry into a sagely priest (hence a kingdom of priests — Exodus 19:6) it would also allow data to be preserved in a medium other than a fleshly brain.
The Hebrews understood that a happy life went hand in hand with knowledge of creation, and made science their form of worship (Psalm 19:1, Zechariah 8:23, John 4:23, Romans 1:20). They defined the deity as the Creator, who, per definition, had to exist separate from creation. But in a brilliant feat of deductive reasoning, they also surmised that between the creation that so closely followed the Creator's character and nature, and the Creator Himself, there had to be a kind of transition that was both: where Creator and creation met and were one; that "attractor" upon which the whole chaotic universe was designed to converge and would settle in (not merely the First Mover but more so the Ultimate Destiny of everything that exists).
This bottom-line from which everything that exists derives its existence, this attractor to which everything that evolves must evolve, this intermediate between the Creator and creation, this they called "the Son" (Psalm 2:12), and "the Word" (Genesis 15:1). In later Scriptures this semi-natural phenomenon famously became personified in Jesus Christ (John 1:1, 1 Timothy 2:5).
🔼Blameless and with great joy
When vowel notation was invented, ordinary people became priests, and the Body of the Word (mankind's collective library of knowledge of creation and thus the Creator) could be preserved across the chasms of war, famine and diseases. Hence David's triumphant outcry: "You will not allow Your Holy One to undergo decay!" (Psalm 16:10, Acts 13:35).
The symbols that began to be used for vowels were not invented for the occasion but had existed long before as consonants. They were on all accounts ordinary symbols who existed inconspicuously amidst the others, but who were suddenly (in the blink of an eye, one might say) selected for the novel mission of sound bearing, whilst not relinquishing their old consonantal function. These "chosen few" were the letters י (yod), ה (he) and ו (waw). The yod represented the consonantal Y (or J in pretty much all J-names, such as Joseph and John) and assumed the vowel Y (or I in names like Israel and Isaac). The he served as the consonantal H but also began to be used to express sounds in the A- and E-neighborhood. And the waw expressed W and V consonants but began to be used to represent O and U sounds (for instance, the names David and Dod are spelled the same: דוד or DWD; see the name Dodo).
All this made such an impact on society, and gave the people of learning such an edge over both the forces of nature and human brutes who relied on strength, that the Hebrews formed the name of their deity from these symbols. The name יהוה (or YHWH) consists only of those vowel symbols and represents the "God of the Vowel People" (as Joel M. Hoffman lovingly puts it in his book In The Beginning). The name YHWH Sabaoth means YHWH of the Communities or Alliances, and this name obviously expresses peoples talking with other peoples and deriving their strength from sharing information in stead of physical strength or vast armies. This incredible name is introduced in the Bible, in 1 Samuel 17:45, where (you guessed it) young David hurls it at Goliath, who was then enjoying his last few moments alive. "That all this assembly may know that the Lord does not deliver by sword or by spear" (17:47).
In case you haven't picked up on it yet: in the great store of human endeavors, the Hebrew Bible is shelved not with stories about fairies, gnomes and totem poles, but with hard drives and space telescopes. The very Internet, indeed, began with the Hebrew invention of vowel notation. Even mankind's imminent jump to the stars will be crowd funded, so to speak.
So no, the Masoretes did not add previously non-existing vowels to the Hebrew Bible, but left us notations about what the Hebrew words may have sounded like (namely "David" in stead of "Dod", and so on).
🔼The name Masoretes in the Bible
The name Masorete(s) obviously doesn't occur in the Bible itself because the Masoretes, the folks who added pronunciation symbols (the Masorah) to the traditional Hebrew text of the Bible, began to be active in the second half of the first millennium after Christ. Their work and intentions, however, are of enormous importance to students of the Bible because:
- The modern Bible is based on the creation of one particular Masoretic branch, namely the Ben-Asher family of the Tiberian Masoretes.
- Most of our Biblical traditions stem from a time during which it had been forgotten that the Masoretes had forged the modern Bible from much older sources. During the twentieth century it was discovered that the Bible as we know it didn't exist as such since Biblical times but is in fact younger than the Quran.
🔼Who were the Masoretes?
The name Masoretes is like the epithet Explorers; it describes a group of completely different people who shared one particular quality without being unified by that quality. The Masoretes were Hebrew scholars who worked over the span of a few centuries and in a geographic area ranging from Babylon to Palestine and from Europe to Yemen. These Masoretes were part of the larger Hebrew academia, which in turn operated within a culture that was obsessed with a past that was slipping away; a culture in which Muhammad urged people to return to the monotheism of Moses and produced the Quran, and Arabic scholars were working hard on systems similar to that of the Masoretes. It's probable that both the Masoretes and their Arabic colleagues got their idea from the efforts of Greek scholars who began adding diacritic symbols to their ancient texts in about the second century AD.
The formal Hebrew Bible of today is based on the Leningrad Codex, which is a Tiberian Masoretic Text of 1009 AD, which is a copy of a text that was produced by the Ben-Asher family, and they were Masoretes living and working in Tiberias in Galilee. From what remains of their work, scholars conclude that the Ben-Ashers must have been a lively bunch, because apart from their phenomenal body of work they also show a substantial degree of variation within their own ranks. Then, the Ben-Ashers were not the only ones working with that now so famous Masoretic system, because the Ben-Ashers were at much documented odds with another Tiberian family, namely the Ben-Naphtali family, and that's just one competitor we know about, working within the same system.
A whole other famous Masoretic system was the Babylonian system, or rather: were the Babylonian systems, which consisted of a simple and a complex one and at least six more identifiable styles. A third system (or again, rather a cluster of various systems) is called "Land of Israel" because it's referred to in some 11th century European text that discusses the diacritics of the phrase ארץ ישראל (erets yisrael), meaning land of Israel. It's not clear where this particular cluster of systems originated but "most people believe that the Land of Israel system is the earliest system" (says Joel M. Hoffman in In The Beginning).
A fourth system, again with internal variations, uses Tiberian symbols but writes the Land of Israel system. A fifth system was developed in Yemen, and a sixth system was developed by scholars of the East Syriac language area.
🔼What did the Masoretes want?
The Masoretes are commonly ascribed a desire to preserve the sound of the original Hebrew, but it's not that simple. It's true that their various systems of diacritic symbols conveyed most vowel sounds and thus syllables, but that doesn't automatically mean that they aimed to preserve what the text sounded like in whatever previous time. In fact, no matter where or when the Masoretes worked, they all knew very well that the sound of a language changes over time as well as over geographic distances (the Babylonian Jews and the Palestinian Jews visited each other and spoke Hebrew with differing dialects).
Then, as very few commentators appear to realize, sound can not be written down. No amount of dots and jingles can convince a hapless reader of the sound of a particular symbol around which the dots and jingles occur. Syllables and emphases, yes, but sounds, nope.
It's probably much more likely that the various Hebrew schools wanted to preserve their whole body of academic texts in a world which already enjoyed the highly effective Greek and Latin scripts. The Greek and Latin scripts were competing with others for supremacy, with nothing less than continuation at stake. If the Masoretes hadn't devised their systems of vowel notation, the most important Hebrew texts would have been translated and possibly preserved but the rest of it, as well as the Hebrew language at large, would have gone the way of the dodo. We wouldn't have had the Bible as we know it, if it wasn't for the Masoretic efforts.
With the Masoretic system in place, Hebrew became a modern academic language, suitable for the expressions of fine sentiments and precise arguments, and remained so for centuries, along with Arabic, Greek and Latin.
🔼What did the Masoretes do?
No matter where or when they worked, the Masoretes did precisely what the authors of the Greek Septuagint had done centuries earlier and what the proto-Rabbis had began to do in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah (Nehemiah 8:8), namely providing an intermediate form between the original text and a spoken human language; a presentation of the original text that was closer to a spoken language than the original. They added vowel-sounds and devised a complex grammar that formed a bridge between the original and their interpretation.
It's tempting to think that the Hebrew Bible was written with in mind a spoken human language but with only a wretchedly primitive script at hand, but that is probably not true. When the Bible in its final form was written, alphabets with symbols reserved for vowels already existed, yet the authors of the Bible chose to not use them, or to simply amend their existing alphabet with more vowels, and that probably deliberately. A consonantal alphabet is a medium with specific qualities, and the use of it gives a specific result. A visual artist will use wood to express one idea but marble to express another, and a musician may write one particular piece for violin and another for saxophone, depending on the qualities of the piece.
A poet who expresses himself in a consonantal alphabet is like a mime performer or a minimalistic painter or sculptor, whose final work consists in part of the observer's interpretation. The Hebrew of the Bible is really like the notes of a musical script, and allows a wide variety of interpretations within the restrictions of the notes. The Masoretic texts required less input of the reader and therefore allowed for a quicker interpretation, but it also restricted the reach of the original.
🔼What to think of the Masoretes
As stated above, without the efforts of the Masoretes (and the Septuaginters and proto-rabbis), we wouldn't have a Bible as we know it. But we should nevertheless always remember that the Bible was given to us without symbols reserved for vowels. Most of us like to think that the Holy Spirit gave us the Bible, and we should also be brave enough to believe that the Holy Spirit knew what He was doing. The Scriptures that comprise the New Testament are just a small sliver of all the correspondence that swept through the known world in the first century AD, but look at the variety of interpretation and even the bold disagreements it contains (Acts 15:39, Galatians 2:11, Philippians 1:18).
It's obviously folly to think that there can be only one true interpretation of the Scriptures, as if we are robots that can run only on software that leaves no margin of interpretation. The truth is that the Hebrew Scriptures are designed in such as way that there are multiple true interpretations possible, due only to the inefficiency of our language. In other words: our language is not capable to convey the whole truth fully and can only convey one perspective at a time. The Hebrew in which the Bible was written conveys all perspectives at once.
In that sense, Hebrew words are like quantum particles that travel not along one straight line but rather along a broad spectrum of possible paths, a so-called path-integral. Or else, the Hebrew Bible is like DNA that sits at the heart of every cell of an organism's body (Deuteronomy 30:14, Jeremiah 31:33, Romans 2:15, Hebrews 8:10). Full compliance to the same code may cause certain cells to form into muscle tissue, while equally compliant others become nerve cells, while equally compliant others become transparent eye cells. Bones and muscles don't understand each other, but both understand tendons. Very few cells can live with stomach acids but no cell could live without it. Blood cells have no home but travel like itinerant teachers through the body; red ones transport nutrients and oxygen while white ones are murderously critical.
All these different cells comply fully with the same code and are nothing alike in the end. But if one cells interprets the collective DNA defectively, that is, if that cell reads a meaning in it that is not part of the designed library of interpretations, the cell with become cancerous, will infect its neighbors and might ultimately destroy the organism its part of.
🔼Abarim Publications and the Masoretes
Here at Abarim Publications we're pretty sure that the Masoretes and the people who wrote the Septuagint, did not have a God-given authority to alter the Hebrew Scriptures in any way (Deuteronomy 4:2), and their works are therefore mere interpretations of it. These interpretations were probably time bound (remember that the Masoretes worked in a time when Judaism, Islam and Christianity were locked in bloody competition with each other, with other reality models and with commerce and degradation in general) and restricted by these scholars' intellectual understanding of both Scriptures and creation. Here at Abarim Publications we aim to discuss the texts the way the ancients wrote them and not the way the Masoretes or anybody else interpreted them. Type 'Masoretes' in the search box to the right, for an extensive list of instances at which the consonantal text allows for a much broader interpretation than the Masoretes decreed.
Jesus instructed us to not appoint leaders and to call no man father (Matthew 23:9-10) and to diligently preserve our own, personal relationship with the real Father (John 14:6), but within decades after His death, humanity appointed popes and clergy, who in turn made us believe that only an elite priesthood could truly understand the Word, and that in utter submission to the Pope (which means father). What a nonsense. People only have to be able to read! And how sad it is that we've grown so accustomed to having other people tell us what to believe that only a minute fraction of us knows how to read the Hebrew Bible. We've fought entire wars and have killed entire peoples in the name of a book we've never even read. How are we different from those criminals who defended themselves at Nuremberg by stating that they were only following other peoples' orders?
Here at Abarim Publications we're obviously not very positive about the Masoretic limitations of the Biblical texts, but we also need to put that into perspective. The Masoretes gave the Word of God a human form, which is surprisingly Messianic because Jesus, after all, is known as the Word of God (John 1:1) and also assumed human form. Had the Masoretes not done that, we would probably have lost the Bible, or at least a crucially important body of Hebrew literature. In effect they performed the act of Judas and were most likely very much aware of it, and viewed their own life's work in a blend of shameful anger and hopeful pride.
There is something about the Hebrew language that can not be translated into any other language, something that causes the Bible to be the most complex work of art ever produced. People who know the Hebrew of the Bible will attest that it is indeed nothing short of divine, and works the same way as creation does. Here at Abarim Publications we like to believe that the Septuagint writers and the Masoretes knew what they were doing: preserving what matters by molding it into our likeness, so that some day people could recognize what they have and restore its proper glory.
🔼Etymology and meaning of the name Masoretes
The name Masoretes comes from Masorah, which is the whole apparatus with which the language of the original Hebrew revelations was shoehorned into a format that was more alike human speech. The root of our word Masorah is significantly obscure, but there are several tantalizing possibilities. Here at Abarim Publications we are convinced that the Masoretes were such great scholars that they chose a name that deliberately reflected the very broad spectrum of meaning that their work was clipping into a graven image; a name that reflected both their shame and their pride.
Most Hebrew words come from roots that are three letters long and the word מסרה (masora) can be constructed in two ways, namely (1) מ plus סרה and (2) מסר plus ה. The first option follows the common format of m-plus-root, which basically describes a place at which the root is performed or an agent by which this is done. The form סרה (srh) comes from the verb סור (sur), meaning to turn aside or apostatize. In Jeremiah 17:13 this verb occurs interestingly enough in conjunction with the verb כתב (ktb), which is the root of the name Kethib, the name of the traditional written text. Following this construction, the Masoretes were the Apostates.
The other way to form our word מסרה (masora) is by regarding it as a feminine version of a word of the form מסר (msr), and feminization in this instance denotes the collectivity of the Masoretes; groups are feminine; individuals are masculine.
There are a few different occurrences of the form מסר (msr). It occurs as alternative spelling of the more common form מסור (musar), meaning discipline, chastening or correction in the moral sense. Job's friend Zophar speaks of the correction of his shame (Job 20:3); Solomon speaks of the discipline of wisdom (Proverbs 1:2, 15:33) and Isaiah, strikingly, reports our chastening to be on the Messiah (Isaiah 53:5). This מסור (musar) comes from the verb יסר (yasar), meaning to discipline or chasten. This verb's form is grammatically closely akin to the verb סרר (sarar), meaning to be rebellious (rebellious people need to be chastened), which in turn is closely akin to סור (sur), meaning to turn aside. Following this particular construction, the Masoretes were the Chasteners, or possibly more elaborate: those folks who placed our chastening upon the Messiah (Isaiah 53:5).
Another occurrence of the form מסר (msr) is as the verb מסר (masar), which possibly means to deliver up or offer (see the dictionary entree below). Many scholars favor this particular etymology, and then imagine that our verb means to hand down or hand over. The name Masoretes would thus subsequently mean Those Who Hand Down (a tradition down the ages).
Another popular etymology is from the verb אסר ('asar), meaning to bind, and particularly the derivations מסרת (masoret) and מוסר (moser), meaning band or bond:
Following this particular etymology would render the name Masoretes the meaning of Covenant Keepers, which is the meaning that most people give this name. Here at Abarim Publications we feel that the Masoretes would have seen themselves not so much as covenant keepers in the sense of being active partners in a previously made deal, but rather as those people who snatched the divine covenant of which God is the only active partner away from destruction, fettered it and sold it off into slavery where it would be safe. Something very similar was done to Joseph, whose exile into Egypt ultimately saved the Israelites (Genesis 45:4-5), and to the tribe of Judah whose exile into Babylon ultimately resulted into the world-wide Hebrew academic tradition of which the Holy Scriptures are part (Daniel 2:48, Esther 10:3).
The Masoretes were the scholars who bound the Scriptures like Samson, who uninspired buffoons dragged into their temple with familiar result (Judges 16:30). Christians like to believe that when Christ returns He will be a Christian, and Jews like to think that the Messiah will be Jewish. But much to the horror of all of these, when the Messiah comes He will be none of that. He will be He Who He Is, and no temple will be left standing (Revelation 21:22). The Masoretes knew that.