The neglect of sound Hebrew studies

     Nowadays, Liberal ideas of the history, psychology and evolution of religion have prevailed in our churches as criteria for judging the antiquity of the ancient Bible documents. Linguistic views, Hebrew acumen and the testimony of chronological history and archaeology are either counted as secondary or even ignored. This is especially the case with the canonical collection of pointed (vocalised) Hebrew texts forming the Old Testament. Though clarity of meaning, rhythm, grammar and lexical function is given by vocalisation to the Hebrew text, such vowel letters are, oddly enough, thought by a number of Bible critics to be of a later date than the consonants which are made intelligible by them. Indeed, vocalisation is taken by many post-nineteenth century Biblical scholars to represent mere editorial glossaries of a vastly late date. We are told that the genius behind this action was the work of so-called Tiberian Massoretic scribes. Their alleged inventions are dated later and later as evolutionary Liberal theology ‘progresses’ in its conviction that a language evolves from the simple to the complicated, forgetting that our oldest languages are highly inflected, whereas modern speech is but a simple shadow of the way our ancestors expressed themselves. So, too, the belief that God can reveal Himself through His infallible Word is viewed as part of a religious myth which has developed throughout millions of years by humans who evolved from worshipping sticks and stones to a fully-fledged belief. Thus it is thought that the Bible developed in its written state with the assent of man until it reached the vocalised position given it by the Massoretes around the tenth century A. D.

     Seventeenth and eighteenth Hebrew scholars knew all about the Tiberian scribes and the pseudo-scientific myths surrounding them but rejected the idea of a Massoretic origin of vowel pointing on the grounds that the Massoretes were not skilled enough in linguistics and could never have spontaneously created such a precise and perfect system as that used in the Holy Scriptures however ‘developed’ they were in religious appreciation. They thus rejected the Massoretic theory as pure myth, along with the up-and-coming evolutionary ideas of history and linguistic development. They put the late dating for ancient Hebrew vocalisation down to the work of those who put a belief in fables before hard study. They explained that the term ‘massoretic’ does not denote a special people but merely describes anyone who passes on what was there long before. Indeed, textual transmission is known as ‘Masorah’ which is a Hebrew word for ‘hand over’. We find the term in the Mishnah Avot, “Moses received the Torah on Sinai and handed it over (masar) to Joshua.” Thus anyone handing on the Torah was called a Massorete. The results of seventeenth and eighteenth century scholarly research showed that the Massoretic pointing was ‘handed over’ from much older forms. Bishop Usher, for instance, believed that Ezra re-pointed the Hebrew text of the Jewish Bible on the Jews return from Babylon around 454, arguing that this was a continuation of an older tradition. There have thus always been Massoretes.

The Jewish consonantal Scriptures no help in dating

     This situation has been rendered more complicated in modern times by Jewish scholars who have developed a consonantal script void of most necessary vowel signs, one might say, in competition with what they call ‘the Christian Bible’. Their text, they argue, is more accurate than that of the Christians’. It is interesting to note that concurrent with the re-establishment of Israel, the famous Aleppo Codex or Keter Torah (the Crown of the Torah), a 760-page parchment manuscript, disappeared. It was a collection of ancient texts put together in the early tenth century and represented the oldest copy of the Hebrew Bible. It contained vowel signs, punctuation, notations for liturgical chanting and textual notes. This was identical with the so called ‘Christian’ Hebrew Bible.

     Jewish scholars also argue that vocalisation was an adaptation of Paleo-Hebrew to Neo-Aramaic when the Hebrew letters were allegedly exchanged for Aramaic letters in the Exile period. However, the differences here between Aramaic as a more modern language and Hebrew as a more ancient language are greatly exaggerated. We know from Genesis 31:47; Ezra 4:8-6:18, 7:12-26; Jeremiah 10:11 and Daniel 2:4-7:28 that Aramaic ran parallel to Hebrew as a variant from earliest Biblical times. In order to accommodate themselves to this fact, it has become fashionable for modern critics to argue that the later Old Testament books were either written first and the earlier books later or that all the books were written during the Exile. Such speculative ‘scholarship’ does not help in solving the problem of the Biblical Hebrew text one bit.

     This author’s research has shown that the unpointed texts used by modern Jews were chiefly based on former pointed texts which Christians still use. Furthermore the separation of the words used by modern Jews is also based on those ancient vocalised texts. Such Hebrew texts have a continuous stream of letters without breaks, the separate words and syntax being recognised from their vowel letters, whether consonantal (like Yodh) or pure vowel signs (like Patach). It is a most difficult task indeed to read a never-ending line of non-vocalised consonants and the modern Jewish boast (their fathers thought differently) that this allows for fewer mistakes than reading pointed texts is rather lame. So, too, if vocalisation was a product of the sixth to fifth century before Christ, then all the theories which claim that the Massorites vocalised the Hebrew consonants in the tenth century A. D., fall flat.

Christ used a vocalised text

     I became familiar with Owen’s, Usher’s, Buxtorf’s and Pelikan’s teaching on pointing in the sixties whilst studying Hebrew under Ringren, Magnusson and Erlandson at Uppsala University. I found out then that all the evidence regarding vocalisation was on the sixteenth to eighteenth century scholars’ side. I realised, that but for a few exception, Hebrew linguistics had slept since then. Obviously the main evidence for the pioneers of true Biblical Hebrew scholarship is to be found in the words of Scripture themselves. Jesus said unmistakably in Matt. 5:18, “Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” Here, Jesus refers to two separate letters in the Old Testament canon, the ‘jot’ or ‘yohd’, which is the smallest consonant in Hebrew, and the ‘tittle’ or ‘keraia’, which is the smallest vocalisation letter or sign. Pioneering linguistic laws which became known in a modified form as Grimms’ Law (after the Grimm brothers) half a century later, John Gill showed that the Greek keraia was the Hebrew Hiriq, (transcribed Chirek by Gill) or dot which formed the basis of all Hebrew vowel pointing. Besides using internal evidence and his enormous linguistic acumen, Gill produced a mass of archaeological, numismatic and documentary evidence to prove the antiquity of the Hebrew points.

Pointing obviously used from earliest times

     Arguing from supposed Massoretic times when pointing was allegedly invented, Gill shows that such points were in general, traditional use at the time and even printed versions of vocalised Bibles were in circulation. This information was laughed at by later source critics who were ignorant of the fact that Bibles printed in page-blocks were known for centuries before moveable type was invented. Then, continuing to probe backwards to the time of the Prophets through the works of Ben Asher, Ben Naphtali, Saadia Gaon, Jerome, Rabbi Ase, the Sura Academy, the Rabbot, the Jerusalem Talmud, Origen’s Hexalpa, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, the Jonathan and Onkelos Targums, Josephus, Nechuniah Ben Kanah and Ptolemy Philadelphus, Gill shows how any talk of a ‘late’ date for Hebrew vocalisation is just not to be taken seriously. He argued that Biblical Hebrew was rapidly becoming a dead language by the time of the return of the Exiles, so it is hardly surprising that evidence points to a use of vowel signs after that period to guarantee correct pronunciation by non-native speakers or by Jews who had forgotten their mother tongue. However, the Semitic languages are also known to have had vowel signs long before this period as witnessed by ancient coinage and ostraca. Incidentally modern diggings have revealed Semitic vocalisation dating from the 9th century B.C.. So, too, we must take into account the fact that both liturgical and Biblical texts with pointing have been used in worship alongside Torah texts without pointing since way back in history.

     Liberal theologians have long supported their pleas for re-writing the Bible text on grounds that, when copying older texts, guesses as to vocalisation have led to ‘wrong’ readings. Where mistakes have been proved, however, this has invariably been in interpreting consonants, there being little evidence of faulty interpretation due to vocalisation and where this does occur the change in meaning is negligible.

Criticism of the above arguments met

     My published views outlined above were challenged in the Christian press. It was maintained that the use of Aramaic vowels to enhance Hebrew consonants was developed solely by the Massoretes in the seventh century A. D., thus pre-dating the Massorete period postulated by today’s ‘scholars’ by three hundred years (cf. Rowley). The need for such a pointed text would have obviously have been apparent during the Exile and especially during the inter-testamental period where Greek had completely taken over from Hebrew-Aramaic. However, this does not rule out the previous linking of Hebrew with Aramaic in pre-exile texts which would indicate that my major critic was still some 2,500 years out in his dating. Moreover, Ben Asher and Ben Naphtali, who are supposed to have been the brains behind the Massorete vowels, wrote around the year 1037, so according to the dating given to prove me wrong, they did their work three centuries before they were born!

     Illustrating my point that linguistic research has slept since Owen’s and Gill’s days, my major critic followed what he called ‘modern experts’, refusing to be guided by linguistic principles such as lexicology, lexicography and sound shifts. So, too, he refused to look at historical written evidence and archaeological findings apart from a brief look at ‘one or two sections’ of a text of unsure date used by the Qumran sects who were neither Christian nor traditional rabbinic in their culture. The argument that no written vowels were found in the small specimen he gave therefore no vowel signs ever existed in Hebrew was like arguing that the presence of the much used abbreviation ‘cntd’ in English proves that the word spelt ‘continued’ was unknown before ‘cntd’ appeared. Furthermore, my critic appealed to both the Massoretic texts and the Dead Sea Scrolls for authority in one breath. This is like keeping one’s cake and eating it as their orthographical traditions are different and at times cancel each other out. So, too, on examining closely the scroll sections he cited, I found that my opponent had even overlooked several consonantal vowels in it and was wrong in his comments concerning the quality and quantity of the others.

Languages move from the analytical to the synthetic not visi versa

     In retracing the development of Hebrew pointing, one notes that languages move from the analytical to the synthetic (more complicated to less complicated, cf. Anglo-Saxon and Modern English) so that simpler forms of spelling, syntax and grammar take over from more complex forms. One feature of this is that vowel characters (but also consonants dependent on vowels) become redundant. One only need compare English with the Slavic languages, German, Swedish and Italian to observe this. Indeed the irregularity of English orthography as compared with Italian is almost solely traceable to its redundant vowel letters and diacritical marks. My major critic spoke of only 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet. He reaches this number by wrongly discarding all vowel letters and older consonants. However, the Old Semitic language Ugarit (cf. Ras Shamra) of 1,400 years B.C., had at least 30 letters, including vowels. If my critic had added the seven Massoretic vowel signs to his 22 consonants (actually there are 23), we reach the old total of 30. We need not go as far back as Ugarit because Babylonian texts from the Exile onwards boast seven clearly defined vowel signs representing eleven vowels of various length and quality (See Rosenthal). Usually Hebrew students learn this in first-term work but the fact is foreign to many Bible critics who write as though they were Biblical scholars.

     We must also take into consideration that the vowelised consonants in Hebrew, used primarily as matres lectionis, diphthongs etc., developed alongside pure vowel characters as soon as Hebrew began to depart from the Sinaitic picture language. Their various usages were determined by locality, customs, traditions, conditions, outside influence, pronunciation and, of course, the material written on. This is exactly the same with non-Semitic languages, cf. William with Wilhelm, yellow with baby etc..

A personal theory aired

     My own personal theory here, which I admit, I have never seen documented, but I shall give it for what it is worth, is that Hebrew went through a two-fold development from a picture language into dialects using either an alphabetic language or a syllable language, the non-vocalised texts being a direct development of the syllabic script, each consonant carrying a certain vowel value as in modern Guess/Sequoia Cherokee. The full alphabet script tradition was carried on in the Palestinian, Babylonian and Tiberian forms, with the former two placing the vowel letters over the consonants and the Tiberian method placing them below the consonants (exception Cholem). Indeed, Arabic, which is a very old language closely related to Hebrew, has perhaps vestiges of both these forms as dots are present even in their alphabetic consonants. Evidence suggests, in fact, that the Massoretes used ancient Koran-School Arabic as a support for their own method of vocalisation. This would perhaps help to explain the existence of both plene scriptum (vowelised consonants (now silent) with vowel signs) and defective scriptum (vowel signs and sounds standing in their own right).

     The fact is that if anyone’s research brought to light non-pointed texts demonstrably older than the oldest known vocalised texts, and real proof was forthcoming that the latter developed from the former, such findings would be a sensation. Bodmer, for instance, argues that the hitherto supposedly oldest part-MS is the Prophet Codex (Kairo). This is not only a pointed text but it is covered in an embarrassment of diacritical signs. Dating such MSS has become mere guess work, however, as so-called modern experts date vocalised Hebrew automatically late as they say it must be post-Massoretic. This reminds one of the argument-in-a-circle dating methods used in palaeontology. However, even the most ardent Tiberian enthusiasts must accept that the Massoretic pointing is based on older pointing (cf. Babylonian, Syrian, Palastinian, Samaritan etc.) and was in no way a sudden development. Indeed, in the Massoretic texts we find that the editors have obviously left most vocalisation as it was and merely expressed their different opinion in the margin. The so-called Massorah (the circellus, qere, qere perpetuum, kitib, puncta extraordinaria, etc.), show that the Massoretes wished to transmit and not alter.

The ‘nib’ theory demolished

     Not wishing to accept the obvious, i.e. that Christ was referring to the vowel tittles, my major critic claimed that Christ was actually speaking about the ‘nibs’ which adorn certain Hebrew consonants in modern printer’s Aramaic block fonts. These ‘nibs’ are like the feet used in modern English serif fonts. It is almost unnecessary to state that Hebrew writing from Sinaitic days to Christ’s was vastly different to modern printing. Even today, there are many Hebrew fonts which are almost nibless, with different letters sometimes carrying nibs and sometimes not. The older the script, the less ‘square’ the letters and the less nibbed. Even a Yohd has nibs in some later scripts. Daleth and Resh have no nibs in their older forms as per the Dead Sea Scrolls but have nibs in much younger texts. Indeed, the absence of nibs can be used as an early dating criterion for antiquity and the presence of nibs for younger texts. Thus, if Christ were arguing that not a jot or nib would disappear from the law before Heaven and earth passed away, the passing away of the earth and Heaven would have already taken place!

     The LXX translators had great difficulty in distinguishing Daleth from Resh in old Hebrew nibless texts so the nibs were most likely developed later to help in letter recognition. To prove their point that Christ was only familiar with fonts full of nibs, critics must first produce such a text then prove that Christ was unfamiliar with all the known texts of His day, including the Proto-Sinaitic, Sinaitic, Byblian (Abibaal), Canaanite and Chaldee. Indeed, we have many extant nibless texts dating almost 2,000 years B. C.. Nehemiah and his contemporaries certainly used a non-block, non-nibbed form. However, the whole discussion is hypothetical as Christ clearly refers to the Yod and the Chirek i.e. the smallest consonant and the smallest vowel respectively.

Hebrew-type vocalisation a general linguistic phenomenon

     Gill argued that Christ’s mention of Chirek or the dot is linguistically exact as all Hebrew vowels were originally expressed in dots. I have seen old MSS myself in which even Patach and Kamets (formed by lines) are presented in dots. This, too, is a widespread linguistic ‘law’. Indeed, vowel letters, vowel lines and vowel dots are used interchangeably in the modern Scandinavian languages (see Swedish ae = ä = ã), so this is perfectly feasible.

     Thus pointing is not restricted to Hebrew; dots, dashes, diacritical signs and accents being used to represent vowels, breathings, nasalisation, spirantisation, etc. in a host of other languages and language families since earliest times, becoming less and less as languages become more synthetic. With the development of the mass-copying of texts in hand-writing and printing, many of these vowel and diacritical signs disappeared as they were time-consuming, most difficult to form and cut out and eye-straining to set. Remember Jerome (c. 340-420) complaining that he could not read the vowel signs by candle-light. Our Liberal opponents would ignore this evidence by saying, “Because they were not there!” Use of the ASCII code in modern computer programming is robbing our languages of further diacritical signs. The Hebrew Old Testament was one of the first books to be printed, a page a block being carved out. The tiny pointing must have been a headache indeed to cut out and readily abandoned. This was hundreds of years before type-setting was invented.

      In closing, I must mention an amusing story here concerning that learned Hebraist Ivan Engnell to illustrate the point made above. After initially failing utterly to comprehend Weingreen, I was blessed with Engnell’s Grammatik i Gammaltestamentlig Hebreiska whilst studying at Uppsala. Engnell loved to take snuff. He took it in the usual Swedish way, thickly ground, moist, taken up with all five fingers and stuffed behind the upper lip and top teeth, then sucked in with a violent intake of breath through the teeth. Then a passionate sneeze. After such an intake of snuff, Engnell went to the printers with his MS of the above-mentioned book under his arm. On collecting the proofs, he had to reach for more ‘snus’ (Swedish for snuff) to steady his nerves. The printer, having no knowledge of Hebrew, had taken all the sneezed-out snuff spots for vowels and diacritical signs and had type-set and printed the lot. It was no wonder that after this experience, Prof. Engnell started to teach Hebrew reading from radicals (consonants) alone, dispensing with vowel signs.

     I admit that the last word has not been spoken but as long as we have the Word of Christ and pre-Incarnation data to back up ancient vocalisation, all the good arguments are on the side of those who plead for the antiquity of pointing in the Hebrew language.