On the Hebrew Letters, Vowel Points, & Accents
by John Gill, D.D.
THE following Dissertation has long lain by me; nor was it written at first with any design to publish it to the world; but was written at leisure-hours for my own amusement, and by way of essay to try how far back the antiquity of the things treated of in it could be carried. And what has prevailed upon me now to let it go into the world, and take its fate in it, are the confidence which some late writers on the opposite side have expressed, their contempt of others that differ from them, and the air of triumph they have assumed, as if victory was proclaimed on their side, and the controversy at an end, which is far from being the case; and what seeming advantages are obtained, are chiefly owing to the indolence and sloth of men, who read only on one side of the question, and such who write one after another, and take things upon trust, without examining into them themselves, either through want of ability, or through unwillingness to be at any pains about it.
I CONFESS, it has given me offense to observe the Jews called by such opprobrious names, as villains, willful corrupters of the Hebrew text, etc. It must be owned indeed, that they are very ignorant of divine things, and therefore the more to be pitied; and many of them are, no doubt, very immoral persons; but have we not such of both sorts among ourselves? yet, as bad as the Jews are, the worst among them, I believe, would sooner die, than willfully corrupt any part of the Hebrew Bible. We should not bear witness against our neighbors, let them be as bad as they may in other things. I have never, as yet, seen nor read anything, that has convinced me that they have willfully corrupted any one passage in the sacred text, no not that celebrated one in Psalm 22:16. Their copiers indeed may have made mistakes in transcribing, which are common to all writings; and the Jews meeting with a various reading, they may have preferred one to another, which made most for their own sentiments; nor is this to be wondered at, nor are they to be blamed for it. It lies upon us to rectify the mistake, and confirm the true reading.
IT does not appear, that there ever was any period of time, in which the Jews would or could have corrupted the Hebrew text; not before the coming of Christ, for then they could have no disposition nor temptation to it; and to attempt it would have been to have risked the credit of the prophecies in it; nor could they be sure of any advantage by it: and after the coming of Christ, it was not in their power to do it without detection.
There were the twelve apostles of Christ, who were with him from the beginning of his ministry, and the seventy disciples preachers of his gospel, besides many thousands of Jews in Jersualem, who in a short time believed in him; and can it be supposed that all these were without an Hebrew Bible? and particularly that learned man, the apostle Paul, brought up at the feet of a learned Rabbi, Gamaliel; and who out of those writings convinced so many that Jesus was the Christ, and who speaks of the Jews as having the privilege of the oracles of God committed to them Romans 3:1, 2. nor does he charge them, nor does he give the least intimation of their being chargeable, with the corruption of them; nor does Christ, nor do any of the apostles ever charge them with anything of this kind. And besides, there were multitudes of the Jews in all parts of the world at this time, where the apostles met with them and converted many of them to Christ, who, they and their fathers, had lived in a state of dispersion many years; and can it be thought, they should be without copies of the Hebrew Bible, whatever use they may be supposed to have made of the Greek version? so that it does not seem credible, that the Jews should have it in their power, had they an inclination to it, to corrupt the text without detection. And here I cannot forbear transcribing a passage from Jerom, who observes, in answer to those who say the Hebrew books were corrupted by the Jews, what Origin s aid, “that Christ and his apostles, who reproved the Jews for other crimes, are quite silent about this, the greatest of all.” Jerom adds “if they should say, that they were corrupted after the coming of the Lord, the Savior, and the preaching of the apostles; I cannot forbear laughing, that the Savior, the evangelists and apostles should so produce testimonies that the Jews afterwards should corrupt.”
To all which may be added, that the Jews are a people always tenacious of their own writings, and of preferring them pure and incorrupt: an instance of this we have in their Targums or paraphrases, which they had in their own hands hundreds of years, before it appears they were known by Christians; in which interval, it lay in their power to make what alterations in them they pleased; and had they been addicted to such practices, it is marvelous they did not; since they could not but observe, there were many things in them, that Christians were capable of improving against them, should they come into their hands, as in fact they have done; and yet they never dared to make any alterations in them: and had they done anything of this kind, it is most reasonable to believe, they would have altered the passages relating to the Messiah; and yet those, and which are many, stand full against them. Indeed, according to Origen, as some think, the Targums were known very early, and improved against the Jews in favor of Jesus being the true Messiah, agreeable to the sense of the prophets; since he makes mention of a dispute between Jason, an Hebrew- Christian, s upposed to be the fame as in Acts 17:5. and Papiscus, a Jew; in which, he says, the Christian shewed from Jewish writings, that the prophecies concerning Christ agreed with Jesus; and what else, says Dr. Allix , could he mean by Jewish writings, but the Targums? though it is possible the writings of the Old Testament may be meant, by which the apostle Paul also proved that Jesus was the Christ. However, if the Targums are meant, they do not afterwards appear to have been known by christian writers for some hundreds of years.
IT may be said, perhaps, that the Jews are self-condemned, and that it may be proved out of their own mouths and writings, that they have in some places willfully corrupted the Hebrew text; as the thirteen places they own they changed, on the account of Ptolemy king of Egypt; and also what they call Tikkun Sopherim, the ordination of the scribes, and Ittur Sopherim, the ablation of the scribes: as to the first of there, it is true, that they say, f5 when Ptolemy king of Egypt desired to have their law, and seventy men sent to translate it, that they made alterations in the copy they sent; but then it should be observed, that they do not say they made any alteration in their own copies, only in that they sent to him; and which appears also to be a mere fable of the Talmudists, and that in fact no such alterations were made: but the story was invented, partly to bring into disgrace the Greek version of the Seventy, as if it was made after a corrupt copy; and partly to make the minds of their own people easy, who disapproved of that work, and kept a fast on occasion of it. My reason for this is, because the Greek version does not correspond with the pretended alterations. There are but two places out of the thirteen, which agree with them; the one is in Genesis 2:2 which the Seventy translate, and on the sixth day God ended his work; the other is in Numbers 16:15 which they render I have not taken the desire of any one of them, instead of one ass from them; neither of which seem to arise from a bad copy before them, but from some other cause. The first of them is not peculiar to the Septuagint, it is the fame in the Samaritan Pentateuch; and the latter plainly arises from the similarity of the letters Daleth and Resh . There is a third, Exodus 12:40 in which there is some agreement, but not exact. Besides, neither Philo the Jew, nor Josephus, though they wrote very particularly of this affair of Ptolemy, yet make not the least mention of these alterations, in the copy sent to him, nor in the translation of it. They observe, there never was any change made in the sacred writings, from the time of the writing of them to the age in which they lived. Philo s ays, the Jews, “for the space of more than two thousand years, never changed one word of what was written by Moses, but would rather die a thousand times, than receive any thing contrary to his laws and customs.” Josephus observes, “it is plain, in fact, what credit we give to our writings, for that so long a space of time has run out, yet no one ever dared, neither to add, nor to take away, nor to change any thing.”
And Walton himself, I observe, reckons this story about the alterations for the sake of King Ptolemy, to be a Rabbinical fable; and, as such, Jerom had got a hint of it from one of his Rabbins.
THE Tikkun Sopherim, or ordination of the scribes, is supposed to be the order of Ezra, as it is said in the Masorah on Exodus 34:11 and on Numbers 12:12 and of his colleagues; though some think it is no other than the order or instruction of the inspired writers themselves. It respects eighteen passages in the Bible, so expressed, as that some smatterers in knowledge might gather from the context, that something else is intended than what is written; and so suspect a corruption in the text, and take upon them to alter it. Now this ordination of the scribes, as it is called, is so far from implying a corruption itself, and from encouraging an attempt to make an alteration in the text, that it is just the reverse; it is an ordination that the text should be read no otherwise than it is; and would have it remarked, that the words so read, and which are the words of the inspired writer, contain an Euphemy in them, what is decent and becoming the majesty of God; when, if they were read, as the context might be thought to require they should be read, they would express what is derogatory to the glory of the Divine Being. Thus, in the first of the places, this ordination respects, Genesis 18:22. Abraham stood yet before the Lord; it might seem to some from the context, that the Lord descended to stand before Abraham; but as this might be thought derogatory to the glory of God, the inspired writer chose to express it as he has done; and the design of what is called the ordination of the scribes, is to establish it, and to admonish that none should dare to alter it; and so it was to prevent an alteration, and not to make one; they made no change at all, far be it from them, as Elias Levita s ays. As for the Ittur Sopherim, or ablation of the scribes, that is only the removal of a superfluous Vau in five places; not that it was in the text, and removed from it by them, but what the common people pronounced in reading, as if it was there; which reading the scribes forbid, to secure and preserve the integrity of the text; and which prohibition of it to the common people, is called a taking it away; though in reality it never was in the text, only pronounced by the vulgar.
THERE is a passage in the Talmud, produced by some, as a proof that the Jews s tudiously corrupted the scriptures, and allowed of it, when an end was to be answered by it; which is this, “it is better that one letter be rooted out of the law, than that the name of God should be prophaned openly;” but their sense is not that any letter should be taken, or that it was lawful to take any letter out of any word in the law, to alter the sense of it, in order to serve that, or any other purpose; but that a lesser command should give way to a greater: as for instance, that the law concerning not putting children to death for the sins of their parents, and of not suffering bodies hanged on a tree to remain so in the night, should give way to a greater command concerning sanctifying the name of God publicly; as in the case of Saul’s s ons being given to the Gibeonites to be put to death, and whose bodies continued hanging a considerable time, which is the case under consideration in the Talmudic passage referred to; and the sense is, that it was better that the law in Deuteronomy 24:16 should be violated, rather than the name of God should be profaned; which would have been the case, if the sons of Saul had not been given up to the Gibeonites to be put to death for their father’s sins, because of the oath of Joshua and the princes of Israel to them. The falsifications charged upon the Jews by Justin and Origen respect not the Hebrew text, but the Septuagint version; and even, with respect to that, Trypho, the Jew, rejects the charge brought by Justin as incredible; whether, says he, they have detracted from the scripture, God knows; it seems incredible.
IT has been very confidently affirmed, that there is no mention made of the Hebrew vowel-points and accents, neither in the Misnah nor in the Talmud: and this is said by some learned men, who, one would think, were capable of looking into those writings themselves, and not take things upon trust, and write after other authors, without seeing with their own eyes, and examining for themselves, whether these things be so or no; in this they are very culpable, and their mistakes are quite inexcusable. But to hear some men prate about the Talmud, a book, perhaps, which they never saw; and about the Masorah and Masoretic notes, one of which, as short as they be, they could never read, is quite intolerable. These men are like such the apostle speaks of, on another account, who understand, neither what they say, nor whereof they affirm. What is this Masorah? who are these Masoretes? and what have they done, that such an outrageous clamor is raised against them? to me, they seem to be an innocent sort of men; who, if they have done no good, have done no hurt. Did they invent the vowelpoints, and add them to the text, against which there is so much wrath and fury vented? to assert this is the height of folly; for if they were the authors of the points, the inventors of the art of pointing, and reduced it to certain rules agreeable to the nature of the language, and were expert in that art, as, no doubt, they were, why did not they point the Bible regularly, and according to the art of pointing at once? why did they leave so many anomalies or irregular punctuations? and if, upon a survey of their work, they observed the irregularities they had committed, why did not they mend their work, by casting out the irregular points and putting regular ones in the text itself, and not point to them in the margin? or there direct to the true reading? is it usual for authors to -animadvert on their own work in such a manner? if they make mistakes in their work at first, is it usual in an after edition, and following editions, to continue such mistakes in the body of the work, and put the corrections of them in the margin? The Masoretes, had they been the inventors of the vowel-points, would never have put them to a word in the text, to which they were not proper, but what better agree with a word placed by them in the margin; had they invented them, they would have put proper ones to the word in the text; or have removed that, and put the word in the margin in its room, with which they agree, see Genesis 8:17 and 14:3 and it may be observed, that their critical art and notes are not only frequently exercised and made upon the points, but even upon the points without consonants, and upon consonants without points; which would not have become them, had they been the inventors of them; see an instance of each in Jeremiah 31:38 and 51:3. The truth of the matter, with respect to the Masoretes, is, that the pointing of the Bible was not their work; they considered it as of a divine original, and therefore dared not to make any alteration in it; but only observed, where there was an unusual punctuation, that it might be taken notice of; and that so they found it, and so they left it; and that those who came after them might not dare to attempt an alteration. Punctuation was made before their time, as their work itself shows; and Walton, an opposer of the antiquity of the points, has this observation; “The Masoretic notes about words irregularly pointed, and the numbers of them, necessarily suppose that pointing was made long before.”
Have there Masoretes employed their time and study, in counting the verses and letters of the Bible, and how many verses and letters there are in such a book; and where exactly is the middle of it; where a word is deficient or lacks a letter; or where it is full and has them all; or where one is redundant and has too many; where one letter is larger and another lesser than usual, and another suspended; suppose now this is all trifling, and of no manner of importance, yet who or what are injured by it? the mispending of their time in such trifles, is a loss not to others, but to themselves; and, as a learned man remarks, “how trifling soever this scrupulous exactness of the Masoretes (with respect to the letters in the Hebrew text) may appear, yet it suggests to us one observation, that the Jews were religiously careful to preserve the true literal text of scripture; and consequently, not- withstanding their enmity and obstinate aversion to christianity, they are not to be charged with this additional crime of having corrupted the Bible:” and after all, have not the Christians had their Masoretes also, who, with like diligence and faithfulness, have numbered all the verses, both of the Greek version of the Old Testament and of the books of the New? and have they been blamed for it? Jerom numbered the verses of the book of Proverbs, and says they were 915, exactly as the Masorah. Some words, through length of time, became obscene and offensive to chaste ears, at least were thought so; hence the Masoretes placed other words in the margin, which; perhaps, is the boldest thing they ever did, and of which the Karaite Jews complain; but then they never attempted to remove the other words from the text, and put in theirs in their room; they only placed them where they did, that, when the passages were read in public, or in families, the reader might be supplied with words that signified the same, only more pure and chaste, and less offensive; at least which were thought so; and which were left to their own option to read them or not. The passages are Deuteronomy 28:27, 30, 1 Samuel 5:6, 9, Isaiah 13:16, Zechariah 14:2, 2 Kings 6:25, 10:27 and 18:27, Isaiah 36:12, and it would not be improper, if, in the margin of our Bibles over-against the last, and others that have the same word, another English word or words were put to be read less offensive. And, by the way, from the change of words proposed in those passages, may be drawn an argument in favor of the antiquity of the Masoretes. For this part of their work must be done, whilst the Hebrew language was a living language, when only the difference of words offensive or not offensive to the ear could be discerned, and a change of them necessary: and certain it is, these notes were made before the Talmud, for mention is made of them in it: yea, these variations are followed by the ancient Targums, by Onkelos, and the Jerusalem on Deuteronomy 28:27, 30, and not only by Pseudo- Jonathan on 1 Samuel 5:6, 9, 2 Kings 6:25, 10:27 and 18:27, but by the true Jonathan on Isaiah 13:16 and 36:12 and Zechariah 14:2, who and Onkelos are supposed to live in the first century. As for the word Sebirim, sometimes used by the Masoretes in their notes; this only respects the conjectures of some persons, who thought a word should be otherwise read or pointed; but it is what the Masoretes object to, and say of such persons, that they are mistaken: and this they observe, that no one may presume to make any alteration upon such conjectures: and are they to be blamed for this? and, besides these things, what have they done, except transmitting, from age to age, the marginal or various readings, which had been observed by collating copies, or which arose from their own observations, by comparing different copies that lay before them; and from delivering them down to posterity, they obtained the name of Masoretes; and can this be thought to be culpable in them? they left the text as they found it; nor did they offer of themselves to insert a various reading, different from the commonly received copy, but placed such readings in the margin, that others might make what use of them they pleased; or rather they took this method, to prevent the insertion of them into the text, suggesting, that so they found them, and there it was proper to continue them: and is a Bible with such readings the worse for them? is a Greek Testament to be dis-esteemed, for having the various readings in it collected from different copies? or are our English Bibles with the marginal readings in them, placed by the translators themselves, with references to other scriptures, the less valuable on that account? nay, are they not the more valued for them? and it may be observed, that these Keries or marginal readings of the Hebrew text, are followed in many places, by some of the belt translators of the Bible, both ancient and modern. Aquila and Symmachus, the best of the ancient Greek interpreters, almost always follow them. Jerom had knowledge of them, and testifies to Aquila’s following them, in a particular instance. His words are, f27 “Asseremoth in Jeremiah ( 31:40.) which, in a Hebrew copy it is writ ten Sedemoth, which Aquila interprets suburbana. ” And which reading is preferred by Jerom, as is the marginal reading of 5 :38. And if he was the author of the Vulgate Latin version, that agrees with the marginal readings of the Masoretes in several places; see Joshua 3:16 and 15:47. 2 Samuel 8:3, 2 Kings 19:31, all which show the antiquity of these readings. So modern interpreters, Junius and Tremellius, our own translators, and the Dutch, often follow them, as do various interpreters, both Papists and Protestants. Nay, some of these readings and notes are confirmed by the inspired writers of the New Testament. Thus, for instance, in Psalm 16:10 the word rendered holy one, is written with a yod, as if it was plural; but the Masoretic note on it is, that the yod is redundant, and so the word is to be considered as of the singular number; and this is confirmed by two inspired writers, the apostles Peter and Paul, Acts 2:27 and 13:35. Again, in Proverbs 3:34. the Cetib or textual writing is, µyyn[l the poor; but the Keri or marginal reading µywn[l the humble or lowly , which is followed by our translators of the text, and is confirmed by two apostles, James and Peter, James 4:6, 1 Peter 5:5. And what have the Masoretes done in this respect, but what the learned Dr. Kennicott is now doing, or getting done in the several libraries in Europe; that is, collating the several copies, and collecting from them the various readings; and which, if I understand his design aright, is not to form, upon his own judgment, a new copy of the Hebrew text; but to do with the present copy in common use, what others have done with the New Testament; let it stand as it is, with the various readings thrown into the margin as they may be collected, and leave them to everyone’s judgement, with some critical rules to form it, to make use of them as they please: and when this learned gentleman has finished his large Masoretic work, he will be the greatest Masorete that ever any age produced; since not only eight hundred and forty-eight various readings, as Elias has reckoned those of the Masoretes to be, but as many thousands, and more will now appear. I say not this, to depreciate his laborious undertaking, far be it from me; he has my good wishes for the finishing of it, and what little assistance otherwise I can give him in it. For I am not so great an enthusiast, for the integrity of the present printed Hebrew copy, as to imagine, that it is entirely clear of the mistakes of transcribers in all places: to imagine this, is to suppose a miraculous interposition of Divine Providence attending the copiers of it, and that constant and universal; and if but one copier was under such an influence, it would be very extraordinary indeed, if his copy should be lighted on at the first printing of the Hebrew Bible; and besides the first Hebrew Bible that was printed, was not printed from one copy, but from various copies collated; nor is there more reason, to believe, that the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, which is more ancient, should be preserved from the escapes of librarians, than the Greek of the New Testament, which it is too notorious are many: nor is suffering such escapes any contradiction to the Promise and Providence of God, respecting the preservation of the Sacred Writings, since all of any moment is preserved in the several copies; so that what is omitted, or stands wrong in one copy, may be supplied and set right by another, which is a sufficient vindication of Divine Providence; and this may serve to excite the diligence and industry of learned men, in collating the several copies for such a purpose; and besides, the Providence of God remarkably appears, in that the escapes suffered to be made do not affect any doctrine of faith, or any moral practice, as has been observed and owned by many: and after all, if from the present collation of manuscripts, there should be published, what may be thought a more correct and perfect copy of the Hebrew text, we shall be beholden to the Jews for it, against whom the clamor rises so high: for by whom were the manuscripts written, now collating, but by Jews? for the truth of this, I appeal to the learned collator himself; and who, if I mistake not, in his printed Dissertations always represents the several Hebrew copies, whether more or less perfect, as the work of Jewish transcribers; and indeed the thing speaks for itself: for from the times of Jerom to the age of printing, there were scarce any, if any at all among Christians, capable of transcribing an Hebrew copy; that interval was a time of barbarous ignorance, as with respect to arts and sciences, so with respect to languages, especially the Hebrew. To know a little Greek, in those barbarous times, was enough to make a man suspected of heresy; and to study Hebrew, was almost sufficient to proclaim him an heretic at once: the study of which lay much neglected, until it was revived by Reuchlin and others, a little before, and about the time of the Reformation.
There might, in the above space of time, rise up now and then one, who had some knowledge of the Hebrew tongue, as Raymund in the thirteenth century, the author of Pugio Fidei; and friar Bacon, who wrote an Hebrew grammar in the latter end of the fame century, and which perhaps was the first, at least one of the first Hebrew grammars written by a Christian; though since, we have had a multitude of them: for almost every smatterer in the Hebrew language thinks himself qualified to write a grammar of it.
However, there is no reason to believe, as I can understand, that any of our Hebrew manuscripts were written by Christians, but all by Jews, I mean such as were written before the age of printing: for what have been written since, can be of no account.