Monday, January 26, 2009

Hebrew or Greek?

My class on Exodus began today. A large portion of the classwork, as I mentioned in my last post, will be translation from either the Hebrew or the Greek. It's pretty much assumed in seminary, as it was back at St. John's, that reading a text in its original language is important–even vital—to understanding it. In the case of the Old Testament, this raises a question: why the Septuagint?

The Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Old Testament, commonly referred to as LXX, the Roman numerals for 70. LXX refers to the legend surrounding the Septuagint: 70 rabbinic scholars went out in pairs to translate the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. When they returned, all 35 translations were identical, proving (according to the legend) that the Greek translation was inspired by God. Even here, we can see the question being raised: if the Scriptures have been translated, are they still as reliable as the original? That is a question even today. In the case of translating from the Septuagint, we run up against the issue: the Septuagint is a translation. Isn't it on the same level as reading an English translation?

In short, the answer is no. The Septuagint is something of a special case as far as translation goes. To understand why, it is necessary to look at textual criticism—the study of the physical texts, the words that were written onto actual pages (papyri, technically) and passed down to us. In the case of the Hebrew text, the standard text used is called the Masoretic Text, or MT, which actually refers to a family of texts recorded by the Masoretes, who worked in the period from about 600 to 900 CE. You can see how late this is relative to the Scriptures themselves, which were in a finalized oral tradition as early as 400 BCE (in the case of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament)—a thousand or more years before. The specific text used, the one you find if you buy any copy of the Hebrew Scriptures in Hebrew, is called the Leningrad Codex, and it dates from about 1000 CE. In short: when you're translating the Old Testament from Hebrew, you're actually using a manuscript that was written down 1400 years after the texts were finalized, not to mention when they were originally composed. Now, to be fair, the oral tradition which passed down the Hebrew Scriptures, and the Masoretes who eventually recorded them in the form we know today, treated the words with the utmost veneration. Even obvious errors, the typos of the ancient world, were not corrected because the Word of God was too sacred to change. (Instead, the Masoretes made marginal notes with the corrected text.)

What about the Septuagint? Well, for one thing, the text is much more complicated. It's actually a patchwork of many different texts, fragments that have been edited together to make a cohesive whole. But the translation into Greek began not all that long after the Pentateuch was finalized—sometime around 250 BCE. So the Greek translation is actually much closer to the origins of the Hebrew Scriptures than either the Masoretes or the Leningrad Codex.

Obviously, this is an oversimplification of the issue, and text criticism is a very complex field (in which I am clearly no expert). But the point I'm trying to make is simply that the Greek translation of the Old Testament is very ancient, so it bears more weight in terms of its authority that just any translation made from Hebrew manuscripts today. Another interesting note is that, in the case of Exodus, the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint are effectively identical. That is, there are not clear differences in the texts—the Septuagint seems to be a faithful translation of the Hebrew text we have today. Again, the oral tradition from which both derive was held in extremely high regard; it was passed down with great care, as we can see from the stability of the text over more than a thousand years. And there's your very brief introduction to text criticism. Hope you enjoyed it as much as I did!

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