Ma(r)king divisions in Bible texts

Theophrastus made a really interesting comment on my post below, the discussion deserves to be “promoted” to a post of its own.

Ma(r)king space

Early on texts had no divisions, they were simply a string of letters. In the case of languages written with alphabets like Hebrew just consonants. Thswsdffclttrd. So during the centuries various aids were introduced. Wrd brks hlp a lt! Vowels also help readers who are less familiar with the language. Punctuation marks (which I have wrongly used in all my examples) also help! Accents indicating stress and/or tone changes can also help.

A page from Deut, showing major and minor breaks, and the Masoretic notes (Wikipedia)

From the 7th century CE a system of such aids became standardised for the Hebrew Bible texts (there were different competing systems, but the Masoretic system won out). This uses particular accent marks (ta’amim), placed above or below the consonants to signal stress and changes of tone. Two of these accents function as “punctuation marks”. Atanach marks the last syllable of the first half of the sentence/verse – here is one ס֑ under a samek (ס). The other marked the last syllable of the sentence/verse it is called silluq סֽ.

Larger sections in the Hebrew text are marked by placing a letter in the space between the words, and either leaving a larger than usual space or moving to a new line. The letters פ and ס were used for this purpose.

Such aids to reading are really helpful. But like most aids they also have disadvantages. They predispose the reader to divide the text in a particular way. The more intrusive the signs the more they do this.


A page of a modern Mikraot Gedolot Chumash (Wikipedia)

Vowels, word-breaks and punctuation were not all the help Bible readers needed. Sometimes even with such aids the text was still difficult to understand. There are various reasons for this. For example in places scholars believe(d) that the text being copied was not what should be read. Jewish scholars did not change the text being copied since that was sacred, they added marginal notes suggesting a better reading. Putting the consonants to be read (qere) in the margin, while leaving those written (kethib) in the text (since the vowels had been added to the text they could be changed, and were, thus providing a clue to the reader to look at the margin for the consonants.

In addition to the qere/kethib system the Masoretes also developed a system of notes marking unusual spellings and the like to help copyists make accurate copies.

ESV Study Bible Mock-Up 4 by J. Mark Bertrand

From there it was a larger step than it might seem (perhaps because its dangers as well as its advantages were sensed?) to the practice of placing commentary on the text around it. This practice became well established in the 16th century CE.

Such a rich information world, of course also has advantages and disadvantages. Its great advantage is to allow the faithful to explore more easily the riches of their tradition. Its great disadvantage is to form the interpretation of the reader making it more difficult for them to read the text really for themself.

These double-edged consequences are still present in the Study Bibles of today. Each of which as well as being a niche commercial product seeks to form a community of readers who share the prejudices of the editors!

4 comments on “Ma(r)king divisions in Bible texts

  1. Bill

    S nw yr d 1 txtng.


  2. tim

    Nah, I aprec8 txting n its plce, wen 1 hs 2 typ UzN a funn y lil keybord, n nd thus 2 abbrevi8, bt evn thN itz nt as ez 2 read as “full text”.

  3. John(GW)

    Could I ask if you consider the titles to the Psalms part of the original text? I always thought they were a later addition, but someone tells me they are inspired text. (Non-SMS)

    1. tim

      What an interesting question! (Which may after more work itself get “promoted” into a post ;)

      There is a commonly held opinion that the titles of the psalms (the ones like Ps 29 A Psalm of David, not those which we know to be only additions by modern publishers such as “The Voice of the Lord in a Storm“, the CEV’s offering here) are later additions to the text. However, the only evidence I know of for this theory is the way the LXX and other textual witnesses sometimes enlarge them making them more precise as in this case LXX reads: A Psalm of David on the occasion of the solemn assembly of the Tabernacle. This makes their status interersting, they predate our earliest texts (I believe they are found at Qumran but have not checked this, and cannot do so now.) BUT they are likely to have been gradually added by the tradition.

      Personally I think that they therefore provide a fine example of the way Scripture grew and developed through the (human) processes of transmission, and consider them (since they are part of the texts that were accepted by both Synagogue and Church) as Scripture giving us clues how we can read the psalms they are attached to, a bit like stage directions in a play script!