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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Changes from (Pointed) MT to (Unpointed) MT Precursor

If a translator or interpreter approaches the text in its consonantal form only, the opportunities for readings of the text other than those established in MT are multiplied. For example, at Gen. 47: 31, the form mṭh, vocalized in MT as miṭṭa (‘couch’) is interpreted by LXX as maṭe (‘staff’). At the close of Exod. 5:16, there is a difficult sequence, vocalized in MT as weḥaṭatammeka (‘You are unjust to your own people’) (NRSV; cf. LXX). However, unvocalized the sequence is open to interpretation as: ‘(this is) the sin of your people’ or ‘your people have sinned’ or even ‘the sin is with you’ (reading, with Symmachus, whose Greek translation appeared between 150 and 250 CE (see Salvesen 1991), the preposition ‘im (‘with’) for the noun ‘am (‘people’)).

According to the Masoretic accents, Prov. 26: 17 reads, literally, ‘one who seizes the ears of a dog is a passer-by who becomes angry over a dispute that is not his’. However, many modern translations effectively change this word division and interpret ‘ober (‘one passing’) (hence ‘passer-by’) as modifying ‘dog’: ‘one who seizes the ears of a passing dog is one who becomes angry…’. A well-known ancient example of this phenomenon relates to Isa. 40: 3, where the LXX, followed by the New Testament, understands ‘A voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare…” ’ whereas the Masoretic punctuation as well as the parallelism of the verse supports interpretation as ‘A voice crying, “In the wilderness prepare…” ’.

Elsewhere, the redistribution of text can cross the boundaries of the Masoretic verse division. (It should be borne in mind here that early Hebrew manuscripts, from Qumran and elsewhere, do not make any obvious mark between verses even though they clearly do mark a space between different sections of text, which broadly correspond to those found in Masoretic Manuscripts.) For example, at Hos. 4: 11 we read in MT that various activities ‘take (away) the heart’. The next verse then reads ‘My people consult…’. However, LXX takes ‘my people’ with the ‘heart’ of the preceding verse, and then reads the verb of v. 12 without an explicit subject: ‘… take away the heart of my people. They consult…’. Even within the words of MT (rather than between them), a different division of the text is sometimes argued to yield a ‘better’ sense. For example, at Jer. 8: 4, we have a difficult text that appears to say ‘will they fall and not arise; will he return and not return ('im yašub weloyašub)?’ Following the lead of LXX, most translations extract sense from this by interpreting the repeated verb in two slightly different senses, ‘turn away’ and ‘turn back’. However, the Masoretic notes (masorah) to this passage offer a different solution (not, of course, necessarily the correct one): namely, to redistribute the consonants and to read 'im yašubu loyašub (‘if they turn (away) he will not turn (away))’.

Such rereadings of the consonantal text have been part of mainstream Jewish interpretation. A striking example is provided by the great eleventh-century exegete Rashi, on Gen. 1: 1. Rashi points out that the first word of the Bible, berešit, is most naturally taken to mean ‘at the beginning of’. But with the following word, br’, pointed in MT as bara ‘(God) created’, berešit has to be taken as ‘in the beginning’ (without ‘of’) in order to yield any grammatical sense (‘in the beginning God created…’). To resolve this dilemma, Rashi suggests reading the second word not as bara but as bero ‘(God's) creating of’. With this slight modification towards expected grammar, the beginning of the Bible may be read as ‘At the beginning of God's creating of the heavens and the earth, when the earth was…, God said…’ (cf. NJPS). Short of Rashi's solution, there really is no way out of the impasse—one must either slip quickly by the grammar, as most translations (including LXX) and John 1: 1 do, or invoke ‘hidden’ senses of the be- or the rešit, as many early Jewish and Christian interpretations do.

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