A Review of and Observations about Peter Whitfield's
A Dissertation on the Hebrew Vowel-Points
Dr. Thomas M. Strouse
Emmanuel Baptist Theological Seminary
Although some may surmise that the defense for the
inspiration of the Hebrew vowel points is a recent novelty, both Scripture
and history argue in favor of their ab origine status. Scriptural
arguments will be forthcoming whereas historical arguments will proceed
immediately. The Yale Sterling Memorial Library in New Haven, CT, is one
of eight libraries worldwide that holds the rare work of Peter Whitfield
entitled A Dissertation on the Hebrew Vowel-Points. Shewing that they
are an Original and Essential Part of the Language (Liverpoole: Peter
Whitfield, 1748), 288 pp. This is one of several volumes that show the
trend in the post-Reformation era to defend the inspiration of the Hebrew
vowel points against the 16th century speculation of the likes
of Elias Levita and Jacque Cappel (Capellus). Others in this trend
defending the divinely-given vowel points were Johann Buxtorf and John
Owen (17th century), John Gill as well as Whitfield (18th
century), and John Moncrieff (19th century).
A Review of Whitfield's Dissertation
Whitfield's lengthy volume of 288 pages includes an
introduction, ten arguments and a conclusion. Throughout he dialogues with
the positions of Levita and Capellus, giving many biblical examples to
refute their notion of the novelty of vowel points. In Whitfield's
introduction he stresses how the Roman Catholic Church favors Levita's
position because it allows the priests to have the final say in
interpretation. The lack of authoritative vowel points in the Hebrew Old
Testament (OT) leaves the meaning of many words to the interpreter. The
following sections in Whitfield's volume are his arguments for the divine
origin of the Hebrew vowel points of the OT.
I. The necessity of vowel-points in reading the Hebrew
language (pp. 6-46).
Whitfield argues for the obvious necessity of vowels in
teaching the Hebrew language. Without vowels simple pronunciations so
necessary in learning a language are impossible. He reproves Levita's
naiveté in suggesting that the master could teach a child with a
thrice-rehearsed effort (pp. 22-23). The author gives several biblical
examples proving this necessity.
II. The necessity for forming different Hebrew
conjugations, moods, tenses, as well as dual and plural rendings on nouns
That both Hebrew verbs, including the seven
conjugations, the moods and tenses, and the Hebrew nouns, with singular,
dual and plural endings, are based on vowel diagnostic indicators is
without controversy. The tremendous complexity of the Hebrew language
without vowels argues against any oral tradition preservation
inscripturated through the recent invention of vowels. Whitfield
poignantly argues "whoever will consider a great many instances of these
differences, as they occur, will own, he must have been a person of very
great sagacity, who could ever have observed them without the points" (p.
III. The necessity of vowel-points in distinguishing a
great number of words with different significations which without
vowel-points are the same (58-61).
Whitfield gives many examples of the same consonants
with different points constituting different words. The diacritical mark
(dot) above the right tooth or the left tooth of the shin/sin
letter makes a great difference in some words. He argues that if he gave
all the examples, Whitfield would need "to transcribe a good part of the
Bible or lexicon" (p. 58).
IV. The inconsistency of the lateness of vowel-points
in light of the Jew's zeal for their language since the Babylonian
The Jews were zealous for their language, Whitfield
observes, and they would not have been careless to let the inscripturated
vocalization disappear through careless or indifferent oral tradition from
the time of the captivity onward. He cites several ancient authorities
describing the Jews' fanaticism about protecting the minuteness of their
V. The various and inconsistent opinions of the
advocates for the novelty of vowel-points concerning the authors, time,
place, and circumstances of their institution (66-71).
Whitfield argues that the advocates for the recent
vowel system have a wide variety of suggestions. Concerning the authors,
some maintain that the inventor[s] were the Tiberian Jews while others
suggest that it was Rabbi Judah Hakkadosh (cf. AD 230). Some say the
points were invented after the Talmud (c. AD 200-500), by the Masoretes
(AD 600), or in the 10th century or the 11th
century. For the place some have posited Tiberias whereas others have
suggested the "lesser Asia."
VI. The total silence of the ancient writers, Jew and
Christian, about their recent origin (72-88).
Whitfield cites both early rabbins and Jerome as
neglecting to refer to the late (post-Mosaic) origin of vowel-points.
VII. The absolute necessity to ascertain Divine
authority of the Scripture of the OT (89-119).
The author Whitfield affirms that Scripture is based on
words and words are based on consonants and vowels. If there are no vowels
in the Hebrew OT originals, then there is no Divine authority of the
Hebrew OT Scriptures, he argues, citing II Tim. 3:16. Whitfield then gives
a vast listing of passages that change meaning when points are lost, and
thereby undermining divine authority.
VIII. The many anomalies or irregularities of
punctuation in the Hebrew grammar (120-133).
Whitfield's objection to the novelty of vowel-points is
the many exceptions to vowel-point rules, which these anomalies and
irregularities demand a codified system for their exceptions to emphasize
a particular point of grammar and truth.
IX. The importance of the Kethiv readings versus the
Keri marginal renderings (134-221) .
The existence of Kethiv (Aramaic for "write")
readings in the Hebrew text and Keri (Aramaic for "call") readings
in the margin of Hebrew manuscripts show that the rabbins were serious
about preserving the original words, including the vowel-points, when a
questionable word arose in a manuscript. The pre-Christian antiquity of
the Keri readings in the margin demands the pre-Masoretic antiquity of the
X. The answer to two material questions (222-282).
Whitfield responds to two of three significant
questions in this section: 1) why does the LXX and Jerome's version
differ from the Hebrew text in corresponding vowels on proper names? 2)
Why the silence of the Jewish writers on the pointing prior to the 6th
century of Christianity? and 3) Why were unpointed copies used in the
Jewish synagogues? Briefly, he refutes the first questions by stating that
the differences in the translations and the Hebrew pointed texts cannot be
attributed to the vowels since the translators obviously did use the
pointed copies, and that the Jewish commentators, coeval with the
Masoretes, did in fact refer to the points. The third question, answered
later in his book, is resolved by the fact that there is no historical
proof that unpointed copies were used exclusively in the synagogues.
Whitfield concludes his biblical and linguistic defense
of the antiquity of the vowels, saying:
[I]t is manifestly impossible the contrary should
be a self evident, incontestible, truth; and all the writings which
have been published, in favour of the novelty, cannot make it so;
especially as, in them all, very imperfect answers have been given to
any of these arguments for the antiquity; and the principal have not,
so much as, been mentioned. And the character of the learned authors,
who have asserted the novelty of the points, is, certainly at least,
ballanced by those of the contrary opinion: for against Elias Levita,
Capellus, Walton, etc., we need not blush to place the two
Buxtorfs...Vander Hooght...Gagnier...Scultens (p. 288).
Some Observations regarding the Inspiration of Hebrew
The aforementioned writers, who have defended the
divine origin of the Hebrew vowel points, including Whitfield,
consistently give some basic Scriptural and linguistic arguments that are
difficult if not impossible to overturn. This present author will revisit
Whitfield's first three arguments and give fresh examples from the Hebrew
text of Scripture to prove the Biblical necessity of the divinely inspired
and preserved Hebrew vowel points.
The Biblical Necessity for Reading and Writing the
When the Lord renewed His covenant with Israel, He used
Moses to write the very same words that were on the initial tablets (Ex.
34:1 ff.). The Lord said to Moses, "Write thou these words: for after
the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel"
(v. 27). The expression "after the tenor of these words" (`al
piy hadevariym ha'elleh) could be translated literally "on [the basis
of] the mouth of these words." The only way Moses could have written the
Lord's spoken words was to hear the vowels in the consonants and then to
write the words with the vowels intact. The Mosaic Law, then, constituted
the very written words of Jehovah, including the consonants and vowels.
Furthermore, the Jews were to obey the Mosaic Law in minute detail, not
adding to nor diminishing from it (Dt. 4:2). They were to keep or preserve
(shamar) the Law and not forget the things they had seen and were
written down in it, and then to teach their children the Mosaic Law (vv.
6, 9, 10; cf. 6:7; 32:46). These verses conclusively argue against any
notion that the vowel sounds were merely given to Moses who passed on the
oral tradition of the pronunciation until the Masoretes invented a system
to approximate the vowels. Levitas' speculation that the Masoretes
invented the points has nothing to commend it but has all Scriptural
authority to condemn it.
The initial Psalm addresses the blessed man and his
responsibility to delight in and meditate on the law of the Lord, stating:
"But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he
meditate day and night" (Ps. 1:2). The word "meditate" comes from
hagah that means "to mutter" and suggests the deliberate pronunciation
of the words of Scripture. It is impossible to recite consonants without
vowels and it is impossible to delight (chaphatz) in consonants
with non-authoritative vowels. Again, the fallacious view that man
invented the Hebrew vowel points has nothing to commend it. Is there any
reason that Bible believers must countenance the view that the Lord God,
the Creator of language, disdains vowels, at least to the extent that He
would preserve them in written form? After all, has not the Lord Jesus
Christ referred to Himself as the Alpha and Omega (Rev. 1:8;
21:6), the first and last vowels of the Greek language?
The Linguistic Necessity for Distinguishing Hebrew
Verbs and Nouns.
Hebrew verbs are made up of seven stems, of which are
the Qal stem and six derived stems, including the Niphal, Piel,
Pual, Hithpael, Hiphil, and Hophal. These stems apply equally
to both the strong and weak verbs. The differentiation of some of these
stems is based on complex vowel pointing, without which tremendous
confusion abounds. The Piel and Pual differ from each other
and the Qal stem only by vowels and diacritical marks. The
Niphal perfect 3ms (3rd person, masculine, singular),
Niphal imperfect 1cp (1st person, common, plural), and
Niphal participle ms differ by vowel points alone, and both may be
confused with the Qal imperfect 1cp except for the points. The
imperfect forms for all of the stems except the Hiphil and
Hithpael are identical without points and consequent confusion would
abound without the divinely preserved vowel points. If the stems are
significant, which they must be, then their respective vowel differences
are significant, and must be carefully maintained to make sense of any
For example, in Gen. 1:26, Scripture uses the first of
several Qal imperfect 1cp verbs (na`eseh) for God to designate "let
us make" man. However, without vowels this verb could be "he was made"
(Niphal [passive] perfect 3ms) or "we will be made" (Niphal imperfect
1cp). Furthermore, the Niphal participle ms without the pointing would be
the same consonants and mean "being made." Although some might say that
the context would always show which conjugation and tense was divinely
inspired, in this case the context would probably eliminate only the
participle. Did Jehovah say "let us make" man, or man "he was made," or
"we will be made" man?
Another example should suffice for this point. In
response to Isaac's query about the animal sacrifice, Abraham answered
"God will provide (yire'eh) himself a lamb" (Gen. 22:8).
Is the verb Qal imperfect 3ms and therefore active (God will
provide for Himself a lamb) or Niphal imperfect 3ms and therefore
reflexive (God will provide Himself for a lamb)? The Masoretic text has
the former reading and therefore the answer is that God, and no one else,
including Abraham, will provide the lamb. Without authoritative pointing,
the precise theology required here and elsewhere is forfeited.
With respect to nouns, the endings on masculine nouns
are necessary to determine number. In Hebrew nouns may be singular, dual
or plural. Examples of dual masculine nouns include things that come in
pairs such as hands, feet, eyes, ears, etc. The distinctive ending of a
masculine dual noun is pathach, yodh, chirek, and mem, in
contrast to the distinctive ending of a masculine plural noun: chirek,
yodh, mem. The first verse of the OT Scriptures is instructive.
Scripture says, "In the beginning God created the heaven and earth"
(Gen. 1:1). Without authoritative vowels, one would not know that the word
"God" ('elohim) is a masculine plural noun and that the word
"heaven" (hashshamayim) is a masculine dual noun. The Masoretic
text teaches that the plural Godhead created the two heavens (first and
second). Or was it that the dual Godhead (yin yang) created a plurality of
Regarding proper nouns, the consonantal text provides
several interesting, but non-authoritative, alternatives to the Masoretic
pointed text. In Proverbs 30:1, did Agur address Ithiel and Ucal? Kidner
The Hebrew consonants of this phrase can be
revocalized to read: 'I have wearied myself, O God, I have wearied
myself, O God, and come to an end', which introduces the opening theme
well. The ancient versions likewise eliminate the proper names, but
fail to agree in their translations. It remains an open question.
If vowel points may be rearranged in proper nouns, what
prevents the interpreter from the thorough rearrangement of major sections
of the Hebrew text and thereby the creation of new and false doctrine?
Another example of the alleged need to revocalize the
Masoretic text brings consternation to those who maintain the integrity
and originality of the Hebrew vowel points. In the passage that deals with
"the great wall" of Aphek, the Scripture states "there a wall fell upon
twenty and seven thousand of the men that were left" (I Ki. 20:30).
Kulus, in citing Donald Wiseman's statement: "The
'thousand' ('eleph) might be revocalized without change of
consonants to 'officer' ('alluph)...the number might represent
twenty-seven officers killed," charges some who "will not hear this number
because it is too large!" In this context one would not know if 27,000 men
were killed or twenty-seven officers were killed.
The Necessity of Vowel Points to Distinguish Different
Words of the Same Consonants
In Psalm 119, the sin/shin stanza (vv. 161-168),
displays an illustration of the necessity for diacritical markings (i.e.,
tittles [Mt. 5:18]). The sibilant or "s" letter designated sin
looks like a three-pronged comb with a dot over the left tooth (f).
The shin has the same consonantal form but has the diacritical dot
over the right tooth (v) and produces the "sh"
consonant. The psalmist declared in v. 164 "Seven times a day do I
praise thee because of thy righteous judgments." Without the
diacritical dot over the right tooth of the first consonant in the noun
sheva` ("seven"), the word could be the perfect verb sava` ("he
is satisfied"). Therefore the Hebrew text could read "He is satisfied in
the day I do praise thee because of thy righteous judgments." The context
cannot render an authoritative solution and hence the text becomes as wax
ready to be twisted by every interpreter.
Moses puns on the nakedness of Adam and Eve and the
subtlety of the serpent, using two words with the same consonants,
`arom and `arum, respectively. The only difference between
these two adjectives, other than the first is plural and the second is
singular, is the vowel pointing. What did Moses intend to say: the couple
was naked and the serpent was subtle, the couple was subtle and the
serpent was subtle, the couple was subtle and the serpent was naked, or
the couple was naked and the serpent was naked? At this stage in the
development of Moses' narrative, it would be impossible to know absolutely
Finally, a cursory glance at any elementary Hebrew
glossary would show basic words differentiated only by pointing. For
example, one should consider the following: 'l ("God" or "to" or "no"), 'm
("mother" or "if"), 'ph ("nose" or "also"), 'th ("with" or "you"), bn ("to
perceive" or "between"), bqr ("cows" or "morning"), gll ("to roll" or "on
account of"), hw' ("he" or "she"), hnh ("they" or "behold"), zcr ("male"
or "to remember"), chwh ("to bow" or "Eve"), lchm ("to fight" or "bread"),
mn ("from" or "manna"), ngs/ngsh ("to beat" or "to draw near"), `d
("witness" or "unto"), `wr ("to arouse" or "skin"), `m ("people" or
"with"), prs/prsh ("to spread out" or "horseman"), r` ("friend" or
"evil"), and shm ("name" or "there"). With these words, some verbs, some
nouns, some adjectives, some adverbs, and some pronouns, making up
thousands of contextual possibilities, it would ludicrous to suggest
vowels were not originally inscripturated.
Whitfield's volume draws attention to the ongoing
attack upon the authority of Scripture. He argues succinctly for the
Scriptural and linguistic necessities of the inspiration and preservation
of the vowel points of the OT Hebrew text. He is in the list of defenders
of the preservation of the Hebrew vowels. Those that would attempt to
overthrow the biblical and linguistic arguments marshaled by these
scholars must do so on the basis of several presuppositions. They must
presuppose that the Scripture does not teach the preservation of the words
of the Lord, that Hebrew may be learned precisely and preserved without
authoritative vowels, and that the Lord God, for some unknown reason,
disdains the preservation of vowels along with His inspired and preserved
consonants. This essay has refuted all three fallacious presuppositions.
The real issue is the one of final authority. Who has the last say about
the Old Testament, and consequently about all of the Scripture--the Roman
Catholic Church, the Masoretes, modern scholars, or the Lord Jesus Christ?
Will professed Bible believers allow the Lord to speak authoritatively
through His Old Testament words?