The Septuagint and the Masoretic Text (Jeremiah 35)

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Illustration: Greek and Hebrew texts

Most of the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, and thus we could expect the current Hebrew version to be the best witness we have to these books in their initial form. However, some scholars believe that the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, is a superior witness to what the prophets originally wrote.

The Septuagint is the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. However, we should not think of it as a uniform and consistent translation like NIV. Much more to the contrary, the Septuagint was translated by numerous scholars with varying skill levels and philosophies of translation, and it was also revised many times. The first portion to be translated was the Pentateuch in the third century B.C. The rest was completed over the next couple of centuries, and the entire corpus underwent continuous revisions for hundreds of years. A modern copy of the Septuagint is really an amalgam of manuscripts and fragment, an it inevitably includes many revisions slipped in by later scribes (even though modern editors do strive to get back to the earliest version, called the “Old Greek” text). One reality is clear, however: At some point the text of the Septuagint is different from what we see in the standard Hebrew Old Testament, the Masoretic Text:

  • Sometimes the Greek variants were interpretive in nature, such as in the misunderstanding of a Hebrew term or phrase. For example, the Hebrew phrase translated as “For the director of music” in the headings of many psalms (e.g. Psalm 4) is somewhat oddly translate as “Into the ending” in the Septuagint.
  • Sometimes, however, it appears that a particular translator was working with a Hebrew original of the Old Testament that was somewhat different from what we now see in the standard Hebrew Bible, the Masoretic Text. For example, Hosea 13:4 in the Masoretic Text (as translated by the NIV) says “But I am the Lord your God (who brought you) out of Egypt. You shall acknowledge no God but me, no Saviour except me”. The Septuagint rendition of this verse, however, is significantly longer: “Ia, the Lord your God who fixed heaven and created earth; and I did not show them to you to go after them. And I led you up from Egypt and you should acknowledge no God but me. Except for me there is no Saviour”. It is obvious that the Septuagint rendering here was based upon an original that included words not found in the standard version of the Hebrew, but it is an open question whether these extra words are original to the book of Hosea or reflect a later addition.

In no other portion of the Old Testament are the differences between the Septuagint and the Masoretic Text so pronounced as in the book of Jeremiah. This suggests that for a time two different Hebrew versions of Jeremiah were circulating, one reflected in the Masoretic Text and the other in the Septuagint. Even so, we have no reason to doubt that the Masoretic Text is overall the best witness we have to the original text of the Old Testament. In the vast majority of cases where the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint differ, the Masoretic Text is intrinsically more probable than the Septuagint. Modern translations of the Old Testament are rightly based upon the Hebrew Masoretic Text and not upon the Greek Septuagint.


 

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