Name given by modern scholars to an 8th/9th-cent. compilation in W.-Syr. as well as in E.-Syr. tradition, containing various philological and grammatical materials to serve as a tool for the standardization of orthography and pronunciation of the Syriac language. The major part consists of sample texts drawn from the OT, the NT, and patristic texts in order to illustrate the correct use of the language in writing and reading.

The term ‘Masora’ (‘tradition’) was adopted from the well-known Hebrew Masora, which fixed the orthography and pronunciation of the Hebrew Bible (‘Masoretic text’). However, in contrast to the Hebrew Masora, the character of the Syr. ‘masoretic’ compilations is not normative but regulative: Based on sample texts they standardize the orthographic representation of the pronunciation; they are not fixing the text itself by introducing an exclusive orthography. In the Syriac mss., the title of the compilation (at least of its first and largest part) is: ‘Booklet of (vocalized) words and readings of the OT and the NT according to the tradition of Qarqaphto’ (Kurroso da-šmohe w-da-qroyotho d-ʿattiqto w-da-ḥdatto ʾa(y)k mašlmonutho qarqphoyto, ms. Vat. Syr. 152), or shorter: ‘Booklet of (vocalized) words of the Holy Scriptures’ (Kurroso da-šmohe da-ktobhe qaddiše, ms. Brit. Libr. Add. 12,178). According to the longer title the compilation originated from the Qarqaphto Monastery near Reshʿayna, and Mašlmonutho Qarqphoyto would, therefore, be the appropriate Syriac title. This Syriac title, however, did not succeed in replacing the convenient modern term ‘Masora’ and its derivation ‘Masoretic’, both of which should be used with quotation marks.

The historical background of the ‘Masora’ is the fading away of Syriac as the colloquial language of Syr. Christians after the rise of Islam. This situation stimulated grammar and lexicography among the Syrians to consolidate the native language and cultural heritage in order to preserve the Syr. Christian identity. Some of the materials compiled in the ‘Masora’ can be traced back to the 7th cent. and derive from Yaʿqub of Edessa (ca. 633–708), who introduced the systematic study of grammar and orthography among the W. Syrians. He might be the initiator or instigator of the ‘Masora’, which started to flourish immediately after his death.

There are 15 mss. of the ‘Syriac Masora’ in W.-Syr. tradition: Brit. Libr. Add. 12,178 (9th/10th cent., from the ‘Nitrian collection’ of the British Library); Brit. Libr. Add. 14,667, ff. 1–12 (10th, OT only); Brit. Libr. Add. 17,162, ff. 1–14 + Dayr al-Suryān Syr. 14 (10th/11th, OT only); Brit. Libr. Add. 14,482 (11th/12th, OT only); Brit. Libr. Add. 14,684 (12th/13th, OT, NT, and Greek Fathers); Vat. Syr. 152 (979/80); Barberini orient. 118 (ca. 1000); Syr. Orth. Patr. Dam. 7/16 (Aug. 1004), and 12/22 (colophon lost; the date 666 AD given in ParOr 19 [1994], 606, is not the date of the ms.); Borg. 117 (1868, a copy of Dam. 7/16); Harvard 176 (according to M. H.  Goshen-Gottstein 1303 Sel. = 991/92 AD; Gospel of John); Brit. Libr. Add. 7183 (ca. 1031–1034); Lund 58 (1204/05); Paris, Bibl. Nat. Syr. 64 (1134/35); Jerusalem, St. Mark 1* (Baumstark)/42 (Dolabani; 16th/17th). The single ms. of the ‘Masora’ in E.-Syr. tradition is Brit. Libr. Add. 12,138 (April 899). One ms. formerly in Chicago was a xerox-copy of Syr. Orth. Patr. Dam. 7/16.

In mss. of the W.-Syr. tradition, the compilation is divided into four distinctive sections. Within these sections, however, the arrangement and size of the materials may differ.

a. The first and largest section (for title, see above) consists of extracts taken from all books of the OT and NT Peshitta, and of the Ḥarqlean version of the NT. The extracts, which are usually confined to half-verses or even to single words, are fully vocalized and furnished with quššoyo and rukkokho (for ms. Vat. Syr. 152, see Hatch, Album, plate LXXV). Marginal readings drawn from various biblical mss. (e.g., from the Philoxenian version) or from patristic authorities refer to different modes of spelling, reading, and punctuation. In some mss., to this first section are appended ‘(vocalized) nouns and readings from the books of the holy teachers’ (šmohe wa-qroyotho da-ktobhe d-mallphone qaddiše), drawn from the writings of various patristic authors that were held in high esteem in the Syr. Orth. tradition (see under 5).

b. The second section of the compilation is devoted to writings of Yaʿqub of Edessa (even though there are appended materials not deriving from Yaʿqub). It contains: 1. Yaʿqub’s letter ‘On Syriac Orthography’ (meṭṭul serṭo suryoyo) addressed to Giwargi, bp. of Serugh, ‘and through him to all the scribes who will encounter this book’ (ed. by P. Martin [1869] and G. Phillips [1869]). 2. Yaʿqub’s tract ‘On persons and tenses’ (meṭṭul parṣupe w-zabhne), in most of the mss. entitled ‘On Points’ (meṭṭul nuqze), as it deals with diacritical points to distinguish persons and tenses and with metrical points or accents (ed. by G. Phillips [1869]). 3. Only in ms. Brit. Libr. Add. 12,178 an anonymous tract on metrical points is appended; and 4. (in most of the mss.) a tract on the ‘Signs of punctuation’ (šmohe d-nuqze) by ‘Thomas the deacon’ (identified by some scholars with Tumo of Ḥarqel).

c) The main source of the third section are the writings of Epiphanius of Salamis (d. 403), well-known for his anti-heretical writings. Its title is ‘Signs of punctuation of Epiphanius’ (šmohe d-nuqze d-Epiphaniyus). The materials it contains are of lexicographical (‘on Greek accents and conjunctions’, ‘on weights’, ‘on measures’, ‘on variation of the person by points’), biographical (‘on prophecy’, ‘on the death of the prophets’, ‘on the Apostles’) and stichometric (OT and NT) character.

d) The fourth section consists of heterogeneous materials and starts with an explanation (puššoqo) of words from Hebrew and from other languages drawn from the Septuagint (Mašlmonutho d-šabʿin) and the ‘correction’ (Turroṣo) of Yaʿqub of Edessa. This is followed (in ms. Vat. Syr. 152) by a tract of a ‘Philosopher on the seven climates’ (probably by Dawid bar Pawlos d-Beth Rabban). A text attributed to Ephrem ‘on the composition of man’ and a tract ‘on the unity of Christ’s body’ by ‘some stranger’ (ʾnoš ʾakhsnoyo) conclude the whole compilation.

The differences of the sections in arrangement and size (and the total absence of several items from some mss.) suggest a textual development and history of the compilation. The original Western ‛Masora’ may be dated to the 7th cent. (terminus post quem is the Ḥarqlean version of 615/16) and was probably devoted to the biblical materials only. Yaʿqub’s death 708 offers the early 8th cent. as terminus a quo for the first development (the second section). The fully developed compilation may be dated to the 8th or 9th cent. Whether the development derives from the Qarqphoye monks is not clear. However, the materials compiled in the ‘Masora’ are of homogeneous character in that they reflect the main authorities of Miaphysite theology and philology (biblical and patristic texts, Yaʿqub of Edessa) and deal with orthography and pronunciation of Syriac.

While Masoretic mss. so far have received attention mainly from biblical scholars, the patristic selections, which in most W.-Syr. mss. are an integral part of the collections, have recently been studied in great detail by J. Loopstra (2009). At least eleven mss. are known to contain patristic selections. They include the following texts: 1. the ‘Cathedral Homilies’of Severus of Antioch (in the translation of Yaʿqub of Edessa), preceded by four letters exchanged between Severus, John of Alexandria, and the Synod of Antioch; 2. the Homilies of Gregory of Nazianzus, followed by the Pseudo-Nonnus mythological scholia, both in the revised translation of Pawla of Edessa; 3. Epistles of Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus; 4. the Homilies of Basil; 5. the Pseudo-Dionysian corpus (in the translation by Phocas of Edessa); 6. the Life of Severus of Antioch by John bar Aphtonia (found in one ms. only: Brit. Libr. Add. 7,183); 7. and the Arbiter of John Philoponos (found in one ms. only: Brit. Libr. Add. 14,684). The patristic sections of the ‘Masoretic’ mss. clearly demonstrate the non-normative (but regulative) character of the ‘Masoretic’ standardisation (although patristic writings are scarcely attested in post-‘Masoretic’ mss.). It is quite obvious that the standard does not refer to the spelling of Greek proper nouns and theological terms (which is not uniform in the ‘Masoretic’ mss. themselves) but to their proper phonetical representation (which may vary within the standard of grecization). In addition to that, the patristic sections of the ‘Masora’ provide unique insights into linguistic and lexical studies by Syrian scholars and scribes, as well as into an important branch of the educational system of the Syr. Orth. tradition.

The E.-Syr. ‘Masora’ (Wright, Catalogue … British Museum, vol. 1, 101–08; studied by Th. Weiss, 1933) is more extensive than its W.-Syr. counterpart as it is of almost exclusive biblical character (OT and NT, Peshitta only). The biblical samples are extensively annotated in the margins. There are five sections: the first deals with the pronunciation (phonetic); the second with the use of the accents; the third is devoted to various letters of the alphabet and their specific combinations (the letters b-d-w-l; the letters b-g-d-k-p-t; ʾ-m-n-t as marking tenses and persons; ʾ-h-w-y-k-n-t when suffixed). The fourth section gives an explanation of certain critical marks attached to words in the biblical part of the ms. The fifth section (last page) gives ‘traditions of the masters of the schools.’

According to Bar ʿEbroyo, ‘Book of Splendors’ (ed. and transl. by A. Moberg 1922/1907), §3 of the introduction, the Qarqphoye monks introduced the five ‘Greek’ vowel signs to Syriac. This innovative ‘Masoretic’ feature follows (but simplifies) the model of Yaʿqub of Edessa, who invented seven vowel letters for grammatical demonstration (see Segal, Diacritical point, 40–7). The five ‘Greek’ vowel signs were not intended to be fully applied to Syriac texts but restricted to ‘grammatical’ specification of difficult or ambiguous words. Fully vocalized mss. do not antedate the 16th cent. and take into consideration the reader’s ignorance of the traditional pronunciation. The witnesses of the ‘Syriac Masora’ are the earliest mss. with vowel signs attached to the text by the original scribe.

Although the ‘Masoretic’ system of vocalisation was not designed to replace the use of the ‘pre-Masoretic’ diacritical point, which served to distinguish grammatical persons and tenses, the imperfection of the traditional system called for further specification. The ‘Masoretic’ innovation was the adoption of the diacritical point and its explicit redefinition by vowel signs and quššoyo/rukkokho. The coexistence of the old and new system of grammatical distinction is evidenced in the ‘Masoretic’ mss. themselves (esp. in ms. Vat. Syr. 152 and ms. Barberini orient. 118): quššoyo and rukkokho are marked with large red dots to distinguish them from the smaller black diacritical point. This explicit redefinition allowed the traditional diacritical point to maintain its position in the Syriac literature; by its redefinition the diacritical point introduced the new ‘Masoretic’ standard to the ‘pre-Masoretic’ Syriac literature.

Two of the Qarqphoye monks are known by name: Ṭubhono and Sobho, both of Reshʿayna, who are mentioned in the margins of the ‘Masoretic’ mss. and in an entry of Bar Bahlul’s Lexicon (ed. R. Duval, col. 1363–1364). Sobho is probably the scribe of mss. Brit. Libr. Add. 14,428 (undated; Wright, Catalogue … British Museum, vol.  1, 9–10), Add. 14,430 (724 AD; Wright, ibid., 15–6), and Add 12,135 (726 AD; Wright, ibid., 24–6). In his OT commentary (‘Storehouse of Secrets’ ) and once in his ‘Book of Splendors’ (I.5, §4) Bar ʿEbroyo refers (occasionally with some distance) to the reading of the Qarqphoye monks (in Psalms and Jeremiah; the texts are in P. Martin, ‘Tradition karkaphienne’, 261–8).

It was P. Martin who in his ‘Tradition karkaphienne’ (1869) identified the ‘Masoretic’ character of the compilation. Parts of the E.-Syr. ‘Masora’ were published in 1933 by Th. Weiss. Due to the complexity and heterogeneity of the W.-Syr. ‘Masora’ no (critical) edition has been undertaken so far. For editors of the Syriac OT and NT, the ‘Masoretic’ mss. seem to be of no great critical value on account of their abridged and selective way of quotation. Nevertheless, ‘Masoretic’ mss. have been extensively used in research on the OT Peshitta. Although excluded from the ‘Leiden Edition’ of the OT, the ‘Masora’ contributed to the research on the ms. tradition of single OT books (P. B. Dirksen, on Judges [1972]; M. Koster, on Exodus [1977]; and A. Gelston, on Twelve Prophets [1987]). The Peshitta Gospel edition prepared by Ph. E. Pusey and G. H. Gwilliam (1901) includes the E.-Syr. ‘Masora’ as well as three mss. of the W.-Syr. ‘Masora’ (mss. Brit. Libr. Add. 12,178; Add. 7183; and Add. 14,648). This Gospel edition turns the ‘Masoretic’ sample texts into a complete edition by its systematic adoption of the Western pronunciation. It is fully vocalized with the five ‘Greek’ vowels and furnished with quššoyo and rukkokho. However, it does not give the ‘Masoretic’ orthography of the proper nouns and Greek (loan) words, but rather follows the orthography of the ‘pre-Masoretic’ mss. A ‘Masoretic’ edition of the Peshitta Acts and Epistles was published in 1920 by G. H. Gwilliam and J. Pinkerton (British and Foreign Bible Society).

Bringing together the fields of grammar and lexicography, the ‘Masora’ is of general significance for the study of Syriac language and literature; it also contributes to our understanding of the history and culture of the Syrians. The ‘Masoretic’ perspective on Syriac literature allows for the distinction of a ‘pre-Masoretic’ (5th–7th cent.) and a ‘Masoretic’ (8th–13th cent.) period, both with their own characteristic features. The earlier period was the formative period of Syriac culture, open to Greek influence, development and inculturation into the Greek Byzantine Oikumene; it roughly coincides with the pre-Islamic history of the Syrian Churches. The later period is marked by philology, standardization, and by the formation of ‘national’ E.-Syr. and W.-Syr. traditions. This conservative attitude towards their own heritage roughly coincides with the history of the Syriac Churches under Islam. Still today reading and writing of Syriac texts is directed by the ‘Syriac Masora’.

See Fig. 72.


  • Baumstark, Literatur, 259–60.
  • Duval, La littérature syriaque, 286–99.
  • A.  Juckel, ‘The “Syriac Masora” and the New Testament Peshitta’, in The Peshitta: Its use in literature and liturgy, ed. B.  ter Haar Romeny (MPIL 15; 2006), 107–21.
  • G. A.  Kiraz, Introduction to Syriac spirantization (1995).
  • J. A.  Loopstra, Patristic selections in the ‘Masoretic’ handbooks of the Qarqaptā tradition (Ph. D. Diss., The Catholic University of America; 2009).
  • P.  Martin, ‘Tradition karkaphienne, ou la massore chez les Syriens’, JA 14 (6e série) (1869), 245–379.
  • P.  Martin, ‘Histoire de la ponctuation ou de la Massore chez les Syriens’, JA 5 (7e série) (1875), 81–208.
  • A.  Moberg, Eine syrische Masora-Handschrift in der Universitäts-Bibliothek zu Lund (1928).
  • J. B.  Segal, The diacritical point and the accents in Syriac (1953).
  • Th.  Weiss, Zur ostsyrischen Laut- und Akzentlehre (1933).
  • Wright, Catalogue … British Museum, vol. 1, 101–15.
  • Wright, Short history of Syriac literature, 20–5 and 150–1.

How to Cite This Entry

Andreas Juckel , “Masora,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay,

Footnote Style Citation with Date:

Andreas Juckel , “Masora,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay (Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018),

Bibliography Entry Citation:

Juckel, Andreas. “Masora.” In Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition. Edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay. Digital edition prepared by David Michelson, Ute Possekel, and Daniel L. Schwartz. Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018.

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