How Did We Get the Bible? Part IV

Our modern worldviews are utterly shaped by the invention of the printing press, copy machines, photography, scanners, and computers. We expect exact replication of texts. But, prior to the printing press, identical reproduction was virtually impossible. Even careful scribes made minor errors in manuscripts. Add to this the complexity of translation from one language to another and the result is variant biblical texts. This should not alarm us. Christian doctrine teaches that Scripture is a collaborative effort between God and human beings. In the ancient Near East, text production naturally occurred as only it could have without modern technology. Thus, when we think about the Bible, we should not superimpose upon it the expectations and conveniences of a copy machine. In this post I continue to discuss the Septuagint especially what it tells us about how the Bible developed through centuries of handwritten copies and translations.

As mentioned previously, the Greek translation of the Old Testament appears to be based on a different Hebrew Vorlage than the Masoretic Text. How these different Hebrew traditions developed will be the topic of the next post. For now, its important to recognize that different traditions do exist. The Septuagint preserves traces of one tradition. The Masoretic Text preserves another. Similarly, we have evidence of a pre-Septuagint Hebrew tradition in the Samaritan Pentateuch. Samaritans are descendants of Israelites who intermarried with Assyrians after the Assyrian invasion of Israel in the 8th century B.C.E. In the 4th century they built a temple on Mt. Gerizim to compete with the one in Jerusalem. Samaritans, who still exist today, only accept the first five books of the Old Testament. The Samaritan Pentateuch is similar to the Masoretic Text but has about 6,000 minor differences.[2] It agrees with the Septuagint against the Masoretic Text in 1,900 of those 6,000 differences. These agreements with the Septuagint stem from apparent commonalities in a Hebrew Vorlage. The Peshitta, a Syriac translation of the Pentateuch (c. 2nd century C.E.), is also an important witness to aspects of both the Masoretic tradition and Septuagint.

Among the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran we find a wealth of biblical texts that exhibit various streams of copying and translation including Proto-Masoretic, Septuagint, texts similar to the Hebrew Vorlage of the Septuagint, pre-Samaritan, and various Greek witnesses. An entire Greek scroll of the Twelve Minor Prophets—revised from the Septuagint—was also found in the Judean desert. A hypothetical example of the complexity of textual tradition might involve a scribe who decided to improve upon the Septuagint translation. To do so, he had before him the Septuagint texts as well as Proto-Masoretic scrolls. He might also emend the texts to make it accessible to his current audience. For example, like the translator of the Septuagint, he might change the names of unknown pagan gods to contemporary pagan gods or update geographical names to their current nomenclature, etc.[3]His end product, then, would be a mixture of texts: the Septuagint Vorlage, the Septuagint translator’s interpretations/emendations, the Proto-Masoretic Vorlage, the Proto-Masoretic copyist’s interpretations/emendations, as well as his own emendations. Once his work was complete, someone else down the road might have used it to create yet another revision or translation.

As a result of the nature of ancient text production, the Septuagint we have today is not the original Septuagint.[4] The “original” is lost to history. Our current Septuagint, as well as Masoretic Text, is a product of continual copying and revision. Early on, there was dissatisfaction with the Septuagint because some books were poorly translated. Revisions probably began shortly after the original translations were produced and prior to the 1st century C.E. (i.e. pre-Christian). After the 1st century C.E. new translations and/or revisions continued. Some of these revisions were fueled by debates between Jews and Christians over interpretation. Around 140 C.E. a convert to Judaism, Aquila, completed a new translation. It was well received by the Greek-speaking Jewish community and used into the 6th century and after. Also in the 2nd century C.E., Symmachus and Theodotion produced translations for the Jewish community. On the other hand, the Palestinian Christian community utilized the work of Origen. He produced the Hexplaric Septuagint in the third century C.E. In six columns he placed the Hebrew text, transliteration of Hebrew into Greek, Aquila, Symmachus, the Septuagint, and Theodotion. He was also familiar with three anonymous Greek translations referred to as Quinta, Sexta, and Septima. In column five he emended the Septuagint based on the other versions before him in hopes of producing a more accurate translation. For him accuracy meant getting closer to the Masoretic tradition which he likely and erroneously assumed was the “original.” Origen used various notations in his 5th column to indicate changes he was making. However, over time his 5th column was copied without the notations. Scholars are now trying to undo Origen’s work to find the older, pre-Hexaplaric Septuagint.

Effort to reconstruct the earliest form of the Septuagint requires intricate text critical work relying on numerous sources, many of them fragments. Origen’s Hexapla was destroyed. We have only pieces. Scholars also study Greek fragments found in Qumran Caves 4 and 7. They also refer to the Twelve Minor Prophets scroll found in the Judean desert. Various recensions are available including Lucian’s (4th century), as well as biblical quotations in the works of Jews and Christians in antiquity. The Old Latin translation of the pre-Hexaplaric Septuagint from the 2nd century and an early Coptic translation also offer clues. However, despite scholarly efforts, it’s impossible to reconstruct an original Septuagint. We can only make educated guesses. The oldest surviving complete Septuagint with all biblical books bound together is Codex Vaticanus dated to the 4th century C.E. Significantly Vaticanus appears to be free of Hexaplaric influence. Other important early codices include Codex Sinaiticus (c. 4th century; similar to Vaticanus, but most of the Pentateuch is not preserved) and Codex Alexandrinus (c. 5th century; exhibits Hexaplaric influence).

Remarkably despite this history of copying and translation, the thousands of variants in manuscripts by and large do not impact doctrine. The majority are minor such as spelling, transposition of words, updates in geographical names, or errors that are obvious (e.g. scribe accidentally skipped a line). The integrity of the biblical texts is even more apparent when it comes to the Masoretic Text. We have evidence of accurate preservation of Isaiah as a result of a scroll found at Qumran. This complete manuscript pre-dates our previously oldest extant Masoretic Isaiah by 1,000 years. Our oldest copy of the entire Hebrew Bible is dated to the 10th century C.E. When the medieval Isaiah was compared with the Qumran Isaiah, it was almost identical; variants pertained primarily to spelling or obvious copy errors. Thus, even though copying and transmission has introduced variants in all manuscripts, we should not underestimate the care scribes took in their task. At the same time, we cannot dismiss all the differences as insignificant. We err if we go to the extreme of denying discrepancies in the name of the doctrine of inerrancy. Likewise we err if we go to the extreme of rejecting Scripture as “full of errors.” What we have in our biblical tradition is not so much inerrancy vs. errors, but the expected realities of ancient text production vs. modern technology.

Augustine provides food for thought on how we might consider textual traditions in light of inspiration:

If, then, as it behooves us, we behold nothing else in these Scriptures than what the Spirit of God has spoken through men, if anything is in the Hebrew copies and is not in the version of the Seventy, the Spirit of God did not choose to say it through them, but only through the prophets. But whatever is in the Septuagint and not in the Hebrew copies, the same Spirit chose rather to say through the latter, thus showing that both were prophets. For in that manner He spoke as He chose, some things through Isaiah, some through Jeremiah, some through several prophets, or else the same thing through this prophet and through that. Further, whatever is found in both editions, that one and the same Spirit willed to say through both, but so as that the former preceded in prophesying, and the latter followed in prophetically interpreting them; because, as the one Spirit of peace was in the former when they spoke true and concordant words, so the selfsame one Spirit hath appeared in the latter, when, without mutual conference they yet interpreted all things as if with one mouth.[5]

Perhaps, Augustine, not restricted to a worldview shaped by modern technology, was better able to accept differences between the Hebrew and Greek Old Testaments. He did not feel threatened by it. In fact, he believed the Septuagint offered additional insight rooted in the Holy Spirit’s guidance. The Greek translation provides a unique window into pre-Christian theological interpretation of scriptural texts—every translation is an interpretation. Furthermore, translation of the biblical books into Greek was the very thing that allowed the gospel to thrive because it made Scripture accessible to non-Jews. If the Septuagint had never come into existence, the lack would likely have curtailed the growth of Christianity. In essence, regardless of the merits of the Masoretic Text, God chose to use the Septuagint as the primary reference for the inspired New Testament writers. This suggests our fixation on technological perfection is not an obsession shared by God.

Want to know how these different biblical text traditions developed in the first place? Read on for Part V.

Footnotes:

[1] The Assyrian oracles were collated by date and included a mixture of prophets together. The biblical text, on the other hand, collates oracles by individual prophets (Karel van der Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007] 184).

[2] Vanderkam, James, “The Scolls and the Old Testament”, 161.

[3] For example, the Septuagint translator changed “Meni” to demon of fate in Isaiah 65:11, probably because he knew his current readers would not know about the archaic god “Meni.” Translators also avoided the metaphor “rock” to refer to God when it appears in the Hebrew, apparently out of concern that it would be misinterpreted as some form of idolatry (see Jobes and Silva, 95).

[4]The following discussion on the Septuagint draws from Karen H. Jobes and Moises Silva, Invitation to the Septuagint (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000).

[5] The quote is from City Of God, 18.43. ([trans. Marcus Dods; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2009] 588-590). The full context is:

“For while there were other interpreters who translated these sacred oracles out of the Hebrew tongue into Greek, as Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion, and also that translation which, as the name of the author is unknown, is quoted as the fifth edition, yet the Church has received this Septuagint translation just as if it were the only one; and it has been used by the Greek Christian people, most of whom are not aware that there is any other.

From this translation there has also been made a translation in the Latin tongue, which the Latin churches use. Our times, however, have enjoyed the advantage of the presbyter Jerome, a man most learned, and skilled in all three languages, who translated these same Scriptures into the Latin speech, not from the Greek, but from the Hebrew. But although the Jews acknowledge this very learned labor of his to be faithful, while they contend that the Septuagint translators have erred in many places, still the churches of Christ judge that no one should be preferred to the authority of so many men, chosen for this very great work by Eleazar, who was then high priest; for even if there had not appeared in them one spirit, without doubt divine, and the seventy learned men had, after the manner of men, compared together the words of their translation, that what pleased them all might stand, no single translator ought to be preferred to them; but since so great a sign of divinity has appeared in them, certainly, if any other translator, of their Scriptures from the Hebrew into any other tongue is faithful, in that case he agrees with these seventy translators, and if he is not found to agree with them, then we ought to believe that the prophetic gift is with them.

For the same Spirit who was in the prophets when they spoke these things was also in the seventy men when they translated them, so that assuredly they could also say something else, just as if the prophet himself had said both, because it would be the same Spirit who said both; and could say the same thing differently, so that, although the words were not the same, yet the same meaning should shine forth to those of good understanding; and could omit or add something, so that even by this it might be shown that there was in that work not human bondage, which the translator owed to the words, but rather divine power, which filled and ruled the mind of the translator.

Some, however, have thought that the Greek copies of the Septuagint version should be emended from the Hebrew copies; yet they did not dare to take away what the Hebrew lacked and the Septuagint had, but only added what was found in the Hebrew copies and was lacking in the Septuagint, and noted them by placing at the beginning of the verses certain marks in the form of stars which they call asterisks. And those things which the Hebrew copies have not, but the Septuagint have, they have in like manner marked at the beginning of the verses by horizontal spit-shaped marks like those by which we denote ounces; and many copies having these marks are circulated even in Latin. But we cannot, without inspecting both kinds of copies, find out those things which are neither omitted nor added, but expressed differently, whether they yield another meaning not in itself unsuitable, or can be shown to explain the same meaning in another way.

If, then, as it behooves us, we behold nothing else in these Scriptures than what the Spirit of God has spoken through men, if anything is in the Hebrew copies and is not in the version of the Seventy, the Spirit of God did not choose to say it through them, but only through the prophets. But whatever is in the Septuagint and not in the Hebrew copies, the same Spirit chose rather to say through the latter, thus showing that both were prophets. For in that manner He spoke as He chose, some things through Isaiah, some through Jeremiah, some through several prophets, or else the same thing through this prophet and through that. Further, whatever is found in both editions, that one and the same Spirit willed to say through both, but so as that the former preceded in prophesying, and the latter followed in prophetically interpreting them; because, as the one Spirit of peace was in the former when they spoke true and concordant words, so the selfsame one Spirit hath appeared in the latter, when, without mutual conference they yet interpreted all things as if with one mouth.”

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