Persistent Pluriformity of Prebiblical Texts (5)

Latin Versions

            Before and during Jerome’s time (ca. 347 – 420 CE), a series of Latin translations based on the LXX were in circulation.  They are grouped together under the term Vetus Latina or Old Latin. Though these are persevered in very fragmentary manuscripts, some portions can be found both in the margins of certain manuscripts of Jerome’s Vulgate translation and through the writings of the Latin Church Fathers. The Old Latin translations are important for our discussion in that they go back before the revisions of the earliest LXX, and in that there are instances where their readings differ from both the LXX and the MT.[1] In the oldest Latin versions, the LXX was used as the parent text because it was considered authoritative by the Church Fathers, and even considered by many to be the inspired word of God.

Jerome completed a Latin translation of the Old Testament from various Hebrew texts by 405 CE., in spite of criticism by Augustine.[2] In large part Jerome’s translation is supportive of the MT text group, yet there are instances where it supports the LXX or SP against the MT. More pluriformity can be seen in the books included in Jerome’s translation. These are in addition to the traditional thirty-nine books of the Protestant Old Testament, and are often referred to as either Apocryphal or Deuterocanonical. The Vulgate was not widely accepted initially. As Würthwein notes, “[M]any saw his undertaking as both novel and disturbing. It could even raise the suspicion that Jerome would replace the divinely inspired LXX, the foundation of the Christian church, with the Jewish text—tantamount to blasphemy!”[3] However, by the mid-sixth century CE, it was commonly used, especially in the western churches. Evans and Tov note, “Although Jerome translated the Hebrew Bible, the portions of the Septuagint not found in the Hebrew Bible, over time, found their way into his Vulgate, bringing its contents into line with those of the Septuagint.”[4] For centuries the Vulgate has been the authoritative biblical text for the Roman Catholic Church.

Other Ancient Translations

            Like the Vulgate, the Aramaic Targums (beginning in late first century BCE), and the Syriac Peshitta (second and third centuries CE), have Hebrew as their parent text and thus witness to the history of the MT text group.[5] Like the Old Latin, the Coptic (late third and early fourth centuries CE), Ethiopic (mid fourth century CE) and Armenian (early fifth century CE) translations have the LXX as their parent text demonstrating its influential history in the early centuries CE.[6] Where these translations differ from either the MT or the LXX or the SP text groups, they are further proof of the ongoing pluriformity of the biblical text in the early centuries of nascent Christianity.

Tὰ Biblίa and the Earliest Canons

            While various individual texts and some groupings of texts were considered authoritative (i.e., important to various groups of Jews or Christians) and thus copied and/or translated and circulated, there was no closed canon and no complete copy of books that together were called (or even can be referred to) as “the Bible.”

            Scholars are quite adamant that using the term “the Bible” when referencing any grouping or collection of texts or using the term “canon” to any listing of authoritative books is anachronistic and has been misleading as to the state of prebiblical texts prior to the Second Jewish Revolt (135 CE)—for the Jewish Scriptures—or the end of the fourth century CE—for the Christian Scriptures. Ulrich states, with regard to the use of “the terms ‘Bible’ and ‘biblical’ [that they] are anachronistic for that period and thus tend to distort our understanding.”[7] Therefore, with regard to the premature use of the term canon, he argues that “there is no canon as such in Judaism prior to the end of the first century CE or in Christianity prior to the fourth century, and the ‘the canonical text’ is an imprecise term, at best an abstraction…[for] it was not until questions were raised and communal or official agreements made that there existed what we properly call a canon.”[8] There might be a “canon-in-the-making” or a “canonical process” but there was no canon in the first century CE.[9]

What existed in the formative centuries of both rabbinic Judaism and Christianity was a pluriformity of text types and a pluriformity of authoritative texts. This will be clearly demonstrated by the variety of sources and text types the New Testament authors quoted and alluded to in their writings. This pluriformity was of no known concern to Jews or Jesus followers in the first century CE. It took a few more centuries of textual and canonical debate before a final unified text and canon came into place for the Jews[10] and the familiar twenty-seven book New Testament was accepted.[11]     

            Even in the earliest codices of the Bible we possess, complete consistency with regard to the books of the New Testament is lacking. Some of the traditional twenty-seven books were omitted and additional writings were included.[12] If nothing else, the evidence of these Greek codices is that both the texts of individual books and the collections of authoritative Christian texts were fluid and thus pluriform, rather than fixed and uniform, for at least the first five centuries CE.


[1] Würthwein, The Text of the Old Testament, 145-147.

[2] Würthwein, The Text of the Old Testament, 142. “Augustine wanted a new version of the Latin Bible based on the Greek text, and he could cite the high esteem the LXX enjoyed through the churches. But Jerome understood more clearly than Augustine that the Greek traditions of the LXX were not unified, and that consequently a faithful Latin text of the Bible could hardly be achieved without recourse to the original Hebrew text.”

[3] Würthwein, The Text of the Old Testament, 141.

[4] Evans and Tov, Exploring the Origins of the Bible, 143.

[5] James VanderKam and Peter Flint The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Their Significance for Understanding the Bible, Judaism, Jesus and Christianity (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2002), 102.

[6] Würthwein, The Text of the Old Testament, 148-150.

[7] Ulrich, “The Evolutionary Production,” 48.

[8] Ulrich, Origins of the Bible, 56, 57.

[9] Ulrich, Origins of the Bible, 59. Other textual critics and canon specialists agree: See, Zahn, Genres of Rewriting, 84; Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, “Textual Criticism of the Bible,” in The Jewish Study Bible, ed. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Bretter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 2072, 2077; Lee Martin McDonald. “Wherein Lies Authority? A Discussion of Books, Texts, and Translations” in Exploring the Origins of the Bible: canon Formation in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective eds. Craig A. Evans and Emanuel Tov, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 234-235.

[10] Evans and Tov, Exploring the Origins, 59: “The Torah was closed first, most likely before the third century BCE. The books in the Prophets were defined sometime later, most likely before the defeat of Bar Kokhba (135/6 CE). … Some books in the Writings were debated until the sixth century CE.”

[11] McDonald, The Biblical Canon, 383: “There was never a time in the fourth or fifth centuries, however, when the whole church adopted as Scripture all of the twenty-seven books of the NT and those books alone. … At no time in history has the whole church agreed completely on what literature should make up its canon of Scriptures.”

[12] McDonald, The Biblical Canon, Table C-4, 450.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: