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Hebrew Vowels Chart

Hebrew Parsing: Use the Consonants, Luke!

Doing things the hard way…

After a semester of Hebrew, and being almost through the first-year textbook, I suspect that I’ve been doing some things an unnecessarily difficult way.  I’ve been trying to memorise paradigm tables, including the diverse and erratic permutations of all the vowels.  But anyone who has studied Hebrew in any depth knows that vowels hold an interesting position in the language.  The text of the OT was originally written using only the consonants.  The vowel markings were added much later by the Masoretes (allegedly somewhere between 500-1000AD).  This has led to some historic disputes among protestants about whether the vowel points should be considered a part of the “inspired” text.  I recently stumbled across a site called withoutvowels.org which contends that only the consonantal text is truly a part of the inspired Tanakh.

I’m certainly not going to try and settle that debate here, but instead I want to suggest a practical theory that flows out of such historical knowledge.  Native speakers of modern Hebrew (and Arabic) get by just fine without any vowels.  Apparently ancient Hebrew scribes didn’t feel they would be depriving future generations of anything critical by recording the OT using only consonants.  So the question is, were the ancient Hebrew scribes able to live without the vowels only because they knew the vowels by heart from their oral tradition?  Or is it possible that they felt the consonantal text itself contained enough grammatical detail that vowels were genuinely unnecessary?

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Painting of a scribe's hand copying a page

Hebrews 1:6 – An Argument for the Critical Text

In the field of textual criticism, there are some who advocate a position called the Confessional Textual View.  This view results in the assertion that the church should adopt the Bomberg Hebrew Bible and the Textus Receptus as it’s authoritative Hebrew and Greek texts respectively.  These two are considered to be the biblical texts chosen by the Reformers. Together, these two texts are held up as the truly authentic, God-given texts of the Old and New Testaments.

But Hebrews 1:6 poses a serious problem for this “confessional” view, because it shows that there is a conflict between these two supposedly-authoritative texts.

The Textual Data

In the KJV, Hebrews 1:6 reads as follows:

And again, when he bringeth in the firstbegotten into the world, he saith, And let all the angels of God worship him.
Hebrews 1:6 (KJV)

This is a translation from the Greek of the Textus Receptus (coincidentally, Hebrews 1:6 is identical in the Textus Receptus and the NA27/UBS4).

οταν δε παλιν εισαγαγη τον πρωτοτοκον εις την οικουμενην λεγει και προσκυνησατωσαν αυτω παντες αγγελοι θεου
Hebrews 1:6 (Textus Receptus / UBS4)

There is general consensus that this verse is a quotation taken from Deuteronomy 32:43 in the Greek Septuagint (LXX), note the blue portion:

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