Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Should It Be "All Greek to Me"?

For some time now, I have been considering the merits of an Old Testament (OT) based on the Greek Septuagint (LXX), rather than Masoretic Text (MT).  Christians in the Western Church have advocated the MT, which follows the line of reasoning:
  1. God gave the Hebrew people His commandments and promises.
  2. These things were originally written in the Hebrew language.
  3. The Law was communicated in Hebrew.
  4. Rabbinic scholars did what they could to preserve the Hebrew text.
  5. Bible scholars generally advocate a critical edition of texts in the original language.
At face value, these seem to be sufficient grounds for using an Old Testament based on the MT.  History demonstrates that the matter is not entirely settled.

During the Second Temple Period, a project was started in Alexandria, Egypt, to make God’s Word accessible to Greek-speaking Jews.  Translation of the Pentateuch began in earnest in 250 B.C. with other books following over approximately 100 hundred years.  The difficulty enters when we understand that there was more than one Hebrew text family, much as there are three major New Testament (NT) textual families.*  What came to be called the LXX is not translated from the Masorah.

The differing source text did not mean that LXX was not considered Scripture.  Much as the multiple families of NT manuscripts are considered Scripture, so the Jewish scholars continued to hold the Greek translation of a certain textual family as authoritative.  Because of this status, the LXX was used in synagogues throughout the Roman empire during the time of Jesus’ ministry into the second century.  At this later time, the Jews chose to drop use of LXX in favor of a compiled Hebrew text.†

Having the historical data in hand, we can understand some of the perplexing verbiage found in the New Testament as the authors quote or otherwise relate the Old Testament.  Since the gospel was going into a world that primarily used Greek for dealings across ethnicities, the apostles chose to use the Greek translation to write their documents and otherwise communicate the saving message of Christ.  What we now revere as the New Testament is written from a solid basis of doctrine founded in wording from the Greek translation of the Old Testament.  This in no way demeans what has been transmitted to us, rather it enriches our background knowledge of God’s Word.

If the apostles used the Greek to preach the gospel, how did we come to use the Hebrew for our English Bible translations?  The credit lies with Jerome.  At the time of commissioning to update the Latin translation of Scripture, he was living near Bethlehem.  He determined that the Old Testament translation work should come from Hebrew.  In this work, Jerome had one notable opponent in Augustine, who favored use of the Old Latin version that was translated from the Greek.  They had a lively, long distance debate about the matter, leaving both parties unmoved in their positions.  Jerome finished the Vulgate using the MT.  While this happened in the Western Church, the Eastern Church, ignoring the contention, continued to use the LXX as the basis of their Bible translations even to this day.

As research, I read three books from authors with various approaches:
  • Invitation to the Septuagint by Karen Jobes and Moisés Silva
  • When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible by Timothy Michael Law
  • First Bible of the Church: A Plea for the Septuagint by Møgens Müller
The first book is written by conservative authors with pedigrees in Evangelical circles.  The book is well-balanced, giving a thorough background and understanding of the different forces at work in producing the original Greek translations, revision attempts, and the ensuing text used in all parts of the Church.  The latter two books are written by those within a liberal camp that sees Christianity as a product of religious evolution, rather than divine revelation.  The difference is that Müller calls for Christians to use the Septuagint because the apostles used that to communicate their message, plus arguing that MT is uniquely Jewish and concluding that LXX is proper for Christian use.  After my reading, I wonder if the Church would not be better served using the Old Testament matching the apostolic witness.  Perhaps the Eastern Orthodox Church has been better served than the West by maintaining LXX for their Bibles.

Should we throw away our Bibles and order new copies with an LXX basis?  That is tempting, but we do not need to carry matters that far.  Any translation is still authoritative, as long as it is faithful to a solid text base, whether Hebrew or Greek.  However, this might be a worthwhile move.  If one wishes to secure an English copy of the Septuagint, they are readily available on-line and in print:

*  These are referred to as Byzantine, Western, and Alexandrian text families.
†  The compilation process was necessitated by the temple destruction in 70 A.D.

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