Punctuation, Vowel Pointing, and Lower Criticism

The Divine Name in unpointed Hebrew

The Divine Name in unpointed Hebrew

Punctuation can change the entire meaning of a text. We tend to think of the punctuation of our English texts as part of the text, rather than a commentary or gloss on the text. However, the original texts had no punctuation, no separation between words, and (in the case of Hebrew) no vowels. The problem of punctuating scripture is well known, as illustrated by Lynn Truss in her book Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.

For example, as Cecil Hartley pointed out in his 1818 ‘Principles of Punctuation: or, The Art of Pointing’, consider the following:

                “Verily, I say unto thee, This day Thou shalt be with me in Paradise.”


                “Verily I say unto thee this day, Thou shalt be with me in Paradise.”

Now, huge doctrinal differences hang on the placing of this comma. The first version, which is how Protestants interpret this passage, (Luke xxiii, 43), lightly skips over the whole unpleasant business of Purgatory and takes the crucified thief straight to heaven with Our Lord. The second promises Paradise at some later date (to be confirmed, as it were), and leaves Purgatory nicely in the picture for the Catholics, who believe in it. Similarly, it is argued that the Authorised Version of the Bible (and by extension Handel’s Messiah), misleads on the true interpretation of Isaiah xl, 3. Again, consider the difference:

                “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”


                “The voice of him that crieth: in the wilderness prepare ye the way of the Lord.”


                “Comfort ye my people”
                (please go out and comfort my people)


                “Comfort ye, my people”
                (just cheer up, you lot: it might never happen)

Of course, if Hebrew or any of the other ancient languages had included punctuation (in the case of Hebrew, a few vowels might have been nice as well), two thousand years of scriptural exegesis need never have happened, and a lot of clever, dandruffy people could definitely have spent more time in the fresh air. (Truss 2006, 74-75)

It should be noted that our English punctuation may be based upon a best approximation of the mood or case of the original language. The meaning can also be determined from the context. For example:

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD’S hand double for all her sins.
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain:
And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it. (Isa 40:1-5)

From the context alone it should be clear that the second of Lynne Truss’ suggested punctuations is incorrect. The passage is not telling people to cheer up because something bad might not happen, but is stating that the people should be comforted, that their iniquity has been pardoned, that the Lord is coming, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed. Moreover, none of the Catholic bibles I’ve read (Douay-Rheims and the New American Bible) punctuate the Luke 23:43 passage the way Lynne Truss suggests it can be punctuated.

Nevertheless, the point is valid; the punctuation is not in the original. Likewise, the chapter and verse divisions are also not in the original text. They are artificial devices, serving in some manner as a gloss or commentary on the text. (“Verse” Article, Cyclopaedia of Biblical Literature 1880) The same argument can and has been made regarding the separation of the text into individual words, and the addition of vowel points to the Hebrew. The 18th Century Anglican Scholar Adam Clarke, in the Preface to Volume 1 of his Commentary on the Whole Bible, writes the following:

The Mazoretes were the most extensive Jewish Commentators which that nation could ever boast. The system of punctuation, probably invented by them, is a continual gloss on the Law and the Prophets; their vowel points, and prosaic and metrical accents, give every word to which they are affixed a peculiar kind of meaning, which in their simple state, multitudes of them can by no means bear. The vowel points alone, add whole conjugations to the language. This system is one of the most artificial, particular, and extensive comments ever written on the Word of God; for there is not one word in the Bible that is not the subject of a particular gloss, through its influence. (Clarke 1853, iii)

It should be noted that the Hebrew word mesorah (מסורה, alt. מסורת) is a reference to tradition; specifically, the transmission of a tradition. Therefore, the Masoretic text should be understood as fixing a particular understanding of scripture, a particular strain of Jewish thought.

Karel Van Der Toorn, in his book Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible, writes:

Biblical scholars have long been aware of the fact that the Greek translation of Jeremiah as extant in the Septuagint is shorter by one-seventh than the text in the Hebrew Bible. Its arrangement of the material, moreover, differs at some points from that in the Hebrew text. The most striking instance is the position of the Oracles against the Nations. Whereas the Septuagin places them right after 25:13 (“ And I will bring upon that land all that I have decreed against it, all that is recorded in this book — that which Jeremiah prophesied against all the nations”), the Hebrew Bible has them at the end of the book (Chapters 46-51). The discoveries in the Judean Desert have yielded a fragment of a Hebrew version of Jeremiah (4QJerb) that agrees with the Septuagint (henceforth JerLXX) against the Hebrew text known from the Masoretic tradition (Henceforth JerMT). Based on this fragment, scholars have concluded that the Greek translation goes back to a Hebrew test of Jeremiah that differs in important respects from the Hebrew Bible. The differences between JerMT and JerLXX are such that they cannot be attributed to scribal errors in the process of transmission. Nor can the Hebrew vorlage[i] of the Septuagint be interpreted as an abbreviated version of the book. In view of their different placement of the Oracles against the Nations, JerMT and JerLXX represent two different editions of the same book. Chronologicall, the edition reflected in JerLXX  precedes the one extant in JerMT. (Toorn 2007, 199-200)

Lawrence Boadt, in his book Reading the Old Testament, confirms this. He writes:

There were quite a variety of copies of the Hebrew Old Testament available by the time of Jesus. Since copying had gone on for a long time already, many different editions circulated, some longer with sections added in, some shorter with sections omitted. All had some change or error in them. Since a scribe in one area often copied from a local text, the same error or change often appeared regularly in one place, say, Babylon, but not in text copied in Egypt. Thus, at the time of Christ, three major “families” or groupings of text types could be found: The Babylonian, the Palestinian, and the Egyptian. …Only at the end of the first century A.D. did the rabbis decide to end the confusion and select one text, the best they could find, for each part of the Bible. In the Pentateuch they chose the Babylonian tradition, but in other books, such as the prophets  Jeremiah and Isaiah, they followed the Palestinian-type text.

These first century rabbis also inaugurated a method of guaranteeing the text from any more glosses and additions, though not completely from copying errors. They counted words, syllables, and sections, and wrote the totals at the end of each book of the Old Testament. …The standard Hebrew text that resulted from the decisions of these early rabbis has become known as the “Masoretic text,” named after a later group of Jewish scholars of the eighth to eleventh centuries A.D., the masoretes, or “interpreters,” who put vowels into the text, and thus “Fixed the words in a definitive form. No longer could a reader be confused by whether the word qtl in the text meant qotel, “the killer,” or qatal, “he killed.”

The problem is this. The 1st century rabbis fixed the text in a form significantly different than that used by the Jewish diaspora for several hundred years. This was a radical emendation of the text which, when coupled by the Masoretic vowel pointing, fixed the interpretation of the text. Thus it is clear that as Judaism underwent substantial changes subsequent to the destruction of the temple, so too did the text used as the basis for their faith.

From this description of Masoretic textual development, you may well argue that any translation would be an interpretation of the text, and you would be correct. Hebrew is a very different language than Greek, reflecting a very different mindset. Hebrew is a language of actions, a language of concrete things. By contrast, Greek is a language that allows for and indeed almost requires a degree of abstraction. Thus when the 70 (or so) Jewish scholars in Alexandria translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek (thereby creating the Septuagint), they were converting one mindset and worldview into a language best suited for a very different mindset and worldview, thereby fixing a particular reading and interpretation of the text. It is important to note that the Septuagint was the text used by the Jewish diaspora until the 2nd century A.D. (or CE, for the scholarly inclined); thus this interpretation and text was widely accepted as representing Judaic thought.

The Septuagint was initially completed in the 3rd century B.C. (or BCE), and initially consisted of only the first five books of Moses (the Torah, or Pentateuch.) Further books were added to the Septuagint over the next three centuries; most of them are translations from the Hebrew Scriptures, containing the books in the Protestant Old Testament. Other books were written during what Protestants call the intertestamental period and added to the Septuagint; some of these books were originally written in Hebrew and translated into Greek, while others appear to have been written in Greek. The Septuagint (which is best understood as a loose collection of scrolls rather than a single book) was the authoritative text of the Hebrew Scriptures for several hundred years, well into the Christian era, reflecting a post-exilic, pre-Christian interpretation of Scripture. By contrast, the Masoretic text reflects the rabbinic interpretation of scripture, one hostile to Christianity, and which is at least partially derived from the traditions of the Pharisees.

The growth of Christianity after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ caused a great problem for the Jews. As Oskar Skarsaune notes, “while Judaism was a religio licita, a recognized religion, Christianity was not.” (Skarsaune 2002, 265) The status of the Jews was “vulnerable and fragile”, but nevertheless secured by imperial decree. At first Christianity was viewed as just one of many Jewish sects, covered under imperial decree. It could be argued that Jewish objections to sharing their status led to the persecution of Christians. One notable and early example of this is found in the account of The Martyrdom of Polycarp, where “the multitude both of the heathen and Jews, who dwelt at Smyrna, cried out with uncontrollable fury, and in a loud voice, “This is the teacher of Asia, the father of the Christians, and the overthrower of our gods, he who has been teaching many not to sacrifice, or to worship the gods.” (P. Schaff, ANF01. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus 1884, 70-71) The careful reader will note the resemblance between this account and of Jesus before Pontius Pilate (Luke 23).

One difficulty for the Jews was the new and radically different interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Oskar Skarsaune describes it this way.

In this battle, the Christians were by all objective standards the underdogs. One should keep this in mind when one reads the many harsh and derogatory remarks about the rabbis and rabbinic theology and exegesis in the Christian writers of the second century. Many of the church fathers betray an awareness that the rabbis far excelled them in biblical scholarship; and in later centuries Origin and Jerome were to seek Jewish instructors in order to read the Old Testament in the original text and to understand it better. In the eyes of the Christians, Judaism was not only the elder brother, Judaism was also the mightier and the more learned brother — which no doubt corresponded to the objective facts.

The only thing the Christians had to set against this scholarly superiority was their basic conviction that the rabbis had nevertheless failed to recognize the Messiah when he came, and that therefore their scholarship was combined with a fundamental blindness with regard to the meaning of the Scriptures. What a man like Justin Martyr has to set against rabbinic scholarship is not superior scholarship, but something Justin calls “the grace to understand”. (Skarsaune 2002, 266)

The rabbis held the Christians in disdain because they failed to recognize and acknowledge their superior scholarship and accept their interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures; the Christians held the rabbis in disdain because they had failed to recognize the Christ when He came, thereby calling their scholastic interpretive tradition into question.

After the Masorites completed their work, the Masorites made the decision to destroy the older, alternative, non-Masoretic texts. This fixed the Masoretic interpretation of scripture, ensuring that it alone would survive. This was aided by the Jewish insistence that old and worn out scriptures be destroyed (while Christians, having no such tradition, maintained their older texts.) Thus we have little manuscript evidence of the Hebrew scriptures predating the Masoretic texts, while we have a wealth of textual evidence for the Septuagint. What textual evidence we do have supports the idea that the Septuagint represents the older and more accurate text.

The history of the Masoretic text, combined with its known and relatively obvious gloss on the Hebrew text makes it curious that this text is the preferred text for Protestant translations.


Boadt, Lawrence. Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction. New York: Paulist Press, 1984.

Clarke, Adam. Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Whole Bible. Vol. 1. 6 vols. New York: Ezra Sargeant, 1853.

Schaff, Philip. ANF01. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. Edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Vol. 1. 10 vols. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1884.

Skarsaune, Oskar. In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2002.

Toorn, Karel van der. Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. New York: Gotham Books, 2006.

[i] Vorlage: a prior version of a text under consideration.

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