Persistent Pluriformity of Prebiblical Texts (4)

Greek Translations

Without a doubt, the single most significant translations which provide evidence of a variety of Hebrew parent texts, are those in Greek. Most commonly, biblical texts translated into Greek are collectively referred to as “the Septuagint.” Sadly, this is misnomer in that the prebiblical Hebrew texts were not all translated at the same time by the same people, creating a version they called “the Septuagint.” Rather, the translation of the Hebrew texts into Greek only began in Alexandria, Egypt during the third century BCE. This initial Greek translation probably involved five individuals, and not the seventy-two Palestinian scribes referred to in the origin myth created by the so-called “Epistle of Aristeas.”[1]  The five books of the Pentateuch were the first to be translated. Slowly over the next few centuries, different individuals translated most of the other texts that later would comprise the Tanakh. Only later, when finally brought together into an anthology, is this collection referred to as the Septuagint (LXX). The oldest, direct witnesses to the texts of the LXX are: (1) Codex B (Vaticanus, fourth century CE; (2) Codex A (Alexandrinus, fifth century CE); and (3) Codex S (Sinaiticus, mid-fourth century CE). There also existed Greek versions of at least some of the texts included in the LXX that were translated prior to the existence of these codices. These OG translations differ in mostly minor but, as always, also some major ways from both the Hebrew texts and other Greek versions. How much evidence, must be asked of those who doubt, has to be revealed to prove that pluriformity of the prebiblical and, and later, biblical texts was the accepted reality in early Judaism and Christianity?

Prior to the discovery and analysis of the DSS, it was most often thought that “[o]nly one manuscript tradition of the Hebrew scriptures existed” and thus the MT stood as the textus receptus for the Tanakh and for virtually all translations of the Old Testament.[2] As Law states,

English versions often treat the Septuagint as the stepchild of the received Hebrew Bible and reference the Greek only whenever something appears of have gone wrong in the transmission of the Hebrew text. Some continue to explain the radical divergences between the Septuagint and the Hebrew Bible as evidence that the Greek translators used nonstandard or noncanonical forms of the Hebrew, even though we know a canonical Hebrew Bible did not exist until several centuries after the Septuagint was translated. These are modern theological biases that keep the Septuagint at bay.[3]

The reality is that, second only to the Hebrew manuscripts found among the DSS, the Septuagint serves to elucidate the pluriform nature of the prebiblical texts through the Second Temple period and beyond. There are quite frequent divergences from the MT which provide “the greatest amount of information on the developmental stages of Hebrew scripture.”[4] As Emanuel Tov states,

Among the ancient translations, LXX holds pride of place for textual critics since it reflects a greater number of variants than all the other translations put together.”[5] What this tells us is that “[t]he Septuagint often preserves a witness to an alternative, sometimes older, form of the Hebrew text. … The Hebrew Bible in the editions we now use is often not the oldest form of the Hebrew text, and in fact, it is not a singular text at all but an amalgamation of similar though not identical sources.[6]

In other words, even the MT of the Leningrad Codex was derived from utilizing a pluriformity of Hebrew texts.

The LXX, however, is a vitally important witness to the persistent pluriformity of Τὰ Βιβλία in a few other ways: (1) It provides insight into the development of Judaism in the latter half of the Second Temple period; (2) It was the form of prebiblical texts most often quoted by New Testament authors; (3) Its acceptance and use by the earliest Christians means the Greek text had a significant influence on the development and propagation of the fundamentals of Christian theology.[7]

There is so much more that can be said, and needs to be said, with regard to the importance of the LXX, but the main point of this discussion is the evidence the Greek versions of the prebiblical and biblical texts provide for their simultaneously pluriform availability and acceptance as authoritative scripture, especially in the early centuries CE among the Christians. What most Christians today do not know is that the Greek versions of the biblical texts constituted “the Bible” for these earliest Christians. This makes sense given that Greek was “the first language of the church…[and] that the growing Christian movement throughout the Mediterranean world recognized the Greek translation of the ‘Old Testament’ as authoritative.”[8] As will be shown later, the majority of quotations of, and allusions to, Old Testament texts by the New Testament authors were from Greek, not Hebrew, versions.

Indeed, numerous Apostolic  and later Church Fathers largely quote Old Testament passages from the Greek versions of those texts. Many of these church leaders considered the Greek versions of the biblical texts to have been “handed down by the inspiration of God and that any other version is invalid and even corrupt.”[9] In reality, it was not until the late fourth century that there was any serious challenge to the authority of the LXX for the church.[10] Between 394 and 419 CE there was an exchange of letters between Augustine of Hippo and Jerome, where Augustine challenged Jerome about his intention to create a new Latin translation based on the Hebrew text and not on the LXX. Augustine considered the LXX translators to have been guided by the Holy Spirit and thus Augustine questioned how any one person, several hundred years later, could improve on their translation. As confirmation of that belief, Augustine noted that the authors of the New Testament mostly quoted from the LXX and not the Hebrew text. He insinuated that the Hebrew text had been corrupted to some degree by Jewish authorities.[11] As many patristic scholars have noted, Augustine’s convictions about the LXX, as expressed in these letters and in two of his major treatises—On Christian Teaching (2.15.22) and City of God (18.42-44)—were in keeping with “the general trend amongst Latin-speaking Western Church Fathers to see the Septuagint as normative.”[12]

The early Greek codices, already mentioned, contained books that are not present among the sixty-six books of the Protestant Bible in both the Old and New Testaments. These books were not relegated to a separate section but included in the midst of the other authoritative texts.[13] So even after the prebiblical texts became the earliest biblical texts, these anthologies included books considered today by many Christian denominations as Deuterocanonical (i.e., Second Canon). However, these books were excluded by the Reformers and thus not included in the Protestant Canon.

[1] Tov, Textual Criticism, 129.

[2] Law, When God Spoke Greek, 2.

[3] Timothy Michael Law, When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, Kindle Edition), 3.

[4] Tov, Textual Criticism, 140.

[5] Tov, Textual Criticism, 136.

[6] Law, When God Spoke Greek, 6

[7] See Law, When God Spoke Greek, 4-6.

[8] Mark Graves, “The Septuagint in the Latin Word” in The Oxford Handbook of the Septuagint, edited by Alison G. Salvensen and Timothy Michael Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), 605.

[9] Law, When God Spoke Greek, 131-132. Law notes, “Eusebius tells his readers that the translation of the Septuagint was part of God’s plan to ready the world for the coming of Christianity.” Also, he notes, “The writings of the Apostolic fathers (mid-first to late second century [CE]) are saturated with citations from the Septuagint when they quote the Old Testament as scripture.” Patristic scholars note that among the early Church Fathers who by statement and use gave divine authority to the LXX were Tertullian, Justin Matyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandra, Origen, Eusebius, Athanasius, Ambrose of Milan, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus.

[10] Graves, “The Septuagint in the Latin World” (pp. 606-611) demonstrates, via quotations from primary sources, the clarity with which numerous early Church Fathers prior to Jerome esteemed the LXX as authoritative for the church and even as divinely inspired.

[11] See Sean Kooyman (ed), “Septuagint vs. Hebrew Texts” in Letters Between Augustine and Jerome (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2018), 131-137, for pertinent excerpts.

[12] Annemaré Kotzé, “Augustine, Jerome and the Septuagint,” in Septuagint and Reception (VT Supplements, Vol 127, edited by Johann Cook, 2009), 246.

[13] See McDonald, The Biblical Canon, 441-442 and 450-451 for lists of OT and NT books included in these three Codices.

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