Letter to the Editor

Dear Presbytera Valerie:

After reading Elias Dorrance's comments about the Masoretic Text (M) in "Pinpointing Christ's Birth Date," and then my book review "The Text of Genesis 1–11" in the February-May 2000 issue of The Struggler, I think some readers may have noticed two quite dissimilar explanations as to why the Masoretic (M) differs from the Septuagint (LXX). Before I explain my concern, let me cite Elias Dorrance's comments on the subject and then my own:

Mr. Dorrance wrote: ". . . by the ninth century A.D., all copies of the Old Testament had vanished. . . . A Hebrew version was reconstructed by Hebrew scholars early in the Middle Ages, but the reconstructed version varies significantly from the Septuagint (LXX). As heterodox English versions . . . were largely based on the reconstructed Hebrew text, they are far removed from the original version" [emphasis Mr. Dorrance's].

My statement: "Hendel finds sufficient discrepancies and affinities . . . to assume that LXX is in fact a tradition independent of both M and S[amaritan] and is not a free and loose translation of M, as has often been assumed"(John Bockman, "Review of the Text of Genesis 1-11," p. 14).

In fact, Hendel's family tree of Genesis starts with the "Genesis archetype." From this, two distinct traditions branch off: the "proto-M archetype" and the "Old Palestinian hyparchetype." From this latter emerge two sub-traditions: the "proto-A hyparchetype" and the "proto-LXX hyparchetype."

One or the other of the above explanations can be true, but not both. I think it expedient to look further into the origin of the Masoretic Text, which I undertake here:

The notion that the Masoretic Text is reconstructed cannot be supported with current scholarship (and I understand the suspicion directed toward such scholarship by Orthodox scholars, yet I feel such scholarship has to be given due attention).

For example, Johanna Manley, in cataloging the development of exegesis from the third century B.C. Septuagint (LXX), through the Targums, Peshitta, and Dead Sea Scrolls to the second century B.C.; A.D. translators [Aquila, Theodotion, and Symmachus]; then the Gospels, St. Paul, and the Church Fathers; then Origen's "Hexapla" and the Lucian and Hesychian recensions of the third century [M], makes no mention of any loss or reconstruction of Biblical texts (Johanna Manley, Isaiah Through the Ages, [Menlo Park Books, 1995], p. xi).

It is true that the oldest codices of the Hebrew Bible date no earlier than the tenth century A.D. The Aleppo codex, the Cairo Pentateuch, the St. Petersburg Codex, and the Damascus Pentateuch are all roughly contemporaneous (ca. 925–ca. 1009) and yet show enough idiosyncracies to indicate they could not have originated from a single Vorlage, reconstructed or otherwise. Hendel quotes Orlinsky on this: "There never was, and there will never be, a single fixed [M]. . . ." (Ronald S. Hendel, The Text of Genesis 1-11 [Oxford University Press, 1998], pp. 116–117). Hendel repeats as if to drive it home: "All major Masoretic texts diverge. . . ." (Ibid., p. 118)

So if the Jewish M and the LXX are on a par, it seems reasonable to ask, why isn't the M our Bible and the LXX theirs? The reasons appear to be really quite simple. Lawrence H. Schiffman, himself a Jew, sums up the Jewish reasons as follows:

The rise of Christianity radically altered the way the Jews saw themselves and their faith. Whereas during Second-Temple times divergent Jewish groups vied with one another for the mantle of the true Israel, which they each claimed. Jews now vied also with Christians, a competing group that made the very same claim. By the time of the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132–135 C.E. [i.e., A.D.]), the new Jewish consensus stood over against Christianity. The clear-cut separation of the two faiths was now essentially complete (Lawrence Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, p. 404).

In the wake of the Bar Kokhba Revolt, the rabbis ruled that the emerging Christian community was not to be considered part of the Jewish people. Their decision rested largely on non-theological grounds, namely, that the Church, even in the land of Israel, had become largely gentile. Furthermore, spurning the messianic overtones of the Bar Kokhba Revolt, the Christians had refused to support it. Thus the earlier schism that had separated the two communities finally became irreparable (Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, p. 407). Christians no longer "went up together into the temple at the hour of prayer" (Acts 3:1) as they were wont to do in apostolic times.

Thus anything that smacked of the faith of Christ from the Jewish point of view was rejected out-of-hand, even if that meant discarding the Septuagint, their own book, which was essential to Greek-speaking Jews. The message conveyed was quite clear: learn and use Hebrew or cease being Jewish! And that has been the "rule" ever since: 13-year-old Jewish boys must demonstrate an ability to read Hebrew in order to be initiated into the synagogue.

But what the Jews discarded, we accepted gladly. ". . . The apostles, and quite likely our Lord Himself, knew and used the LXX as their authoritative text. . . . And it was the LXX that the writers of the New Testament quoted extensively." Furthermore the Hebrew word "almah" in Masoretic Isaiah does not support the virgin birth in as clear-cut a manner as the Greek word "parthenos." This alone would make the LXX a natural Christian choice over M.

While Eugene Ulrich stresses that Jews in the Second-Temple period had no canonical text, Schiffman insists they did — namely the M. He disputes whether the Sanhedrin of Yavneh (ca. 80 A.D.), which is said to have declared the M canonical for Jews, actually took place. Rather, he points to the distribution of texts at Qumran as indicative of the widespread acceptance of the M.

Of all the manuscripts found in the eleven caves at Qumran, 29% are Biblical. Of those Biblical texts, 60% are proto-M, 20% are Qumran style, 10% are non-aligned, and a scant 5% are LXX style. We're speaking here of a very small number of LXX manuscripts (only eight, to be exact). The ratio of M to LXX is 12:1! Therefore, while "findings from the Dead Sea Scrolls support the Septuagint readings," you can be sure they support the M, too.

It is easy to propose that the M is inferior to the LXX because of the "almah/parthenos" difference. Although the LXX was developed earlier than the M, that fact does not mean it is more "original" or "better." Along with others, Ulrich contends that "statistically it is probably true that a good critical translation [of the Bible] will in the main agree with the M more than any other source." However, he is quick to point out that the Hebrew Bible itself is a "collection of texts — just as, for example, LXX is a collection of texts of divergent textual provenance, divergent stages of literary edition, divergent literary merit, divergent textual quality, divergent text type, and so forth."

According to Ulrich, the Hebrew Bible existed in the Second-Temple era not as a single text, but rather as separate parchment scrolls. When our Lord stood up to read in the synagogue of Nazareth, he was handed a scroll of Isaiah. Not all scrolls of.Isaiah were of equal quality. However, when the various books were finally assembled into a single Bible, they were selected with apparent disregard for the intrinsic quality of each scroll.

To rectify this, and to produce the best Old Testament translation possible, Ulrich would leave Genesis as it is, but take Exodus from either M or LXX, Jeremiah from the Old Greek with corrections from M, the Hannah story in Samuel from M and the David and Goliath story from the Old Greek. While Biblical purists might find this notion shocking, the Nestle-Aland edition of the Greek New Testament does just that, knitting together bits and pieces from all the best Greek manuscripts available to make one good text.

It is also true that the Masoretes revamped their text in the eighth to ninth centuries, and this may be what Elias Dorrance calls a "reconstruction." But it only involved (1) attaching vowels to consonants, and (2) adding various accent marks to divide each verse into half-verses and quarter-verses. The vowels were necessary because the Hebrew language had been a dead language for a long time, and succeeding generations had to know whether the word qtl, for example, meant "to kill," "he killed," "he was killed," or simply "killing." (The result of the "revision" in this instance was q'tol, qatal, qutal, and qotel.) The verse divisions were necessary to maintain the lyrical quality of the Hebrew and are, of course, lost in the English translation.

In conclusion, I said in my book review that I felt "encouraged to lay aside my KJV," not because the Old Testament contained therein is in any way spurious or inferior to the LXX, but rather because the LXX is our Bible. I do intend to keep my Word Study Old Testament close by for reference and further study.

John Bockman, Tokyo, Japan

The Holy Fathers Speak

Before the Romans possessed their kingdom, while as yet the Macedonians held Asia, Ptolemy the son of Lagus, being anxious to adorn the library which he had founded in Alexandria with a collection of the writings of all men, which were works of merit, made request to the people of Jerusalem, that they should have their Scriptures translated into the Greek language. And they — for at that time they were all subject to the Macedonians — sent to Ptolemy seventy of their elders, who were thoroughly skilled in the Scriptures and in both the languages, to carry out what he had desired. But he, wishing to test them individually, and fearing lest they might perchance, by taking counsel together, conceal the truth in the Scriptures by their interpretation, separated them from each other and commanded them all to write the same translation. He did this with respect to all the books.

But when they came together in the same place before Ptolemy, and each of them compared his own interpretation with that of every other, God was indeed glorified, and the Scriptures were acknowledged as truly divine. For all of them read out the common translation which they had prepared in the very same words and the very same names, from beginning to end, so that even the Gentiles present perceived that the Scriptures had been interpreted by the inspiration of God. And there was nothing astonishing in God having done this — He Who, when, during the captivity of the people under Nebuchadnezzar, the Scriptures had been corrupted, and when, after seventy years, the Jews had returned to their own land, then, in the times of Artaxerxes king of the Persians, inspired Esdres the priest, of the tribe of Levi, to recast all the words of the former prophets, and to re-establish with the people the Mosaic legislation. . . .

— St. Irenæus, Against Heresies, Book 3, Ch. 21,
Sec. 2, Authority of the Septuagint Version

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