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

.

Order of Contents

Introduction
History of the Controversy
Pro
.      John Owen  1659
.      Helvetic Consensus  1675
.      John Gill  1767
Con
.      Elias Levita  †1549
.      C.F. Keil  1882
.      William Green  †1900

The Masoretic Text & Apparatus
Commentary on the Masoretic Text & Apparatus

.

.

Introduction

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.

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.

Gen. 1:1

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, or

(2) 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, of the rising tide of those 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.

.

Contemporary Secondary Sources

Muller, Richard – ‘The Debate over the Vowel Points and the Crisis in Orthodox Hermeneutics’  Preview  1980  19 pp.  in Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 10.1 (1980) 53-72 and in After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition  Buy  2003  288 pp.

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

.

.

Pro

1600’s

Article

Owen, John – ‘The Original of the Points Proposed to Consideration in Particular’, ‘Arguments for the Novelty of the Hebrew Points Proposed to Consideration’ & ‘Of the Chiri uChteev [‘Say this and read this’: Alternative Hebrew Readings in the Massoretic Text], their Nature and Original’  1659  35 pp. total  being chs. 5-7 of The Integrity and Purity of the Hebrew and Greek Text in Works, vol. 16

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 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 vowel-points used by the Jewish Masoretes of the Medieval Ages.

.

Confession

The Helvetic Consensus, 1675

Intro

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 has 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.”

.

1700’s

Gill, John – ‘Of the Antiquity of the Vowel-Points and Accents’  1767  146 pp.  being ch. 4 of A Dissertation Concerning the Antiquity of the Hebrew-Language, Letters, Vowel-Points and Accents, 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 archeological 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.

.

.

Con

1500’s

Elias Levita – ‘Introduction #3’, pp. 103-137  †1549  34 pp.  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  Translated, and with an 84 page introduction, by Christian Ginsburg, 1867. 

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.’

.

1800’s

Keil, Carl Friedrich – ‘The Most Ancient System of Vowel Marks’ & ‘How the Masoretic Vowel System Came into Existence’  & ‘The Masoretic System of Accents’  1882  8 pp.  in Manual of Historico-Critical Introduction to the Canonical Scriptures of the Old Testament, vol. 2, pp. 190-197, 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.

.

1900’s

Green, William Henry – ‘Antiquity and Authority of Vowels and Accents’  11 pp.  1913  in General Introduction to the Old Testament, 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).

.

.

The Masoretic Text and 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  Translated, and with an 84 page introduction, by Christian Ginsburg, 1867. 

‘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.’

.

.

.

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

Judaism