Can You Trust the Masoretic Text?

We should. It’s the most accurately copied ancient document in human history.
From the March-April 2022 Let the Stones Speak Magazine Issue

The Masoretic Text is widely accepted as the authoritative text of the Hebrew Bible. It is the basis for the Jewish Publication Society’s translation of the Tanakh, as well as most Protestant Christian versions, including the monumental Authorized King James Version of 1611.

However, many scholars today question its accuracy. After all, the Hebrew Bible was originally penned by nearly 40 different authors between the 15th and 5th centuries b.c.e., a period of roughly 1,000 years. That means the oldest books in the canon, the Torah and the book of Job, have been passed down for over 3,000 years—most of that time laboriously copied out by hand.

How do we know that the modern Masoretic Text matches the original writings of the Hebrew prophets and patriarchs? How do we know the Bible has accurately survived its 3,000-year journey?

The answers to these questions have immense impact on the field of archaeology. After all, archaeologists have been using the Bible to interpret their finds for centuries (though this approach has recently fallen out of fashion). If scribal editorializations corrupted the eyewitness accounts in the Bible, that would radically alter our interpretation of literally thousands of archaeological discoveries.

Of course, to Bible believers, there is no controversy. God inspired the Bible; therefore, He must also have ensured its accurate transmission. The Bible itself endorses this view. It explicitly states in hundreds of passages that God inspired the writings of Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah and all the other writers. Furthermore, the Christian New Testament even records that “the oracles of God”—including the Hebrew Bible—were committed to the tribe of Judah for careful preservation.

To these people, the fact that a book could be written by so many different authors over a millennium—and maintain complete narrative and doctrinal consistency—proves its divine authorship.

But of course, Bible skeptics don’t believe in God. They rely on material evidence alone. Where believers see a miracle, skeptics see only a reason to doubt. If the Bible were truly assembled by so many people so long ago, they reason, surely its text was corrupted or miscopied at some point. To skeptics, the Bible couldn’t have been copied perfectly for three millenniums because that would have taken a miracle—and besides, there is not enough material evidence to prove it.

Or is there?

Let the Stones Speak

The Burden of Proof

To a certain extent, the skeptics have a point. Not enough manuscripts have survived, especially from the time period of the earliest biblical texts, to prove that every word of the Masoretic manuscripts matches the original text. The Dead Sea Scrolls are the earliest significant biblical manuscript, and these date as early as the third and second centuries b.c.e. A few fragments have survived from much earlier than that (see sidebar, page 28), but nothing large enough to provide a significant standard for textual comparison. The earliest complete copy of the Hebrew Bible is the Leningrad Codex, a document based on the Masoretic Text, but this only dates as early as c.e. 1008.

Does that mean we should assume our modern biblical text is faulty, unreliable and filled with textual errors compounded over thousands of years of transmission? Not at all.

For starters, demanding enough material evidence to “prove” the Bible’s accurate transmission is unreasonable. It is simply unscientific. No ancient document has ever been held to such a standard. Consider the writings of Greek philosopher Plato (composed between 427 and 347 b.c.e.). Our earliest complete manuscript of Plato’s works was copied roughly 12 centuries after the author’s death—around c.e. 900 (though, as with the Hebrew Bible, piecemeal fragments of the texts have been found during the intervening period). Yet no reasonable scholar questions the reliability of modern Platonic text on any significant point. Almost all assume Plato’s works were copied accurately during that 1,200-year gap, despite the fact there is little evidence and no manuscripts to prove it.

And Plato is no outlier. Virtually every work of antiquity has a similar time gap between its original composition and the earliest-surviving, complete manuscript. For Herodotus’s Histories, the gap is 1,350 years. For Thucydides’s The History of the Peloponnesian War, it is 1,300 years. About 1,200 years separate our earliest manuscript of Aristotle’s works and the death of the author in 322 b.c.e. And for Demosthenes’s speeches, the gap is 1,400 years. Our best documented ancient classic (outside the Bible) is Homer’s Iliad. Yet even for this text, the gap between the original composition and the earliest surviving manuscript is 400 years.

For these ancient writings, scholars accept, virtually without proof, that our modern manuscripts are reliable. They accept that these works were copied accurately for centuries. They accept that Plato really wrote The Republic, for example, and that our modern text of this work, more or less, matches the original.

In essence, the prevailing philosophy of ancient textual criticism has been this: A manuscript can be assumed reliable unless proved otherwise. Why should it be any different for the Bible? To use a different standard for the Bible would be unfair, arbitrary and unscientific.

The Masoretic Text, universally considered the authoritative Hebrew manuscript (in particular for its unparalleled copying rituals, as we will see below), can be assumed reliable unless solid evidence proves otherwise—not the other way around. Disagree with this basic premise, and one must consider not only the Bible, but our entire textual record of the ancient world, unreliable.

With this standard in mind, what does the evidence say? Does it show that the Masoretic Text was copied sloppily, carelessly or by agenda-driven scribes eager to insert their own beliefs into the text? Far from it. In fact, every indication is that for more than three millenniums, the Scriptures were copied carefully, precisely and with scrupulous attention to detail.

Studiously Copied

Consider a few revealing facts about ancient Jewish culture and society. To the Jews, the Old Testament, and especially the Torah (Pentateuch, or the first five books of the Bible), was far more than a religious document. It was their constitution. It was the political and legal bedrock of their nation.

This was especially true during the postexilic time period. “[S]cattered, leaderless, without a state or any of the normal supportive apparatus provided by their own government, the Jews were forced to find alternative means to preserve their special identity,” writes Paul Johnson in A History of the Jews. “So they turned to their writings—their laws, and the records of their past. … If the individual was responsible for obeying the law, he must know what the law is. So it must not merely be set down and copied, but taught. … The laws were now studied, read aloud and memorized.”

Even a cursory reading of the Torah shows how all-encompassing the law was. It regulated virtually every aspect of life. It dictated business practices and family life; it determined dress and diet, the way servants were to be treated, and the way children were to be raised.

Thousands of life-and-death legal cases turned on the minutest nuances of scriptural phraseology. To the ancient Jews, editing even one letter of the Hebrew Bible would have been like changing the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence or the United States Constitution today.

And even more so: The Jewish people anciently were more familiar with the Hebrew Bible than most modern Americans and Britons are with their national documents. American and British people don’t review the Constitution or the English Bill of Rights on a weekly basis. But in ancient times, Jews read the Old Testament aloud in their synagogues every Sabbath—a practice mentioned, for example, by first-century historians Josephus (Against Apion 2.175) and Philo (De Somnis 2.127)a practice that has continued, thousands of years later, to the present.

Paradoxically, religious factionalism was another powerful preservative of scriptural accuracy. Jewish society was often bitterly divided over different interpretations of the Old Testament. In the lead-up to the first century c.e., the two main religious factions were the Pharisees and the Sadducees. They vehemently disagreed on many fundamental religious doctrines, such as the resurrection and the existence of angels. However, there was one thing they never disagreed on: the text of the Old Testament. There is no record of any dispute about the textual content of the Holy Scriptures. If dozens or hundreds of flawed, mutually contradictory manuscripts were widely accepted at the time, wouldn’t these rivaling factions have chosen different variant texts to suit their opposing agendas? But history records nothing of the kind. For centuries, Jewish scholars, religious leaders and sects have disagreed on various issues. But when it comes to the biblical text, there is consensus that the Scriptures themselves are recorded accurately!

The Hebrew Bible was so well known, so heavily relied upon and so often quoted that any copying errors would have been noticed and corrected immediately. Consider this quote from Josephus: “But now as to our forefathers … they took greater care [in scribal transmission] than the others I spoke of [such as the Greeks] … they committed that matter to their high priests and to their prophets, and that these records have been written all along down to our own times with the utmost accuracy” (emphasis added throughout).

“[E]very one is not permitted of his own accord to be a writer, nor is there any disagreement in what is written; they being only prophets that have written the original and earliest accounts of things as they learned them of God Himself by inspiration; and others have written what hath happened in their own times, and that in a very distinct manner also. … During so many ages as have already passed, no one has been so bold as either to add anything to them, to take anything from them, or to make any change in them” (Against Apion, 1.6-8). This is an unambiguous assertation that the authoritative biblical text was copied accurately from its origin until the first century c.e.

From this time period (the turn of the millennium) forward, more evidence regarding scriptural copying standards begins to emerge. During this time, preserving the Hebrew Bible was one of the many duties of the priests in the temple precincts at Jerusalem. When copying the Scriptures, these men had to follow a multitude of stringent regulations. Kenneth Connolly documented some of these in his book The Indestructible Book. The rules included the mandate that each manuscript had to be written on the skins of clean animals; each column of writing could have no more than 60 and no less than 40 lines; the Scriptures were to be written with black ink only, and the ink was made according to a special recipe.

When writing, the scribes were required to speak each word aloud as they wrote it. Additionally, before writing the name of God (yhwh), they were obligated to clean their pens and wash their entire bodies with water.

Once a manuscript was finished, it underwent a scrupulous inspection process. Each manuscript had to be reviewed within 30 days of its completion. If three or more pages contained errors, the entire document was discarded and rewritten. The letters, words and paragraphs were all counted, and if the middle paragraph, word and letter did not correspond with those of the original, the whole document was considered invalid. Additionally, if any two letters in the manuscript touched, the whole document was rendered invalid and discarded.

Josephus also went into detail about the careful “scrutiny” of the genealogical records of potential scribes for the Holy Scriptures. The manuscripts of Plato or Herodotus were never copied so meticulously—yet scholars do not question their accuracy. Why hold the Bible to a different standard?

It is not entirely clear when these strict copying practices began. According to Jewish tradition, they started with Moses. It is also possible that many of them were started by the priest and scribe Ezra in the fifth century b.c.e. Ezra is considered to be the founder of modern Judaism and is often referred to as a “second Moses” (Encyclopedia Britannica). The Hebrew Bible calls Ezra “a ready scribe in the Law of Moses” (Ezra 7:6). So it would make sense that he established many of the scribal standards for use in the temple.

Of course, people of faith believe Moses, Ezra and the other authors were merely scribes in God’s hand and that He is ultimately the Author and responsible for the accuracy of the Bible. But even if one rejects this view, it is undeniable that by the first century c.e., strict standards ensuring accurate scriptural transmission were enforced at the temple—and likely had been for hundreds of years (note Paul Johnson’s A History of the Jews).

These meticulous copying practices didn’t cease after the destruction of the temple in c.e. 70. Shortly after the invasion and occupation of the Romans, Jewish rabbis started religious schools in both Babylon and the Holy Land. These institutions, called Talmudic Academies, flourished for hundreds of years. The scholars they produced were best known for writing the Mishnah and the Talmud, commentaries on the Torah that modern Jews consider sacred. Rabbis from these schools, which were primarily centered in Tiberias, compiled the Mishnah around c.e. 200 and the Jerusalem Talmud around c.e. 400.

About a century later, rabbis of the Babylonian academies completed their own Talmud, which most modern Jews consider authoritative. Both academies continued to study and write about the Bible for hundreds of years. In fact, they were both still active as late as the 10th century c.e.

It almost goes without saying that these Talmudic academies, so intent on scrutinizing and dissecting the nuances of not only every word but every letter of the Hebrew Bible, also took great pains to preserve the literal text of the Scriptures. Scholars of the Tiberias school especially took this task seriously. One measure they took to ensure accurate transmission was adding vowel markings to the biblical text.

Hebrew is a consonantal language, meaning vowels are understood but not written. For example, if English were a consonantal language, the word “manuscript” would be written “mnscrpt,” and readers would have to mentally fill in the vowel sounds. To prevent misunderstandings of the Scriptures, the scholars in Tiberias added small markings above and below the letters of the text to indicate which vowels should be used.

This process took place over several centuries. The scribes also devised an elaborate system of marginal notes called “Massorah,” which were transcribed into each new manuscript. The Massorah did not include thoughts or commentary on the meaning of the Scriptures. Instead, they recorded facts and statistics about each book of the Bible: the number of letters and the middle letter, the number of verses and the middle verse, the number of times a certain group of letters or words appeared, and so on. In short, the Massorah locked each letter and word of the Bible firmly in place, virtually guaranteeing accurate transmission. For this reason, the Massorah has been called “a fence to the Scriptures.”

Because of their work on the Massorah, the scholars in Tiberias earned the name “Masoretes” or “Masorites,” and the authoritative biblical text they produced (work that spanned a 500-year window, from the fifth to 10th centuries c.e.) was called the Masoretic Text. The earliest and latest Masoretic manuscripts match one another with a degree of precision that still astonishes scholars.

The Masoretic Text should be regarded as the most accurately copied manuscript in human history. Has any other book from antiquity formed the political, religious and legal core of a whole nation? Was a death sentence ever issued on the basis of a single turn of phrase from Homer’s Iliad? Has anyone bothered to count the letters of Plato’s Republic, calculate the middle word of Herodotus’s Histories, or wash his entire body before writing the name of Socrates?

Josephus wrote about the exactness of his people when dealing with the Bible. “[Our people have been] seen to endure racks and deaths of all kinds upon the theaters, that they may not be obliged to say one word against our laws and the records that contain them; whereas there are none at all among the Greeks who would undergo the least harm on that account” (op cit).

Evidence indicates that the Bible was transmitted far more meticulously, carefully and accurately than any other ancient book!

What About Textual Inconsistencies?

Scholars who dispute this fact often point to discrepancies between certain different biblical manuscripts. For example, our oldest significant set of manuscripts, the Dead Sea Scrolls (written between the third century b.c.e. and the first century c.e.), while in large part paralleling the Masoretic Text, contain several alternate readings.

Another manuscript, the Samaritan Pentateuch (the earliest complete example of which dates to the 12th century c.e.) notably describes God thundering the Ten Commandments from Mt. Gerizim (the holy mountain of the Samaritan community) instead of Mt. Sinai, among other differences. Skeptics believe these differences show corruption of the biblical text over thousands of years.

But there is a logical explanation for these discrepancies: The scribal professionalism and diligence detailed above was not universal. The scrupulous copying standards were enforced only by Jewish authority centered in the temple at Jerusalem. It is only after the c.e. 70 destruction of Jerusalem that that authority was forced to migrate elsewhere (i.e. in Tiberias).

The Jewish Encyclopedia notes that while a central canonical text existed at least as early as the second century b.c.e., “it took centuries to produce a tolerable uniformity among all the circulating copies. This is by no means astonishing when one considers that the standard copy deposited at the temple could be of benefit only to those who were sufficiently near Jerusalem to make use of it. This was not the case with those living in the Diaspora.”

Jews were scattered all over the world after they went into Babylonian captivity in the early sixth century b.c.e. Without access to the highly trained scribes or authoritative manuscripts at the temple, many errors undoubtedly crept into the manuscripts made in fringe communities.

Josephus corroborated this claim, writing that in some places the Scriptures during and before the third century b.c.e. were “transcribed more carelessly than they ought to have been.”

“[W]hat faith we have placed in our own writings is evident by our conduct, for though so long a time has now passed, no one has dared to add anything to them, or alter anything in them.”
Flavius Josephus

The Dead Sea Scrolls are a good example of this carelessness. They were discovered in Qumran, a town located about 20 miles east of Jerusalem. Along with the many fragments, archaeologists found several apocryphal and pseudepigraphal manuscripts—spurious biblical texts that were not part of the original canon. They also found the earliest, nearly complete copy of the book of Isaiah. According to Emanual Tov, a scholar at Hebrew University, the Isaiah scroll is “a classroom example of what an inferior text looks like, with its manifold contextual changes, harmonizations, grammatical adaptions, etc.”

All this evidence suggests serious corruption in the textual tradition of Qumran—not to mention this community represents an esoteric, fringe sect of monastic Jews with beliefs considered highly peculiar to Judaism at the time. There are similar problems with manuscripts from other locations, such as the Samaritan Pentateuch (a Torah variant designed in deliberate conflict with the Jewish people—an ideological clash noted throughout the Hebrew Bible and New Testament—i.e. 2 Kings 17; Ezra 4; John 4).

Imagine reading a copy of the Iliad written by a Greek university student living in Alexandria in the fourth century. His recording is likely to differ, probably substantially, from the copy made by a trained scribe working within established guidelines at a university in Athens. Would the inconsistencies or errors introduced by the novice copyist undermine the work of the professional? Of course not.

It’s the same with the Bible. The presence of flawed copies produced by untrained, inexperienced scribes does nothing to undermine the texts copied by the professional scribes divinely entrusted with safekeeping and transmission (i.e. Deuteronomy 17:18).

Taking all this into account, the Masoretic Text should not be considered unreliable because it contradicts certain older extant manuscripts. Since plenty of evidence attests to the unimpeachability of its scribal tradition, the Masoretic Text should be the standard of comparison. We should compare these manuscripts to the Masoretic Text, and not the other way around. Further, certain very early discoveries have been emerging over the past several decades, including the “earliest Scriptures” ever discovered, corroborating specifically the Masoretic version of text! (see the sidebars relating to both the En Gedi and Ketef Hinnom scrolls).

While detractors often point out how improbable it is that the Hebrew Bible survived its 3,500-year journey, the reality is pretty remarkable. Skeptics love to point out discrepancies between biblical manuscripts, muddying the water but proving nothing.

But this is not new. Two thousand years ago, Josephus himself addressed “the vanity of those that profess” doubt and skepticism about the Bible. Writing about the detractors in his day, Josephus noted that they form views about events and details “wherein they were not present, nor had concern enough to inform themselves about them from those that knew them.” These skeptics, he wrote, “put a few things together by hearsay, and insolently abuse the world” (Against Apion, Book 1.8-11).

Just because some biblical manuscripts were copied carelessly or incorrectly, doesn’t mean all of them were. Skeptical claims may be fashionable, but they must be backed by solid evidence to merit consideration.

Meanwhile, there is evidence demonstrating just how vigilant and pedantic the ancient Jewish scribes were when copying the Bible. When you consider this evidence, the fact that the Masoretic Text is trustworthy and accurate is entirely unremarkable. When you consider the work ethic and diligence of the ancient scribes and the extreme measures implemented to guarantee accurate copying, how could it not be?

Did God inspire the writing of the Bible and guarantee its accurate preservation over millenniums? This is a question each must personally study and answer. But no matter how you answer the question, the accuracy of the Masoretic Text is truly astonishing.

The truth is, we can have more confidence in the Masoretic Text than we do in the texts of Plato, Herodotus or Aristotle. The next time you read the Hebrew Bible, remember: You are reading the most accurately copied ancient document in human history!

Let the Stones Speak

Sidebar: The En Gedi Scroll

Ancient written documents are the holy grail of archaeological discoveries. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran, for example, is arguably the most important archaeological discovery of all time. However, they are not the only ancient biblical scrolls discovered in Israel.

In 1970, archaeologists excavating through the destruction of a synagogue at En Gedi found their own portion of the Bible. Burned to a crisp, the scroll was put aside until the technology was developed to capture its text.

In 2016, with the amazing new digital analysis of X-ray scans, scientists were able to “virtually unwrap” the scroll and read its contents. Astoundingly, it contained portions of chapters 1 and 2 of the biblical book of Leviticus. But unlike the Dead Sea Scrolls, which based this passage on a Greek translation, the En Gedi scroll was identical to the Masoretic Text. Michael Segal, professor of biblical studies at Hebrew University, worked on the project; he described the scroll as being “letter-to-letter identical to the Masoretic Text that we know from medieval manuscripts. Similarly, in these two chapters, the section/paragraph divisions are in identical locations to the medieval [Masoretic Text].”

This En Gedi scroll is important because it confirms the Jews’ accuracy in exactly preserving the Bible throughout the centuries. Dead Sea Scrolls scholar Emanuel Tov, who participated in the project, said, “This is quite amazing for us. In 2,000 years, this text has not changed.” Dr. Ada Yardeni, after analyzing the handwriting of the text, dated it to around the first century c.e.

Sidebar: The Ketef Hinnom Scrolls

In a 1979 excavation on the edge of the Hinnom Valley in Jerusalem, a First Temple period tomb containing over 1,000 objects was discovered by Prof. Gabriel Barkay and his team. Among the manifold artifacts were two tightly wrapped silver scrolls, so fragile that two museums declined the opportunity to try to open them. When conservators at the Israel Museum at last managed to unroll the objects (an incredibly slow, three-year process), they were stunned to find preserved verses from the Torah—passages from what we know today as Numbers 6 and Deuteronomy 7.

The circa 600 b.c.e. miniature silver scrolls, measuring no more than 10 centimeters long by 3 centimeters wide (unrolled), are amulets containing various “blessing” texts. Included on one scroll were passages from Deuteronomy 7:9 and Numbers 6:24-25, and on the other, the same Numbers 6 passage, albeit slightly longer—verses 24-26.

The scrolls are somewhat fragmentary and damaged along the edges. Still, the approximately 70 preserved Hebrew letters that relate to these biblical passages can be read clearly. And remarkably, they are virtually identical to the Masoretic Text—over 1,000 years before the advent of the Masoretes.

For the passages in question, the only difference between the Masoretic Text and the silver scrolls is just two letters. (Namely, an “and” and a “to”—these words are represented by single letters in Hebrew that are missing on the Ketef Hinnom scrolls.) And this two-letter difference is debatable, given the damage to the scrolls. It is also important to note that the Ketef Hinnom scrolls, of their own right, were clearly not intended to be a careful scribal perpetuation of Scripture. Rather, they were personal amulets, or charms (and of minuscule size, perhaps also explaining the omission of the letters on the scrolls).

Such a tiny amount of potential variation is itself impressive, but what is likewise notable with this discovery is that there is more letter variation between the text of the Ketef Hinnom scrolls and the Samaritan Pentateuch—a Torah variant believed to originate in the first century b.c.e.—than there is with the later Masoretic Text.

Despite the limited amount of text preserved on these amulets, this shows the superiority of the Masoretic Text as accurate to the original Scriptures used during the First Temple period—even before the time of Ezra and his scribal traditions—right back into the time of the Judahite monarchy. The discovery has been aptly named “one of most significant discoveries ever made for biblical studies.”

Text Preserved on
the Amulets:

“[The faithful God, who] keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love Him and keep [His commandments].” (Deuteronomy 7:9)

“[The Lord] bless thee, [and] keep thee; The Lord make His face to shine upon thee … and give thee peace.” (Numbers 6:24-26)