Friday, June 3, 2011

Is the Vowel Pointing of BHS the Correct Pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew?

I recently came across an old blog on ETC about the importance of the vowel pointings in the Hebrew Bible for reading Hebrew. The nature of the vowel pointings has been much debated in scholarly literature, but this question is also one which I am commonly asked by non-specialists who are beginning their study of the Hebrew Bible. Since the 16th-17th century debate over the inspiration of the vowels, a consensus has been reached that the vowels of the Masoretic Text (MT) were added to the consonantal base text centuries after Christ. There is still much discussion, however, on the philological value of the MT vocalization for the pronunciation of ancient Hebrew. Most now view the vocalization of MT as reflecting an old Jewish oral reading tradition of varying exegetical and philological reliability. So here I propose to answer the commong question, "Is the vowel pointing of Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia the correct pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew?" The numerous examples to follow have largely been taken from Tov's Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible.

By way of background, we need first to understand the historical situation of the BHS pointing. BHS is a diplomatic edition of the Leningrad Codex (L), the oldest manuscript of the comlpete Hebrew Bible from A.D. 1008 or 1009, which reproduces the text of the codex exactly without alteration, even for obvious scribal errors. L, in turn, is only one Masoretic manuscript that differs at points from the other manuscripts in its own tradition. A difference I recently encountered was how L reads an active vocalization וַיִּמַח "and he destroyed" in Gen 7:23, whereas the Second Rabbinic Bible (which was considered the standard edition of the Hebrew Bible before L was used as a base text for critical editions) reads a passive vocalization וַיִּמַּח "and it was destroyed" for the same consonantal text. L also has numerous differences in vocalization from the Aleppo Codex, which is considered to be the best manuscript of the Ben Asher family vocalization tradition of which L is a part. Thus L offers one (often inferior) vocalization of the Ben Asher tradition.

The Ben Asher tradition itself is one of numerous Tiberian vocalization systems, albeit the most popular. An alternative system is that of the Ben Naftali family, which is closely related but different. For instance, the Ben Asher tradition vocalizes the text "in Israel" consistently as בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל beyisrael, whereas the Ben Naftali tradition vocalizes it consistently as בִּישְׂרָאֵל biysrael. Thus the Ben Asher tradition is one of numerous Tiberian Masoretic vocalization systems.

Yet the Tiberian Masoretic systems are not alone in the Masoretic traditions. The Tiberian vocalizations developed from the prior Palestinian vocalizations, which at times differed from it. The Masoretes in Babylon also developed alternative vocalizations. For instance, in the Babylonian-Yemenite MS Bodl. 2333, has השֶׁמשׁ hashemesh for השָׁמשׁ hashamesh of L. Thus, the Tiberian Masoretic vocalizations are one of a number of alternative, geographically situated Masoretic vocalization traditions.

Nor are Jewish vocalizations the only systems laying claim to the pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew. The Samaritans also developed a reading tradition and vocalization system that differed at points from their Jewish counterparts.

What's more, each of these Masoretic vocalizations are attested only late, centuries after numerous other alternative vocalizations are attested. For instance, Jerome's transliterations of Hebrew words into Latin clearly show that he learned a pronunciation of Hebrew that differed at points from that of the Masoretes. דֹדְךָ dodecha in Jer 32:7 is transliterated dodach, and קָרָאתָ caratha in Jer 3:12 is transliterated carath. Origen learned the same vocalizations for 2ms pronominal and verbal suffixes even earlier, as he transliterates them the same way in the second column of the Hexapla. For אָזְנְךָ oznecha in Ps 31:3 he reads οζναχ oznach, and for זָנַחְתָּ zanahta he reads ζαναθ zanath. Thus even in the early centuries after Christ there were current, variant pronunciations of Hebrew.

In the Qumran manuscripts there is also evidence for differing pronunciations of colloquial Hebrew. Tov lists a number of differences:
1) lengthened independent pronouns (e.g., 3ms הואה < הוא)
2) lengthened pronominal suffixes for the second and third persons (e.g., 3mp במה < בם)
3) pausal forms in MT are non-pausal  (e.g., 6QpaleoGen for Gen 6:19 אתכה < אתך)
4) lengthened future forms (e.g., אקטלה)
5) verbal forms with pronominal suffixes as יקוטלנו
6) the perfect form קטלתמה for 2mp
7) the adverb מאד "much" with an adverbial ending מאדה.
8) long forms of the 2ms pronominal suffix (e.g., מלככה < מלכך)

Even earlier, during biblical times, there is evidence for differing pronunciations of Hebrew. The classic example of "Shibboleth" from Judges 12:6 does not deal with vocalization, but it is indicative of dialectical differences even as early as the times of the judges. A number of scholars, primarily by evaluating orthographic differences in ancient Hebrew inscriptions, have also noted differences between Northern Hebrew and Southern Hebrew.

Now most of these different pronunciations of Hebrew are very similar and historically related, so one can run into trouble by overemphasizing the differences without recognizing the core unity. But the fact remains, that there never was (even from earliest times) one official, authoritative, or "correct" pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew. Rather, what we see is that there were multiple spoken dialects of Hebrew with different systems of pronunciation surviving from early on and continuing even until later periods. The vocalization in BHS is that of the Leningrad Codex of the Ben Asher tradition of the Tiberian Masoretes of the early medieval era, one branch of the larger tree of possible pronunciations. So is the vocalization system in BHS correct? Yes, in that it reflects one system for pronouncing biblical Hebrew with deep historical roots. But if this system lays claim to being the correct system, the answer must be no. It is merely one of a number of ways that Hebrew has been pronounced by linguistic communities of Hebrew speakers over the many millennia. Learn it for the help it gives in teaching non-native speakers to read Hebrew, but also recognize its proper place among the various dialects of Hebrew.


  1. Were vowel points and other markings part of the original writings of the prophets?

  2. This is probably a stupid question but I am only a factory worker so try to cut me some slack. John Owen says there are manuscripts written before the massoretts that have the vowel markings. Wouldn't that be positive proof that they didn't invent it?

    1. John Owen isn't really a reliable source for such things. There was a process of experimentation where different people tried different systems of vocalization, but the developed system we are used to in medieval manuscripts was created by the Tiberian Massoretes. There are no Hebrew manuscripts at all with these vowel pointings as early as the Dead Sea scrolls, for instance.

    2. For the Feb 11th 2021 question, there are 'pre Masoretic' texts but those show the beginnings of the development of the Masoretic system, i recall an artice mentioning het written sideways above to indicate a vowel letter. Those texts arr still considered Masoretic texts . Before M texts and after DSS is the silent period where there are no surviving manuscripts. I believe this vast loss of libraries and private collections is due to the waring in the middle east during rise of Ummayad and Abasids.