All the oldest and best manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible contain on every page, beside the Text (which is arranged in two or more columns), a varying number of lines of smaller writing, distributed between the upper and lower margins. This smaller writing is called the Massorah Magna or Great Massorah, while that in the side margins and between the columns is called the Massorah Parva or Small Massorah.
The word Massorah is from the root masar, to deliver something in the hand of another, so as to commit it to his trust. Hence the name is given to the small writing referred to, because it contains information necessary to those into whose trust the Sacred Text was committed,so that they might transcribe it, and hand it down correctly.
The Text itself had been fixed before the Massorites were put in charge of it. This had been the work of the Sopherim (from sophar, to count, or number). Their work under Ezra and Nehemiah, was to set the Text in order after the return from Babylon; and we read of it in Neh.8:8. The Talmud explains that "the book" meant to original Text; "distinctly" means explaining it by the Chaldee paraphrase; "gave the sense" means the division of the words, &c., according to the sense; and "caused them to understand the reading" means to give the traditional pronunciation of the words (which were without vowel points)(Cp. Ezra 7:6,11). The men of "the Great Synagogue" completed the work. This work lasted about 110 years, from Nehemiah to Simon the first, 410-300 B.C.
The Sopherim were the authorized revisers of the Sacred Text; and, their work being completed, the Massorites were the authorized custodians of it. Their work was to preserve it. The Massorah is called "A Fence to the Scriptures", because it locked all words and letters in their places. It does not contain notes or comments as such, but facts and phenomena. It records the number of times the several letters occur in the various books of the Bible; the number of words, and the middle word; the number of verses, and the middle verse; the number of expressions and combination of words, &c. All this, not from a perverted ingenuity, but for the set purpose of safeguarding the Sacred Text, and preventing the loss or misplacement of a single letter or word.
This Massorah is not contained in the margins of any one Manuscript. No Manuscript contains the whole, or even the same part. It is spread over many Manuscripts, and Dr. C.D.Ginsburg has been the first and only scholar who has set himself to collect and collate the whole, copying it from every available Manuscript in the libraries of many countries. He has published in three large folio volumes, and only a small number of copies has been printed. (Pastor Arnold Murray of the Shepherd's Chapel has been allowed to receive and own a copy). These are obtainable only by the original subscribers. Dr. Bullinger (of which the greater part of this Biblical study I am preparing is taken from) was the only Christian Scholar that Dr. Ginsburg thought worthy enough and allowed him to proof-read the Massorah. (Do do think we have very many Christian scholars today that could read the Masorrah?)
When the Hebrew Text was printed, only the large type in the columns was regarded, and the small type of the Massorah was left, unheeded, in Manuscripts from which the Sacred Text was taken.
When translators came to the printed Hebrew Text, they were necessarily destitute of the information contained in the Massorah; so that the Revisers as well as the Translators of the Authorized Version carried out their work without any idea of the treasures contained in the Massorah; and therefore, without giving a hint of it to their readers.
This is the first time (i.e.in the Companion Bible in which part of this study is taken from) that an edition of the A.V. has been given containing any of these treasures of the Massorah, that affect so seriously the understanding of the Text. A vast number of Massoretic notes concern only the orthography, and matters that pertain to the Concordance. But many of those which affect the sense, or throw any additional light on the Sacred Text, are noted in the margin of the Companion Bible (and in the notes in this particular study).
Some of the important lists of words which are contained in the Massorah are also given, namely, those that have the "extraordinary points"; the "18 emendations" of the Sopherim; the 134 passages were they substituted Adonai for Yehovah; and the Various Readings called Severin. Other words of importance are preserved in the notes.
Readers of the Companion Bible are put in possession of information denied to former generations of translators, commentators, critics, and general Bible students.
For further information on the Massorah see Dr. Ginsburg's "Introduction to the Hebrew Bible", of which only a limited edition was printed; also a small pamphlet on the Massorah published by the King's Printers.