Reverencing the Text of the Bible

In Septuagint studies a common caution against appealing to wildly speculative translator exegesis to account for divergences between MT and LXX is the recognition that the translators were working with a text they recognized as authoritative and unique, and so would have been reluctant to deviate much from the Vorlage. This been confirmed to some degree in a few LXX books where research (particularly of the Finnish school) confirms a high degree of fidelity to the Vorlage combined with dynamic equivalency. In these books, many seeming divergences actually fall within the semantic scope of the Hebrew, if they’re not mistakes or derived from a distinct Vorlage.[1] I think caution is in order, though, and I’ll explain why.

E. Y. Kutcher points to an interesting observation regarding texts found at Masada and their relationship to the standardized manuscripts:

It is interesting to realize that the text of Ben Sira underwent many changes resulting from the “corrections” of medieval (and earlier) scribes. . . . But Psalms fared differently. Except for a few cases of defective spellings, that are also common in our mss of the Bible, there is practically no difference between the text discovered as Masada and out Masoretic text. How are we to account for this difference between the transmission of Psalms and of Ben Sira? The answer is simply that Psalms represented a sacred text and therefore the scribes made every effort to copy it faithfully, while Ben Sira was not canonized, and so it was treated less carefully. This is a clear proof of how particular the scribes were not to change anything when copying a Biblical text.[2]

The texts from Masada clearly come from a later date than the translation of the Septuagint, though (the majority of it, anyway), and the Dead Sea Scrolls show a greater degree of variety in the earliest texts. It seems that an ideology developed between the translation of the Septuagint and the standardization of the MT that saw the text itself as intimately associated with the authority of the message it conveyed. That is, while early translators used dynamic equivalents to convey the sense of the Hebrew without necessarily conveying the original word order, syntax, or lexical qualities, as time went on, the word order, syntax, and lexical qualities became equally as important. What the text was saying was not all that had meaning. How the text said it began to have meaning as well.

This belief became increasingly important over the next few centuries. The second century CE Aquila adhered slavishly to the word order and syntax of the Hebrew in his translation into Greek. His text may be thought of as the original interlinear Bible. Later Jewish scholars would institute strict standards of transcription in order to ensure no part of the text was corrupted, such as counting the numbers of letters in a book. Glaring errors were left in the books with annotations in the margins. The text then took on an entirely new persona. Today it is even viewed as inerrant by many.

I would suggest that retrojecting modern concepts of canonicity and inerrancy into our investigations of the translation of the Septuagint is a bit presentistic. Those concepts have their roots in that time period, but in its infancy I think the idea of reverencing the text of the Bible was quite distinct.


[1] Anneli Aejmelaeus and Bénédicte Lemmelijn have also argued, convincingly in my opinion, that harmonizations are more likely the work of scribes rather than translators, given the far more broad scope of focus in transcription compared to translation.

[2] E. Y. Kutscher, A History of the Hebrew Language (Leiden: Brill, 1982), 92.

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5 responses to “Reverencing the Text of the Bible

  • John Hobbins

    Nice post, Daniel.

    “Today it is even viewed as inerrant by many.” That was the view of Aqiba and his school, and those views prevailed. Down to the last mater lectionis. In the exegesis of the Sages, Halakhah and Haggada can be based on the tiniest of details in the proto-Masoretic text.

    Inerrancy as defined more recently by, say, the Reformers or the current Roman Catholic magisterium is not nearly as detail-centric. It is combined with a concept of a regula fidei and/or a structuring hermeneutic, such as Augustine’s hermeneutic of love. Augustine, of course, was also an inerrantist.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Thanks for the comments John. “Inerrancy” has quite a wide semantic range, and I should have been a little more precise about that. I was referencing the more fundamental modern idea.

  • Doug Chaplin

    One speculative possibility, of course, is that the move towards the transmission of the exact letter is in part prompted by the ways in which the nascent Church made the LXX its book. I say only in part, because the LXX shows variable degrees of literal fidelity which may suggest a range of views moving in the direction of greater strictness.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      I think the adoption of the LXX certainly contributed to the crystallization of the text. I think the tension between Christianity and Judaism regarding the Bible was a large factor in that process. Origen’s Hexapla was composed, I believe, to provide Christians with a resource for biblical debate with Jews. Jerome’s translation from the Hebrew was also partly an attempt to bring Christians closer to the text being used by the Jews. In all of this a concern for each letter of the text no doubt influenced ideology about the significance of each letter.

  • Reverencing the Text of the Bible | The Church of Jesus Christ

    [...] He has a point, one which I believe we see repeated in the KJVO movement. Read the rest here: Reverencing the Text of the Bible « Daniel O. McClellan. [...]

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