This Is The Story Of The Rabbis
…the Scripture cannot be broken– Jesus in John 10:35.
Toward the end of the first century, the last New Testament book as we know it today was written by the Apostle John as he was living in exile on the island of Patmos. But that didn’t mean that the 27 books were ready to go to the printer. Not exactly. First, there was no printer at that time, and secondly, it took another two hundred years for the New Testament church to decide what was the New Testament. You think that it’s tough for folks to agree on things today? It was even worse then! An interesting fact is that no church council ever met and rendered an authoritative decree saying, “These books are in, and those are not!” Universal acceptance of these 27 books was a gradual thing as the Holy Spirit began to bear witness in the lives of godly men and women (mostly men, however, because the women weren’t invited to church councils) that certain books bore biblical authority.
By the Council of Nicea, however, in the year 325 AD, the issue was settled. By the end of the fifth century, the New Testament was widely read and distributed throughout the Middle East and Europe—something that caused Jewish rabbis to have great consternation.
With the growing popularity of the New Testament, they feared that the Scriptures known as the law, the prophets and the writings—we call those books the Old Testament—were going to fall by the wayside and be replaced with this new collection of writings that Christians revered. “We have to do something,” they agreed, and I hasten to say that agreement among the ancient rabbis was about as unusual as agreement among Christians today. What they did, however, fearing that the Old Testament scriptures might disappear in time, was to establish two schools: one in Tiberias on beautiful Galilee, and the other in Babylon—both of which were dedicated to preserving the Old Testament text.
Little did Christians realize what a great contribution these Jewish schools were about to make to the church, which was born in the framework of Old Testament doctrine and teaching. Remember, if you would, that what you probably call the Old Testament was the Bible, the Word of God, to Jesus. It was from the prophets that He read when He went into the synagogue at Nazareth.
Friend, the next time you pick up your Bible and read from the book of Psalms, or marvel at how God raised up Moses and used him to deliver God’s people from Egypt, or read about Elijah or the prophets, thank these men we call Massoretes, for they were the ones whose dedicated efforts preserved these Old Testament scriptures.
Just who were they and what did they do? Obviously, they were rabbis who began to collect Old Testament texts and then classified and codified them. They standardized the spelling of words, eventually adding vowels. So concerned were they that the manuscripts be copied accurately, they counted the words in the various Old Testament books, and the exact number of letters in each word. This information was recorded in the margins of their manuscripts, and the work was done with dedication, and intensity.
Simply put, they standardized the Old Testament, giving us one that for more than 1000 years has been the basis of study for both Jews and Christians. Known as the Masoretic text, it is the common, unchallenged, authoritative text used by serious students of the Word all over the world to this day.
They would have heartily endorsed what Isaiah wrote in the seventh century BC: “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:8). And, be sure, forever is a long, long time.
Resource reading: John 10:11-18