The Septuagint and Modern Bible Versions, Part 3

Jan 7, 2011

Author unknown; edited by Dr. James W. Bruggeman. All underlining is emphasis by JWB. Also, all comments in [brackets] is by JWB, except author’s source references are also in brackets.

The Hexapla is a six-column rendering of a Hebrew text and several others. Let’s look at this in somewhat more detail. Column one is the Hebrew text, it is divided into one to two words per cell, descending into ever-deeper columns as the text copying and translation goes on.

Column two is basically what the Septuagint could well have looked like; it is the transliteration of the Hebrew into Greek characters. Column three is a work by Aquila, a Jewish proselyte about 140 AD who had made a severely literalistic Greek rendering of the Hebrew text. Column four is a translated work by Symmachus, probably from the latter second century, which explains the content of a Hebrew manuscript in a highly readable style.

The fifth column is Origen’s rendering of the Septuagint, with special character symbols providing detailed information regarding differences between the Hebrew source he was working from and the various Greek texts. Column six is a work by Theodotion that is like the Septuagint, and is seen as a free [i.e., “loose”] version rather than an independent rendering. Copies of continuous fragments of leaves of the Hexapla have been found, but much was tragically lost through the ages.

Many of these ancient works besides the Hexapla, and another work called the Tetrapla containing just the Greek verses of the Hexapla, were preserved in the library at Caesarea in Palestine, but these disappeared when the Saracens took the city in 638 AD. History gives us fragments of these and the accounts of the various writers and researchers who viewed them. [The Bible in Translation, page 19]

In the fourth century, Eusebius and Pamphilus published Origen’s fifth column, believing that he had succeeded in restoring the Septuagint to its original purity. [The Bible in Translation, page 20] Other works in the fourth century by different writers such as Lucien (250-312 AD) and the later-martyred Egyptian Bishop Hesychius (309 AD) attempted to remake the Septuagint, but these were viewed as stylistic changes rather than being new, clear renderings apart from the old confusions of various other texts that still abounded. The Jews meanwhile had completely abandoned the Septuagint to the Christians and condemned it in no uncertain terms as one of the worst blights ever to fall upon them.

Problems and errors crept into the manuscripts long before Origen made an attempt to root them out. Errors made by one copyist would often be copied by the next, right through the centuries and many were indeed that ancient. Comparison of the Hebrew text with older versions shows that during the period prior to the alleged first making of the Septuagint, or before the middle of the third century BC, was the time of the worst textual corruption.

The scribes then awoke to this danger and the necessity of taking much better care of copying. They devised methods to improve their accuracy with a very high degree of confidence. Such developments led to the usage of dots and short dashes above and below letters to represent vowels (now called vowel points). In the late twelfth century, Maimonides, an Alexandrian Jewish philosopher declared the Ben Asher text as the Textus Receptus, or Received Text preserved through the ages. [The Bible Almanac, Edited by James I. Packer, A.M., PhD, Merrill C. Tenney, A.M., PhD., and William White , Jr., Th. M., PhD., page 70, Guideposts edition by Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1980]

Upon his death, two factions fought over his writings, and this was brought to a Christian court for a decision. After examining his writings, the court recommended that his works be burned, nevertheless, the Jews would not part with them and they remain today.

One of the new scribal methods in making accurate copies was the counting of verses and even the letters in various books, then of making note of the middle verse, the middle word, and the middle letter of each book. These notations are still found at the end of each book in many Hebrew Bibles. After copying a work, if a scribe could not make his count tally with these notations, it was evident that some error had been made which must then be corrected, or the copy was rejected and discarded.
[The Ancestry of our English Bible, by Ira M. Price, Ph.D.,© 1906; 2nd Ed. Revised by William A. Irwin & Allen P. Wikgren, Professors, page 23, © 1949, Harper & Brothers, Publishers, NY]

One of the richest sources of such ancient documents that have come to light in modern times has literally been in ancient garbage dumps in arid lands. One indication of the need for such exactness and accuracy is recounted in this Jeremiah 8:8 New English Bible verse, where he says:

“How can you say, ‘We are wise, we have the law of the LORD’, when scribes with their lying pens, have falsified it?” The prophet Jeremiah lived in the eleventh century, BC. [This is a glaring error! Jeremiah lived in the seventh and sixth centuries, prophesying during the reigns of the last five kings of Judah. He was called to ministry in the 13th year of the godly king, Josiah, which would have been circa 627 BC. Perhaps the author picked up the 11th century date from reading the pro-LXX sources, because the chronologies of the LXX vary from the KJV by as much as 1500 years!]

Using a modern version here illustrates that not everything in modern versions is bad or wrong; i.e., we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water, and it does read and sound better than the KJV does, to modern eyes and ears.

In the time of the Ptolemies, Alexandria, Egypt was a cultural, commercial and religious center in its own right. It is widely reported that at least one third of the city was Jewish, [The Ancestry of Our English Bible, page 51], and they had been heavily influenced by generations of Greek culture and civilization, as was much of the Mediterranean basin. While losing their Hebrew tongue and customs, they were still worshipping as best they could in the manner of those in Jerusalem.

Scholars, some of whom spend their lives studying the Septuagint and its related issues, are in great accord that the translation efforts that resulted in a manuscript that we call the Septuagint, came from different areas, and was done by different hands over approximately a 150 year period, most likely to meet needs in areas where the original language and cultural links to Jerusalem had been lost. It is not even clear to these scholars that it was finished in the first century BC, though some think it was.

On the sense of how the Septuagint was portrayed for the Greek- reading Hebrew population, it was rendered to put Hebrew thought patterns into Greek molds. Some scholars claim that the Septuagint more properly ought to be classified as a Biblical interpretation, not as a translation in its true sense.
[The Ancestry of Our English Bible, page 54]

Occasionally the translators substituted literal for figurative expressions. They inserted or omitted words and clauses, and added or changed clauses as they saw fit. … In some cases this means little more than the use of different vowels; frequently, too, the relation of the two texts can be explained on the grounds of a confusion between two or more Hebrew consonants. But other differences are wider, raising at times a difficult problem as to the true relation of the Hebrew and Greek readings …. The proper evaluation of their evidence and then the use of them in a search for the original text of the Old Testament are matters of great skill and delicacy. Indeed, the study of the Septuagint has become a highly specialized enterprise, with certain scholars giving practically their whole lifetime to it. [The Ancestry of Our English Bible, page 54]

Origen was born at Alexandria in 186 AD, and was surnamed Adamantios because of his untiring energy. In his day, he found not only differing copies of the Septuagint, but still other copies, more or less literal and faithful translations, by men such as Aquila, Symmachus and Theodotion. He complained that every manuscript purporting to be the Septuagint contained a different text from each other, and hence Origen desired to find the true text, and of producing the best possible manuscript based upon the evidence available to him.

The Hexapla, which he conceived, took 28 years of his life and is in its own right, a formidable and stupendous work. The purpose of Origen’s Hexapla was not to restore the original text of the Septuagint, but to remake it as correctly as possible in comparison to the various texts he had, and to adequately convey the sense in translation, of a Hebrew text that he had. [The Ancestry of Our English Bible, page 74]

The fifth column of the Hexapla was Origen’s revision of the Septuagint. Where manuscripts of the Septuagint showed differences, he chose the reading that he thought gave the best translation when compared to the Hebrew text he had. If there were words in Hebrew that showed an inadequate representation in the Septuagint, he usually inserted a word from one of the other three major translations within the Hexapla, preferring Theodotion’s work a majority of the time.

For words and passages appearing in the Septuagint that had no comparison in the Hebrew, i.e., they didn’t exist in the Hebrew text at all, the words and passages were merely code marked in the Hexapla, but strangely, were not removed. [The Ancestry of Our English Bible, page 76] This regrettably established for us yet another unknown and unwelcome level of taint or level of contamination in the Septuagint as to spurious and false readings, as if these were in the original texts but clearly were not.

The Hexapla was completed by 240 AD in Caesarea, Palestine, where Origen spent the last 20 years of his life. When completed, the Hexapla would have formed over six thousand leaves, or twelve thousand pages of carefully copied and critically annotated Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, and there it remained in the library at Caesarea for any to come see and examine.

The high regard for the work and scholarship involved led to the belief in some churches that Origen had successfully restored the Septuagint. These churches accepted his fifth column as authoritative and copied it as the valid Greek Septuagint Old Testament. The last person to view and copy this fifth column was Paul, Bishop of Tella in Mesopotamia, who copied it into Syriac early in the seventh century, even carefully reproducing Origen’s critical signs.

Fourteen years later, the Saracens captured Caesarea, and the library with the Hexapla largely disappeared from the annals of history, except for fragments of copies that have surfaced from time to time. Origen’s fifth column seems to be the only completely intact portion we have remaining.
[The Ancestry of Our English Bible, page 77-78] For the Pentateuch, the Septuagint translators clearly used a text much like the Majority Text today. From there on, though, a great divergence is apparent with dissimilar manuscripts being used for the other books, because the Septuagint often departs from the Majority Text and varies in quality and quantity of material represented.

About 200 AD, Jewish scholars began compiling Aramaic paraphrases of the Old Testament, called Targums. [The Bible Almanac, page 71] Their influence today is minor, but points to their being present during this time and these may have influenced portions of Origen’s Septuagint. Another difficulty with Greek is that though the tonal system is well suited to poetry, it is more similar in structure to German and Russian than English. [The Bible Almanac, page 346] Works such as Homer and other poetic Greek texts are difficult to render closely in English, hence poetic pieces in the Septuagint may also be quite misleading if used as a strict translation, which would almost certainly be at variance with the Hebrew texts.

However we do have the Greek text of the New Testament to thank for its subtlety and accuracy of conveying the thoughts of the Apostles more closely, so this is not a condemnation of Greek, but an acknowledgment that it poses special difficulties in Old Testament poetic pieces since it is usually rendered poorly or inadequately when translated directly into English.

While Origen did not accomplish his task to establish a single authoritative text of the Old Testament in Greek, his work did help to reduce some of the chaos that existed formerly. Main textual types were still to be found in Syria, Palestine and Egypt, but many of the minor variants were no longer causing such a great confusion. (End of part 3. To be continued.)

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