Friday, December 6, 2013

The Septuagint and the contest between Judaism and Christianity in the early years of the Church

As it has been a while since I said anything about my reasons for preferring the Septuagint over the Hebrew Masoretic Text for the interpretation of the psalms, and the basis of some of my comments on the differences between the two versions, I thought it might be helpful to make a few comments here, and draw my readers attention to some recent books and articles on this subject.

The Jewish reaction to Christianity

The early tensions between the infant Church and the early Judaism are no secret: they are chronicled in the Book of Acts and the letters of St Paul, and attested to at length by the Fathers.

The combined forces of the existence of Christianity and above all the destruction of the Temple forced Judaism to change, leading to the development of the rabbinical Judaism we know today.

In Acts, we are told of the gradual process of discarding Jewish practices as requirements for Christian converts.  The early Church Fathers took this much Father, actively condemning the continuing use of Judaic practices by Christians.

But the Jewish faith, too, embarked on a process of reassessment in this same period, one of the results of which was the discarding of the Septuagint at first in favour of new translations into the Greek, and then their gradual replacement by the exclusive use of Hebrew instead.  There was also a process, at this time, within Judaism, of definition of which books of Scripture were considered canonical that excluded any thought not to have been written in Hebrew.

Texts and prayers on both sides of the divide attest both to ongoing tensions between the two religions, and ongoing Christian attempts to convert Jews to Christianity. Indeed, contemporary sociologist Rodney Stark has argued that a majority of converts up until the fifth century AD were in fact Jewish, and that the often harsh sounding denunciations of each other reflect an attempt by the respective hierarchies to put a stop to a certain permeability on the part of the laity, with some people drifting between the two camps!

The Septuagint's importance to Christianity

The importance of the Greek translation of the Old Testament has largely been neglected until recently in the Western Church, due in no small part to the legacy of St Jerome, who successfully campaigned for the adoption of translations based on the Hebrew instead of the ancient Greek.  The one book on which he was not successful is the psalms, where Latin versions based on the Greek were too entrenched liturgically, even at that early date, to change.

Recent scholarship, stimulated in no small part by the Dead Sea Scrolls, is changing all that.

For much of the twentieth century, the prevailing view of the Latin Vulgate was that it was based on a Septuagint that was often badly translated, and reflected an often corrupt text.  In contrast, it was thought that the Hebrew Masoretic Text, even though the earliest surviving manuscripts date only from the eighth century AD, represented, in the main, a faithfully transmitted version of 'the original text'.

Dead Sea Scrolls scholarship, however, has lead to the realisation that in fact there were several different text traditions of Scripture prevalent at the time of Our Lord; that  the Greek Septuagint, and not the Hebrew was widely used at this time, and the exclusive basis for the quotes from the Old Testament cited in the New.  Far from being corrupt or badly translated, modern scholarship is beginning to realise that the Septuagint often preserves an older and at least equally legitimate version of the text.

A useful and easy to read summary of the case for the Septuagint can be found in Timothy Michael Law's When God Spoke Greek The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible (Oxford University Press, 2013).  Law's book is primarily directed at Protestants, making the case for a rethink of Luther's rejection of the apocrypha and preference for translations directly from the Hebrew.  Accordingly, it spends rather more time than a Catholic reader will find necessary on the case for the apocrypha, and rather less time on the role of the Magisterium in the formation of the modern Bible.  Nonetheless, it is a useful popular presentation of some of the key results of recent research, particularly in making the case that the New Testament relies exclusively on the Septuagint, rather than the precursors to the Masoretic Text (MT), in its quotes of the Old Testament.

Law also draws out the understanding in the early Church that the commissioning of the Septuagint in the centuries before Christ was seen as a providential event, a necessary foundation for the Gospel to be preached to the whole (known) world, which was at that time was essentially Greek-speaking.  A recent article by Dawn Eden in Pastoral and Homiletic Review explores the way that Pope Benedict XVI advocated for a recovery of this view of the Septuagint as a monument of tradition (though she doesn't use that terminology) whose theological perspective should be respected as part of revelation in his theological work and Magisterial teaching.

Text manipulation?

A more controversial question is whether the Hebrew Masoretic Text as it exists today reflects deliberate manipulation by early Jewish editors in reaction to the use of certain texts by early Christians, as a number of the early Church Fathers, such as Justin Martyr, claimed.

One contemporary school of thought argues that in the main, the Dead Sea Scrolls show that many of the differences between the MT and the Septuagint reflect different text traditions, or families of manuscripts, rather than deliberate edits to the text.  The critical change, in this view (subscribed to, for example, by Law, cited above), was not text manipulation, but rather the decision to move away from tolerating a plurality of text possibilities and settle on one definitive, and ultimately Hebrew version.   This school of thought acknowledges that the Septuagint's readings often reflect a theology more congenial to Christianity, and that this may have influenced choices, but goes no further than that.

A second school of thought, however, points out that the differences between the proto-Masoretic Text manuscripts discovered this century, and the received (medieval) version of the Hebrew of the MT may be relatively small in number, but they are extremely significant in theological import.  One of the key advocates of this school of thought is Dr Margaret Barker.

Personally, I think that the view that there was some deliberate text selection and manipulation at work in direct reaction to Christianity is extremely plausible, and some of the posited examples of it in the literature are compelling.  It certainly wouldn't be the first time that faced with a text that seemed to support one side of the debate, the other sought to find and even create support for its view through its own!  Nonetheless, it has to be acknowledged that Septuagint studies in the light of the Dead Sea Scrolls are still at a relatively underdeveloped stage, and much more work remains to be done in this area.

It should also be noted that the adoption by the Church of St Jerome's translations from the Hebrew did have one positive benefit in providing an agreed text to facilitate dialogue between Christians and Jews, and a number of key works by the Fathers and Theologians reflect that ongoing evangelizing project.

Nonetheless, the latest research is stimulating a rethink of much of the twentieth century scholarship around Bible translation.  At the very least, the Neo-Vulgate, a product of the period before the impact of Dead Seas Scrolls scholarship, seems likely to be deemed at some point in the not too distant future, a product of its time, rather than a lasting monument of the Church.

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