The Septuagint and Modern Bible Versions, Part 2

Jan 3, 2011

Preliminary Note by Dr. Bruggeman:
Please keep in mind as you read this extensive essay that the author is presenting arguments for the pro-Septuagint scholars and will later present the opposing view. So do not conclude that either the author or I necessarily agree with the sources quoted. All comments in [brackets are by me-JWB], except source citations, which are by the author. We have simply moved them from endnotes to placing them within the text.

In this first instance, of a book I [the author, not JWB] otherwise highly recommend for reading, is the assertion that the Septuagint is exactly what it appears to be, as related by tradition.

… since Christ and his apostles had taught the people in their own tongue, why should men not do so now? Even St. Jerome’s Vulgate has been a vernacular translation in origin, prepared for the Latin-speaking communities of the Western Church. In that capacity, it had superseded the older Latin version (done by persons unknown), and the Greek Septuagint, the third-century BC translation of the Hebrew Scriptures that had served the Greek-speaking Jewish communities of the Mediterranean world. [Wide as the Waters- The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired, by Benson Bobrick, pages 50-51, Simon and Schuster 2001]

Yet another book presents a broad view of the events of the past, which we shall soon be looking at more narrowly. Here is how it relates the ancient roots of what some of the early Christians used as scripture.

It should be observed that the Old Testament thus admitted as authoritative in the Church was somewhat bulkier and more comprehensive than the twenty-two or twenty-four, books of the Hebrew Bible of Palestinian Judaism. (These conventional totals were arrived at by reckoning 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings as two books, the twelve minor prophets as one book, Ezra-Nehemiah and 1-2 Chronicles as one book each, and in the case of the former, by attaching Ruth and Lamentations to Judges and Jeremiah respectively.) It always included, though with varying degrees of recognition, the so-called Apocrypha, or deuterocanonical books.

The reason for this is that the Old Testament which passed in the first instance into the hands of Christians was not the original Hebrew version, but the Greek translation known as the Septuagint. … While respecting the unique position of the Pentateuch, they treated the later books of the Old Testament with considerable freedom, making additions to some and drastically rewriting others; and they did not hesitate to add entirely new books to the permitted list.
[Early Christian Doctrines, by J.N.D. Kelly, page 53, Prince Press (Hendrickson Publishers), Revised Edition 1978, reprinted 2003]

Contrast this account now with the time in Judea of the Maccabean revolt, when after nearly 500 years of foreign subjugation, freedom was regained from Syrian domination and under the emerging Hasmonaean dynasty, it almost regained the size of King David’s kingdom.

It was during this time of long-fought-for freedom that certain books appeared from time to time whose purpose was to encourage and maintain patriotism and faith. Written for the most part in Greek, these devout, inspirational scrolls were circulated among the leaders, the subject matter made common knowledge, and came to be cherished as sacred. Revered, these various books were included in the Old Testament compiled in Alexandria, and known as the Septuagint. But the Palestinian Jews refused to put them in their Canon of the Scripture.

However, when St. Jerome (c. AD 340-420) prepared his famous Vulgate edition of the Latin Bible he included these books with one exception, “The Prayer of Manasses.” The Roman Catholic Church has always recognized these books as authoritative. It is believed by some that St. Jerome also accepted the designation “apocrypha”, or “hidden”, for them, a term which implied esoteric truths for the initiated.
[The Greatest Book Ever Written, by Fulton Oursler, page 451, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1951] [Fulton Oursler converted to Roman Catholic—JWB]

Since there is a wide variance of information concerning the Septuagint, particularly from the side that promotes it rather than questions it, and our sample is yet small, we shall continue to examine the information available, so that when the other side which questions the Septuagint is presented, you may be more familiar with their arguments, and understanding of their reasons and rationale in refuting it.

By far the most significant ancient version is the Septuagint, abbreviated LXX …. It is also called the Alexandrian version, from the place of its completion; or the Greek version, from the language into which it was translated.

The Septuagint is the first translation of any portion of the Scriptures ever made, and is the rendering of the entire Hebrew Old Testament into Greek. The version was made necessary by the fact that the Jews living in Egypt and elsewhere through the Near East in the centuries immediately before the Christian era were no longer able to read and understand Hebrew ….

The origin of the Septuagint is shrouded in uncertainty. The oldest tradition, originating with a letter of Aristeas, an Alexandrian Jew serving under the Ptolemies during the third century BC, is not highly regarded by scholars at this present time. According to this account, 72 Palestinian Jews, selected from each tribe by the high priest, completed the translation in 72 days, working on the island of Pharos near Alexandria in Egypt. Further embellishments add that each translator worked in his own cubicle, independently of the others, and when the results were compared, each translation was found to be in perfect agreement with all the others.

The facts underlying the tradition would appear to be that the translation was made in Alexandria in the second or third centuries before Christ by a number of different translators, some of whom (if we may judge by their command of Hebrew) were probably Palestinian Jews. The translators were of varying ability, and seem to differ in their underlying purpose in making the translation. Hence, the different portions vary in value. The Torah, which includes the first five books of the Old Testament, is conceded to be the most excellent, and was probably the work of scholars from Palestine.

The importance of the Septuagint can scarcely be overstated. It became the generally used Scriptures of the Jews in Christ’s day, and was freely quoted by our Lord and His apostles …. The oldest and most prized Bible manuscripts in existence, the Vatican Codex, the Codex Alexandrinus, the Codex Sinaiticus, and the Ephraem Rescript, all contain the Septuagint version as the Old Testament portion. [Exploring the Old Testament, by W.T. Purkiser, Ph. D., editor, C.E. Demaray, Ph.D., D.S. Mets, Ph.D., and M.A. Stuneck, Ph.D., pages 26-28, Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1955]

One of the strongest proponents for the Septuagint is also one of the better modem day Bible scholars, Bruce M. Metzger. We shall now present some observations by him that will add to our understanding of these scriptures.

The story he presents is again recounted from the letter of Aristeas, where Ptolemy II Philadelphus, as a ruler with a literary mind, desired to have a copy of the Hebrew Scriptures, since they were reported to be full of wisdom and without blemish, thereby making a unique volume for him to examine and add to his already renowned library.

The king therefore sent ambassadors to the high priest Eleazar along with riches in abundance, explaining what he desired. In return, Eleazar selected 72 translators, six of every tribe and sent them to Ptolemy, along with a marvelous copy of the Hebrew Scriptures, written entirely in gold leaf Hebrew letters for the translators to work from. [The Bible in Translation—Ancient and English Versions by Bruce M. Metzger, Ph.D., page 14, Baker Academic, 2001]

The apologetic interest of Aristeas is revealed in a lengthy vindication of the purpose and function of the Jewish law, as well as in a still longer section that describes a banquet and the table talk between Philadelphus and each of the seventy-two translators, designed to exemplify the wisdom, moral insight, intellectual ability, and philosophical acumen of the Jewish people. The writer, however, is aware that he has overdone the encomium on Jewish wisdom, for he adds: “I suppose it will seem incredible to those who read my narrative in the future”. [The Bible in Translation, page 14-15]

Mr. Metzger notes that the letter of Aristeas has many problems, and ascribes it to a possible date of about 150-110 BC. The letter was known to Josephus, who paraphrased parts of the letter in his Antiquities of the Jews, (re: 12.12-118). The Alexandrian mystic philosopher Philo (20 BC – 50 AD) also has an account, (re: Moses 2.25-44), where he relates certain features, but there are differences as well. Early Christian fathers also wrote of this letter and event, with even more embellished scenarios recorded. [The Bible in Translation, page 15-16]

But this is not the only area where differences are noted. The Septuagint clearly softens the Hebrew Bible and depersonalizes God, and it often makes more use of the paraphrase. Per Mr. Metzger, these changes indicate a disinclination to ascribe the human form or human passions to the Divine Being. [The Bible in Translation, page 16]

The various books in the Septuagint differ between them as to literal and free translation, and differs from the Hebrew text in the number of books and the order in which they appear. The Greek form of the book of Esther contains six extra sections for a total of 107 more verses. The book of Daniel has three extra sections, while the book of Job is one sixth shorter.

Beyond that, the book of Jeremiah has extensive transposition of verse and chapter and is one eighth shorter than the Hebrew text. The translation of the book of Daniel in the Septuagint was so woefully deficient that the early Christian Church completely rejected it. [All underlining is my emphasis—JWB]

Only when Theodotion in the second century AD made a new translation, was it later accepted in the fourth century. Then there were the additions of the apocryphal books that were completely alien to the Hebrew text, being found only in the Septuagint. Yet as troubling, words in Hebrew that had no Greek equivalent were sometimes poorly expressed or awkwardly rendered for the Greek readers. [The Bible in Translation, page 17-18]

Scholars have also noted transpositions in the book of Proverbs, while in the book of 1 Samuel, the Septuagint either had a different original text it was translated from, or perversely, sections were cut from the Hebrew text to relieve it of awkward political difficulties for the Jews of Alexandria. [The Bible in Translation, page 52-53]

In short, there were some good things to be had in this new translation, especially by trying to bring the Mosaic books to those who could no longer read its pages. Some of the early Church fathers claimed that the Septuagint presented the word of God more accurately than the Hebrew text, but in truth, very few Christians beyond the first century had a working knowledge of the Hebrew language and couldn’t know the difference.

The earliest copies were widely recopied and soon textual differences sprang up, some made purely by error, others by the poor or faulty judgment of the scribe making the new text copies. By the third century the Septuagint had allegedly become so utterly unreliable that Origen attempted to purify it. [The Bible in Translation, page 18-19] So now we have before us almost five centuries since the time recounted in the letter of Aristeas to Origen’s day, and he did not have or know of a single copy that he could say was the right one mentioned in the letter.

So began one of the truly most daunting tasks of ancient history, because this was no small feat being attempted. What resulted from this was called the Hexapla. (End of part 2.
To be continued.)

Category: Teaching