Posts Tagged ‘Septuagint’

In an earlier post, we began a discussion of textual variations among the New Testament manuscripts. At that time we acknowledged that there might be as many as 400,000 variants. At the same time, I pointed out that this is the direct (and predictable) result of having more than 5,500 manuscripts of the New Testament or portions of it. And that is just in Greek. We have over 10,000 manuscripts in the Latin Vulgate, as well as old Latin, Syriac, Coptic, and other ancient translations. We also learned that the overwhelming majority of these differences are nothing more than spelling and grammatical variations that have nothing to do with how we read or translate the text.

At the same time honesty compels us to admit that there are some variant readings in manuscripts that do reflect real differences. These differences may include such issues as including or omitting a word or phrase, differences in word order (such as “Jesus Christ” or “Christ Jesus). In some instances the question involves whether an entire verse should or should not be included. Perhaps the most significance variation is the story of the woman taken in adultery in John 7.53-8.11. At the appropriate time, we shall look at this passage as well as the other few passages that make a real difference. I do not wish to do that now, because I want to establish a background, so that we can understand the issues involved.

Today I only wish to answer one question. What standard should we use in deciding among variants? In other words, when there is a passage that is copied differently in the manuscripts, how should we determine which is likely the original? There have been three basic approaches to this question, and I want to deal with them very quickly.

We could simply take one manuscript and use the readings we find there. At least one group has done this with the Codex Vaticanus which was discussed in an earlier post. This is perhaps the earliest Greek manuscript that contains almost the entire Greek New Testament. There are, however, problems with this approach. Even this valuable manuscript has to be supplemented in several places, because it is not absolutely complete. Also, this approach requires that we ignore manuscripts that are in some cases 100-150 years older than the Vaticanus. And selecting any one manuscript as the standard is quite arbitrary. We would have no evidence that it was completely accurate in every reading.

Why not simply count the variants for a particular passage and go with what the majority of them read? Actually, this has been done, and you can buy what is referred to as “The Majority Text.” This reading is essentially based (with a few changes) on the Greek text published by Erasmus in 1516, and it has come to be referred to as the “Textus Receptus” or the “Received Text.” But the text of Erasmus was not a particularly good text. He did not use any manuscripts made earlier than the 12th century, and Erasmus did not have a single Greek manuscript containing the end of Revelation. Yet, the vast majority of later manuscripts read essentially the way the Textus Receptus reads. So the majority of manuscripts are based on a text that became somewhat standard, but which is not always reflected in the earlier manuscripts which have since become available. There are some Christians who resolve this problem by claiming that the Textus Receptus is itself inspired. We saw how similar claims were made for the Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate. But on what authority can we make such a claim? While I do not wish to offend those who believe this, the burden should be on them to provide a reason for believing that a single text produced in 1516 is now completely accurate, especially since older manuscripts tend to have different readings.

Where then does this leave us? There is a third possibility, although it is admittedly more difficult. The vast majority of Biblical scholars (conservative as well as liberal) have elected to use the tools of what has come to be called “textual criticism.” That is, they examine the text, considering the age of the manuscripts, as well as other scientific principles to determine what the original likely was. While this is more difficult, it has shown itself to be a good tool for determining how the New Testament originally read. It will form the basis for future posts about textual variants. We shall begin that process with the next post.

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A previous post contained information regarding a few of the earliest manuscripts of the New Testament. As I said then, the few discussed were selected because they were in some ways the most significant of the earliest manuscripts. Of course, all of them contained only portions of the New Testament. A couple of the earliest were mere scraps of papyrus with a few verses, all that remained from what were originally larger manuscripts. Others, were longer, but even these did not contain the entire Bible or even the entire New Testament, partially because they come from a time when the New Testament canon was not yet finalized.

Today I want us to come forward in time to look at the earliest essentially complete Bibles. We shall see that even at this stage, nothing is cut and dry. And once again, I shall only talk about three manuscripts out of several we could consider. I have selected for consideration the three manuscripts which most scholars agree are the most important of what were originally essentially complete Bibles. There are a number of others. Books are available should you wish to do further study.

All three of these manuscripts share some characteristics in common. All of them are written on vellum or parchment, which made them much more expensive to produce. They would likely have been commissioned by either a government or a wealthy church. These manuscripts come from a time not long after Christianity became the official religion of Rome, so it is possible the Roman government paid for them. All three manuscripts are written in Greek (which means the Old Testament is the Septuagint, the Greek translation discussed in an earlier post). All three are written with Greek letters called uncials. That means they are written in all capital letters, and there is no spacing between words, and they do not employ any punctuation. They do make use of something called “Nomina Sacra” which we may discuss at a later date. Finally, all three manuscripts include (or originally included) the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Apocrypha.

Codex Vaticanus — This manuscript dates from @ AD 325-350, and it gets its name because it has been in the Vatican library since at least the 1400s. The wallpaper for this blog is in fact derived from a photograph of one page of the Codex Vaticanus. Some portions are missing, so it is impossible to be certain as to what the Vaticanus originally included. Missing from the Apocrypha are the Prayer of Manasseh and the Books of Maccabees. From the New Testament, the manuscript lacks the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus), Philemon, and the book of Revelation. Because the ending is missing we cannot be certain whether these books were originally included or if others were included which are now lost.

A previous post mentioned a manuscript designated as p75 which was copied @ AD 200 and contains the earliest copy of the Gospel of Luke and portions of the Gospel of John. The text of these books in the Codex Vaticanus is so similar to p75 that some scholars believe that p75 was actually the manuscript the scribe used to copy these books to the Codex Vaticanus. If so, it is also possible that p75 originally contained all four gospels and that the Vaticanus represents the text of these gospels from AD 200 as well. This would place our text of the gospels back to around 100-150 years of the originals. Of course this is only supposition, but it is intriguing to consider.

Codex Sinaiticus — This manuscript gets its name, because it was discovered in 1859 at the Monastery of Saint Catherine at the foot of Mount Sinai. There is a marvelous story behind that discovery, but time does not permit. Here is a picture of the Sinaiticus.

Codex Sinaiticus
@ AD 350-375

You can see how similar it is to the Vaticanus. This is because it was written about the same time (@ AD 350-375). Apparently it originally contained all of the Old Testament, but much of it is missing. It contains the entire New Testament as well as two books that are not in our New Testament — The Epistle of Barnabas and a portion of The Shepherd of Hermas. The Sinaiticus is in the British Museum in London.

Codex Alexandrinus — Although this manuscript dates somewhat later (AD 400-450), it is still an important witness to the early text of the New Testament. It is also kept in the British Museum, and the writing is very similar to the Vaticanus and the Sinaiticus. Only 10 leaves are missing from the Old Testament, but more are missing from the New Testament.

These three manuscripts are important, because they are the earliest examples of what Christians today would call “the Bible.” The manuscripts are also important for New Testament studies, because they share textual similarities. In other words, the three oldest Bibles we have agree in many areas about which there are textual questions. This is so significant, that whenever these three manuscripts agree about a reading, scholars quite often accept their reading even if a majority of other manuscripts have different readings. That may appear strange, but when we study textual variations, I hope to demonstrate why that is an appropriate position to take.

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There is something hidden among the Dead Sea Scrolls so disturbing that scholars are keeping it secret. Have you heard that kind of claim before? I would almost be surprised if you had not. So many outrageous claims have been made about the Dead Sea Scrolls. Here are just a few:
Jesus was a member of the community that produced the scrolls (perhaps even an alien from space).
There are scrolls that are being kept secret, because they disprove the essential claims of Christianity.
One of the scrolls points to the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhnaton as the true founder of Judaism.

At least the title got your attention, didn’t it? While the more extravagant claims concerning the Dead Sea Scrolls have little connection with reality, the fact remains that the Scrolls are extremely important in understanding the development of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament.

The first scrolls (according to the story) were found in a cave near the Dead Sea by a shepherd boy in 1947. From there they eventually ended up in the hands of scholars who recognized their tremendous value. The story has been ongoing since that time, but space is too limited to go into the history today. First a little background.

So far more than 900 scrolls have been discovered in eleven caves near the Dead Sea. Although there is still some debate, the consensus of scholars connects the scrolls to the ruins of a settlement near Qumran, which was believed to have been inhabited by a Jewish splinter group called the Essenes. So it was likely the Essenes who produced the scrolls and hid them in the caves during the first Jewish revolt, before their society was destroyed by the Roman army in AD 68.

The scrolls are copied on vellum, papyrus, and one scroll on pure copper. It is called (of all things) the Copper Scroll. They are written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. The scrolls date from the second century BC to AD 68. For our purposes their significance comes from the fact that 231 (or 233) scrolls are copies of Biblical texts, making them earlier than our previous old testament manuscripts by a thousand years. In fact at least a portion of every Old Testament book is represented in the Dead Sea Scrolls with the exception of the book of Esther.

So what do these scrolls tell us about the accuracy of the text of the Old Testament? Do they confirm its accuracy or do they reveal that over the centuries the text of the Old Testament has been changed so as to be unrecognizable? Let me give you my conclusion first. The scrolls basically show that, for the most part, the text of the Old Testament is very close to what we have today. At the same time, there are some questions that arise from studying the scrolls. Obviously, there is little space here to do more than a summary study. Let me give a couple of examples that illustrate the points.

Perhaps the most famous of the Dead Sea Scrolls is the Isaiah Scroll, part of which is pictured below.

Isaiah A Scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls, Chapter 53

This picture shows Isaiah 53, and it is virtually identical to the Masoretic Text.

Actually, there are two Isaiah scrolls, Isaiah A, which is virtually complete and dates from @ 100 BC, and Isaiah B which contains chapters 41-59 and is a little later in date. The Isaiah A scroll was available in time for the translators of the Revised Standard Version published in 1952 to make use of it. They only made thirteen changes from the Masoretic Text based on Isaiah A, none of them significant. At the same time, we need to understand that Isaiah A does represent a third text type. It matches neither the Septuagint (see previous post) nor the Masoretic Text. But let’s understand what we mean by that. There are indeed differences, but they are not major differences. We are not talking about two totally different accounts in the two Isaiah’s.

While that really sounds encouraging for the accuracy of our text, this does not hold true for every one of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Perhaps the most problematic is a scroll of the prophet Jeremiah. Although written in Hebrew, this scroll is in many ways closer to the Septuagint than it is to the Hebrew Masoretic Text. The Septuagint version of Jeremiah differs from the Masoretic Text in two primary ways. First, it is seven chapters shorter than the Masoretic Text, and the remaining text is arranged in a different order. There is not time (and perhaps even less interest) in going into all the details; however, the differences are there. On the other hand, from the reading I have done, it appears that there are fragments of Jeremiah among the Dead Sea Scrolls which are closer to the Masoretic Text. This would mean that two different versions of Jeremiah circulated during Biblical times.

While we cannot be sure why there were two versions, we should recognize that the book of Jeremiah itself says that there were two versions. Chapter 36 of Jeremiah records that king Jehoiakim cut up Jeremiah’s original scroll and burned it. Jeremiah then had his secretary Baruch prepare a second scroll that was longer than the original one. If a copy of the original scroll survived, it might explain why two versions of Jeremiah circulated at the same time.

Ultimately, we cannot say why two versions of Jeremiah exist among the Dead Sea Scrolls. I also feel confident in saying that the Dead Sea Scrolls do not call for any drastic changes in the Old Testament text. They have even less to say about the New Testament text, because (despite some wild claims) the New Testament does not depend on them.

I would like to address one final issue. It has been suggested that Jesus spent some of His “silent years” among the Essenes and that many of His teachings arose from them. I believe this theory is highly unlikely. There are just too many differences. The Essenes were obsessed with ritual purity; Jesus and His disciples often got into trouble for breaking the Sabbath and not following ritual washings. The Essenes would have nothing to do with tax collectors and immoral people. One of Jesus’ apostles (Matthew) was a tax collector, and Jesus was notorious for hanging out with “sinners.” I believe a stronger case could be made that John the Baptist was influenced by the Essenes, or perhaps was an Essene himself; but even that is really conjecture.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are indeed important witnesses, not only to the Bible, but to the culture out of which Christianity arose. We have said virtually nothing about the other documents among the Scrolls, the War Scroll, the Copper Scroll (a treasure map?), or the Teacher of Righteousness and his adversary (the Wicked Priest). These scrolls are perhaps more important than the Biblical scrolls, because of what they tell us of the Essene community and Jewish beliefs around the time Jesus lived. What I find most intriguing is the possibility that more scrolls may be found in that ancient land. That would truly be exciting.

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The Septuagint is the name given to a translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek @ 250 BC. The name comes from the Latin word Septuaginta which means 70. For this reason a common abbreviation for the Septuagint is LXX which is the Roman numeral for 70. An ancient story tells how when the translation was made, 70 (or 72) scholars all made independent translations. When their translations were compared, they were found to be identical, thus showing that God had divinely inspired the translation. As we saw in an earlier post, the desire for certainty has resulted in the claim that more than one translation is inspired.

One impetus for the creation of the Septuagint may have been the desire to have a copy of the Hebrew Scriptures in the Library of Alexandria, and it is probable that the Septuagint was translated in Alexandria. Perhaps a more compelling reason for the translation had to do with the increasingly large Jewish population in the Greek world, who were no longer able to read Hebrew. These Jews would have wanted to have the Scriptures in a language they could read, and in the ancient world at that time, Greek was the most universal language spoken.

The Septuagint has been referred to as “the Bible of the early church,” and in many respects it was. Most of the quotations from the Old Testament which are in the New Testament are in fact taken from the Septuagint, rather than being independent Greek translations from the Hebrew.

Another characteristic of our present Bibles that we get from the Septuagint is the order of the books of the Old Testament. In an earlier post, we saw that the Hebrew Bible is divided into three divisions – The Torah (or Law), the Prophets, and the Writings. So while the Hebrew Bible begins with Genesis, it ends with 2 Chronicles. The Septuagint, however, contains the books of the Old Testament in the order in which we have them in our English Bibles.

The exception to his has to do with the series of books which are referred to as The Apocrypha. This designation refers to books which are included in the Latin Vulgate (and in various forms are recognized as Canonical by the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Slavonic churches), but are not part of the Hebrew Bible. These books are normally included in the earliest complete Bibles we possess and in most early English translations, including originally the King James. Modern translations designed primarily for Protestants routinely omit these books, although it is possible to find Bibles that contain them. However, I digress; the Apocrypha is a study for another time.

The primary value of the Septuagint is that it provides a separate text that is older than the Masoretic text. We also have substantially complete manuscripts of the Septuagint that are significantly older than our earliest manuscripts of the Masoretic text. For this reason, the Septuagint can at times be helpful in determining the proper reading of texts of the Old Testament in which the current Hebrew text is in doubt. As an independent witness, it allows scholars to compare the two texts and benefit from the two readings.

Let’s consider just one example of how the Greek Septuagint differs from the Hebrew Masoretic text. As mentioned earlier, the Septuagint became the Bible of the primitive church. Because of that, one reading in the Septuagint has essentially replaced the Hebrew text. The Septuagint records the Israelites crossing at what is translated in English as the “Red Sea.” Almost everyone knows that. The Hebrew Masoretic text, however, does not say “Red Sea.” The Hebrew is “Yam Suph,” which is best translated as “Reed Sea” or “Sea of Reeds.” The early church, using the Septuagint, carried over its reading, and so most of our English translations continue to read “Red Sea,” although most Biblical scholars acknowledge that we would be on firmer ground to abandon that translation in favor of “Sea of Reeds.” So why don’t modern English translations do that? It’s simple; we won’t let them. If Bible translators were to make that change, can you imagine the firestorm of condemnation that would come from conservative Christians (of whom I am one)? I believe this is just one instance in which too many Christians do not want truth, but want instead to be comfortable. By the way, this is a malady that can plague conservatives and liberals alike. Normally knowledge and growth do not occur when we are “comfortable;” they are more often the result of being challenged, of being made “uncomfortable” if you will. If anyone reading this is old enough to remember the comic strip Pogo, perhaps you recall Pogo’s most famous line. “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Something for all of us to consider.

Last week, we looked at the way the Divine Name was recorded and perhaps pronounced in ancient Israel. The Septuagint has something to contribute to that discussion. Last week, we saw a Hebrew manuscript that retained the Divine Name (the Tetragrammaton) in the archaic Phoenician letters. In earlier manuscripts of the Septuagint, the same practice is often seen. Sometimes, however, the Septuagint manuscripts will use the Tetragrammaton, but in the later Aramaic letter form. It is interesting that in this form the Hebrew letters look very similar to the capital forms of the Greek Letters Pi (English “P” sound) and Iota (English short “I” sound). So ancient readers, not understanding that they were looking at Hebrew letters, would pronounce the Divine Name as “PIPI.” This is another example of how the Divine Name can easily become confused, and we really cannot be certain how to pronounce it.

One final (and touchy) subject has to do with how the Divine Name was normally written in the Septuagint. As I said before, our earlier manuscripts render the Divine Name in Hebrew, whether the letters are Aramaic or the archaic Phoenician. The later manuscripts have the Greek word for Lord (kurios), which many scholars see as a throwback to the Masoretic practice of inserting vowel points for the Hebrew word for Lord (Adonai – see last week’s post for more information). The problem is that our oldest manuscripts of the New Testament quoting the Septuagint show the Greek “kurios.” The question arises, how did the originals of the New Testament read? Did they really use “kurios” as our oldest New Testament manuscripts read, or did the originals of the New Testament employ the Hebrew form, and was that changed in later centuries? Obviously, that is a difficult question; however, I promised that we would not cover up difficult questions. In reality, I cannot give a definitive answer to that question. If we go with the New Testament manuscripts we have, we should retain “kurios” or “Lord.” If we give weight to the reality that the earliest Septuagint manuscripts render the Divine Name in Hebrew letters, we would say that the Divine Name was changed sometime in the later centuries. It appears that two possibilities exist.

1. The original New Testament autographs contained the Divine Name, and it was changed in later centuries. Doing so, could be seen as a means of reinforcing the claims for the divinity of Jesus. This is conjecture, because we have no tradition of that being done.

2. The original New Testament autographs rendered the Divine Name as “kurios” or “Lord,” because the normal Jewish practice at that time was to pronounce the name as “adonai,” the Hebrew equivalent of “Lord.” Another reason for doing this would be the recognition that Greek speaking Christians might have no Jewish background at all. For them, retaining the Divine Name in Hebrew would have no meaning.

There is a practice of using abbreviations and special markings to designate sacred names. These markings are referred to as “Nomina Sacra.” Perhaps we will take a look at that practice and see if it can help with this issue. However, for today, I leave it as a question without a clear answer. I see that as all I can do with any degree of integrity.

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Daniel B. Wallace

Executive Director of CSNTM & Senior Research Professor of NT Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary

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