Examining the Christian Argument for the Superiority of the Septuagint Over the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible

One of my readers, Joe Hinman of Metacrock’s blog, referred to an article in one of his comments which suggests that the Septuagint is a more reliable reflection of the original manuscripts constituting the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament) than the Masoretic text, the text upon which the modern Jewish Bible is based.  Let’s take a brief look at a few excerpts from this Christian authored article and compare them to what we have just learned in our recent series of posts by Emanuel Tov, a Jewish Bible scholar and professor emeritus at Hebrew University, Jerusalem.

Excerpts from:  DOX:  The Validity of the LXX in Messianic Prophecy

The Superiority of the Septuagint: This is an important issue because the Septuagint (Greek Translation of the OT made sometime in 300’s BC in Alexandria) differs on some points from the Hebrew text (the Masoretic Text or MT). The earliest copies we have of the MT only date from about 900 or 1000 AD, but the LXX goes back much further. We have whole manuscripts from 3d and 4th centuries AD, and it is quoted in much earlier works. The main Jewish apologist argument against Messianic interpretation of Is. 53 is that all the references to the suffering servant, so they say, are in the plural, making him a symbol of Israel. But in the LXX they are singular. There are also other references in the Septuagint that support the Christian reading, on Is. 53 and Ps. 22 “hands and feet pierced” and other passages. For this reason the Jewish anti-missionaries claim that the LXX only existed in the first five books before the time of Christ and that Christians translated the rest, either late first century, or some go so far as to claim that Origen (4th century) made the translations of prophetic books. The only thing that supports this view is the fact that all the really good whole Ms. come from 3d and 4th centuries AD. But there are other proofs of the LXX’s veracity.

Gary:  The article makes no mention of the 25 texts found in the Judean desert (outside of those found at Qumran) which are 98% in agreement with the official Masoretic text written down in circa 1000 CE.  These texts which have been dated to 50 BCE – 135 CE are referred to by scholars as the “proto-Masoretic” texts.  Therefore to repeatedly assert that the earliest Septuagint texts are 1,000 years older than the earliest Masoretic texts is misleading at best.

Most Scholars saw the LXX as inferior to the Hebrew Bible called the Masoretic Text (MT). With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, this all changed. Ancient Hebrew scrolls were found that follow the LXX, not the Masoretic Text. The DSS showed that the LXX had an underlying Hebrew Text that was different from the MT.  Now Scholars think the LXX has important readings that are superior to the MT. The LXX is now very important in textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible. Let’s look at some of the key differences between the LXX and the MT where the LXX seems to be superior.

Gary:   Most scholars do believe that the Septuagint had a Hebrew parent text.  The discovery of scrolls at Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls) confirms this belief, but does not prove that the Hebrew parent of the Septuagint was the only text used by early Jews.  Professor Tov has demonstrated that the Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrate a plurality of textual sources.  The Dead Sea Scrolls were not all from one source and they definitely were not all from the Hebrew parent of the Septuagint.

It is now apparent that these differing ancient text forms of the OT deserve far greater care and attention than they received in the past. The lxx, for example, is now seen not just as a poor, tendentious translation of the Hebrew, but rather as a witness to a different pre-Christian Hebrew text form. Moreover, there appear to have been three local text types in pre-Christian times: a form of the Pentateuch known in Babylon, close to the MT; a form known in Palestine, close to the Samaritan Pentateuch; and a form of of books known in Egypt, related to the lxx. Eventually (probably between a.d. 70 and 132 in Palestine), a process of standardization apparently set in, preferring one form of text, a set spelling, and even a definitive shape of writing.

Gary:  Exactly!  This is exactly what Professor Tov states.  The scrolls at Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls) show that a plurality of textual sources was present in the Qumran community, a community which disappeared after the invasion of the Roman legions in 68 CE.  These Jews were not using only one text.  They were not using only the Hebrew parent of the Septuagint.  Therefore no one can use the Dead Sea Scrolls as proof that the Hebrew parent of the Septuagint was the preferred text of all or most first century Jews.

“…According to Frank Moore Cross (another DSS scholar) there are at least 3 ‘families’ of texts at Qumran : the MT ‘family’, the ‘Egyptian’ family, and a ‘Palestinian’ family . The ‘Egyptian’ version which, among other things, has a different version of Jeremiah, became the basis for the LXX. The ‘Palestinian ‘ became the basis for the Samaritan version. The MT variety was the ancestor of what we use today–although even within these ‘families’ there was sometimes variation. We do not know which version was being used by, say, the Sadducees of the Temple sect, or even which the Essenes themselves used. The Jewish community at Alexandria evidently used the Egyptian ‘family’ or the LXX.” – Randolph Parrish

Gary:  Agreed!  Professor Tov’s lecture series agrees with this statement.

“The ‘biblical’ library of Qumran represents a fluid stage of the biblical text. Those documents show no influence of the rabbinic recension of the canon, the direct ancestor of the traditional Hebrew Bible. The scrolls help to place both the Pharisaic text and the canon in the era of Hillel, roughly the time of Jesus. In their selection of canonical books, the rabbis excluded those attributed to prophets or Patriarchs before Moses (e.g., the Enoch literature, works written in the name of Abraham and other Patriarchs). They traced the succession of prophets from Moses to figures of the Persian period. Late works were excluded, with the exception of Daniel, which, the rabbis presumably, attributed to the Persian period.”  – Frank Moore Cross, Jr., “Dead Sea Scrolls: Overview”

Gary:  Professor Tov would agree with the first sentence of this statement, but let’s look at the second sentence:  “Those documents show no influence of the rabbinic recension of the canon, the direct ancestor of the traditional Hebrew Bible.”  False!  Professor Tov would disagree with this statement.  The direct ancestor of the traditional/modern Hebrew Bible are the proto-Masoretic texts found at Masada and other Judean desert sites, not the rescensions of the Septuagint, which were all abandoned by Jews in the first and second centuries.

John Allegro in The Dead Sea Scrolls documents that when the LXX and Mt contradict, the LXX most often agrees with the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS).

Gary:  And the texts from Masada and other locations in the Judean desert are 98% in agreement with the later Masoretic text.  Why doesn’t this Christian article ever mention these scrolls???  The fact that the Dead Sea scrolls agree more with the (Hebrew parent of the) LXX does not prove that the LXX is superior to the MT.

He also documents (63) that Origen’s work was that of a compulation of a text placing several existing Greek translations of the OT side by side, he used a pre-existing LXX, this is merely what any good translator does in preparing a new translation. A new one was needed because the Jews abandoned the LXX and commissioned their own (Aquilla’s) becasue the Chruch had come to use the LXX as it’s Bbile, and they wanted to get away form the Christian’s Messianic reading. Origen did not produce the translation of the LXX prophetic books, it already existed. Moreover, it can be showen to have existed in the first century. Clement of Rome (1 Clement) quotes Isaiah 53 in AD 95, and most of the quotations of the OT in the Gospels come from the LXX.

[emphasis, Gary’s]

Gary:  The author of this Christian article gives zero evidence that proves that Jews abandoned the LXX because “they wanted to get away from the Christian’s Messianic reading“.  This statment is simply a baseless accusation/smear until actual evidence for the motives of first century Jews is provided.

“There are remarkable differences between the LXX and MT of 1 and 2 Sam. Jeremiah, Esther, Daniel, Proverbs and Ezekiel, 40-48, and on a lesser level numerious very important differences in lesser books such as Isaiah and Job. Before the discovery of the Scrolls [Dead Sea] it was difficult to know wheather most of these should be seen as translational, Or as reflecting the inner history of the Septuegent text, or all three. Now it is abundantly clear that the second period of text transmission [which is BC], actually that of the earliest texts we have, was one of limited textual pluralism. Side by side in the Qumran library lay scrolls of Jeremiah in Hebrew dating to the pre-Chrsitian Hellenistic period reflecting both the textual tradition known in the MT and the one in the LXX without any indication of preference. So also for 1 and 2 Sam.”

[emphasis, Gary’s]

Gary:  Exactly!  Both the proto-MT and the parent of the LXX are present in Qumran.  There was no indication for preference between the two!!!  This is exactly what Prof. Tov says in his lecture series.  A “plurality” of texts are found at Qumran.  Nothing at Qumran proves that the MT is superior, nothing at Qumran proves that the Septuagint is superior.  During the time of the Jewish community at Qumran, which ended in 68 CE, both the Septuagint parent and the Masoretic parent were considered the Word of God.  However, such was not the case at Masada and the site of the Bar Kochba (sp?) rebellion.  At these sites, only the proto-Masoretic text is present.  It is thought that the reason for this is that both of these locations were lead by Pharisees, and we know that the proto-Masoretic text was the text of the Pharisees, who would in later centuries come to be called rabbis.

John Allegro, one of the original translation team, the first to be put in charge of cave 4 material and the only non-religious memember of the team, The Dead Sea Scrolls Pelican, 1956, (66).[he describes how Frank Cross in 1954 found a place where the text (DSS) seemed at odds with the MT. He began to find more and more places, and then discovered that these texts which differed from the MT agreed with the LXX. Now this is a Hebrew text which agrees with LXX over MT so it’s an older textual family but obviously the ancesstor of the LXX readings. He goes on:

“His excitment mouting Cross began to refurr to the principal versions and almost immediately saw that this text corrosponded with the Greek translation. The precious peices joined to others and time and time again he found corrospondences with LXX against MT, until at the end of the week he was ale to affirm that he had the answer to the text-critic’s dream, a Hebrew text from the same text family of tradition as that used by the ancient translators of the LXX…”

“It seems now that, to scholars engaged on this work in the future, Qumran has offered a new basis for a confience in the LXX in at least the Historical books, which should allow them to accept better readings of that version almost as readily as if they were found in the Hebrw MT. In other words, each reading in the future must be judges on it’s merits not on any preconsieved notion of the supiriority of the Hebrew version simpley because it is Hebrew.. If the Greek offers a better reading than that ought to be taken and put in the text of the translation…”(81).

[emphasis, Gary’s]

Gary:  Of course!  Cross was looking at scrolls originating from the Septugint parent, so of course they looked more similar to the Septuagint than the MT.  However, there were also scrolls from other ancient texts, not copied from the Septuagint parent.  So bottom line, all we can say is that the Hebrew parent of the Septuagint, the Hebrew proto-Masoretic, and the Samartian Pentateuch were all present at Qumran.  No preference was given to one particular “parent”.

Masoretic text much later Ms than LXX:  “All other Hebrew manuscripts of the Bible are Massoretic (see MASSORAH), and belong to the tenth century or later. Some of these manuscripts are dated earlier. Text-critics consider these dates to be due either to intentional fraud or to uncritical transcription of dates of older manuscripts. For instance, a codex of the Former and Latter Prophets, how in the Karaite synagogue of Cairo, is dated A.D. 895; Neubauer assigns it to the eleventh or thirteenth century. The Cambridge manuscript no. 12, dated A.D. 856, he marks as a thirteenth-century work; the date A.D. 489, attached to the St. Petersburg Pentateuch, he rejects as utterly impossible (see Studia Biblica, III, 22). Probably the earliest Massoretic manuscripts are: “Prophetarium Posteriorum Codex Bablyonicus Petropolitanus”, dated A.D. 916; the St. Petersburg Bible, written by Samuel ben Jacob and dated A.D. 1009; and “Codex Oriental. 4445” in the British Museum, which Ginsburg (Introduction, p. 469) assigns to A.D. 820-50. The text critics differ very widely in the dates they assign to certain Hebrew manuscripts. De Rossi is included to think that at most nine or ten Massoretic manuscripts are earlier than the twelfth century (Variæ Lectiones, I, p. xv).”(Ibid.)

Gary:  Ahhhhh!!!  Yes, the official Masoretic Text was not compiled until circa 1000 CE, but why in the name of all things holy doesn’t this article mention the pre-Masoretic texts found at Masada and other locations in the Judean desert which date to the first century BCE???

Transmission of OT Text: Prior to the discovery of the dss [Dead Sea Scrolls], the oldest copy of any extended portion of the Hebrew Bible was dated a.d. 895 (a codex of the Former and Latter Prophets, from the Cairo Genizah). In Cave One, however, a full text of Isaiah was found, dated palaeographically to 100 b.c. The differences between the Qumran text and the Masoretic Text (mt), the Hebrew text preserved from medieval manuscripts, separated in date by a thousand years, amounted to thirteen significant variants and a host of insignificant spelling differences, which have proved a gold mine for the study of first-century b.c. Palestinian Hebrew. This illustrated the care with which the text of Isaiah had been transmitted over the centuries. When Cave Four was discovered, however, a different picture appeared. For certain books of the ot, especially 1 and 2 Samuel, Jeremiah, and Exodus, there were copies of the Hebrew text, from pre-Christian times, in forms differing from the medieval mt. In some cases, the Qumran biblical texts were closer to the Greek Septuagint (lxx); in others, closer to the Samaritan Pentateuch.

Gary:  This article is out of date!!!  There is no mention of the many scrolls found at other locations in the Judean desert other than Qumran which strongly support the existence of the Masoretic Text prior to the life of Jesus of Nazareth!  The proto-Masoretic text which was later codified into the official Masoretic text is the preferred text of all branches of modern Judaism simply because the prot0-Masortic text was the text of the only surviving religious leadership group in Palestine after the destruction of the Temple:  the Pharisees, later known as rabbis.  There is no evidence to suggest that the Jews of Palestine switched or altered their Bibles to erase Jesus from its pages.  The Greek-speaking Jews in the diaspora did make revisions to the Septuagint, but Christians cannot prove that these revisions were made for anti-Christian reasons.  The evidence suggests that Greek speaking Jews in the diaspora revised their Greek Bibles (the Septuagint) so that it would better conform to the Hebrew Bible of the Jews in the Jewish homeland in Palestine.  They then completely abandoned the Septuagint and these revisions once the Septuagint was adopted as the official text of the Christians.

Summary by Gary:  So yes, Greek speaking Jews in the diaspora did revise the Septuagint, and then eventually, abandoned the Septuagint.  However, the Pharisees who were in control in post-Temple Palestine had never used the Septuagint.  They had always used the proto-Masoretic text.  And it was the Pharisees in Palestine, not Greek-speaking Jews in the diaspora, who “took control” of the Jewish religion after the destruction of the Temple.  The Temple priests no longer existed.  The remaining religious authorities (the Pharisees) used their preferred text and their followers used their preferred text and copied this preferred text for centuries, and it is this text, which has existed since before the times of Jesus, that Jews use today.

 

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3 thoughts on “Examining the Christian Argument for the Superiority of the Septuagint Over the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible

  1. Hinmanfirst of all Gary the article to which you refer is by me, I wrote it. Doxa is my old web site. Secondly you are just trying to make a mountain out of mole hill. What I said is not that radically different the points you already conceded. My article said there is a diverse use of texts.

    Gary:
    “So yes, Greek speaking Jews in the diaspora did revise the Septuagint, and then eventually, abandoned the Septuagint. However, the Pharisees who were in control in post-Temple Palestine had never used the Septuagint. They had always used the proto-Masoretic text.”

    Hinman That’s bull shit we have no way of knowing that,

    Gary:
    “And it was the Pharisees in Palestine, not Greek-speaking Jews in the diaspora, who “took control” of the Jewish religion after the destruction of the Temple. The Temple priests no longer existed.”

    Hinmanthat’s a misleading idea. You imply that Palestinian Jews did not speak Greek that is bullshit, Greek was their language they forgetting how to speak Hebrew,They spoke Greek and Aramaic.

    Gary:
    “The remaining religious authorities (the Pharisees) used their preferred text and their followers used their preferred text and copied this preferred text for centuries, and it is this text, which has existed since before the times of Jesus, that Jews use today.”

    Hinman The Pharisees were not the religious authorities, they were one party there were other parities.

    In all of this nonsense you still have not disproved the basic argument most of your allegations about Christians charging scripture are serenaded by the LXX.

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    1. You are correct. I should not have said that the Pharisees had “always” used the proto-Masoretic. What I should have said is that there is evidence the Pharisees were using the proto-Masoretic during the time of Jesus and at least in the century before him.

      You obviously did not read Professor Tov’s articles.

      The scrolls at Qumran showed a plurality of texts. There is no evidence that the Septuagint was the preferred text of this group. This community of Jews was destroyed in 68 CE. The scrolls found at Masada and at the site of the Bar Kochba (sp?) uprising were only proto-Masoretic. Tov says that the proto-Masoretic text was the only text used by the Pharisees and that the Pharisees were the religious leaders of these two groups. Tov says that the Pharisees were only using the proto-Masoretic text in Jesus time and for sometime before Jesus. The evidence indicates that Jews adopted the proto-Masoretic text simply because that was the text of the remaining religious authorities in Palestine. The Temple priests no longer existed. Hellenized Jews in the Diaspora did abandon the Septuagint but there is no proof they did so to avoid the “Jesus prophecies” in the Septuagint. Evidence indicates they did it to harmonize with the preferred text of Jews in the homeland.

      Bottomline: We have no way of proving which text, the proto-Masoretic or the Hebrew parent of the Septuagint, is older and the more authentic. However, Professor Tov’s articles prove your assertion that the Septuagint is superior as a baseless assumption.

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