Why don’t we “use the Bible Jesus used?”

Previously, I discussed the Hebrew Masoretic Text which is the base text used for the majority of modern translations of the Bible. I also explained why, occasionally, translators will treat the Septuagint text as more accurate than the Masoretic Text. Here, I’ll expand on the Septuagint.

A community’s ‘authorized’ version is the version accepted by leaders of the community as the reference or standard version. It’s the version used for public reading and for establishing doctrines. It’s accepted after careful review of how it was produced. In our community (BLC), the authorized version is the English Standard Version (ESV).

“Septuagint” is the name given to the authorized Greek version of the Hebrew Bible (“Old Testament”) used in the time of Jesus. The name springs from the Latin septuaginta (seventy). It reflects the tradition that the Pentateuch (the first five books) in it was translated by 72 scholars.

The Septuagint translation was made in the Egyptian city of Alexandria in the third and second centuries before Christ. According to Bible scholar F F Bruce, the Greek of the Pentateuch is ‘tolerable,’ but the other books were translated ‘indifferently.’ He writes:

To one accustomed to reading good Greek, Septuagint Greek reads very oddly; but to a Greek reader accustomed to Hebrew idiom, Septuagint Greek is immediately intelligible. The words are Greek, but the idiom is Hebrew.

It’s like an English reader accustomed to Malay idiom reading “stool leg” in an English translation of Malay. To this reader, “stool leg” is immediately intelligible as a translation of the Malay idiom kaki bangku, which signals a person who doesn’t play sports. A discussion of the Septuagint inevitably turns into a discussion of challenges faced by translators.

It’s often said that the New Testament is written in koine or marketplace Greek, not the “high” Greek used by bureaucrats and high society. That’s true but has to be qualified because the New Testament is written in koine Greek infused with Hebrew idioms. This ‘Semitic flavour’ is present because the authors and readers were familiar with Septuagint Greek.

Consider for example the word ‘testament.’ This word was carried into English from Latin because the Latin (Vulgate) translation used ‘testament’ to translate the Greek diatheke, which the Septuagint translators had used to translate the Hebrew berith (covenant).

The word diatheke can have two meanings. The first is ‘testament’ in the sense of “last will and testament,” the understanding we share today. It could also mean covenant, a pact between two parties.

The translators could have chosen the word syntheke instead, a word which had the singular meaning of a pact between two parties. But they avoided syntheke because it would have signalled a pact between equals.

Because the Septuagint translators made that decision, and because terms used in the Latin Vulgate were common in England when the first English translations were made, the English called their translations (old and new) ‘testaments’ though ‘covenants’ would be more accurate.

Some other examples may help. Exodus 24:8 in the King James Version (KJV), which is based on the Masoretic Text, reads “… blood of the covenant” (berith) but in Hebrews 9:20 it reads “… blood of the testament.” Why the difference? Because the KJV translators failed to consider that the author of Hebrews uses diatheke in the sense of covenant, as in the Septuagint. The ESV correctly uses covenant in both texts.

Another example is ekklesia, the Greek word for ‘church.’ According to the KJV, Stephen, in Acts 7:38, says Moses was with the church (ekklesia) in the wilderness. The KJV translators failed to consider that Stephen’s Septuagint-reading listeners would have known he meant all of Israel. The ESV correctly translates it as ‘congregation in the wilderness.’

Did the translators change the texts? No! They made translation choices.

Another carry-over from the Septuagint into modern Bibles is the naming of the books in the Pentateuch.

In the Masoretic Text, they are named In the Beginning (Genesis), Names (Exodus), And He Called (Leviticus), In the Desert (Numbers), Words (Deuteronomy) – after the first significant words in each book, whereas the Septuagint names indicate the content of each book.

For this series on Nehemiah, it’s important to note that in the Septuagint, Chronicles-Ezra-Nehemiah (in chronological order) are treated as one book, whereas, as I said in the previous article, the Masoretic Text combines only Ezra and Nehemiah.

There are many who make false claims that Christians have ‘changed’ the text of the Bible. I hope this article helps you interrogate their claims. I hope this article inspires you to read more about the amazing transmission and translation history of God’s word. No pain, no gain.

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