The Masoretes were a group of Jewish scribes who helped preserve the text of the Old Testament Scriptures and developed notes on the text based on Jewish traditions. The word Masorete comes from the ancient Hebrew word for “bond,” used to refer to the Jews’ obligation to keep covenant with God.
The individual writings that make up the Old Testament were produced under a variety of circumstances. Some, like the Ten Commandments, were dictated directly by God, and Moses inscribed them on tablets of stone (Exodus 34:1). Other parts like Job were written by anonymous authors. Some, like the Psalms have different authors, and the individual psalms were compiled to make the “book” as we know it. We are not told exactly who wrote every book in the Old Testament or how those books came to be included in the one book that we call the Old Testament. The Jews called this compilation the Tanakh (TNK), which stands for Torah, Nevi'im, and Ketuvim—or Law, Prophets, and Writings. The Law included Genesis—Deuteronomy; the Prophets included Joshua—Kings and Isaiah—Malachi (excluding Daniel); the Writings included Psalms—Song of Solomon and Daniel. The book divisions and order are different from what we find in our Old Testament, but the content is all there. These were the books that were accepted as the inspired Word of God, and people felt that it was important to copy these books and preserve them.
In the days before printing presses, everything had to be copied by hand by scribes. The Hebrew language of the Old Testament was written without vowels. This was not a problem as long as everyone was thoroughly familiar with the language. However, with the passage of time, many Jews did not maintain a thorough familiarity with Hebrew. Some stayed in Babylon after the exile. Others were Hellenized—raised in the Greek language and culture. Some, of course, were in Palestine, but even there Hebrew was not always spoken—Aramaic eventually became the language of the common man.
In the first century AD, there was an effort to standardize the text of the Old Testament, taking into account all of the manuscripts and variants from across the Roman Empire. Once a reading was agreed upon, the variants were removed, and the scribes began their meticulous work to make exact copies. A group of scribes called the Tannaim produced extensive guidelines for producing accurate copies. Around AD 200, another group called the Amoraim (“expositors”) began preserving and explaining the text, producing the Talmud. There were actually two groups of Talmudic scholars, one centered in Babylon and another in Palestine, and their work produced the Babylonian Talmud and the Palestinian Talmud.
The Masoretes were the final group of scribes who came together to help preserve the biblical text. The Masoretes’ primary work, which lasted from about AD 500 to 900, was meticulously copying the text and adding vowels so that pronunciation (and in some cases meaning) would be preserved. The Masoretes did not want to add anything to the text itself, so they added vowels as “points”—combinations of dots and dashes above and below the consonants—so that the reader would be able to easily tell the difference between the consonants of the original text and the points that had been added. Because of the Masoretes’ reputation for accuracy, the Masoretic Text came to prominence and was generally accepted by Jewish readers as the most accurate. The Masoretes also added additional material, including some variant readings and other explanatory notes. This material is called the Masorah.
The Masoretic Text is the primary foundation of most of today’s Bible translations. Although the final version of the Masorah is only about 1,000 years old, it preserves tradition and scholarship that is much older.