On the History & Possible Inerrancy of the Hebrew Vowel-Points


Order of Contents

History of the Controversy


Masoretic Text, Apparatus & Commentary
Pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton, יהוה




Hebrew is a language that has only consonants (besides 3 silent place holders,
ע  ו  א  which were probably vowels at one time).  Hebrew is necessarily spoken with vowels, but is not always written with them.  The Hebrew scriptures of the Old Testament, as we have inherited them from the Jewish Masoretes of the Middle Ages, have a very systematized vowel-pointing to indicate how to say the words, which sometimes affects the meaning of the word.

Gen. 1:1

בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ

B’reisheet bara Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.


The small points below and above the Hebrew letters tell one how to pronounce the word.  Are the vowel points:

(1) Original to the Scriptures, and thus inspired and inerrant?

(2) Or were they inserted into the texts in order to codify the traditionary Jewish pronunciation of the Scriptures during the Middle Ages?

The reformed orthodox theologians of the puritan era largely held to the former; modern conservatives largely hold to the latter.

Which view is right?  Carl F. Keil (1882), below, appears to be the most historically accurate in his technical, scholarly treatment of the question.  For a summary of his arguments in a more easily readable piece, see William H. Green’s treatment (1913) below.



History of the Controversy

Short Treatments

William H. Green’s opening 3 pages of his treatment (1913) below give a succinct, fair and very readable summary of the history of the controversy.  Carl F. Keil (1883) in his first three pages documents many of the primary figures in the controversy and their works in Latin.

John Owen, a mouth-piece for the dominant, reformed orthodox establishment of the 1600’s, in his opening few pages expresses the concernment, and even shock, about the rising tide of persons denying the inspiration of the vowel-points.  John Gill, in the Preface to his work (which is a model of peace-making, intelligent, humility) sheds light on the multifarious, and even bewildering, opinions that circulated in his day in 1700’s England.


In-Depth Treatments

Early Source

Elias Levita, the 1500’s Jew, throughout the whole of his piece below, sheds light on the interesting history before him regarding Jewish views and sources during the Middle Ages.


Modern Secondary Sources


Chwolson, D. & T. K. Abbott – ‘The Quiescents (Or Vowel-Letters) יוה in Ancient Hebrew Orthography’  Hebraica, vol. 6, no. 2 (Jan, 1890), pp. 89-108

Pick, B. – ‘The Vowel-Points Controversy in the XVI. & XVII. Centuries’  Hebraica, vol. 8, no. 3/4 (Apr-Jul, 1892), pp. 150-73



Bowman, John – ‘A Forgotten Controversy’  The Evangelical Quarterly 20.1 (Jan. 1948), pp. 46-68

Chomsky, William

‘The History of Our Vowel-System in Hebrew’  The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, vol. 32, no. 1 (Jul., 1941), pp. 27-49

This is different than the below.  Chomsky (1896–1977) was an American scholar of the Hebrew language.  He was born in the Russian Empire (now Ukraine) and settled in the United States in 1913.

ch. 5, ‘How did the Vowel-System Evolve’  in Hebrew: The Eternal Language  (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1957), pp. 93-116

Very helpful.

Dotan, Aaron – ‘The Relative Chronology of Hebrew Vocalization and Accentuation’  in Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, vol. 48 (1981), pp. 87-99

Burnett, Stephen G. – ch. 7, ‘Tiberias & the Vowel Point Controversy’  in From Christian Hebraism to Jewish Studies:
Johannes Buxtorf (1564–1629) & Hebrew Learning in the Seventeenth Century  Pre  (Leiden: Brill, 1996), pp. 203–39



Muller, Richard – ‘The Debate over the Vowel Points and the Crisis in Orthodox Hermeneutics’  Pre  Journal of Medieval & Renaissance Studies 10.1 (1980), pp. 53-72 and in After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition  Buy  (2003)

Steiner, Richard C. – ‘Påṯaḥ & Qåmeṣ: On the Etymology & Evolution of the Names of the Hebrew Vowels’  Orientalia, Nova Series, vol. 74, no. 4 (2005), pp. 372-81

Lifschitz, Avi – ch. 4, ‘J. D. Michaelis on Language & Vowel Points From Confessional Controversy to Naturalism’  Ref  in Language & Enlightenment: The Berlin Debates of the Eighteenth Century  (Oxford Univ. Press, 2012), pp. 95-118

Abstrct:  “This chapter is dedicated to the early career of the 1759 prize laureate, the Göttingen orientalist Johann David Michaelis. The main question is how Michaelis came to write a naturalistic essay on language that would appeal to the Berlin Academy. The chapter traces his complete change of mind about the antiquity and special status of the Hebrew vowel points. In his first works Michaelis adhered to the traditional Protestant view, endorsed by his ancestors, that the diacritical signs marking Hebrew vowels were extremely ancient (already in use in Moses’s time), and have since undergone remarkably little change. By the late 1750s Michaelis had revised this view and regarded all languages, Hebrew included, as naturally evolving along the lines of the naturalistic thesis. Michaelis’s confrontation with his own background demonstrates that a naturalistic view of language did not necessarily entail a radical or materialist outlook.”

Ross, Thomas – ‘The Battle Over the Hebrew Vowel Points Examined, Particularly as Waged in England’  (2013)  27 pp.

Fuller, Russell T. – ‘John Owen & the Traditional Protestant View of the Hebrew Old Testament’  SBJT 20.4 (2016), pp. 79-99

Twining, Timothy – ‘The Early Modern Debate over the Age of the Hebrew Vowel Points: Biblical Criticism & Hebrew Scholarship in the Confessional Republic of Letters’  Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 81, no. 3 (July 2020), pp. 337-58

Conclusion: “The publications of Tiberias [by Buxtorf, Sr.] in 1620 and the complete Exercitationes biblicae [by Morin]
in 1660 provide bookends for a period when arguments over the text and history of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, were at the forefront of scholarly concern…

First, confessional biblical scholarship did not amount simply to subscription to, and bolstering support for, an already authoritative text, but rather the construction of confessionalized positions regarding the texts of Scripture and their history and transmission.  These positions were not static: both Morin and Cappel notably challenged their contemporaries’ expectations by crafting new arguments
for why certain texts should be considered authoritative or some readings should be preferred to others.  Yet, and hitherto less appreciated, the same point stands for others too, as both Buxtorf and even more so Buxtorf II’s studies of the Hebrew textual tradition and Hebrew Bible demonstrated how
far their scholarship—and that of contemporaries such as Hottinger—was also subject to change and increasingly sophisticated development.

Second, this confessionalized scholarship must be approached and understood on a number of levels, spanning the gamut from the work of the individual scholar to the arguments and practices of different collective groups: where given scholars built confessional preoccupations and presuppositions into the formative elements of their work, so too did they operate in a context structured by confessional cooperation, coexistence, and conflict.” – p. 358






Lightfoot, John – ch. 31, ‘Of Vowels’  in Erubhin, or Miscellanies Christian & Judaical  (London: Scott, 1632)  in The Works of the Reverend & Learned John Lightfoot  (London: Scott, 1684), pp. 1013-14

Owen, John

‘Digression on the Origin of the Hebrew Vowel-Points’  after bk. 5, ch. 12 in Biblical Theology: the History of Theology from Adam to Christ  (Soli Deo Gloria, 1661/1994), pp. 495-533

The Integrity & Purity of the Hebrew & Greek Text  (1659)  in Works (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1862), vol. 16

ch. 5, ‘The Original of the Points Proposed to Consideration in Particular’, pp. 370-88

ch. 6, ‘Arguments for the Novelty of the Hebrew Points Proposed to Consideration’, pp. 388-401

ch. 7, ‘Of the Chiri uChteev [‘Say this and read this’: Alternative Hebrew Readings in the Massoretic Text], their Nature & Original’, pp. 401-6

Owen’s affirmative argument is that:

‘I shall not oppose them who maintain that they [the vowel-points] are coevous [of the same age] with the [Hebrew] letters [of the original giving of the Scriptures]… so I nowise doubt but that, as we now enjoy them, we shall yet manifest that they were completed by the…  men of the great synagogue, Ezra and his companions [at the return from the Captivity, 500’s B.C.], guided therein by the infallible direction of the Spirit of God.’  (p. 371)

Owen is most likely wrong as to the origin of the fully written vowel-points (which most likely appeared A.D. 600-900, see Keil below who answers nearly all of Owen’s points), but Owen’s arguments should still be considered as possibly applying to the original vowel-vocalizations which may have been preserved till their codification in the written vowel-points used by the scribes during the Talmudic era and as used by the Jewish Masoretes in the Middle Ages.



The Helvetic Consensus, 1675


See Wikipedia for background to the Helvetic Consensus, which was a binding Swiss reformed confession for the ministers and churches of Switzerland.  It was responding to numerous perceived aberrations that had arisen in the French Reformed Church.

The statements it makes regarding vowel points have never been repeated in a later, major reformed confession that the webmaster is aware of (though there were not many that came after it).  The confession qualifies its teaching enough, allowing for the inspiration and preservation of the vowel-vocalizations behind the points, that it is possible to hold to this doctrine while recognizing that it is more than historically likely that the actual vowel points came in around 600-900 A.D. with the Jewish Masoretes (see Keil below).


Helvetic Consensus, Canon 2:

“But, in particular, The Hebrew original of the OT which we have received and to this day do retain as handed down by the Hebrew Church, ‘who had been given the oracles of God’ (Rom 3:2), is, not only in its consonants, but in its vowels either the vowel points themselves, or at least the power of the points not only in its matter, but in its words, inspired by God.

It thus forms, together with the Original of the NT the sole and complete rule of our faith and practice; and to its standard, as to a Lydian stone, all extant versions, eastern or western, ought to be applied, and wherever they differ, be conformed.”



Whitfield, Peter – A Dissertation on the Hebrew Vowel-Points. Shewing that they are an Original & Essential Part of the Language  (Liverpoole: Peter Whitfield, 1748)  288 pp.  no ToC  errata

Here is a review of this work:  Dr. Thomas Strouse, ‘A Review of & Observations about Peter Whitfield’s A Dissertation on the Hebrew Vowel-Points.

Gill, John – ch. 4, ‘Of the Antiquity of the Vowel-Points and Accents’  in A Dissertation Concerning the Antiquity of the Hebrew-Language, Letters, Vowel-Points & Accents  (1767), pp. 136-282

Gill was a self-taught, widely read calvinistic, baptist pastor and Hebraicist.  The Preface to this book is a model of peace-making, intelligent, humility.

Gill’s method in ch. 4 is to present the evidence for vowel points at successively earlier dates:  A.D. 1037, 927, 900, 740, etc.  His treatment is very thorough and will be of much interest and help in the question, whether or not one finds his arguments conclusive.

Gill presents the possibility of God giving the vowel-points to Adam, though this is highly unlikely as Hebrew appears to have originated as a conglomerate of Semetic trade languages during the time of Abraham’s descendants being isolated in Egypt.

(Or possibly somewhat before, see Gen. 10:21,24.  It is possible that Eber could have maintained the language from Shem before the Tower of Babel, who would have derived the one language from Adam, though this is unlikely as there is not any archaeological evidence from the ancient world that shows that anyone besides the Israeli nation spoke Hebrew.)

While Gill’s affirmation, that it is probable that the vowel-points were given with the original of the various Scriptures, is most probably false (in light of archaeology and the history of such vowel pointing systems of nearby countries historically arising in the A.D. 600’s-900’s; see Keil below), Gill’s arguments that he begins to give on pp. 257-258 may possibly still be considered, for whatever weight they hold, for the vowel-vocalizations being originally inspired, and then codified in the later vowel points of the Medieval Jewish Masoretes.

All in all, Gill shows himself to be a scholar, and is very much worth reading.



Ross, Thomas – Evidences for the Inspiration of the Hebrew Vowel Points  n.d.  69 pp.  Including an Appendix arguing for the preservation of the pronunciation of the Divine name as it is in the Masoretic Text

This is perhaps the most in-depth and detailed modern argument for this view.





On Andrew Rivet

Willem van Asselt, The Theology of the French Reformed Churches  (RHB, 2014), pp. 260-61

“In the ongoing debate over the vowel points, Rivet distanced himself from the opinion of his [French] countryman Louis Cappel, who in his Arcanum punctationis revelatum had refuted the view of Johannes Buxtorf Sr. concerning the early origin of the vowel points.  Against Cappel’s position, following the Jewish scholar Elias Levita, that the Tiberian Masoretes (ca. 500-600) invented the current system of vocalization, Rivet argued that this claim should not be allowed to undermine the authority of Holy Scripture or to deny the purity of the Hebrew sources. (Isagogue, chap. 7:15. C.f. cap. 9:27.)  According to Richard Muller,

‘Rivet adapted the Reformed orthodox hermeneutic, maintaining the sole authority of Scripture, insisting on the clarity and perspecuity of the text, with or without the proof of the Mosaic origin of the vowel points.’ (Muller, After Calvin… Oxford, 2003, pp. 151-2)”





Elias Levita – Introduction #3  in  The Massoreth Ha-Massoreth of Elias Levita: being an Exposition of the Massoretic Notes on the Hebrew Bible, or the Ancient Critical Apparatus of the Old Testament in Hebrew  (d. 1549; Longmans, Green, 1867), pp. 103-37  Translated, and with an 84 page introduction, by Christian D. Ginsburg.

Elias, a Jew, was the first prominent person in the early modern era to put forward the (in-depth) argument that the Hebrew vowel-points were of fairly recent origin.  His work is a commentary on the Massoretic apparatus around the Hebrew text.

Johannes Buxtorf, Sr. (1564–1629) a reformed Hebraicist in Basel, following the majority of the Medieval rabbis, wrote the outline and notes of a response to Elias’ work before his death.  It was later published in 1665 by his son in Latin:  Tiberias, or a Tri-fold Massoretic Commentary, Historical, Didactic and Critical.  This work seemed to hold the high-bar for the argument for the antiquity of the vowel-points, as most of the reformed orthodox that came after him relied upon him and referred readers to him (including John Owen below).  His son, Johannes Buxtorf, Jr. (1599–1664) gave several disputations in Latin further arguing this viewpoint.

‘Masoreth’ in Elias’ title means ‘to bind’ or ‘fix’, that is, the Massoretic apparatus was the Jewish commentary on the scribal reproduction of the Hebrew scriptures during the first millennium of the Christian era, meant to ‘fix’ and preserve the Hebrew text indefinitely.  For a helpful summary of the Masorah and its significance, see the reliable McClintock and Strong’s Cyclopedia.

The title Elias chose connotates something to the effect of ‘a binding commentary on the Masorah’, that is, to shore up and confirm the validity and usefulness of the Masorah.  Ginsburg was a leading Hebraicist of the late-1800’s.  In the very valuable introduction he says:

‘The work now submitted to the public in the original Hebrew, with an English translation, is an explanation of the origin and import of the Massorah.  Those who are acquainted with the fact that our Hebrew Bibles abound with marginal and textual glosses… and who know that there is no guide in our [English] language to these enigmatical notes, will welcome this Treatise, written first, and almost the only, Massoretic exposition.’



Wall, Charles William – Proofs of the Interpolation of the Vowel-Letters in the Text of the Hebrew Bible & Grounds thence derived for a Revision of its Authorized English Version  (London: Whittaker, 1857)  670 pp.  ToC

Keil, Carl Friedrich – Manual of Historico-Critical Introduction to the Canonical Scriptures of the Old Testament  (1882), vol. 2

‘The Most Ancient System of Vowel Marks’, pp. 190-94
‘How the Masoretic Vowel System Came into Existence’, pp. 194-97
‘The Masoretic System of Accents’, p. 209

Keil (1807-88) was a conservative, Lutheran, German Old Testament scholar, known for his contributions to the Keil-Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament, the best advanced commentary on the Old Testament that there is.

In this advanced, scholarly treatment, Keil gives a very helpful survey of the controversy and then marshals all the relevant evidence for the history of the Hebrew vowel points.  In doing so, Keil gives the standard, accepted, modern conservative view that:

The original Hebrew Scriptures were written without vowel points (as confirmed by archaeology and other evidences), though by at least the time of the Early Church father Jerome (A.D. 347-420), the traditionary vocalizations were firmly in place.  The Jewish Massoretes of the early to mid-Medieval period appear to have adopted and used the developing and complex punctuation system arising originally from Arabic for the Hebrew Scriptures.

Thus, the vowel points as we have them are of the most trustworthy character in preserving the words of the original autographs and the traditionary Jewish vocalizations of them from near the time of Christ.

Keil’s treatment is theoretically consistent with either position, that (1) the traditionary vowel vocalizations, later codified in the vowel-pointings, were inspired and preserved inerrant, (2) or not; though Keil’s treatment (by itself) lends itself to the latter view.



Green, William Henry – ‘Antiquity & Authority of Vowels & Accents’  in General Introduction to the Old Testament  (1913), vol. 2: ‘The Text’, pp. 63-74

Green (1825–1900), a leading conservative scholar of the Old Testament at Old Princeton Seminary, gives a readable summary (at the intermediate level) of the arguments against the inerrancy of the Hebrew vowel-points (which arguments are essentially the same as Keil’s above, but are easier to read).

Wilson, Robert Dick – pp. 40-41 & 49-50  in ‘The Textual Criticism of the Old Testament’  in The Princeton Theological Review  (Jan, 1929), pp. 36-59

Wilson was a very accomplished professor of Old Testament at Old Princeton.



The Masoretic Text & Apparatus

The Westminster Leningrad Codex

The Greek Textus Receptus bound with the Hebrew Masoretic Text/Apparatus  Buy

This is the best and cheapest edition of the original languages bound together in one volume to buy and to read.  It is published by the very faithful Trinitarian Bible Society.

Some of the various marks in the Masoretic apparatus are quite bewildering, as no one knows what some of them mean.  No theory has been found to adequately explain all of them.  For Elias Levita’s opinions, a 1500’s Jew, see below.



Commentary on the Masoretic Apparatus

Elias Levita – The Massoreth Ha-Massoreth of Elias Levita: being an Exposition of the Massoretic Notes on the Hebrew Bible, or the Ancient Critical Apparatus of the Old Testament in Hebrew  (†1549; London: Londmans, Green, 1867)  Translated, and with an 84 page introduction, by Christian D. Ginsburg.

‘Masoreth’ in Elias’ title means ‘to bind’ or ‘fix’, that is, the Massoretic apparatus was the Jewish commentary on the scribal reproduction of the Hebrew scriptures during the first millennium of the Christian era, meant to ‘fix’ and preserve the Hebrew text indefinitely.  For a helpful summary of the Masorah and its significance, see the reliable McClintock & Strong’s Cyclopedia.

The title Elias chose connotates something to the effect of ‘a binding commentary on the Masorah’, that is, to shore up and confirm the validity and usefulness of the Masorah.  Ginsburg was a leading Hebraicist of the late-1800’s.  In the very valuable introduction he says:

‘The work now submitted to the public in the original Hebrew, with an English translation, is an explanation of the origin and import of the Massorah.  Those who are acquainted with the fact that our Hebrew Bibles abound with marginal and textual glosses… and who know that there is no guide in our [English] language to these enigmatical notes, will welcome this Treatise, written first, and almost the only, Massoretic exposition.’



How the Tetragrammaton, יהוה, is Best Pronounced in English



Gomarus, Francis – ‘Five Reasons ‘Jehovah’ is Correct’  in Johannes Hornbeek, Institutes of Theology Harmonized from the Best Authors  trans. Charles Johnson  Latin, ch. 3, ‘Of God’, pp. 57-59



De Moor, Bernardinus

4.6, ‘יְהוָֹה  Jehovah, Pronounceable’
4.6, ‘The Plausibility of Pronouncing יְהוָֹה as ‘Jehovah”
4.6, ‘Defense of the Masoretic Pointing and Pronunciation of יְהוָֹה  Jehovah’
4.6, ‘Vriemoet’s Mediating Position concerning the Pointing of יְהוָֹה  Jehovah’
4.6, ‘Jewish Traditions concerning the Writing of the Divine Name’
4.8, ‘Jewish Misuse of the Divine Name’



Harris, R. Laird – ch. 21, ‘The Pronunciation of the Tetragram’  in The Law & the Prophets: Old Testament Studies Prepared in Honor of Oswald Thompson Allis  (Presbyterian & Reformed, 1974), pp. 215-24

Harris shows that the modern Yahweh is founded on a peculiar interpretation of Ex. 3:14, which is wrong (pp. 218-19).

“Yet we may argue that from evidence so far available, Yahweh is incorrect and Jahoweh just might be the true pronunciation.” – p. 224

Ross, Thomas – Appendix I, ‘The Vocalization of the Tetragrammaton’, pp. 46-54  in Evidences for the Inspiration of the Hebrew Vowel Points  (n.d.)



Lee, Francis Nigel – ‘JeHoVaH, YaHWeh and the Lord-Jesus: A Study in the History of Doctrine anent God’s Name JHVH’  (n.d.)  being 80 webpages

Lee was a reformed minister, holding numerous doctorates.

Lundquist, Lynn – The Tetragrammaton & the Christian Greek Scriptures: a Comprehensive Study of the Divine Name…  (Word Resources, 2000)  230 pp.  ToC

Lundquist is a Jehovah’s Witness, which heretical sect has held as one of their tenets that the divine name is to be pronounced, ‘Jehovah’.

Furuli, Rolf J. – The Tetragram – It’s History, It’s Use in the New Testament, & It’s Pronunciation  Abstract  Buy  (n.d.)

Furuli has been a lecturer in Semetic languages, translator, and has written numerous books in the field.

Wilkinson, Robert J. – Tetragrammaton: Western Christians & the Hebrew Name of God: From the Beginnings to the Seventeenth Century  Pre  (Brill, 2015)  ToC

Machiela, Daniel – The Divine Name in Early Judaism: Use & Non-Use in Aramaic, Hebrew & Greek  PhD diss.  (MacMaster Univ., 2017)


A Dissertation in Greek

Vasileiadis, Pavlos – The Sacred Tetragrammaton & its Reception in the Medieval Literature: A Study on the Translation of the Hebrew Theonymy with Special Emphasis on Two Bible Translations  PhD diss.  (Artistotle Univesity of Thessaloniki, 2017)

Abstract: “…focuses in two Greek Bible translations dated from the late Medieval period and early Renaissance periods, which only recently have been studied in more detail. The former is the Graecus Venetus (late 14th cent., GrVen) and the latter is the Constantinople Polyglott Pentateuch (1547, CPP). The subject is covered in six chapters. In chapter one is presented an introductory presentation of the subject and of the aim of the research within its historical, theological-philosophical and bibliographic frame.

In the second chapter are presented a review of the current scholarship of the research on this subject, as well as details on the meaning and semantics attached to the Tetragrammaton in the Near East background. Special treatment is provided for the Hebrew and Aramaic etymologies and they are presented in comparison with the Septuagintal (LXX) renderings and also other Bible translations in Greek. In this point is included a review of all the various ways that has been rendered the Tetragrammaton in the Bible manuscripts in Greek. In chapter three an inquiry is attempted in the possible ways that the Tetragrammaton might be related with the theonymic phrase of Exodus 3:14. Linguistic details and major hermeneutical approaches on this issue come to light. Then, an analysis is made of the correspondence between the Hebrew/Aramaic verbs hwh/hyh and the Greek είμαι/γίνομαι.

In chapter four are presented in table form the various renderings of Exodus 3:14 in all the available Bible translations in Greek. Of prime interest are the renderings found in GrVen and CPP and their special features are studied regarding the rendering of the Tetragrammaton and Exodus 3:14. Alternative renderings of the terms are examined based on the special features of these versions. Manuscript images previously unpublished are presented, especially as regards the GrVen. Then, a synthesis of all the evidence and the derived conclusions is attempted.

In the fifth chapter is traced across the Bible text of the available Greek translations of the rendering of the verb hyh in the form that is found in Exodus 3:14 and some additional conclusions are drawn. In chapter six the final conclusions are registered in an easy-to-read form. Bibliography is following.”




Related Pages

Old Testament Background, Survey, Authenticity & Introduction

Old Testament Theology

Old Testament Commentaries

Inspiration and Authority of the Bible

The Inerrancy of the Bible

The Canon

The Majority Text

Textual Criticism