The ancient translations (Micah 7)

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Illustration: A piece of the Septuagint

Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the ancient versions or translations of the Bible have become less important for establishing the original Old Testament text. Nevertheless, readings that differ from the Masoretic Text are still evaluated in at least four early versions: the Greek Septuagint, the Aramaic Targums, the Syriac Peshitta and the Latin Vulgate.

Septuagint: The most important is the Septuagint, which contains the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, along with a number of non-canonical Greek works known by Protestant Christians as the Apocrypha.

Its origin: The title “Septuagint” (Latin for “seventy”) derives from the tradition that 72 translators rendered the Pentateuch into Greek around 285 B.C. Originally designed for Greek-speaking Jews in Egypt, the Septuagint  was completed by various translators in or around Alexandria between the third and first centuries B.C. The Bible of the early church, it is frequently quoted in the New Testament and by the early church fathers.

Its structure: The Septuagint is organized in the following order: The Pentateuch, followed by the historical, poetic, wisdom and prophetic books. The Septuagint order is loosely followed by our English translations.

Its original text: We do  ot have a perfect copy of the original Septuagint, which was revised repeatedly. Still, scholars have largely been able to reconstruct the text, and the work is ongoing.

Its quality: The Septuagint is varied in character – the work of numerous translators from different times and with carying capabilitues and styles (raging from rigidly literal to loosely paraphrastic).

Comparison to the Masoretic Text: The Septuagint is similar to the Hebrew Masoretic Text; when translated into English, many parts are almost identical. Yet the two are sometimes quite different.

Its value:  The Septuagint is the most useful version for helping us establish the original Old Testament text because it (1) is the earliest translation of the entire Old Testament, (2) is well attested in numerous manuscripts and (3) differs in a number of important places from the Masoretic Text, providing an alternative rendering to what appears there.

Aramaic Targum: This is not a single work but a series of interpretations of Old Testament books.

Their origin: Just as Greek became the common language among Jews in Egypt, Aramaic replaced Hebrew among the Jews of Palestine and Mesopotamia. Jewish tradition dates the Targums to the time of Ezra (cf. Nehemiah 8:8), but the oldest known Targum fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls date to near the time of Christ. The Targum tradition climaxed between the third and fifth centuries A.D. with the production of the official rabbinic Targums on the Torah (Targum Ongelos) and the Prophets (Targum Joathan).

Their quality: The Targums provide a paraphrastic translation, often accompanied by commentary or explanation. They are often so interpretive, loosely translated and filled with comments that it is hard to use them to confirm the original text.

Peshitta: The authorized Bible of the Syrian Church is the Peshitta (meqaning “simple” or “straightforward”). Whether the Old Testament Peshitta had a Christian or Jewish origin is difficult to discern. In its earliest form, dating no later than the fourth century A.D., the Old Testament Peshitta was a relatively literal translation of a Hebrew text similar to the Masoretic Text. In time, however, the Syriac was updated and the text smoothed over, though we still have remnants of the original.

The Vulgate: By the mid-fourth century A.D. the Christian Bible of the western church was the Latin translation of the Septuagint. But between A.D. 390 and 405 the Christian scholar Jerome set out to reclaim “the truth of the Hebrew text”. Assisted by later Septuagint versions, Jerome translated the Hebrew Old Testament into Latin. His work now makes up the Old Testament portion of the Latin Bible called the Vulgate (“common” or “popular”). Because Jerome was largely dependant on the Septuagint and his own translation varies in literalness, the Old Testament Vulgate must be used cautiously as a witness for the Hebrew original.

When the Hebrew of the Masoretic Text is compared to that of the Dead Sea Scrolls and then to the various other versions, the Masoretic Text is in the vast majority of instances vindicated and regarded as accurately reflecting the original words of the Biblical authors.


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