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Archive for September, 2012

Search for the Septuagint

There are six bodies of text that scholars consult for the Old Testament, three of them are derivative works. The six are as follows: 1. Masoretic Text (the complete extant authorized Hebrew version). 2. Qumran Text (commonly known as the Dead Sea scrolls, contains extensive amounts of OT text, the only complete biblical book is Isaiah). 3. Samaritan Pentateuch (complete, extant “Hebrew” composition c. 200-100 BC, although the copies we have date only back to the 11th century AD). 4. Septuagint (translated into Greek from Hebrew, authors unknown, authorship date unknown). 5. The Peshitta (OT, some Apocrypha, and some New Testament books translated into Syriac. Authors unknown, date unknown. The translators had use of the LXX in addition to the Hebrew). 6. Vulgate (Latin translation of OT, Apocrypha and NT, the textual basis for the OT included the LXX. Completed in the early 400’s AD).

Last week I began on the textual history of the OT text, and this week we’re continuing it by scrutinizing the LXX, or Septuagint, which is “the” Greek translation of the Old Testament (OT). Most scholars, and certainly most modern translators, place on the LXX great importance. The majority view continues to be that the OT text is incomplete without some supplement from the LXX. We’ll explore the history surrounding the text, and see if we can make sense of it. If you’re a Christian, like me, you should be interested in the evidence.

With the Masoretic Text (MT) of the Old Testament, we know: when it was written, why it was written, and by who; with the LXX we know none of this.

What we know is the following. It is an old translation into Greek of Hebrew books which include the entire Old Testament and 7 additional books called the Apocrypha. The “legend” regarding its composition is just that. We do not know why the translations were made; whether for Jewish literature or Greek or indeed Christian. Scholars believe the Pentateuch was translated first and the others later by other translators. It is thought to have been translated around 200-300 BC, but there is no internal evidence as to when it was translated, and the external evidence this is based on is the previously mentioned legend we know to be false (the letter of Aristeas), which only concerns the Pentateuch and not the canon. There are substantial differences between the text and all existing Hebrew. The underlying Hebrew it was translated from represents a different textual tradition from the MT, which is the textual tradition agreed by both Christians and Jews as authoritative over the OT canon. The books are reordered, and Isaiah is itself substantially rearranged.

Because it represents a different textual tradition from the MT it most likely has its origins in some sort of Jewish sect, and not the Palestinian Jews who had access to the authorized Hebrew canon. This fact cannot be understated.

The questions that need to be answered are the following: 1. who was it translated by and when, 2. who used it prior to Jerome for his Vulgate translation, 3. is the LXX reliable, 4. is the text really from the period we’re told it’s from (200-300 BC), 5. What value, if any, does it hold for us concerning the OT scripture today.

Many Christians defend the text citing its usage by New Testament writers, perhaps by Jesus himself. This is, of course, nonsense since anyone can see that so-called quotes made in the NT which disagree with the Hebrew OT text represent either the author’s “creative license” or are not intended to be a quote in the first place. In either respect the extensive quotations which agree verbatim with the Hebrew text made in the NT pretty much proves that the early church made use of Hebrew scriptures. Thus the argument that the early church “needed” a Greek version of the OT text fails even the most basic test. The fact that there are quotes which agree verbatim with the NT “quotations” proves that the LXX was written by authors who had a copy of the NT in front of them and not the other way around.

For instance, much has been made of Isaiah 7:14 in Hebrew reads “Behold the maiden shall conceive and bear a son”. The LXX reads “virgin” where the Hebrew reads “maiden”. Many scholars claim this was written before Christ and proves the prophecy. Many even claimed that the Masoretes deliberately altered their authoritative text to read maiden instead of virgin, and since the LXX was much older than the MT it was more reliable.

Such a position ignores a whole realm of problems. Firstly, the Jewish scribes would not dare deliberately alter their Holy texts. Secondly, Scholars believe the MT to be the authoritative textual tradition; after the fall of the first temple (and along with it the then present authoritative textual copy) the responsibility of the preservation of the texts was given passed to the Masoretes (around the 7th century AD) in the context of this textual tradition. Thirdly, the Dead Sea Scrolls discovery produced an extant Isaiah scroll from a non authoritative textual tradition which dated back to before Christ, and the wording in it regarding Isaiah 7:14 was identical. Fourthly, I don’t believe anyone before the coming of Christ would translate “maiden” into “virgin” as the Hebrew is not that specific. The specific definition of the Hebrew word used is “young unmarried woman who has not yet borne children” not specifically “virgin”. Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14 and translates it as “virgin”, already knowing the fulfilment of the prophecy. The LXX clearly copies Matthew and not the other way around. Finally, the LXX version of Isaiah is so poor, clearly the work of incompetence, in no way could it be regarded as being an “inspired” work or anything of the sort. It has also been modified from its original version by other authors.

Scholars today believe that the LXX represents a different tradition to the authoritative text. Think about the ramifications of this for a moment. The authoritative text, which used to be kept in the temple, is the version agreed on by Palestinian Jews and historically was preserved by the Levites who God charged with the responsibility of its preservation. Heretical Jewish sects were not allowed to correct their corrupted copies by examining the text kept in the temple, so theirs was only as good as their tradition.

Let’s consider the possible origins of the LXX. It could have been written c. 200-300 BC by a Jewish sect or by gentiles. But the only evidence for this is the letter of Aristeas and some tiny fragments with parts of parts of Deuteronomy 23-28 on it (which date BC). There are no other fragmented BC dated LXX material. The letter refers to a translation into Greek of the Pentateuch, and Deuteronomy is part of the Pentateuch, so at best we have evidence of the existence of a BC Greek translation of the Pentateuch only, and even then we have no formal evidence that the translation was actually complete (included all 5 books and every chapter and verse) or that it is even the same as the LXX particularly as the Deuteronomy fragments are different to Codex Vaticanus. So even if it is part of the textual lineage leading to the LXX that we have today it could have been very different originally, before modification. If it is indeed of the same linage of text as the LXX that we have today that is. Codex Vaticanus is the version which scholars believe to be the closest to the original LXX.

Some believe the LXX to be the original work of Origen in his Hexapla manuscript which was made around 245AD or so. This thesis has its problems too. However, scholars, though they may not like to admit it, near unanimously believe that Origen did indeed revise the writing of the LXX. Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus are both derivative works. Critics argue that therefore this proves the LXX to be clearly corrupted by systematic modifications whatever the original text may have been. So whether Origen wrote the LXX fresh in 245AD or whether he substantially modified it (the latter being the universally accepted position among scholars) it now forms the basis for what we call the Septuagint.

The Hexapla was written c. 245AD. Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus were written c. 330-360AD. Codex Alexandrinus is c. 400-440AD and Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus is c. 450AD. All the main texts we have of the LXX can be traced back to the Hexapla, that is what it was funnelled through so to speak. Also, and most telling of all, Jerome himself who translated the Bible into Latin creating the Vulgate c. 390-405 AD believed the LXX text to have been substantially modified and believed the NT verses containing OT material had been deliberately altered to match the LXX text.

Mind you these facts are not in dispute among Biblical Scholars, it is well accepted that the LXX has a progressive textual history. Why then do Scholars tell us that it represents a pre-Christian translation when even if this was true it has clearly been modified beyond recognition anyway?

The translation shows clear signs of poor quality. For instance, the original LXX version of Daniel was “so bad” that it was replaced with another translation attributed to Theodotion c. 150 AD. The original LXX version of Daniel only appears in two Septuagint manuscripts. How many other books might have been completely replaced? As you already know because I told you earlier, Daniel wasn’t the worst translation of the lot, that honour belongs to Isaiah. In addition to clear signs of incompetence, there are clear signs of systematic tampering with the original text. For instance the ages of the people in the antediluvian period, the removal of God being referenced to as a “rock”, the insertion of things that the New Testament includes, and so the list goes on.

Scholars tell us emphatically that the early Church used a Septuagint. That it was in fact in widespread usage. That the New Testament writers quote from it. Well we already know that this isn’t the case. The NT writers can be shown to quote the Hebrew disagreeing with the LXX at least as much as they supposedly do the other way around. That proves substantial usage by the early Church of the original untranslated Hebrew manuscripts. We know that for certain Jesus used the Hebrew scriptures because he directly references them. Luke 24:44: ‘Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”’ Law, Prophets and Writings (which begins with the Psalms), that’s the structure of the Hebrew text, the LXX is reordered. Matthew 5:18 ‘For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.’ Jot and Tittle are Hebrew. Since we readily assume Jesus spoke in Aramaic and Jewish and we know Hebrew by that time to be an all but dead language used only in written form (and read in the Synagogues), it would have made more sense if Jesus said something more generic like what often gets paraphrased in contemporary translations – Dot or Iota referring to Greek writing rather than Hebrew! But that’s not what he specifies. Iota is the smallest GREEK character and a Dot is the smallest “mark” in Greek writing, but Jot is the smallest HEBREW character, and a tittle is the smallest HEBREW mark (its like a serif on letters), nothing like a dot. Jesus would not have said Jot and Tittle if he was not specifically referring to Hebrew, even though – and this is important to remember – he was probably speaking in Aramaic or Greek and his audience write in Greek and not in Hebrew.

Even in translations which claim to use only the Hebrew as their translation guide and not the LXX, ESV and other literal translations translate Isaiah 7:14 as “Virgin”. I find it ironic, knowing that translators are known to do this “without” the influence from the LXX, those same scholars will claim that the Isaiah prophecy proves “divine inspiration” in the LXX. It’s ironic because Isaiah is clearly inspired, and the LXX version of Isaiah is clearly a poor quality translation totally uninspired and known to be revised and modified by other writers throughout the centuries. So the ridiculous claim that the Greek Isaiah in the LXX represents a “true understanding” of whatever Hebrew textual tradition it was based on, free of influence or bias by the NT is nothing more than an imaginary history of that piece of text. Just like the book of Daniel got replaced because it was clearly of poor quality. Trying to reconstruct the Hebrew from the Greek version of Isaiah would be like trying to reconstruct the Greek version of the Gospel according to Mark in the Message Translation.

Historians believed for over 2,000 years that the pyramids in Egypt were built by slaves based on a single piece of writing they believed to be true. Herodotus, the Greek Historian who visited the pyramids c. 450 BC and wrote down that they were built by slaves was just repeating what he himself had been told. Conversely, unlike Herodotus, who we know was a reasonably serious historian, we have no idea who the author of the letter of Aristeas was, but it is believed the piece was intentional propaganda to defend the validity of the text. A text which may or may not be an “ancestor” of the “complete” LXX. Besides this single piece of writing, written 150-100 BC, there is no other evidence whatsoever that the LXX ever existed before Christ. And just to remind you of what I said earlier, the letter only talks about the translation into Greek of the Pentateuch, not the entire Hebrew canon, or for that matter any one of the other OT books, Isaiah included.

The LXX does not exist, at all, in its original form. If it ever did that is. The very real possibility is that there was never a complete original “Septuagint” covering the complete 39 canonical books of the OT until the work of Origen. He himself could have collected miscellaneous textual translations of various books and put them all in the fifth column of the Hexapla. Even if he got the work as a complete body of text, the LXX could still be a collection of different translations of OT books written by different people at different times, collected and collated into a volume by someone at a later time. Translations could have been done before or after Christ. However, knowing the number of Greek translations done in the second century AD would indicate one of the following may be true: There was never a complete Greek translation of the OT canon until the second century, the LXX was universally considered poor quality and the early church looked to these other translations (which were done by heretics), the LXX was done before the second century but nobody actually had copies of it, etc. Most scholars believe the LXX to be a progressive text as it is. That the translation was made over a period of time, and that different translators did different books.

In conclusion. The LXX is not the well preserved text that the New and Old Testaments are in the first place. Its origin is unknown and the earliest extant version of it can only be traced back as far as 245AD to Origen’s Hexapla. Whether some of the content could have been written BC is not in doubt, however as I have shown, the evidence would lead us to believe that most of the content could date no further back to the later first and second centuries. It’s the work of anonymous or unknown translators. And at that time there were several rival heretical Christian sects. Whenever it was written, it is known to have been revised (that is, deliberately altered) by later authors including Origen in 245AD. There is no sufficient evidence that the New Testament ever quotes the LXX since the LXX probably quotes the NT. It does not reveal material “lost” from the Hebrew text. Put simply, the LXX does not really exist, it’s just a collection of translations that were put together c. third century, it was not used by the early first and second century Christians. It is not a reliable translation. What value it has depends on what you perceive it to be.