Deut. 4:26: Pointing and canonical authority

Reginald Wallace Ponder, Jr. rwponder at
Sat Sep 30 21:54:49 EDT 2000

>Dear Peter,
     Thanks for commenting.  I have indicated my responses by my initials,

You wrote:

 Dear Reggie and Ben,
> You two may agree that "no canonical authority is invested in the pointing",
> but I'm not sure that I agree with you, although I share at least with Ben
> an evangelical Christian approach.

I would describe my approach as "evangelical Christian," as well.  We can
clarify this further in a separate thread or off-list, if you wish.  --

 Of course the question of canonical
> authority is a very delicate one. But evangelicals usually consider the
> canonical text to be that "as originally given". It's hard to define that
> properly for the Hebrew Bible.

I would say that "hard to define" is exactly the point here. -- RWP

 But the pointing, although it was not written 
> down at first, is very probably derived from an unbroken tradition of
> pronunciation going back to the authors. (It was certainly not "added by the
> Masoretes" in the sense that they invented it, they just wrote down what
> they heard.)

It certainly is my belief that the Masoretic pointing has a degree of
authority for interpreters working with the text today.  This was why I
responded to Ben with my clarification about the nature of the Masoretic
pointing.  Although he may not have intended it, his suggestion that "the
pointing is fair game" for emendation expressed a viewpoint different than
what I wanted to associate myself with.  But his notion that "no canonical
authority is invested in the pointing" seems to me true in the sense that,
insofar as canonicity is understood as an historical process, the
Masoretic work is "post-canonical."
-- RWP

 Therefore the pointing is a witness to the meaning intended by
> the authors, and to this extent it surely has canonical authority, perhaps
> even as much as the consonantal text.

The pointing is indeed  "a witness to the meaning intended by the
authors," and thus has real relevance to our interpretive work today, but
as I noted in the previous section, it is "post-canonical" as far as I can
see. -- R.W.P.

 We are certainly not free to supply
> whatever pointing we wish and consider that the word of God.

Indeed.  In fact, if I took such a cavalier approach to the text I'm not
sure I would bother reading the Bible at all.  In the case of an anomaly
such as Deut. 4:26, however, there clearly is something unusual going on,
and at the level either of morphology, syntax, vocalization or even the
consonantal text as we now have it, something different than our typical
thinking seems to be called for.  I prefer to work at the level of
morphology and syntax.  Frankly, I still am working on an understanding of
this verse while acknowledging that Gesenius' explanation (cited in my
original post)is probably correct at least in most points.
     A word about my actual practice in dealing with the text may clarify
my position on the authority of the pointing.  I am writing a book on
Deuteronomy based on my sermons and Bible studies over the past several
years.  In the entire book of Deuteronomy, 4:26 is the only verse where I
even am *considering* an alternate pointing -- and in this case I still,
as I have said, am not clear about exactly what is going on in this verse
(though I have my ideas).
    I would never propose an alternate pointing without a
grammatical/contextual reason to question the Masoretic pointing.  In
Deut. 4:26 it seems we are dealing with a grammatical anomaly, which may
be explained in any number of ways.    -- RWP
> There is of course a separate issue of the reliability of transmission. Very
> probably the consonantal text has been transmitted to us more reliably than
> the other aspects of the pronunciation tradition, as now witnessed in the
> pointing. So for this reason we are justified in emending the pointing more
> freely than the consonantal text. But this is not a matter of difference in
> authority or of any kind of faith, it is a (supposedly) scientific matter of
> textual criticism. Well, that's my opinion, at least.
> Peter Kirk

Thanks for your opinion.  I hope my responses have clarified these matters
and not muddied the waters further.  Shalom -- RWP
> -----Original Message-----
> From: Reginald Wallace Ponder, Jr. [mailto:rwponder at]
> Sent: 29 September 2000 23:57
> To: Biblical Hebrew
> Subject: Re: Deut. 4:26
>    Dear Ben -- Thanks for your reply.  It has been helpful in solidifying
> my thoughts on Deut. 4:26.  I have responded specifically to some of your
> observations below.
> You wrote:
> >  Dear Reggie,
> >
> >  No doubt the b-hebrew gurus will answer you in full. My "take" is that
> only
> >  the Consonantal Text is "given" (the KeTiB), and that the pointing is
> added
> >  by the Massoretes to facilitate our construing of the text. So no
> canonical
> >  authority is invested in the pointing, ISTM.
>    I agree that no canonical authority is invested in the pointing, though
> it does represent the work of some of the best scholars in a community
> that had been using the texts liturgically for centuries.  In other words,
> it represents in most cases the consensus of Synagogue practice in that
> day.  This certainly is not infallible, but it seems basically reliable to
> me, with a few exceptions.
>                                             --RWP
> <snip>

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