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The Bible says 3

This is the third in a series attempting to nuance the statement, “The Bible says…” You can read the story so far:
Textual Criticism
The Septuagint (LXX)

Hebrew vowel pointing

Hebrew was like ancient text messaging. They wrote it without the vowels, and many still do. So now we had these scrolls with no vowels in them, and slowly the danger grew that people couldn’t remember what vowels they needed to use to read and make sense of the scrolls.

The first thing that people did was they used three consonants in a new role as vowel letters. This was pretty haphazard at the time of Christ. Then between the 7th and 11th centuries CE (the exact dating is not known and disputed), a group of Jewish scholars, the Masoretes, started putting dots, dashes, and other symbols above and below, around the Hebrew consonants. We call what they produced, the Masoretic text.

This is very important to some people who need every letter in the Bible’s text to be inspired by God. We have, for example, Calvinists declaring in the Helvetic Consensus of 1675:

God, the Supreme Judge, not only took care to have his word, which is the “power of God unto salvation to every one that believes” (Rom 1:16), committed to writing by Moses, the Prophets and the Apostles, but has also watched and cherished it with paternal care from the time it was written up to the present, so that it could not be corrupted by craft of Satan or fraud of man. …

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… (Canon 1 & 2)

Let’s take a simple example.

The Bible says… in Psalm 2:9
“You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
or
“You shall shepherd them with an iron rod, and like a potter’s vessel you will shatter
them.”

The word “break/shepherd” in the Hebrew consonant text is רעה. We can add the vowel points as רָעָה (ra’ah, meaning “to shepherd”) or we can add the vowel points as רָעָע (ra’a’, meaning “to break”). The Septuagint translation has “you shall shepherd them” and this is what is quoted, for example, in Rev 2:27; 12:5; 19:15. But the Masoretic text has the latter pointing, and “break” fits better in parallelism with “dash”.

The Divine Tetragrammaton

This gets interesting when we get to the divine name. The Bible has it as יהוה‎ (JHVH/YHWH). We think this was originally pronounced as Yahweh. But with increasing reverence for the name, when people saw these letters they would, instead, say Adonai, or even Elohim. The Masoretes instead of the original vowels, added the vowels of Adonai, for example, to the consonants of JHVH, and lo and behold, we end up with Jehovah! Hear the pronunciation of the Masoretic pointed text here.

Qere and Ketiv

There is a Hebrew understanding called the ketiv/qere system. “Ketiv” means “written,” and “qere” means “said”. The consonants of the scriptures remain unaltered, but, if the vowel pointing appeared wrong in the text, it would be copied in the apparently wrong form and a note placed in the margin in Aramaic explaining what word should actually be read in synagogue. A good Hebrew reader looks at a word, understands the pointing looks suspect, and looks for the “qere” in the margin to read. The Divine Tetragrammaton is considered a “perpetual ketiv/qere.” Whenever you saw the consonants YHWH you would know that it was a “ketiv” and that the “qere” should be one of the ways to designate God– Elohim, Adonai, Ha-Shem (“the name”), etc. Depending on the text, YHWH would appear with the vowel pointings for one of these other designations.

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5 Responses to The Bible says 3

  1. Ok, I think I learnt a new thing, perhaps. Thanks for that much…

    But now I’m confused. Taking Rev. 2:27, I gather that’s “will shepherd them”, which doesn’t sit well with the themes of breaking clay jars. Are we saying that, at the time Revelation was written, the understanding the author quoted was “shepherd”? And that only some 7-11odd centuries later it was changed to something more sensible, and that the use of the word “shepherd” was the result of people’s forgetfulness and corrupting the vowels?

    Strangely, my translation uses “break” in Ps.2:9, complete with explanatory footnote concerning vowels and LXX, but goes on to say “will rule them” for the first verb in Rev.2:27.

    • Thanks for your participation, Tim, and seeking clarification. This is a series, and the posts are connected. There is nothing strange about your translation. Most of the New Testament uses the Septuagint, and the author of Revelation does in this case.

  2. “The power of the points.” I love it. I am tempted to be perverse and assume that this means that even when the vowel pointing is demonstrably corrupt, the resulting readings are nevertheless inspired. There is, after all, a view that considers the Hebrew and Septuagint, together with several early Christian versions of the OT (and NT) — especially the Vetus Latina and the Vulgate — to form a pleroma of revelation. It’s a view most congenial to students of liturgy, like me, who find themselves chanting that the Lord has reigned from the tree, etc.

    I think we must be entitled to add the Coverdale Psalter and the Authorized Version to the Anglican pleroma of revelation — heck, let’s throw in Tyndale and the Great Bible while we’re at it, our own Vetus Anglicana. :) Not, of course, as free from every error (the Helvetic Consensus and KJV-Onlyists notwithstanding); but could we co-opt the language of the Council of Trent to declare these versions to be free from moral error?

    Thanks for another interesting post in this series, Bosco, which was especially enjoyable for me, a non-reader of Hebrew. I think the Masoretes set a very good example for us in their approach to the scriptures, namely by carefully preserving the text as they had received it and annotating it heavily to propose the best interpretations.

    • Thanks for the question. It actually takes a bit of time of hunting around for the letters with and without the correct pointing. So, for example, I think I got the letters without pointing from a Wikipedia article on the Hebrew alphabet. After that it’s cut and paste.

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Rev. Bosco Peters Welcome to this ecumenical website of resources and reflections on liturgy, spirituality, and worship for individuals and communities. It is run by Rev. Bosco Peters.