How We Got Our Bible -- Part 6: The Earliest Translations of the Old Testament


Last week Dave Westley described some of the issues of Bible translation, and made it easier to see how confusion or misunderstandings can creep in, and why two translators can come to very different translations, even if they started with the same original.

Two weeks ago we talked about the Greek language, and some of the issues involved with translating from the Greek.   Greek is colorful, detailed, and complex. It can portray complex concepts, but that can also lead to difficulties in translation.

Greek was the language of the Septuagint, translated about 285 B.C.  The oldest copies of the Old Testament that we have today are copies of the Septuagint, which was translated from the Vorlage, the Hebrew source documents in use at the time.   Remember I said that the Septuagint included the 39 books of our Old Testament (The 24 books of the Jewish Tanak), but also included about 70 other books and documents which were considered less important, valuable only to scholars for context, or history or reference.  These less important books included the Apocrypha, some of which are included in the Old Testament of Catholic Bibles today.

We discussed that the Old Testament as we have it today, consisting of 39 Books, are the books considered by the Rabbis to be read by everyone, and that the Apocryphal books in the Catholic Bible today were among the books considered to be only reference material.

I want to repeat the point I made two weeks ago, that this is not a conflict between the Protestant Bible and the Catholic Bible.  The Catholic Church had never considered the books of the Apocrypha to be important until Martin Luther made them a point of argument.  Then the Catholic Church did make them important, apparently in response to the Protestant Reformation against the Church of Rome, placing them in higher prominence in the published Catholic Bibles.  No damage is done to your theology by reading them or not reading them.  It turns out they donít matter.   The only concept based on them is Purgatory.  If you have accepted Jesus as your personal Savior, Purgatory is a non-issue.  If you have not, you have bigger issues than Purgatory.

The Septuagint:

So about 70 Jewish Scholars gathered in Alexandria, Egypt around 285 B.C. to translate the Hebrew documents into Greek so that the Greek-speaking world would have the Scriptures available to them.   At the time, there were various factions of the Jews -- Pharisees, Sadducees etc., -- but no Christians, and no Muslims.  So the translation was less susceptible bias.   The goal was to get Godís Word into a usable form for the people.   But it was still subject to problems of translation like Dave described last week.

The Original would be Best:

The base I want to reinforce here is that the ideal Bible for our use today, if it were possible, would be the original documents, the "autographs" penned by the authors of of each Book themselves, as God led them to write.  But we do not have them; they were not preserved.   So the best thing we can have is a Bible that is as close to those original documents as possible.

The Next Best:

Since we do not have the autographs, presumably written in Hebrew, the next best would be the earliest copied form after that.  But we donít have any of them, either.   The Hebrew copies ultimately led to the Vorlage.   The advantage of the Vorlage is that it was still in Hebrew, so there could have been minor scribe errors, but no translation errors.

Secular history tells us that the Septuagint was a Greek translation from the Vorlage.  So we should use the Septuagint.   And we have 4 copies of the Septuagint.  So today, the best source document we have for the Old Testament is the Septuagint.

But there is still a problem.  Most of us do not speak or read Greek -- certainly not ancient Greek.   So we are like the Greeks in 285 B.C.  We need Godís Word in a language we can use, which for most of us is English.

Faithfulness to the Original?

So for me, what I needed to know was, what translation today includes the Old Testament that is the closest to the Septuagint.   After the Septuagint translation in 285 B.C., the texts remained unchanged for some time, from then until the time of Jesus.  No other translations were made during that period.  The Septuagint continued to be used for several hundred years.

The Masoretic Text:

The first variation from the Septuagint is called the Masoretic Text.   This is the most common Hebrew text that scholars talk about today.   We'll talk about who the Masoretes were in a minute.

The reason we care so much about this text is that it is the significant point of differentiation for our modern translations.  Some modern translations come from the Septuagint, and some come from the Masoretic Text.

The Masoretic text resulted from the Council of the Jamnia [pronounced Yamnia].  This was a council held in 90 A.D. (that's about 60 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus) in a town by the name of Jamnia, located near modern Tel Aviv near the Mediterranean coast.  The Septuagint had been used throughout the world and available 300 years prior to the birth of Christ.   The Jews in that first century were upset because these Christians had the embraced their Bible and the Jews wanted one for themselves.   So they paneled a group of Pharisaic rabbis to work on this.   The Pharisees did not participate in the uprising against the Romans, so they had a favored status with the Roman rulers.  So the Romans allowed them to build a school at Jamnia.   It was at Jamnia that they had this council in 90 A.D., where they rejected the Septuagint and the Hebrew Vorlage on which it was based, because it was being used as a Christian Bible. So they built what they felt was a unified text of the Tanak, the Old Testament, and standardized the Hebrew Bible for themselves the way they wanted it to be -- uniquely Jewish, not Christian.  They made sure that all precedent Hebrew Bibles and any texts that disagreed with their renderings were destroyed at that time. So in 90 A.D. they re-translated the Septuagint back into Hebrew, and that translation became known as the Masoretic text.   That is the one that is the basis for the Jewish Hebrew Bible today.

The Masoretes:

So who were the Masoretes?  They were a body of scribes -- scholars who ultimately located in Tiberius, on the southwest shore of the Sea of Galilee.   They worked with and perfected their version of the Old Testament at that location from about 500 A.D., and they prospered until about 958 A.D.   They are the ones who invented a way to represent the inferred vowels in the Hebrew language by "pointing" -- by in inserting dots or dashes around (mostly under) the Hebrew consonants.

The Biblia Hebraica:

The oldest dated copy of the Masoretic text is 895 A.D. and it only contains one of the three groups of the Tanak.  It is incomplete.   The most complete codex of the Hebrew Bible is the Leningrad Codex, located in the Leningrad library.  It is the textual basis for the most popular Hebrew text today.  It was completed about 1000 A.D.  The Biblia Hebraica is based on that Codex. [A codex is a bound book of manuscript pages.]  This is the text which is usually included in a computer based Hebrew Bible.

A Critical Comparison:

So the Hebrew Bible that is in general use today was created much later than the Septuagint, which is the one that is generally quoted in the New Testament.   When we read quotes from the Old Testament in the New Testament, the quote is usually from the Greek translation -- the Septuagint -- not from the Hebrew.   The New Testament has, in effect, validated the Septuagint.   That doesn't mean that the Septuagint is perfect the way we have it, but we do know what the Septuagint says; we still have copies of it today.

The Samarian Pentateuch:

There is another Old Testament document that is important to us today.   It is the Samaritan Pentateuch.  It was floating around about the fourth century A.D., 300 years after the Masoretic Text, in Samaria, written in Aramaic, the common language of the area.   It differs from the Masoretic text in about 6000 places -- in over 1000 which are important.  And in most of those places where it disagrees, it happens to agree with the Septuagint.  I think that is significant, as it reinforces the probable validity of the Septuagint.   It is interesting that earlier scholars tended to lean on the Masoretic text, and they didn't tend to look at the Septuagint.

The Targums:

Targums are translations in Aramaic, a close cousin of Hebrew that became the official language of the Persian Empire through the six century B.C., and was the language Jesus spoke.  Since many of the synagogues began to use Aramaic, they needed translations into Aramaic.   There are several very famous Targums:

As early as the second century A.D., Latin starts to replace Greek, and we start to see Latin translations.   Tertullian had a translation. The old Latin translations are useful if we can get fragments, because they give us clues as to what the original actually said, and in fact what the Vorlage included.   But we only have fragments, so it's like a detective game to come to any conclusions.

Many modern scholars who now have the advantage of recent archeological findings since the time of the Masoretic Text, including the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, agree that the Masoretic Text was not a true unbiased translation.  It was a translation for a special purpose -- to differentiate a Jewish Old Testament from the one being used by the Christians.   It reminds me of the Roman Church's reaction to Luther, raising the position of the Apocryphal books -- more a political reaction than a theological decision.   Unfortunately for the Jews, the Christians were using the version closest to what the Jewish forefathers handed down.   So any translation that is closest to the Septuagint, that is translated from it, is probably a more reliable translation, if you want to know what the words actually say, if you are doing a word study.   In the next couple of weeks, after we look at the variations in the New Testament, I will made a case for why to choose one version for detailed study, and perhaps a different version for general reading.

The Latin Vulgate:

After the Masoretic Text was established as a competitor of the Septuagint, the next major event occurred in about 250 A.D. when there was a Bible Translated into Latin and circulated in Carthage.   It is about the fourth century that Latin replaces Greek as the main language of the Mediterranean. By now the Roman Empire is really starting to roll in, so Jerome is commissioned by Pope Damasus I to pull together a Latin translation of the Bible. And the product of his work is called the Vulgate, meaning vulgar or common, [not in the negative sense] because of its common (vulgar) usage.   Jerome is said to have lived in a cave in Bethlehem next to the grotto celebrated as the scene of the nativity.   He translated directly from the Hebrew Masoretic text, with some reference to the Septuagint.   He completed his work in 405 A.D.  It was a creditable work, but it was not a literal translation.  It was an interpretation of thought put into idiomatic graceful Latin.  It was a loose translation of a flawed Masoretic text.   The Vulgate is the primary source document for the generation of the Catholic Bible adopted by the Council of Trent in 1525.   And until recently, the Catholic Church would not consider any other Bible as official except a derivative of the Vulgate called the Douar Version.

The King James Version:

The King James Version, published in 1611, also depended on the Vulgate which depended on the Masoretic Texts.   Remember that the King James Version was an English translation for the Protestants.   Rome still insisted that the Bible be in Latin.   Many of our modern translations depend on the Vulgate and or Masoretic texts, both of which are widely known to be very flawed compared to the Septuagint.

So whatís the problem?

A very useful tool in looking at the validity of various translations is the correspondence between the early church fathers where they quoted texts from both the Old and New Testaments.  This shows us what texts they were using at the time.  Where quoted, it tells us what the Scripture said as it was being used at the time.   Where these references can be found, they tend to agree with the Septuagint and differ from the Masoretic Texts and the Vulgate.

The Dead Sea Scrolls:

If you talk about where the Bible came from, you have to talk about the incredible discoveries that happened in 1947 and following in the Caves of Qumran, near the ruins of the ancient community of Qumran located at the northwest corner of the Dead Sea at the bottom of the hills of Judea, below Jerusalem.   This is the location of the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls.  There they found eleven caves at Wadi Qumran.  [A Wadi is an arrollo or dry riverbed].   There were 600 manuscripts, 200 of which were Biblical, both leather and papyrus.   In Cave Four alone, there were 40,000 fragments of 400 manuscripts, 100 which were Biblical, that include fragments from every book in the Old Testament except Esther.

There were two virtually complete copies of the scroll of Isaiah, and fragments of another six copies.  The amazing discovery about Isaiah is that the copy of Isaiah hidden away here at about 66 A.D. only varies by eight or nine letters from the Isaiah we have today.  And those variations make absolutely no difference in the understanding of the text.  What's amazing isn't the discovery itself, but the proof that our book of Isaiah today is identical with what it was in 66 A.D.  The confirmation that the one we have is accurate, is a key point.   When we say the Dead Sea Scrolls, we usually include all of those that were found in the entire region, not just at Qumran.  All the finds fall into two groups:

  1. Group group one was at Wadi Qumran, and in that area.  They were all hidden before 70 A.D., before the temple fell.  They all agree with the Septuagint, and the Vorlage.
  2. The second group at Masada were all hidden after 180 A.D., and they all agree with the Masoretic Text.

What's the difference between the two?  The Council of the Jamnia, in 90 A.D.  You can actually see the changes that were made to the Hebrew text at Jamnia in 90 A.D. to create an Old Testament that would be different than the one that the Christians were using.  The texts were editorialized to make them even more Jewish.

The Apocrypha:

As we talk about the books in the Old Testament and how they came to us, we also have to look at the books that were left behind -- the ones that did not make it into our Old Testament.

There are a number of books which are not canonical.  The important ones include the Apocrypha.  The name Apocrypha means hidden.   There are a number of these books that range from about 300 B.C. to 78 B.C.   Thirteen of these were included in the Septuagint translation.  And because they were included in the Septuagint, they were also embraced by the council of Trent in 1546, and thus became a part of the the Catholic Bible.   If you paid attention a couple of weeks ago, you'll remember that we said there were 7 of them in the Catholic Bible.  The other six were added in the Catholic Bible as supplements to other Old Testament books.   As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, most scholars do not regard them as inspired.  Even the Catholic Church does not consider them important.   They are interesting, and they are useful for understanding life at the time of the writing, and they tell us what people in those times believed about certain things.  But they are not inspired, they are not the Word of God, and therefore are not included in our canon of the Bible.

The Pseudepigrapha:

There is an even larger group of books called the pseudepigrapha which means false inscriptions.  There are about 54 of these from about 200 B.C. to 200 A.D., including Jubilees and 1st Enoch, sometimes referenced in Biblical scholarship.   Some of the books in the 54 pseudepigrapha are ridiculous when you read them, but some are very useful to give us understanding of the life and times of the period: what was going on at the time of the writing, and in pinning down the grammar and vocabulary in use.

Lost Books:

There is also a list of books that have been lost.  The Bible makes a reference to a number of these, but they have never been found.

There are at lease 11 named in the Old Testament, but no trace has ever been found of them.  That they were mentioned in the Bible meant that they existed a one time.  But they have never been found.

Which English Version is Best?

At this point we can start to hone in on what modern version of the Old Testament is the most reliable.   The study for the last few weeks gets us back to the question of  ďWhat is the best version for you to use?Ē   The answer is clearly, any version that you will actually use.   For general reading and study, for taking time to be close to God in his Word, any version you use is fantastic.  The differences are not material to your salvation or to your fellowship with Jesus.

The differences come when you want to get down to technical study, when you want to go back to the words used in the best texts to try to understand the intricate details of what some passages mean -- real Biblical study.   Then it matters.   And I am convinced that when that is the goal, you need to be in a version that is in the best agreement with the Septuagint.

You want to be using a translation that has used everything we have learned from findings in recent times -- things that had not been discovered at the time of the Masoretic Texts or the Vulgate.   It would be careless to know about many documents that shed light on the early texts and ignore them now that they are known.

So you ask, Which modern translations use which source documents?   You may be surprised to find the answer.  The modern versions that are based on the Masoretic and Vulgate documents and generally exclude later findings and opt for the Masoretic and Vulgate when they differ from the Septuagint...

But there are modern versions that have made use of all the known information and texts and which relate much closer to the Septuagint.

There are a lot of other translations, like the NIV, the Living Bible and so on.   These are non-literal translations, varying from paraphrase to concept translations.   We will deal with them in a couple of weeks.


Next week:

I will get into the background of our New Testament as a book, how it was passed down, and how it formed as the book we have today.