Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 15 (2015) - Review
Khan, Geoffrey, A Short Introduction to the Tiberian Masoretic Bible and its Reading Tradition (2nd ed.; Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias, 2013). Pp. 141. Paperback. US$39.00. ISBN 978-1-4632-0246-0.

The title of Geoffrey Khan's book, A Short Introduction to the Tiberian Masoretic Bible and its Reading Tradition, is somewhat misleading. To be sure, it is short and introductory. In less than 150 pages, Khan, Regius Professor of Hebrew at Cambridge University, succeeds in covering the major topics in the field. But his treatment is far from superficial. Although very readable, the book's contents are better sipped than gulped.

Modern printed editions of the Hebrew Bible are indebted to the Masoretic codices that took shape between the sixth and tenth centuries c.e. This fact rarely gets more than passing acknowledgement in biblical studies, which freely plunge into the ocean the Masoretes preserved. Outside of a few book chapters and encyclopedia entries, general readers are hard pressed to find details on the Masoretic tradition. Prior to the publication of Geoffrey Khan's masterful book, non-specialists were resigned to glean what they could from sources like Chanting the Hebrew Bible, a 1,000-page manual that gives just 30 pages to “The Masorah,”[1] and a cumbersome entry in the Encyclopedia Judaica.[2]

Khan's contribution has the distinction of being among the very few book-length overviews of the Tiberian Masoretic tradition of the Hebrew Bible.[3] It concerns itself with eight layers of the Masoretic system: (1) the standardization of the consonantal text; (2) the layout and codicological form of the manuscripts; (3) the division of paragraphs; (4) accents indicating syllable stresses and musical cantillation; (5) vocalization marks for the pronunciation of vowels and certain consonants; (6) margin notes to ensure accurate copying of the text; (7) Masoretic treatises; and (8) the reading tradition.

These eight components represent a mixture of preservation and invention. For example, the Masoretes worked to stabilize and transmit a particular version of the consonantal text they had inherited. Their preservationist agenda was set against a “free attitude,” which permeated the early middle ages and spawned sloppy manuscripts, variant verses, ideological revisions, and scribal discrepancies. To further combat such idiosyncrasies, the Masoretes invented accents and vocalization signs with the aim of cementing a single way of reading the text. Kahn points out: “There is no evidence of the use of written accent signs before the time of the Masoretes. It was the achievement of the Masoretes to create a written notation to record a tradition of cantillation that they received from an earlier period” (p. 39).

This does not mean that the actual musical system has been transmitted to any existing community. Of the eight activities listed above, only the reading tradition escaped the epigraphical record. The accent signs remain, but precisely how those signs were translated into chant has been lost. This is an insurmountable obstacle for anyone attempting to reconstruct Masoretic (or pre-Masoretic) cantillation. Additionally, it is “not clear what relation the surviving cantillation traditions of the various Jewish communities have with the Tiberian system” (p. 37).

Khan is more hopeful in his treatment of Hebrew vocalization. Like cantillation, which bears the imprint of local music, Hebrew pronunciation is closely linked to local vernaculars. Thus, we might expect similar barriers to the verbal reconstruction of Masoretic vowels and consonants. However, Kahn argues for the recreation of the pronunciation based on medieval sources, such as the early Tiberian Masoretic manuscripts, Masoretic and Eastern grammatical texts (especially Hidāyat al-Qāri), Karaite transcriptions of the Hebrew Bible into Arabic script, and Judeo-Arabic texts with Tiberian vocalization. Khan presents the intriguing results in the book's final chapter.

Kahn is among the few experts in this specialized field. As such, he does not merely assume the sanitized voice of a textbook author. For instance, he makes subtle allusions to his view that the ben Asher family was not Karaite, contrary to popular belief.[4] His close involvement with the latest discoveries also gives readers access to linguistic insights that have not yet filtered into standard texts of Biblical Hebrew. This alone makes the deceptively slim book an essential resource.

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Academy for Jewish Religion California

[1] Joshua R. Jacobson, Chanting the Hebrew Bible: The Complete Guide to the Art of Cantillation (Philadelphia, PA: JPS, 2002), 360–87. reference

[2] Aron Dotan, “Masorah,” Encyclopedia Judaica (2nd ed.; New York: Macmillan Reference, 2006), 13:603–56. reference

[3] E.g., Page H. Kelley, Daniel S. Mynatt, and Timothy G. Crawford, The Masorah of Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia: Introduction and Annotated Glossary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998); Israel Yeivin, Introduction to the Tiberian Masorah (Missoula: Scholars, 1980). reference

[4] He makes this point more forcefully elsewhere. See Geoffrey Khan, Early Karaite Grammatical Texts (Atlanta, GA: SBL, 2000). reference