Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Does pointing matter?

Does Hebrew pointing matter? This may seem a strange question from someone who spent the good part of five years of his life teaching students to point Hebrew (see my exasperated The Great Pointing Crisis). However, I am asking it more as a theological question and in relation to evangelical doctrines of scripture.

Most are probably familiar with the story of how Elias Levita (1469-1549) called into question the antiquity of the Masoretic pointing and how the question of the antiquity and inspiration of the vowels became a matter of special controversy in the seventeenth century. Key elements included the bringing to Europe of the first copy of a Samaritan Pentateuch by Pietro della Valle in 1616, with a script that was (rightly) judged archaic and that lacked pointing. Johannes Buxtorf (snr) attempted to refute Elias Levita’s contention that the vowels were late, and this contention was continued by his son, Johannes Buxtoft (jnr), who particularly strove with Louis Cappel. Very much connected with this is John Owen’s controversy with the London Polyglot of 1657[1658].

Even towards the end of the seventeenth century the Helvetic Consensus Formula (1675) said that:
‘... 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 II, Klauber’s translation)
Subsequent opinion has concluded that those who argued for the antiquity or inspiration of the vowels were wrong.

Some will also be aware that there has been some movement towards re-establishing the antiquity of the vowels—not arguing that they were ancient written entities, but rather affirming the antiquity of the reading tradition. Many who work within Masoretic studies find this plausible, and my Doktorvater, the great Semitist Geoffrey Khan, always used to say that the vowels were as old as the consonants. Even the Samaritans have their own oral system of pointing (with occasional marks in manuscripts) and this has been studied by Stefan Schorch (Die Vokale des Gesetzes: Die samaritanische Lesetradition als Textzeugin der Tora 1. Band 1: Das Buch Genesis [Beihefte zur Zeitschrift fur die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 339; Walter de Gruyter, 2004]). It both agrees and disagrees with the Masoretic system.

I should like to distinguish between (a) the pointing as a source of information to us about ancient Hebrew and (b) the pointing as a necessary guide in the identification of lexemes and grammatical forms in particular instances.

It seems to me that the pointing is very important in giving us a knowledge of the language and in moving us closer to the position that a native speaker would be in (function a), but is relatively unimportant in actually identifying the lexical or grammatical forms being used (function b). I read through Jeremiah 36 and Genesis 1 last night in Hebrew with this in mind and came to the conclusion that with competence in the language (based on a knowledge of pointing) it was possible to identify the lexemes and grammatical forms in all words in these texts. I wonder how much this is the case across the Hebrew Bible.

Often when people have sought to disregard pointing, they have disregarded it in both functions a and b. Such was the case with Dahood. I wonder, however, what people think about the following as a possible evangelical approach:

To accept that pointing is a reliable guide to ancient Hebrew, to its repertory of lexemes and grammatical structures, but to argue that it is not necessary for the identification of lexemes and grammatical structures in particular cases. This would seem to me to have the advantage of being able to maintain that the ancient written text (consonants comprising words with clear lexical identity and in specific grammatical forms) is self-sufficient provided one has (from somewhere) expertise in the language.

Whether the object marker is pointed with sere or seghol is not relevant for grammatical function or lexical identification. Neither is the question of whether a form is in pause or not (though unit division itself can be sematically important).

The Helvetic Consensus Formula was IMHO wrong in attributing ‘inspiration’ to the vowels. However, I would like to think they were particularly striving to be able to maintain that words in the text had particular grammatical forms and lexical identities. If so, they would not have been so much in error.



  1. PJW wrote:

    "I should like to distinguish between (a) the pointing as a source of information to us about ancient Hebrew and (b) the pointing as a necessary guide in the identification of lexemes and grammatical forms in particular instances."

    Pointing has been the topic of many disputes on b-hebrew over the years. I cannot see how you can affirm a and not affirm b. While the the semantic force of a lexeme in its co-text is often trasparent there are cases in poetry where the pointing has everything to with sorting out what lexeme we are dealing with.

    Unless you want to argue for the infallable presrvation of the vowels then it seems that we need to treat pointing as on open issue and not assume that we have the originals at all points in the MT.
    To argue for the infallable presrvation of the vowels would raise the same problems as arguing for the infallable presrvation of the text.

    I treat the vowel points of the MT in the same way I treat accents and puctuation in the GNT and LXX.


  2. Clay, Thanks for yours. I think that I can affirm (a) without (b). I am arguing that the Tiberian pointing system closely corresponds to the system of the Second Temple langue and can therefore be used by us now to interpret Second Temple parole. The pointing thus fulfils a function rather different from Greek accents and more analogous to the role fulfilled by the vast swathes of Greek literature that add to our understanding of the Greek of the NT. The pointing informs our knowledge of the language.

    I'm not arguing that the vocalisation in MT is in any way infallible, merely that it is a good and generally accurate representation of the language.

    I'd be interested to look at some poetic texts to judge whether what I'm saying works. I've just looked through Pss. 1-2. With the knowledge of the langue provided by the pointing with MT as a whole it is hard to point the consonants of MT of Ps. 1 other than MT has aside from pausal forms.

    For Ps. 2 I don't really see much ambiguity except for תרעם in. v. 8, which seems almost deliberately to invite two pointings simultaneously: the parallelism requires the word 'break', but the word 'rod' hints at shepherd, at least until you read on an learn what the rod is made of! Obviously a song has to be sung with a single vocalisation, but the double entendre could be intentional.

  3. I'm speaking through my hat here, as this is a subject in which I have great interest but only a modicum of knowledge.

    I'm more familiar with Arabic vocalization than Hebrew, and in my Arabic Bible (van Dyck version) there are some words which exhibit multiple vocalization--sometimes all 3 short vowels are indicated.

    This is due to the fact that for hundreds of years Arabic has been a language used only by the literate, usually written unvocalized.

    Various pronunciations of words have developed--unhindered by the consonantal orthography--and only when vocalization was inserted into the text did the question arise as to which vowels to use. So when in doubt, the decision was left to the reader, with the result being as if there were no vowels at all. I should add that in such cases only the pronunciation is affected, not the meaning.

    The history of Hebrew in the hundreds of years between the close of the OT canon and the emergence of the Masoretes would have been similar; Hebrew was a language used only by the educated, and was written unvocalized. Only when the text was standardised did vowel points emerge to fix the identity of certain words in the text.

    Looking at 1QIsa, we find no vowel points, but free use of waw, yod, and aleph--and combinations thereof--standing (somewhat indiscriminately, from our perspective) in the place of vowel points. 1QIsa (or its archetype) was obviously copied for an Aramaic-speaking audience, and the scribe must have felt a need to add pronunciation guides to the consonantal text. It would be interesting to study these cases to determine if these were places where an literate Aramaic speaker would be more likely to pronounce a word in such a way that would produce a different meaning.

  4. I think that bringing up the older ideas of inspiration being applied even to the vowels of the Masoretic text is interesting. But this should be more clearly distinguished from the modern "movement towards re-establishing the antiquity of the vowels." I think that for us actually to impute inspiration to the vowels would be saying much more than just that they are ancient. Rather, it would be to say that the vowels of the text (which for centuries were only passed on orally) come from a continuous tradition back to the autographa. To me this seems technically impossible, at least in some cases. Admitedly, in some cases, books of the OT may have begun as orally transmitted works, with the orally transmitted vowel sounds being there from the beginning. But others like certain parts of Jeremiah, were written works from their inception. And, unless these written works were given to someone along with orally given vocalic instructions, then the vowels do not belong to the inspired text.

    Now, on the issue of how reliable the vowel pointing is, and how it may not even really be needed, this is another question. Not being good enough at Hebrew to be able to get by very well without them myself, I can only trust those more advanced than I to believe that the vowels are fairly superfluous for the skilled reader. I do want to clarify, though, that pointing does impact the meaning. When a vav is attached to an imperfect, the only morpholigical indicators of whether it converts the tense are contained in the pointing. Surely there are many other meaningful examples. No?

  5. Eric, Thanks for yours. Of course the question of reliability of the vocalization tradition is separate from the question of its inspiration.

    If I can respond to your example about the waw: the Masoretic pointing informs us of different vocalizations of, for instance, wayyiqto:l and weyiqto:l forms. However, even without the Masoretic pointing we would know from comparative Semitic evidence that there were probably two tenses/aspects (or whatever!) with y prefixes in Hebrew. We would also know from context within prose works roughly when two different translations were required. And then we come to poetic texts, where I will indulge in some cavalier remarks: given the number of different systems current among scholars for explaining the Hebrew verbal system, and given the fact that most verbal forms are able at some point to be rendered by most English tenses in various translations, I wonder how much the pointing really helps (I can hear the storm of fury coming from all those people who invest their time in giving definitive accounts of how the Hebrew verbal system works.)

    I'm not really as pessimistic as the last paragraph suggests.

    Now what I would argue is that the Masoretic pointing gives us a good representation of a (near-)native interpretation of the language. It therefore provides useful background information when we come to consider the consonants, which are pretty clear in their own right. Of course we remember that Jerome named Leviticus vaiecra not vaiiicra. He did not represent the yodh by a double consonant in Latin and felt that the first vowel of the verb was /e/ not /i/. Transliterations of Hebrew words in the LXX, Hexapla and other sources suggest that at the time of the NT all nouns that were in Masoretic terms eventually became miqta:l were pronounced meqta:l. The point here is that specific aspects of Masoretic vocalization postdate the NT. Thus trying to argue that the Masoretic pointing was inspired would be like trying to argue that there was a particular inspired pronunciation of omega in the NT. There has generally been a range of possible pronunciations of the inspired text (e.g. Second Temple dialects, Babylonian vs Tiberian, etc.), whereas lexemic and grammatical identification does not allow so many legitimate alternatives but are a basic part of reading a text. My argument was that the reliable Masoretic pointing tradition provides enough linguistic competence to the reader that they can then come to an unvocalized consonantal text and read it as something which is generally unambiguous.

  6. James, hope the packing goes well.

    You asked:

    'I am still not 100% clear on the difference between (a) and (b). I think you mean that (a) is the first class flight – we get the sense of the passage and also info about ancient Semitics, whereas (b) is the economy flight – we know what the text says and there is no doubt, but we don't get insight into the development of the language (no free champagne).'

    (a) does not relate to specific passages. For all practical purposes it would not matter whether the pointed text that we had from antiquity were the OT or another text with the same range of vocabulary and genre. The only important thing is that we have knowledge of the language from somewhere. It is important both for Greek and Hebrew to function as languages conveying God's message that they should be languages that are sufficiently understood. My argument is that the pointing gives us a good knowledge of the language. This allows us to read the text with competence similar to an ancient reader or translator. The better your grasp of Hebrew the less ambiguous the consonantal text becomes.

  7. Make sure you give the blog a digest of your paper!

  8. I apologize for what may be perceived as a bit of iconoclasm, and with all due respect to the Great Pointing Crisis and the noble efforts to overcome it,

    Has anyone ever doubted the very idea of Hebrew as a consonantal language?

    The classic examples of comprehensible passages in modern languages deprived of vowels are familiar to anybody who has ever as much as looked into the basics, but if I write "ct", would anyone be really certain whether I meant a cat, a cot, a coot or the State of Connecticut?

    Why is it that everybody seemed to be 100 per cent certain that the authors of the Scripture were so more into riddling and not just writing?

    And, of course, there's that idea of Aleph as a consonant....

    I apologize for this intrusion in the learned discussion once again, but am I the only one to whom those ideas seem a tad strange?

    My absolutely best,

    Sergie Zhukov

  9. I have read the NT through in Greek oh, I lost track of how many times years and many times ago. I now have a higher regard for the Byzantine textual tradition than for the modern scholarly tradition based on Siniticus, Vaticanus and similar texts.

    I lost track of how many times I read the OT in Hebrew. I have been reading the text without points for over a decade. Thanks to modern electronics, I have read it a few times using a pre-Babylonian Exile font.

    With this as a background, I find the points unnecessary. The contexts of the words almost always indicate which word is meant where there are homographs that could come from different roots. Further, the syntax almost always indicates what type of words to look for following what is written before.

    A second point, the points are not always accurate as far as meaning is concerned, not just the question whether or not they indicate what the pronunciation may have been during Biblical times. That has led to sometimes sharp disagreements I have had on b-hebrew discussion group. I find that the pointing tends to be less accurate in the poetic sections, as indicated by context and syntax, than in the prose sections.

    As I alluded to above, there is no guarantee that the points preserved the original pronunciation. Rather, I see evidence that they do not. One evidence is that when reading poetry, having each letter represent a syllable in the form of a consonant followed by a vowel (including what the Masoretes treated as materes lexiones) gives a rhythm to the reading that is not found in other vocalization schemes.

    Conclusions: the points are not original, not canon; they are untrustworthy, sometimes wrong; they do not preserve the original pronunciation. Therefore, they can be safely ignored.

    The consonantal text, on the other hand, I believe was without error in the original autographs.

    Karl W. Randolph.

  10. One major assumption unstated in this discussion is that the biblical text ever existed in one uniform vocalization. Different pronunciations of the Hebrew language are extant at least from the time of the divided kingdom and likely even much earlier than that (cf. Judg 12:6). There has never been a period in the history of the Hebrew language when one particular pronunciation could rightly be proclaimed as "the" authoritative pronunciaton. Whether you consider ancient North-South dialectical differences, the Dead Sea Scrolls, early versional testimony, Jerome, Origen, Palestinian vocalization, Babylonian vocalization, ben Naphtali's vocalization system, or even modern Sephardi pronunciations of modern Hebrew, Hebrew text has been read differently by native and/or skilled readers throughout its history. The pointing preserved in MT is generally the late Tiberian systen of ben Asher, one small subset of a vast array of Hebrew vocalization systems. There may be great philological value in the MT pointing for understanding the pronunciation of Hebrew over time, but it is certainly not "the" pronunciation of the Hebrew text.

  11. Hi Peter
    Thanks for this article - I’m in a FB discussion with some friends about the inspiration of the vowels - which I think flies in the face of history and reason and is rather dogmatic - they do of course cite their sources and heroes.
    I know it’s some time since the original post in 2006 but is there one review article or book that you could point me to so so can get up to speed with all the issues?
    Many thanks,
    Andrew Kerr