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Leningrad is the former name of St. Petersburg, Russia. St. Petersburg is a Russian port city on the Baltic Sea. It was the imperial capital for 2 centuries, having been founded in 1703 by Peter the Great, subject of the city’s iconic “Bronze Horseman” statue. It remains Russia’s cultural center, with venues such as the Mariinsky Theatre hosting opera and ballet, and the State Russian Museum showcasing Russian art, from Orthodox icon paintings to Kandinsky works. There are many church buildings in Leningrad. However, today, a mere handful function in the way in which they were initially designed. Most of them have been turned into a museum. This also includes the towering St. Isaac’s Cathedral that visually reminds onlookers of the St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Kazan Cathedral or Kazanskiy Kafedralniy Sobor, also known as the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan, is a cathedral of the Russian Orthodox Church on the Nevsky Prospekt in Saint Petersburg. It is dedicated to Our Lady of Kazan, one of the most venerated icons in Russia. It is the most informative presentation of the official attitude toward religion.
Kazan Cathedral has also been converted into a museum of the History of Religion and Atheism. In the basement of this stately cathedral, the display of religious history proceeds in chronological order down to the present day. The visitor is able to actually see the instruments of torture that had been used during the time of the Inquisition. The scene that will haunt you in the night is that of an Inquisition court trial, with life-size wax models. The traumatized victim who is in shock is chained on his knees before his accusers along with monks dressed in black robes. The executioner looks ever prepared to carry out whatever action is necessary.
On Leningrad’s main avenue, Nevski Prospekt, opposite the Kazan Cathedral, on the other side of the street (at the intersection of Nevsky Prospekt and the Griboyedov Canal), we find the largest bookstore in the city, Dom Knigi (also known as the Singer House). As one works his way the store, especially on the second floor, he will encounter many pictures and slogans that obviously were devised to encourage the reader to reject religion. One poster pictured fish in the shape of old women with scarves on their heads. These fish were being lured in by the “ticket to the Kingdom of heaven” that was fastened to a hook that is labeled “Sects.”
If we were to continue down Nevski Prospekt avenue eastward, going right just before the statue of Catherine the Great, we will find ourselves in front of the famous Saltykov-Shchedrin State Public Library. This National Library of Russia is the second-largest library in the Soviet Union, also being one of the biggest in the world. It literally contains more than 17 million items. When visiting, it is possible to enquire about the manuscript to the library official, who will as a number of searching questions. In the end, if all goes well, the librarian will slip away, to then shortly return a reddish-brown box. He will gently sit it on a table before you, opening the lid, disclosing the Leningrad Codex from the year 1008. At this point, the reader might be wondering what this manuscript and why is it so important and valuable.
THE LENINGRAD CODEX
The Leningrad Codex is the oldest complete Masoretic manuscript, which is the basis for both the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia and Biblia Hebraica Quinta, dating to about 1008 C.E. It is a representative of the Ben Asher tradition. In 1947, there began a discovery of some 220 manuscripts or fragments that were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Those manuscripts gave us evidence of just how accurate our Hebrew Old Testament is because the Dead Sea manuscripts were from one thousand to one thousand three hundred years older than the Leningrad Codex. When we compare the Leningrad Codex with the Dead Sea Scrolls, we discover a very interesting detail. Yes, there is some variation in wording of the Dead Sea Scrolls, it is not to the point of affecting the message, and the Masorah notes in our Masoretic texts and the versions give us what we need for textual scholars need to determine what the original reading was in the handful of differences.
Biblia Hebraica Quinta (BHQ): The fifth and most recent edition in the Biblia Hebraica series currently in preparation is Biblia Hebraica Quinta. It is based on the Leningrad Codex and represents a major revision of and improvement over BHS. Whereas BHS presents the Masorah Magna as a numbered key that requires investigation in separate volumes, BHQ presents the full Masorah Magna below the text. In the critical apparatus, BHQ uses English abbreviations rather than Latin, does not attempt to retrovert ancient translations into Hebrew, provides brief explanations of variants, and is much more consistent and comprehensive in presenting evidence. Presently, the following books in BHQ have appeared as either stand-alone volumes or in small groups: the five Megilloth (2004), 108 Ezra-Nehemiah (2006), Deuteronomy (2007), Proverbs (2009), the Twelve Minor Prophets (2010), and Judges (2012). Each volume contains textual commentary on the critical apparatus and commentary on the Masorah Magna in separate appendixes. For further introduction, see chapter 5. (Brotzman & Tully, 2016, pp. 62-63)
We can only imagine seeing a manuscript of the Hebrew Old Testament Scriptures that is literally the basis for almost all modern-day Bible translations. This is the Leningrad Codex. The Masoretes were a family of the Jewish scholars of the 6th–10th centuries C.E. who contributed to the establishment of a recognized text of the Hebrew Bible, and to the compilation of the Masorah.
The Masoretic Text
Between the 6th and 10th centuries C.E., the Masoretes setup a vowel point and accent mark system. (e.g., אִשָּׁה ishshah woman, wife, female) In the image of the Aleppo Codex above, all of the vowels appear below the line except Cholam ( ֹ), which is placed above, and Shuruk ( ִ), which appears in the bosom of Waw (וּ = u). This would help the reader to pronounce the vowel sounds properly, meaning that there would be a standard, and no need to have the pronunciation handed down by oral tradition. Because the Masoretes saw the text as sacred, they made no changes to the text itself but chose to record notes within the margins of the text. Unlike the Sopherim before them, they did not take any textual liberties. Moreover, they drew attention to any textual issues, correcting them within the margins.
The devotement of the vocalizing and accent marking of the Masoretic text throughout this period was done by three different schools, that is, the Babylonian, Palestinian, and Tiberian. The Hebrew text that we now possess in the printed Hebrew Bibles is known as the Masoretic Text, which came from the Tiberian school. The Masoretes of Tiberias, a city on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, established this method.
Unlike the Tiberian school, which placed their vowel signs below the consonants, the Palestinian school positioned the vowel signs above the consonants. Only an insignificant number of such manuscripts came down to us from the Palestinian school, showing that this system of vocalization was flawed. The Babylonian method of vowel pointing was likewise placed above the consonants. A manuscript possessing the Babylonian pointing is the Petersburg Codex of the Prophets, of 916 C.E., preserved in the Leningrad Public Library, U.S.S.R. This codex contains the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, as well as the “minor” prophets, with marginal notes. Textual scholars have readily studied this manuscript and compared it with the Tiberian text. While it uses the system of vocalization that places the vowels above the text, it follows the Tiberian text as regards the consonantal text and its vowels and Masora. The British Museum has a copy of the Babylonian text of the Pentateuch, which is substantially in agreement with the Tiberian text.
The vast majority of these Masorete scribes remain nameless even today. However, the name of one family of Masoretes is well known, the Ben Asher family. Below is what little we know of them and other Masoretes.
The Ben Asher Family
For the most part, the Hebrew Scriptures were copied faithfully by Jewish scribes. Hebrew for centuries was only written with consonants, as it was the reader who supplied the vowels (e.g. building would be bldng) By the time we come upon the Masoretes, however, the Jewish people were no longer fluent in their own language, so the pronunciation was being lost. Therefore, groups of Masoretes, in Babylon and Israel, added vowel signs (nikkudot), cantillation (the ritual chanting of readings from the Hebrew Bible, chants are written and notated with special signs or marks), and accent marks (taamim) to the text, to show the proper pronunciation of vowels, which became known as the Masorah. There were at least three different systems that were developed. However, only one would become the most influential, the Masoretes in Tiberias, which was by the Sea of Galilee, the home of the Ben Asher family.
Ben Asher was descended from five generations from this unique family, starting with someone called Asher the Elder of the eighth century C.E. However, little is known about them other than their names. The father of Asher the Elder, Moses ben Asher, has been credited with writing the Cairo Codex of the Prophets (895 C.E.). In Hebrew ben means son; therefore, Ben Asher is the son of Asher. The others were Nehemiah Ben Asher, Asher Ben Nehemiah, Moses Ben Asher, and, finally, Aaron Ben Moses Ben Asher of the tenth-century C.E. The last two are certainly most prominent and important members of this family, and their work is the highest or climactic point of attainment after a long process. Accordingly, we might say that these Masoretes were among the forefathers of our modern Hebrew grammarians. It was Aaron, the last Masorete of the Ben Asher family tradition, who was the first one to record and edit this information. He did so in the first book of Hebrew grammatical rules entitled “Sefer Dikdukei ha-Te’amim.” This book would become the foundation for the other Hebrew grammarians over the next few centuries. However, believe it or not, there was a more important work by the Masoretes.
The Phenomenal Masorete Memory
The Masoretes were very much concerned with the accurate transmission of each word, even each letter, of the text they were copying. Accuracy was of supreme importance; therefore the Masoretes use the side margins of each page to inform others of deliberate or inadvertent changes in the text by past copyists. The Masoretes also use these marginal notes for other reasons as well, such as unusual word forms and combinations. They even marked how frequent they occurred within a book or even the whole Hebrew Old Testament. Of course, marginal spaces were very limited, so they used an abbreviated code. They formed a cross-checking tool as well, where they would mark the middle word and letter of certain books. Their push for accuracy moved them to go so far as to count every letter of the Hebrew Old Testament.
The Hebrew text as printed with all the points and accents is called the Masoretic text. Masorah, or better, Maccoreth, is derived from a root meaning “to hand down” (Nu 31:5). This tradition began early. Rabbi Akiba (died 135) called it a “hedge about the Law.” It tells the number of times a particular expression occurs, and mentions synonymous expressions, and so forth. The remarks placed in the side margin of the codex, often merely a letter denoting the number of times the word occurs, are called the Masorah parva. The notes were afterward expanded and placed in the top and bottom margins and called the Masorah magna. Notes too long for insertion in the margin were placed sometimes at the beginning, generally at the end of the codex, and called the Masorah finalis. The Masorah differs with different manuscripts, and there is an Eastern and a Western Masorah. – Thomas Hunter Weir
In the Masoretic text, we find notes in the side margins, which are known as the Small Masora. There are also notes in the top margin, which are referred to as the Large Masora. Any other notes placed elsewhere within the text are called the Final Masora. The Masoretes used the notes in the top and bottom margins to record more extensive notes, comments concerning the abbreviated notes in the side margins. This enabled them to be able to cross-check their work. We have to remember, at this time there were no numbered verses and they had no Bible concordances. Well, one might wonder how the Masoretes were able to refer to different parts of the Hebrew text in order to have an effective cross-checking system. They would list part of a parallel verse in the top and bottom margins, to remind them of where the word(s) indicated were found. Because they were dealing with limited space, many times they could only list one word in order to remind them where each parallel verse could be found. In order to have an effective cross-reference system by way of these marginal notes, the Masoretes would literally have to have memorized the entire Hebrew Bible.
There were lists that were too long for the margins, so they had to be moved to another section of the manuscripts. For example, as can be seen from above, we have the Masoretic note in the side margin of Genesis 18:23, which shows three Hebrew letters קלד. The Hebrew letters correspond to our number 134. There is a list that appears in another section of the manuscript, which shows us where the pre-Masoretic copyists had purposely removed the personal name Jehovah from the Hebrew text. The Jewish Sopherim changed JHVH to Adonai, “Lord.” Giving us honesty and accuracy, the Masoretes, being well aware of these purposeful change, they did not alter the take that had been handed down to them. Yes, the Masoretes indicated these changes in their marginal notes, for they were nothing like their predecessors who had willfully altered the text.
What Did the Masoretes Believe?
There was a deep-seated ideological battle brewing during this period of Masoretic progression. Beginning in the first century C.E., rabbinical Judaism had greatly impacted the Jewish people. For the next 150 years after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the academies of rabbinic sages throughout Israel had to find a new form of Jewish practices now that the temple had been destroyed. This led to much debate in order to consolidate their oral law. In this process they set new boundaries, conditions, and obligations for Judaism, giving direction for their day-to-day life of holiness. This would eventually become the Mishnah, which was compiled by Judah ha-Nasi by the beginning of the third century C.E. The conclusions and judgments of the rabbis quoted in the Mishnah would change the day-to-day lives of Jews everywhere. The Mishnah would become Israel’s constitution.
Now, the question was, did the ruling of the sages in the Mishnah line up with the Hebrew Scriptures? The rabbis now needed to demonstrate that teachings of the Tannaim (“repeaters,” “teachers” of the oral law), which were found in the Mishnah were in complete agreement with the Hebrew Scriptures. This led to further commentary in order to justify the Mishnah, in order to prove that it was in alignment with the Mosaic Law. The rabbis sought to show that the oral law and the written law were one in agreement and purpose. Thus, the Mishnah became the foundation for the making of the Talmud. The rabbis who accepted this new hurdle became known as Amoraim (200-500 C.E.), that is, “interpreters,” or “explainers,” of the Mishnah. It is this development within Judaism that was pushing the biblical text to be secondary to the rabbinic interpretation of the oral law. Therefore, if it were not for the Masoretes careful, meticulous care for the Hebrew Old Testament text, it could have lost its relevance altogether.
There was a change in the offing during the eighth century C.E. when a group known as the Karaites (located chiefly in the Crimea and nearby areas) rebelled against the rabbinic interpretation of the oral law as having precedence equal to or over Scripture. Rather, they emphasized the importance of literal interpretation in their study of the Bible itself. They rejected the interpretation of the rabbis and the Talmud. Sola Scriptura (Latin: by scripture alone) is a theological doctrine that was held long before Martin Luther (1483-1546), as the Karaites accepted the Hebrew text alone as their authority, rule of faith and practice. For this reason, the need for having an accurate text took on far greater meaning, and, therefore, the Masoretic studies took on a renewed life impetus.
The Masoretes viewed their copying of the Word of God as holy work. Certainly, they were motivated to a degree by their deeply held religious beliefs, it seems that their work of copying the Hebrew text was above any system of ideas and ideals that they may have had. We never see any attempt at a theological debate within their marginal notes. The Hebrew text alone was their life’s work; they refused to interfere with it in any way. The reformers of the sixteenth-century (Luther, Tyndale) certainly benefited from their work when they rejected the authority of the church and chose to make a translation into the common languages of their people, they had the well-preserved Hebrew text as the basis for their Old Testament.
Vocalization of the Hebrew Text
The search for the best method of documenting vowel signs went on for centuries among the Masoretes. Thus, we find that each generation of the Ben Asher family continued to develop these vowel signs. However, the manuscripts that are still extant only have the methods of the last two Masoretes of the Ben Asher family, namely, Moses and Aaron. When we examine these manuscripts, we find that Aaron formed rules of pronunciation that deviated from his father, Moses, on certain minor points.
Codex Cairensis (896 C.E.) also known as the Cairo Codex contains the books of the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings) and Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the book of the Twelve Minor Prophets). This is an example of Moses’ methods. The Aleppo (c. 925 C.E.) and Leningrad (1008 C.E.) codices are examples of Aaron Ben Asher’s methods.
Ben Naphtali was a rabbi and Masorete, a contemporary of Aaron Ben Asher, who carried out his work about 890-940 C.E., probably in Tiberias. Ben Naphtali is credited many of the readings found in the Cairo Codex of Moses Ben Asher. Thus, it must be reasoned that either Ben Naphtali studied under Moses Ben Asher or they both maintained a more ancient common tradition. There is no single Ben Asher method, as there are differences between the Ben Asher and the Ben Naphtali systems. Aaron Ben Asher’s methods did not become the final form because they were inherently superior. Rather, it was because of the praise that came from the twelfth-century Talmudic scholar Moses Maimonides, giving preference to an Aaron Ben Asher text.
None of the Hebrew Old Testament manuscripts contains identical wording. How, then, is it possible for us to know what the original text contained? Can the Hebrew text be trusted?
Chapter 40 of Isaiah’s book in the Dead Sea Scrolls (dated from 125 to 100 B.C.E.)
When we compare it with Hebrew manuscripts from about a thousand years later, we discover that there are only minor differences found, which are mostly in spelling.
Chapter 40 of Isaiah’s book in the Aleppo Codex, an important Hebrew Masoretic manuscript from about 930 C.E.
The Leningrad Codex is in book form and now it is in loose sheets. It has been microfilmed; thus, the binding is now undone. The sheets feel like very thick paper, almost like thin cardboard. While the edges of some of the pages may be worn, the text itself, which is written in three columns, is sharp and clear. Looking through this manuscript, one thing that should leap off of every page, God’s personal name, the Tetragrammaton (Jehovah, or, Yahweh) appeared several times on almost all of the sheets, starting from what is now referred to as Genesis 2:4. The divine name appears 6,960 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. This certainly begs the question for the modern-day Bible translation committees and publishers who substitute the personal name of God for the word “LORD.”
It is absolutely a pleasant wonderment that such a cherished, precious manuscript as the Leningrad Codex is faithfully and meticulously preserved in a country that is standoffish toward the Word of God at best. The manuscript we have discussed is not just one out of many, but rather the very one that has furnished the foundation for many modern-day translations of the Hebrew Old Testament Scriptures, including the Updated American Standard Version (UASV) published by the Christian Publishing House.