Reviews of

The Text of the Hebrew Bible. From the Rabbis to the Masoretes

In Elvira Martín-Contreras, HB/OT, Hebrew Bible, Lorena Miralles-Maciá, Pieter B. Hartog, V&R unipress on July 6, 2015 at 9:29 pm


2015.07.16 | Elvira Martín-Contreras, Lorena Miralles-Maciá. The Text of the Hebrew Bible: From the Rabbis to the Masoretes. JAJSup 13. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014.

Review by Pieter B. Hartog, KU Leuven.

Many thanks to Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht for providing a review copy.

The development of the text of the Hebrew Bible has enjoyed a renewed interest in recent years. But whilst studies on the text of Scripture in the Second Temple period abound,[1] the period subsequent to it tends to be ignored. The reasons for this neglect are easy to see. The period between the Rabbis and the Masoretes is traditionally considered a “dark age” in the history of the biblical text. What is more, this era is commonly taken as one in which a single textual tradition (the Masoretic Text or MT) was dominant – in contrast to earlier eras, where textual fluidity and pluriformity prevailed.[2]

This volume finds its background in the research project “The Role of Rabbinic Literature in the Textual Transmission of the Hebrew Bible,” supervised by Elvira Martín-Contreras. This project combines the study of the rabbinic literature and the Masorah, so as to demonstrate how the Rabbis preserved and engaged with the text (rather than the contents) of the Bible. The scope of this volume is broader than that of the research project. Its essays address issues ranging from the history of Scripture in the Second Temple era through the various sources for the biblical text in later eras. Thus, this volume challenges the picture of the “blank” between the Rabbis and the Masoretes and promises to make important contributions to the study of the biblical text.

The volume begins with an essay by the editors on “interdisciplinary perspectives for the study of the text of the Hebrew Bible.” In this essay, Martín-Contreras and Miralles-Maciá address issues of terminology, the use of rabbinic material for tracing the development of the biblical text, and the incorporation of the Masorah in current debates. This introduction serves as a background to the essays that follow. These are divided, somewhat haphazardly, into two categories: (1) “the preservation and transmission of the Hebrew Bible”; and (2) “the Masorah and other approaches to the text of the Hebrew Bible.”

In the opening essay of the first section, Emanuel Tov argues that the concept of the stabilization of the text of Hebrew Scripture is a myth. Rather than a conscious attempt to arrive at a standard text, the prevalence of MT from the rabbinic period onwards reflects the historical fact that “after the year 70 only MT was left in Jewish hands” (45).

John Van Seters goes even further when he argues that even for the Rabbis, MT did not always serve as a standard text. Drawing an analogy with the study and transmission of Homer in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, Van Seters argues that the emergence of MT as a standard text depended not on the preferences of learned scribes or sopherim, but rather on the use of Scripture in more everyday contexts: “The development of standard texts was always the product of the marketplace” (61). Learned individuals, by contrast, would long have been able to appeal to various textual traditions. This included the Rabbis; according to Van Seters, “the Rabbis could choose whatever text tradition suited their exegetical or homiletic interest” (61).

Arie van der Kooij agrees with Tov that the prevalence of MT is not the result of a conscious process of standardization. Rather, its emergence as a standard text must be attributed to the fact that a manuscript belonging to this textual tradition was deposited in the Jerusalem temple and taken care of by a group of leading priests. This temple exemplar served as a standard for other copies of the biblical text, which were made for reading and studying purposes. Thus, what we have in the Second Temple period is a stable textual tradition associated with the Temple alongside a less than stable tradition outside of the Temple.

Following on these three essays devoted primarily to the Second Temple period, Elvira Martín-Contreras’ “Rabbinic Ways of Preservation and Transmission of the Biblical Text in the Light of Masoretic Sources” comes somewhat as a surprise. This is all the more so seeing that her essay sets out the principles and methods of the research project providing the framework for this volume. Thus, one would have expected this essay at the beginning of the volume rather than somewhere in the middle. This minor inconvenience notwithstanding, Martín-Contreras’ plea for combining the study of rabbinic literature and the Masorah is thought-provoking and will prove to be one of the central issues addressed in this volume.

Günter Stemberger analyses the rare category of “preliminary notes on grammar and orthography in halakhic midrashim.” As he rightly points out, “if the labor of the Masoretes is supposed to reach back far beyond the known Masoretes of the eighth or ninth century, we should expect to find traces of earlier occupation with grammar and orthography” (91). Unfortunately, Stemberger does not find such traces in the Mekhilta. Scrutinizing the literary contexts and textual attestations of grammatical and orthographical notes in this halakhic Midrash, he is “inclined to think that late additions (or a late revision of the text) are responsible for the these passages.… Thus, they cannot be taken as evidence for an early beginning of a Masoretic activity in the technical meaning of the term” (100).

Julio Trebolle and Pablo Torijano analyse agreements between medieval Hebrew manuscripts, the ancient versions, and the various textual traditions of the Greek books of Kings. Their discussion is highly technical, but their conclusion is worth heeding: “When referring to the books of Kings, textual criticism of the LXX and textual criticism of the Hebrew text cannot be done independently” (117).

The second section of this volume opens with Nathan Jastram’s “The Severus Scroll and Rabbi Meir’s Torah.” Jastram surveys the variants recorded in these two witnesses, of which we have only indirect knowledge. He problematizes the uncritical acceptance of these variants as witnesses to the biblical text, but stresses that “the four witnesses to the Severus Scroll variants should be used critically as witnesses in their own right to variations in the biblical texts that were being transmitted between the Second Temple and medieval times” (145).

Alex Samely reflects “on the nature of Masoretic information, in comparison to other phenomena of Bible-related literature in Jewish antiquity” (147). Samely argues that most Masoretic statements are exclusively meta-textual (i.e., they are only interested in the outer form, not in the content of a text), whilst midrashic statements are also meta-textual, but not exclusively so: they “use this meta-textual format to address the meaning of Scripture …” (152). On the basis of this distinction, Samely discusses the alleged appearance of Masoretic information in a midrashic literary context. He illustrates the purposes such isolated instances of Masoretic information may fulfil, and sketches a continuum ranging from more to less Masoretic (i.e., exclusively meta-textual) quotation-comment units. In the final part of his essay, Samely probes the broader implications of his analysis by distinguishing between ostensive and tacit object and meta-linguistic orientations of ancient Jewish literature. In Samely’s framework, “object orientation” denotes an orientation towards the subject-matter described in language, while “meta-linguistic orientation” refers to an orientation towards language as such. On the basis of these two parameters, Samely outlines the differences between Masorah (ostensive meta-textual orientation, usually no object orientation) and Midrash (ostensive meta-textual orientation, probably a tacit object orientation), but he also characterizes other types of Jewish literature, such as the Book of Jubilees (tacit meta-textual orientation, ostensive object orientation) or the book of Ben Sira (no meta-textual orientation, ostensive object orientation).

In his essay “Targum & Masorah,” Williem Smelik revisits the question to what extent Targum Jonathan follows the eastern qere. Earlier studies have claimed that TJon often agrees with the eastern qere, and used this finding to argue for an eastern provenance for this Targum. After pointing out several flaws in previous treatments of the question, Smelik addresses the issue in the light of six possible categories of agreement. In the end, “only one instance (Ezek 5:11) of Tg-Jon’s agreement with the eastern qere remains, and such a basis is far too slender to infer any conclusions” (189). More importantly, Smelik illustrates the volatile causes for certain readings. In view of “the vicissitudes and vagaries of texts in transmission” (189), the entire question of whether Targum Jonathan follows the eastern qere may well be ill-advised.

Two smaller essays are devoted to the Babylonian and Tiberian accentuation systems and the Babylonian Masorah. Lea Himmelfarb argues that the Tiberian accentuation system preserves traces of the Babylonian accentuation system. Yosef Ofer discusses three notes from the Babylonian Masorah that compare the language of the Bible to that of the Mishna and so illustrates a difference between the Babylonian and Tiberian Masorah. Both essays make available in English work previously published in Hebrew.[3]

David Marcus’ essay is a fitting finale to this volume. Showing how the Masorah to the story of Samuel’s birth helps exegetes in determining the parameters of the text, its intertextual connections, and the explanation of difficult words, Marcus makes a convincing plea for the use and integration of Masoretic notes in biblical studies.

As a first comment on the volume as a whole, I cannot help but think that it would have benefited from more rigorous editing or proofreading. Apart from a notable number of spelling errors (more in some essays than others), some more striking mistakes regarding contents (194: “in the late Babylonian stratum, 1,753 units out of 1,728 were divided the same way”) or language (113: “there are 11 cases of agreement G = Vrs y 5 de LXX-L = Vrs”) are left standing in the text.

Taken together, the essays in this volume address three major issues, which are prone to inspire future thinking. Firstly, several articles seek to characterise the biblical text that the Rabbis inherited. Was this text the outcome of a conscious process of standardization or, as the authors in this volume tend to argue, was the predominance of MT the outcome of coincidental historical events? And if this is indeed the case, did the Rabbis accept MT as a largely uniform standard (so Tov and Van der Kooij), or did they have the opportunity to appeal to other textual traditions as they saw fit (Van Seters)?

Secondly, what are the sources for the biblical text and its appropriation in the era between the Rabbis and the Masoretes, and how may these sources be appreciated? One of the advantages of this volume is that it brings together studies on several such sources, including the Targumim (Smelik), the Severus Scroll and Rabbi Meir’s Torah (Jastram), medieval manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible (Trebolle and Torijano), and Masoretic traditions (Ofer, Marcus). At the same time, this survey of sources and the evaluations of their potential contributions to the study of the text of the Bible in this era are not situated within a wider framework apart from the editors’ call for interdisciplinarity (17–34). Thus, it remains somewhat ad hoc.

Thirdly, several essays deal with the (alleged) presence of Masoretic statements in rabbinic literature. Adopting a synchronic approach, Samely wonders what it is that makes these statements particularly Masoretic. His continuum suggests that not all “Masoretic” notes in rabbinic literature are “Masoretic” in the same way and to the same degree. Furthermore, Stemberger’s diachronic analysis challenges the value of Masoretic notes in the halakhic Midrashim as evidence for early Masoretic activity. These essays address basic methodological issues, which deserve to have a more general impact on the study of ancient Jewish literature and the history of the biblical text.

To sum up: this volume is trying to do something novel, as it aims to bridge the gap between the Rabbis and the Masoretes and to develop new approaches to the study of the biblical text in this era. As such, it is generally successful. Its essays raise many intriguing questions, which will no doubt inspire further research and reflection.

P.B. Hartog
KU Leuven
Barry.Hartog [ at ]



[1] To give just two recent examples: D.A. Teeter, Scribal Laws (FAT 92; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014); E. Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Developmental Composition of the Bible (Leiden: Brill, 2015).

[2] A classic formulation of this attitude is M.H. Goshen-Gottstein, “The Development of the Hebrew Text of the Bible: Theories and Practice of Textual Criticism,” VT 42 (1992): 204–13. See esp. 209: “The period from, say, 200 CE till 900 CE remains practically a ‘blank’, apart from an odd find like the famous Nash papyrus” and: “I suggest that … the 200 CE prototype and the 800 CE textual type are of such proximity that the jump is permissible.”

[3] Himmelfarb’s discussion relies heavily on Ronit Shoshany’s and her own Ph.D. work: Ronit Shoshany, Babylonian Accentuation, Stages of Development, and Relationship to the Tiberian System (Ph.D. diss., Tel-Aviv University, 2003); Lea Widawski (Himmelfarb), The Paseq in the Hebrew Bible: Occurrences in Medieval Manuscripts, Characteristics and Relation to the Accentuation System (Ph.D. diss., Bar Ilan University, 1990). Ofer’s article was previously published in Le-zikhro shel Yisrael Yeivin (ed. idem; Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences of Humanities, 2012), 36–45.


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