Hebrew vowel points

Steven Avery

George Melvyn Ella, who wrote a biography of John Gill, wrote some interesting material.
(I did have a telephone call with him about a decade back.)

British Reformed Journal
Correspondence: Those Hebrew Vowel Points Again
BJR Issue 21 (January - March 1998)
George Ella
p. 33-17

BRJ Issue 23 (July - September 199X)
Michael Kimmitt p. 48
Correspondence: Response to George Ella on the Hebrew vowels

Now Available at


Correspondence: Those Hebrew Vowel Points again

Saved on disk SA July, 2, 2021

JeHoVaH. YaHWeH. and the Lord-Jesus. By Dr, Nigel Lee
A study in the history of doctrine anent God’s name JHVH

"Yet indeed, as the famous modem Old-Testamentician Dr. George Ella has pointed out, Jerome complained he could not read the vowel-signs of the Hebrew Older Testament at night by candlelight. Consequently, reading and writing in the daytime ....

Ella. George M. John Gill and the Cause of God and Truth. Durham. England: Go Publications. 1995.
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Steven Avery

Puritan Board 2013


Thanks for the response. That really helps to clarify the issues, though I'm not sure that Lightfoot is arguing what you seem to be suggesting. Going back to post#2 in the thread, it seems that there were three options under discussion:

1) the vowels are not original: they are a "human invention" that may come from after the time of Christ. This presumably doesn't deny that some vowels existed at the time of writing (otherwise what did Moses think he was writing?), but suggests that the present vowels are an uninspired human guess at what those original vowels were.

2) "others are of opinion, they were given to Moses on Mount Sinai, as to the power of them in pronouncing and reading, though not as to the make and figures of them in writing". Like the first view, this position agrees that the vowels were not marked on the original manuscripts, but in contrast emphasizes the fact that they were accurately handed down through the tradition, preserved by God so that at the point at which they were written in by the Masoretes they clearly reflect the divinely inspired text.

3) "others believe they were ab origine, and were invented by Adam together with the letters, or however that they were coeval with the letters, and in use as soon as they were". This view suggests that Hebrew vowel consonants and vowel points were invented by Adam (!) and were transmitted together from the pen of the divinely inspired authors.

Gill clearly favors option 3 ("upon the whole it may be concluded, that they were originally put by the sacred penmen, Moses and the prophets"). The Formula Consensus Helvetica seems to allow for option 2 or 3 ("either the vowel points themselves, or at least the power of the points...are inspired" - see post #9 for the full text). Lightfoot's position seems to be option 3 (the letters and vowels of the Hebrew were,—as the soul and body of a child,—knit together at their conception and beginning"); however, he ups the ante even further when he affirms that not only the vowel points but even the masoretic accents are divinely inspired (and were presumably written from the start.

My view is that option 3 is not plausible given modern discoveries. You seem to suggest that anyone denying that is taking option 1. Rather, I think option 2 is the proper option to take, one which is fully in conformity with historic reformed orthodoxy. Whichever option you take, you are still left with the task of believing textual criticism to establish the consonants and the vowels of the inspired autographs. In that task, copies of the Scriptures such as the 1Q Isa a scroll are useful witnesses alongside the masoretic text, not least to underscore the accuracy with which the MT has been transmitted.

And more

I am not arguing position 1) but position 2). That the God-inspired vowels were not written down in the original text but were accurately passed down orally, so that when the masoretes came to add them, the vowels they wrote down were accurately recorded. In some cases, as in the Pentateuch, they clearly updated the original vowels of the text to reflect contemporary Hebrew usage in terms of feminine pronouns. I don't know why that is controversial among people who would allow the English Bible translations to reflect customary patterns of English speech (you vs thou). Elsewhere, as in 1 Kings 17, the masoretes are quite clearly doing (believing) text criticism, of the kind that we all believe to be appropriate (unless you simply choose to baptize a single manuscript - not all of the majority text manuscripts are the same). In most cases, as here, no point of doctrine is at stake.

It is possible that the vowel points are earlier than the documents that we presently have. It may be that future archaeological discoveries may shed more light on this issue. But for now, the evidence seems overwhelming to me that the original manuscripts did not have written vowel points - and that that shouldn't cause us to lose any sleep about the reliability of our Biblical texts. With the Formula Consensus Helvetica, I think that that is a responsibly Reformed position.

There are two separate issues here.
1) were the Hebrew vowel points written in the original text?
Some people have argued that they were, and that all current ancient Hebrew manuscripts are therefore incomplete (see link in original post).
Most modern scholars (including all of the Reformed OT scholars I know) believe that the original manuscripts were unpointed (like modern Hebrew and the Dead Sea Scrolls) and that the current vowel points were added by the massoretes in the middle to late first millennium AD.

2) did the original text imply a certain (inspired) set of vowel points?
As Matthew notes, the lack of vowels does not mean that the consonants are infinitely plastic. The original authors had particular inspired words in mind that had vowels as well as consonants.

Where the rubber meets the road:
Not all sentences are as unequivocal as Matthew cited. Some could have more than one possible set of vowel points (though only one of these could be the original inspired meaning). In some cases, the greek translation of OT passages is clearly reading a different set of vowel points, just as in some cases it is reading a different set of consonants (including cases that concern jots and tittles, such as "Aram" vs "Edom"). In one instance I looked at just this week, in Genesis 14:5, the MT has beham ("in Ham") where the LXX has bahem ("among them").

If you think that the present massoretic vowel points represent the original vowel points perfectly, then you won't bother with textual criticism comparing the Leningrad codex (BHS main text) with the Septuagint (whatever you think that is). You may still have to do textual criticism amongst the different Hebrew manuscripts, though, and it is hard to explain why the vowels should be perfectly preserved where in some cases the consonants are open to question.

In most cases, both with vowel differences and consonantal differences, I would argue that the MT is correct. Different translations have different sympathies though: the RSV is much more Septuagint oriented, while the original NIV is distinctly more MT oriented. And the MT is clearly better preserved (i.e. there are less text critical questions, however you choose to resolve them) in some places than in others. The beginning of 1 Samuel is notoriously tricky, for example.

Probably more than you wanted to know, but I hope this clarifies things.
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