What is the MT?

“One thing is clear: it should not be postulated that the Masoretic text better or more frequently reflects the original text of the biblical books than any other text. Furthermore, even were we to surmise that the Masoretic Text reflects the ‘original’ form of Scripture, we would still have to decide which form of the Masoretic Text reflects this ‘original text,’ since the Masoretic Text itself is represented by many witnesses that differ” (E. Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, 11–12).
 
It will surprise exactly no one that the Hebrew Bible (or, Protestant Old Testament) was written—and this is crazy—in Hebrew (Ok, ok, some of it was written in Aramaic but leading with the exception doesn’t sound as cool).  But there is a difference between the language in which a collection of texts is written in and the version of a text. That’s one of the confusing things for folks just getting into Text Criticism for the Hebrew Bible—what is in your English Bibles, and even in your Hebrew Bibles, isn’t the same text versionthat was originally written and, sometimes, isn’t even close.
 
Dtr of Aleppo Codex
Prior to the discovery of the Judean Desert Scrolls (commonly known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, or DSS) the oldest Hebrew version of the Bible was the Aleppo Codex, a beautiful, full manuscript of the Hebrew Bible written about AD 930. Yep, that’s not a typo: AD 930; now compare that to the Greek version of the Bible, Codex Siniaticus which is dated back to AD 350! Regardless of what dating your use for Moses or the rest of the Hebrew Bible books, that is a long time after these texts were written down.
 
“But,” defenders of the MT Bible would object, “the Masoretes—the Jewish Scribes who preserved the text of the Bible—were incredible careful, and included all sorts of safeguards in their copying (such as counting letters, middle of the book, etc). So, even though the Aleppo Codex is a 10thcentury text, it actually reaches back far further.” And that is absolute true! Thanks to discoveries of the DSS we can say for certain that the Masoretes did a truly remarkable job preserving the Hebrew text which under-girds their textual versions (i.e., the MT). But this only occurred after the text had stabilized.
 
You see, when the DSS were discovered and analyzed they found that the text of the Hebrew Bible preserved by the Masoretes (thus, the Masoretic Text or MT) was only one version out of a plurality that existed in the first century. For example, Emanuel Tov analyzes the 75 extant Hebrew-Aramaic texts of the Prophets and Writings that are sufficient to make meaningful remarks about and found the following:
Total
Masoretic-Like
SamP-Like
OG/LXX
Pentateuch
46
22 (48%)*
5 (11%)
1 (2%)
18 (39%)
Rest of HB
75
33 (44%)*
5 (7%)
37 (49%)
Thus, most of the texts are based on versions or text families that are not the same as the Hebrew Test in our Bible! Even though Tov (for this analysis) only looked at Hebrew-Aramaic documents, he still found 7 documents which show the Hebrew Text that is behind the Greek translation colloquially referred to as the Septuagint! Even if we just look at the manuscripts of the Torah we find that only 48% of the texts are Masoretic-Like (or midway between MT and Samaritan Pentateuch)!
So, if there’s so much textual plurality in the 1stcentury, when and how did the Masoretic text come to be such a dominant text type for the Hebrew Bible? And why do we use it, today? Well that’s a big question that we’ll talk about in a different blog post, but the short version for today is this: we’re not exactly sure, but definitely by the 4thcentury CE and probably by the 3rd century, the MT had stabilized and represents overwhelmingly what we have i

n our Hebrew Bibles. And it probablyoccurred because the Proto-MT text was the preferred version of the rabbis who survived after the Bar Kochva Revolt (AD 135) and they copied versions like their own, and suppressed / allowed to die out versions which were “wrong” from the perspective of their text.

Just like when we talked about the LXX, this is a complex topic and I won’t pretend to cover anything more than the most basic of outlines. But, if you’re interested in learning more about the topic, I’d recommend the very short Textual Criticism, by P. Kyle McCarter, or the very good (but decidedly not short, not cheap, and quite dense!) Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible by Emanuel Tov. Tov is a standard of the field.
But what’s the tl;dnr version?
  • The Masoretic Text (MT) should not be confused with the “original” Hebrew Bible
  • The MT is newer than other textual traditions
  • The MT is very similar in most passages of the HB; very different in others 
  • The MT is just one of several different text types present in the 1st century
  • We should not automatically assume that the MT is “better” than the LXX/OG texts
Next time, we’ll talk a bit about some of the differences between the MT and LXX.

Published by Jared Saltz

Biblical Studies Faculty (Florida College). PhD candidate at HUC-JIR. Husband, father, student.

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