The Glossary of Terms

Masoretic Text / Massoretic Text


Harper’s Bible Commentary

edited by James Luther Mays (New York: Harper and Row, 1988)

THE HEBREW TEXT. During the first three or four centuries a.d. the Hebrew Bible was transmitted in a very narrow tradition of text. It was later provided with points, or vowel signs, and accents by Jewish scholars known as Masoretes (from the Hebrew word for tradition) and is therefore known as the Masoretic Text (mt). Within it variants of substance are very few. But much evidence suggests that in earlier times considerable variation in the Hebrew text existed. Numerous lxx [Septuagint] renderings, at least in some books, came from a different Hebrew original, and are often supported by Qumran fragments or by the Samaritan Hebrew. One major Isaiah scroll from Qumran shows wide divergence in writing and spelling style from the Masoretic, while another approximates it more closely. And differences are not only in scribal minutiae. For instance, the chronological data of Genesis and Exodus differ substantially in the lxx, the Samaritan Pentateuch, and the mt, which suggests that these figures were being adjusted to different chronological systems up to a quite late date. Much of the variety within the Jewish transmission was probably obliterated in the wars with Rome. The ancestor of the mt was most likely not chosen through deliberate textual evaluation but through the choice of this or that manuscript as authoritative. Only gradually did the principle come to prevail that texts must be copied with the fullest precision in every detail, and absolute precision was never in fact attained. But the existence of a highly uniform text, variant-free in substance, favored the development of a very precise verbally related interpretation, in which every detail had potential religious import.

TARGUMS. For many Jews Aramaic rather than Hebrew was the major vernacular, and translations of biblical books into Aramaic, known as Targums, were important. Just when the main existing Targums originated is uncertain, but rules for the reading of them are already present in the Mishnah (a collection of legal material from the first two centuries a.d.). In general, the Targums are less important than the lxx as evidence for the biblical text, more important as evidence for religious interpretation and supplementation with additional matter. In the end they functioned mainly not independently but as a supplementary text to the Hebrew.


Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer