2. The Hebrew characters in present use, called the Assyrian, or square writing, are not those originally employed. The earlier form is undoubtedly represented by the inscriptions on the coins struck by the Maccabees, of which the letters bear a strong resemblance to the Samaritan and Phoenician characters. The Jewish tradition is that the present square character was introduced by Ezra, and that it was of Assyrian origin. The question of the correctness of this tradition has been much discussed. Some wholly reject it, and hold that the present square writing came by a gradual process of change from a more ancient type. See Davidson's Bib. Crit., vol. I, ch.3.
That the present square writing existed in our Saviour's day has been argued with much force from Matth.5:18, where the Saviour says: "Till heaven and earth pass, one jot (iota) or one tittle (keraia) shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled." The iota (Hebrew yod) is the letter i or y, which in the square writing is the smallest in the alphabet ([Hebrew: y]), but not in the ancient Hebrew, Ph[oe]nician, or Samaritan. The keraia, little turn, is that which distinguishes one letter from another; as [Hebrew: d], d, from [Hebrew: r], r; or [Hebrew: b], b, from [Hebrew: k], k. See Alford on Matth.5:18. (The recent discovery in the Crimea of inscriptions on the tombs of Caraite Jews, some of them dating back, it is alleged, to the first century, proves that the Assyrian or square character was then in use. In these inscriptions the Yod (iota) is represented by a simple point. See Alexander's Kitto, vol.3, p.1173.)
The Rabbinic is a modification of the Assyrian or square writing, for the purpose of giving it a more cursive character.
3. The Hebrew alphabet, like all the other Shemitic alphabets -- with the exception of the AEthiopic, which is syllabic, the vowels being indicated by certain modifications in the forms of the consonants -- was originally a skeleton alphabet, an alphabet of consonants, in which, however, certain letters, called vowel-letters, performed in a measure the office of vowels. The Shemite did not separate the vowels from the consonants, and express them, as we do, by separate signs. He rather conceived of the vowels as inhering in the consonants -- as modifications in the utterance of the consonants, which the reader could make for himself. Various particulars in respect to the pronunciation of certain consonants were, in like manner, left to the reader's own knowledge. For example, the three Hebrew letters, [Hebrew: sh], sh; [Hebrew: m], m; [Hebrew: r], r, ([Hebrew: shmr], to be read from right to left,) might be pronounced, shamar, he kept; shemor, keep thou; shomer, keeping -- the reader determining from the connection which of these forms should be used, just as we decide in English between the different pronunciations of the word bow. As long as the Hebrew remained a living language, that is, the language of the masses of the people, this outline alphabet was sufficient for all practical purposes. The modern Arabs read without difficulty their ordinary books, which omit, in like manner, the signs for the vowels. The regularity of structure which belongs to the Shemitic languages generally, makes this omission less inconvenient for them than a like omission would be for us in our western tongues.
4. During the long Babylonish captivity the mass of the Jewish people, who were born and educated in Babylon and the adjacent regions, adopted of necessity the language of the country; that is, the Aramaean or Chaldee language. After the exile, the Hebrew was indeed spoken and written by the prophets and learned men, but not by the people at large. In Nehemiah 8:8 we are told that "they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading." This has been explained by some as meaning simply that they expounded to them the sense. But the more natural meaning is that they interpreted to the people the words read from the law. We find, soon after the captivity at least, the old Hebrew supplanted as a living language among the people at large by the Aramaean or Chaldee. Why not date the change from the latter part of the captivity itself?
It was natural that the prophets and historians, all of whom wrote soon after the exile, should employ the sacred language of their fathers. This fact cannot be adduced as a valid argument that the body of the people continued to speak Hebrew. The incorporation, on the other hand, of long passages in Chaldee into the books of Daniel and Ezra implies at least that this language was known to the people at large. As to the children spoken of in Neh.13:24, who "could not speak in the Jews' language, but according to the language of each people" -- the people, to wit, to which their mothers belonged -- "the Jews' language" here is probably the language used by the Jews, as distinguished from that used by the people of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab. Keil, Introduction to Old Testament, Sec.18.
5. After the Hebrew had ceased to be the language of the common people, its traditional pronunciation was carefully preserved for many successive centuries in the synagogue-reading. It was not till several centuries after Christ (somewhere between the sixth and the tenth centuries) that the vowel-signs and other marks of distinction were added in order to perpetuate, with all possible accuracy, the solemn traditional pronunciation of the synagogue. This work is ascribed to learned Jews of Tiberias, called Masoretes, from Masora, tradition; and the Hebrew text thus furnished by them is called the Masoretic, in distinction from the unpointed text, which latter is, according to Jewish usage, retained in the synagogue-rolls. From reverence to the word of God, the punctuators (as these men are also called) left the primitive text in all cases undisturbed, simply superadding to it their marks of distinction. After giving with great minuteness the different vowel-signs and marks (commonly called diacritical) for the varying pronunciation of the consonants, they superadded a complicated system of accents. These serve the threefold office of guides in cantillating the sacred text (according to ancient usage in the synagogue-reading); of indicating the connection in meaning among the words and clauses; and of marking, though with certain exceptions, the tone-syllables of words. In addition to all the above, they added a mass of notes, partly of a critical and partly of a grammatical character, relating to various readings, grammatical forms and connections, modes of orthography, and the like. These are called collectively the Masorah, of which there is a fuller Masorah called the greater (found only in Rabbinical Bibles), and a briefer, called the less, the main part of which is found in common editions of the Hebrew Bible. To illustrate the Masoretic as contrasted with the unpointed text, we give the first verse of Genesis, first, in its simple unpointed form; secondly, with the vowel-signs and diacritical marks for the consonants; thirdly, with both these and the accents, the last being the complete Masoretic text.
[Hebrew: br'shit br' 'lhim et hshmym vet h'rts]
[Hebrew: bere'shit bara' 'elohim et hashamayim veet ha'arets]
[Hebrew: o bere'shit bara' 'elohim et hashamayim veet ha'arets]
ha-arets. ve-eth hasshamayim eth elohim bara Bereshith
the-earth. and-it the heavens them God created In-the-beginning
The round circle above the initial letter in the third line refers to a marginal note of the Masorah indicating that it is to be written large.
Respecting the origin and antiquity of the Hebrew points a warm controversy existed in former times. Some maintained that they were coeval with the language itself; others that they were first introduced by Ezra after the Babylonish captivity. But their later origin -- somewhere between the sixth and tenth centuries -- is now generally conceded. It is further agreed that their inventors were able scholars, thoroughly acquainted as well with the genius and structure of the language as with the traditional pronunciation of the synagogue; and that they have given a faithful representation of this pronunciation, as it existed in their day. Their judgment, therefore, though not invested with any divine authority, is very valuable. "It represents a tradition, it is true; but a tradition of the oldest and most important character." Horne's Introduction, vol.2, p.15, edition of 1860.
6. The deep reverence of the Jews for their sacred books manifests itself in their numerous rules for the guidance of copyists in the transcription of the rolls designed for use in the synagogue service. They extend to every minute particular -- the quality of the ink and the parchment (which latter must always be prepared by a Jew from the skin of a clean animal, and fastened by strings made from the skins of clean animals); the number, length, and breadth of the columns; the number of lines in each column, and the number of words in each line. No word must be written till the copyist has first inspected it in the example before him, and pronounced it aloud; before writing the name of God he must wash his pen; all redundance or defect of letters must be carefully avoided: prose must not be written as verse, or verse as prose; and when the copy has been completed, it must be examined for approval or rejection within thirty days. Superstitious, and even ridiculous, as these rules are, we have in them a satisfactory assurance of the fidelity with which the sacred text has been perpetuated. Though their date may be posterior to the age of the Talmudists (between 200 and 500 after Christ), the spirit of reverence for the divine word which they manifest goes far back beyond this age. We see it, free from these later superstitious observances, in the transactions recorded in the eighth chapter of Nehemiah, when Ezra opened the book of the law in the sight of all the people, "and when he opened it, all the people stood up." The early history of the sacred text is confessedly involved in great obscurity; but in the profound reverence with which the Jews have ever regarded it since the captivity, we have satisfactory proof that it has come down to us, in all essential particulars, as Ezra left it. Of the primitive text before the days of Ezra and his associates we have but a few brief notices in the historical books. But in the fidelity and skill of Ezra, who was "a ready scribe in the law of Moses, which the Lord God of Israel had given," as well as in the intelligence and deep earnestness of the men associated with him, we have a reasonable ground of assurance that the sacred books which have come down to us through their hands contain, in all essential particulars, the primitive text in a pure and uncorrupt form.
7. As to the age of Hebrew manuscripts, it is to be noticed that not many have come down to us from an earlier century than the twelfth. In this respect there is a striking difference between them and the Greek and Latin manuscripts of the New Testament, a few of which are as old as the fourth and fifth centuries, and quite a number anterior to the tenth. The oldest known Hebrew manuscript, on the contrary, is a Pentateuch roll on leather, now at Odessa, which, if the subscription stating that it was corrected in the year 580 can be relied on, belongs to the sixth century. One of De Rossi's manuscripts is supposed to belong to the eighth century, and there are a few of the ninth and tenth, and several of the eleventh. Bishop Walton supposes that after the Masoretic text was fully settled, the Jewish rulers condemned, as profane and illegitimate, all the older manuscripts not conformed to this: whence, after a few ages, the rejected copies mostly perished. The existing Hebrew manuscripts give the Masoretic text with but little variation from each other.
Earnest effort has been made to find a reliable ante-Masoretic text, but to no purpose. The search in China has thus far been fruitless. When Dr. Buchanan in 1806 brought from India a synagogue-roll which he found among the Jews of Malabar, high expectations were raised. But it is now conceded to be a Masoretic roll, probably of European origin. Respecting the manuscripts of the Samaritan Pentateuch, see below, No.9.
(A synagogue-roll has recently been discovered in the Crimea of the date answering to A.D.489. See Alexander's Kitto, vol.3, pp.1172-5.)
8. In respect to form, Hebrew manuscripts fall into two great divisions, public and private. The public manuscripts consist of synagogue-rolls carefully written out on parchment, as already described, without vowel-points or divisions of verses. The Law is written on a single roll; the sections from the prophets (Haphtaroth, ch.12.6) and the Five Rolls -- Canticles, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther (ch.12.4) -- each on separate rolls. The private manuscripts are written with leaves in book form -- folio, quarto, octavo, and duodecimo; mostly on parchment, but some of the later on paper. The poetical passages are generally arranged in hemistichs; the rest is in columns which vary according to the size of the page. The text and points were always written separately; the former with a heavier, the latter with a lighter pen, and generally with different ink. The square or Assyrian character is employed as a rule, but a few are written in the rabbinic character. The Chaldee paraphrase (less frequently some other version) may be added. The margin contains more or less of the Masorah; sometimes prayers, psalms, rabbinical commentaries, etc.
9. There is also a Samaritan Pentateuch; that is, a Hebrew Pentateuch written in the ancient Samaritan characters, and first brought to light in 1616, respecting the origin of which very different opinions are held. Some suppose that the Samaritans received it as an inheritance from the ten tribes; others that it was introduced at the time of the founding of the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim; others that it was brought by the Israelitish priest sent to instruct the Samaritans in the knowledge of God, 2 Kings 17:27, 28. It is agreed among biblical scholars that its text has been subjected to many alterations which greatly impair its critical authority. These, however, are not sufficient to account for its remarkable agreement with the Septuagint version against the Masoretic text, in numerous readings, some of them of importance. The explanation of this phenomenon must be the agreement of the original Samaritan codex with the manuscripts from which the Alexandrine version was executed. Probably both were of Egyptian origin. See Alexander's Kitto, art. Samaritan Pentateuch.
In a brief compend, like the present work, it is not thought necessary to notice particularly the printed editions of the Hebrew Bible. The reader will find an account of them in the "Bibliographical List" appended to the fourth volume of Horne's Introduction, edition of 1860. The text of Van der Hooght's Hebrew Bible, (Amsterdam and Utrecht, 1705,) which was chiefly based on the earlier text of Athias, (Amsterdam, 1667,) is generally followed at the present day, and may be regarded as the received text of the Hebrew Scriptures.