Persistent Pluriformity of the Prebiblical Texts (6)

Persistent Pluriformity as Evidenced in the Texts of the New Testament

Given the evidence we have examined thus far, the state of Jewish Scripture during the development of both rabbinic Judaism and Christianity was pluriform in both Hebrew and Greek. Although several prebiblical texts, such as the Pentateuch and much of the Prophets were consistently recognized as authoritative by most groups, there was variety as some texts that would later be considered Pseudepigraphical or Apocryphal were seen as scripture by at least some groups (e.g., Jubilees, Enoch, Maccabees, Wisdom, Sirach and others). If we have judged the evidence correctly, then as the early Jesus followers composed their texts and in them referenced and/or alluded to what they determined was Scripture, we would see that same pluriformity present in the writings later grouped together as the New Testament. And that is exactly what we see.

Apparently, the authors of the New Testament texts were aware of this pluriformity and not bothered by it in the slightest.[1] There is no indication whatsoever that prior to the Second Jewish Revolt that there was any desire to find or form one unified text.[2] As Ulrich notes, “[T]here does not seem to be any evidence for a centralized and dominant group within Judaism prior to the Revolts that possessed the detailed attention and concern for a ‘standard text,’ as well as the power to establish one.”[3]  Timothy Michael Law sums up, as well as any scholar has, the state of scripture in the days of Jesus’ early followers.

To be candid: before the Bible, there was no Bible. Before the beginning of the second century CE, there were Jewish scriptures whose forms were still in flux and many scriptures were excluded in the finalization of the Hebrew Bible. Prior to the second century there was no way of knowing which scriptural books would be included within the collection and which would be left out; nor was there any way of knowing how the final version of the individual books would appear. … Jesus and Paul did not have a Bible; before the production of a “Bible,” Jews and Christians used numerous scriptural texts that never made it into the “canon”; and the forms that later became biblical books were in an extraordinary state of fluctuation between the third century BCE and the second CE.[4]

What we see in the New Testament is that Jesus followers utilized this pluriformity to their own advantage by quoting and/or alluding to versions of passages that best suited their rhetorical purpose.  They had a lot of alternatives from which to choose as is apparent in the variety of text types that they utilized in their writings.[5] Primarily, their writings demonstrate a reliance on various forms of “the Pentateuch, Psalms, Isaiah, and the Minor Prophets, with modest representation from Samuel, Kings, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Job and Proverbs, and virtually no others.” [6] They were also influenced by, and alluded to, books that were not later included in the Hebrew canon such as Sirach, the Wisdom of Solomon, Tobit and 2 Maccabees.[7]

When examined individually, quote by quote and allusion by allusion, a fair estimate would be that at least 50% are representative of various Greek translations, and the rest of various types of Hebrew texts.[8] The MT version of the Hebrew Bible alone was not the scriptural milieu in which Jesus or the authors of the New Testaments texts lived, thought and thus from which they spoke and wrote. This is one of the reasons Augustine insisted that Jerome not lose sight of the Septuagint as he worked on his Latin translation of the Old Testament texts. He reasons with Jerome as follows:

“For the latter [i.e., “the Greek Septuagint version”] has no mean authority, seeing that it has obtained so wide circulation, and was the one which the apostles used, as is not only proved by looking to the text itself, but has also been, as I remember, affirmed by yourself. You would therefore confer upon us a much greater boon if you gave an exact Latin translation of the Greek Septuagint version…”[9]

Yet the Old Testament by which most Christians, and even many biblical scholars, are influenced consists of modern editions and/or translations of the MT text from the tenth century CE! However, it is a fact that the writers of the New Testament and the earliest Church Fathers were highly influenced by the Greek translations, even (and maybe especially) in places where these differed from the Hebrew text. Also, in Augustine’s letter (71), he reasons with Jerome as follows: “I wish you would have the kindness to open up to me what you think to be the reason for the frequent discrepancies between the text supported by the Hebrew codices and the Greek Septuagint version.”[10]  It is also important to remember that the LXX contained not only texts of the Hebrew Bible but several writings “modern scholars call pseudepigrapha, [which] formed the theological framework for the New Testament authors.”[11]

Law notes numerous places where the New Testament authors utilized the Septuagint version of the text in spite of—and maybe because of—the fact that it differed significantly from the Hebrew version.[12] Law actually makes the case that throughout “the entire New Testament what has been proven in a study of Romans, [is] that there is no instance in which the hypothesis that Paul used a Greek text does not account for the data more simply and more satisfactorily than the supposition that Paul employed Hebrew and/or Aramaic texts.” Thus, Law concludes, “It would be worth the reader’s time to ponder the significance of the New Testament authors’ use of the Septuagint to consider what theological emphases would not have been possible if the authors were using the Hebrew Bible alone.”[13] So much more could be said, but sufficient for our purposes is that, if nothing else, the New Testament texts demonstrate that texts the earliest Jesus followers considered authoritative where quite varied and, in and of themselves, in a state of fluidity and flux.


[1] Law, When God Spoke Greek, 25-26, 28, 84.

[2] Ulrich, “The Text of the Hebrew Scriptures,” 94.

[3] Ulrich, “The Text of the Hebrew Scriptures,” 99. See also Ulrich, Developmental Composition of the Bible, 313.

[4] Law, When God Spoke Greek, 19.

[5] Law, When God Spoke Greek, 84.

[6] Ulrich, Developmental Composition” 305.

[7] Law, When God Spoke Greek, 87. See also McDonald’s extensive list in The Biblical Canon, “Appendix D: New Testament Citations and Allusions to Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphical Writings,” 452-464.

[8] I use the word “various” twice here to emphasize once again, that all forms of authoritative texts, whether to Jews or Jesus followers, were in a state of flux and fluidity even during the first two centuries CE. At this time even referring to the Greek translations as the Septuagint is an anachronism, as “the Septuagint itself was not a single entity.” See Law, When God Spoke Greek, 86.

[9] Kooyman, Letters, Augustine Letter 71.

[10] Kooyman, Letters, Augustine Letter 71.

[11] Law, When God Spoke Greek, 89.

[12] See Law, When God Spoke Greek, chapter 9. Also, David Lincicum, “Citations in the New Testament,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Septuagint,” eds. Alison G. Salvensen and Timothy Michael Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), 523-536, where he demonstrates that a majority of the texts of the NT contain quotations and allusions that are largely “Septuagintal in nature.”

[13] Law, When God Spoke Greek, 115.

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