How Mediaeval scholars reproduced the text of the Bible with astonishing accuracy
Dr Kim Phillips
Imagine a man, his name is Samuel. He is a scribe. The year is AD 1008 and he sits, day after day, in Fustat, now part of modern-day Cairo, painstakingly copying text onto pages of parchment.
The manuscript he is creating must be of the highest possible quality — it is the Hebrew Bible, and his community is entrusted with the sacred responsibility of reproducing it as faithfully as possible. Little does Samuel know that in a thousand years, the document he is poring over will become the oldest known complete manuscript of the Hebrew Bible in the world.
Far from being a fictional character, Samuel son of Jacob was a real person who, in the year 1008 –1009, completed the manuscript now known as the Leningrad Codex or, more simply, “L”. And we know the work is his because of various notes at the beginning and end about who wrote it, when, where, and for whom.
While we have hundreds of Hebrew Bible manuscripts from antiquity and the mediaeval era that are earlier than the Leningrad Codex — some containing large portions of the biblical text, others just a few letters — L is the earliest complete manuscript. It contains all 24 books of the Hebrew Bible (Jewish tradition counts the books differently from the way they appear in most English Bibles, although the text is the same) and lies directly behind translations such as the NIV and ESV.
L is also significant as one of the best examples of the so-called Masoretic Text — the particular form of the Hebrew Old Testament as preserved and transmitted by Jewish scholars known as the Masoretes (“traditionalists”), who were active from about the 7th century AD onwards. To glimpse the Leningrad Codex is to enter a mediaeval world where passionate devotion to the text meets patient and painstakingly fastidious attention to every detail. A kind of mediaeval Tyndale House. Let’s take a closer look at a typical page.
The Biblical Text
The Biblical text in the Leningrad Codex is divided into at least three separate strands, including consonants, vowels and accents. Originally, each strand was transmitted separately and only the consonants of each word were actually written on the parchment.
From the evidence of the available documents, we know that the Jewish community preserved that consonants-only text virtually flawlessly for more than a thousand years. However, reading a text consisting of only consonants is harder than it might sound. Consider the Hebrew word shalom (peace, wholeness) which is represented by the three letters sh-l-m (the Hebrew alphabet has a single letter in place of our “sh” sound). These letters, without the help of vowels and other distinguishing marks, could be read as shalom (peace), or shalem (complete), or shillem (he recompensed), or shullam (it was repaid).
In practice, the context in which a word appears is usually sufficient to determine how the word ought to be read. Nonetheless, there are frequently places where the context leaves the consonantal text open for interpretation. Here is where the oral element of transmission comes in. We know that in the centuries before Jesus, a set way of reading aloud this consonantal text was developed and passed on orally. In this way the words themselves, not just the consonants, were preserved. The role of this ancient oral tradition was to pass on the correct interpretation of how to pronounce the consonants.
This reading tradition, astonishingly, continued to be transmitted orally for many centuries until the Masoretes developed their graphic systems of vowel and accent signs. Using those signs, they were able to record, with minute precision, the oral reading tradition they had received.
This raises the question of how on earth the Jewish community managed such a gargantuan feat of textual conservation. The answer, in short, is that they counted. An example will help to explain.
On the very first column of the very first page of L we see the following:
The biblical text reads “And God said” (Genesis 1:3). Next to this, in the right hand margin, a short Masoretic note reads “29”. What does this mean? The note is referring to the fact that in the entire Hebrew Old Testament there are 29 places where this particular form of the verb “to say” is followed by some form of the Hebrew noun אלהים (God). Think of the labour involved in arriving at this number (which is absolutely correct), when all you have is the text, plus parchment and ink on which to make notes.
But how does all this counting help anyone?
A moment’s reflection on the biblical text reveals that the phrase “and God said” is actually rather rare. By far the more common is the phrase “And the LORD said” (ויאמר יהוה). A quick check confirms that, in fact, the phrase “and the LORD said” occurs more than 200 times in the biblical text. If one then includes phrases such as “thus says the LORD” and such like, this takes the total to more than 600.
The scribes who transmitted the Hebrew Old Testament, who knew the Hebrew text inside out, realised there was a great danger that in some of the places where the text should read “and God said”, a careless scribe may inadvertently write the far more common “and the LORD said”. To guard against such an error creeping into the text, they produced a list of all the places where the text should read “and God said”. This list appears in the bottom margin of the page, below the relevant biblical text itself. These longer notes are the Masora Magna and their function is to expand and give further detail to the information found in the short notes between the columns (the Masora Parva). Here is what is left of the list of places containing the phrase “and God said”:
These lists were compiled long before the introduction of chapter and verse numbers into the text. So, the only way to cite a given verse was to give a little quotation from the verse itself. The user of the Masora was expected to remember the relevant verse on the basis of the little snippet. For example, the last citation visible in the list above is the short phrase: ההיטב (approximately: “do you do well to…?”) So, the user of this Masoretic list is looking for a verse containing the phrases “and God said…” and the phrase “do you do well to…”. The answer can only be Jonah 4:9: “And God said to Jonah: ‘Do you do well to be angry for the plant?’ ”
These links enable rapid cross-referencing, so that in one sitting it is possible to check that every occurrence of one particular textual detail has been correctly reproduced.
Thus, the Masora Parva and Masora Magna serve as different aspects of one vast, integrated textual-preservation system. The Masora Parva attaches itself to every part of the biblical text particularly liable to be corrupted. Sometimes the Masora Parva itself gives instructions as to how that part of the text should be written. Additionally, the Masora Parva often points the reader to the Masora Magna, which gives instructions for the correct writing of that portion of text, as well as “links” to every other part of the biblical text where that same element occurs. These links enable rapid cross-referencing, so that in one sitting it is possible to check that every occurrence of one particular textual detail has been correctly reproduced.
The Leningrad Codex contains no fewer than 60,000 Masoretic notes, all serving as a protective hedge around the text of the Scriptures. This vast expenditure of labour and toil was driven by a passionate commitment to the biblical text as the very words of God. If he has spoken, then every jot and tittle is precious; even the smallest detail serves as a receptacle for something of God’s communication and communion with his people, and with humankind.
Dr Kim Phillips is a Research Associate at Tyndale House
Photographs by Bruce and Kenneth Zuckerman, West Semitic Research, in collaboration with the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center. Courtesy Russian National Library (Saltykov-Shchedrin).