I recently had a rather interesting conversation with someone in which the topic of various codices and textual variations of the Biblical manuscript came up. The following information I think is pretty important, but is not always presented so clearly; I’m going to try…
The Masoretic Text is not any particular codex, but rather the umbrella term, so to speak, for what we consider to be the authoritative Jewish/Rabbinic text for the Tanach. See, sometime in the 6th century (why this only happened at that point is a story for another time) a group of scholars, called the Masoretes, began to painstakingly keep track of what was to be the proper text of the Bible. They kept rigorous notes in the margins, compared all the extant manuscripts, and due to their outstanding scholarship, very quickly became the absolute authoritative text of the Bible. The Masoretes included everything from the text itself, of course, to proper vocalization, accents, plene vs defective spellings, and so forth. That’s what we call the “Masoretic Text”. But how do we know what that text is? Where did we get it from, and how was it handed down to us?
In the 10th century, as the era of the Masoretes drew to a close, the Masoretes compiled all of their research throughout the centuries into what would become the single, official manuscript/codex of the Bible. Given all their work, it was sure to be the most accurate version of the text. Trouble is, as with anything Jewish, there wasn’t exactly unanimity. The two leading Masoretes at the time were Aaron ben Moses ben Asher and Moshe ben Naphtali. Each wrote their own manuscript according to their opinions of what was more correct. The differences between their codices, though, were nominal. There were practically no textual variations, and their disagreements were basically only over vocalization and accents.
In the year 920, a scribe by the name of Shlomo ben Buya'a wrote a manuscript/codex of the Bible copying diligently from a manuscript of ben Asher. Ben Asher himself then finished the manuscript, adding vocalizations and notes in the margins, and signed off on the whole thing. This codex survives until this day (see below) and is known as the Aleppo Codex (as it was eventually moved to and intensely guarded in Aleppo, Syria). This is what all of our chumashim are based off of, is the text of the Bible that Jews around the world now use, and is considered to be the text of the Orthodox Jewish Bible. Indeed, Maimonides himself used the actual Aleppo Codex document when writing Mishneh Torah, and so since then, considering that Rambam viewed that as the (most) correct text of the Torah, it has become essentially absolutely authoritative. (That being said, there are a number of scholars who challenge the fact that it was the Aleppo Codex that Rambam really used, but we’ll leave that for another time.)
Unfortunately, during the riots against the Jews in Aleppo during December of 1947, the shul in which the Aleppo Codex was kept was set on fire, and much of the manuscript was destroyed (a fact that absolutely kills me).
Backing up again for a moment, in the year 1008, a scribe by the name of Samuel ben Jacob wrote a manuscript of the Bible as well. It claims in its colophon that it was copied based on the ben Asher text, but there is no evidence that ben Asher himself ever saw this particular manuscript to sign off on it (like with the Aleppo Codex). This manuscript/codex is known as the Leningrad Codex (due to the fact that it has been kept at the National Library of Russia in Leningrad since 1863). The Leningrad Codex is widely agreed to not be quite as precise or accurate as the Aleppo Codex (which is close to a hundred years older and closer to the source). Considering its lesser precision, and thus authority, the Leningrad Codex never really had much of a say in terms of the text that we use today for the Bible. In fact, the Leningrad Codex was actually corrected against the Aleppo Codex. However, considering the fact that most of the Aleppo Codex was destroyed in a fire (it seriously pains me every time I think about that), the Leningrad Codex is the oldest full manuscript of the Bible currently in existence (that we know of, anyway).
Oh, and we don’t have a surviving manuscript from ben Naphtali (it’s even possible that he never really actually wrote one down).