This post covers the second half of ch. 5 of my book, on the reception of the Hebrew biblical text in patristic thought. Note, I am not talking about actual patristic use of the Hebrew text of scripture, but rather how the Fathers thought about the Hebrew text of scripture.
In yesterday's post, on Jewish views of the Greek and Hebrew Bible, I argued that even Jews who used the LXX (e.g., Philo) held the Hebrew Bible in high esteem. They insisted that their Greek Bible corresponded perfectly with the Hebrew Bible. There was no "pro-LXX" group of Jews who were not at the same time "pro-Hebrew."
To a surprisingly great extent the same appears true for Christians: though they mostly disregarded the Hebrew text in practice, their textual theory almost always conceded the authority of the Hebrew text and, like Philo, they equated the original Septuagint with the original Hebrew Bible (pp. 173–209). The Church Fathers did recognize that the Septuagint often diverged from the more recent Jewish translations (Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion), and they adopted several different ways of arguing for the authority of the Septuagint while maintaining its status as a miraculously accurate translation. Significantly, Christians made this argument for the entire Greek Old Testament, which they labeled the Septuagint and attributed in its entirety to the original seventy(-two) inspired translators, an expansion of the scope of translation beyond what the Jewish sources allow (i.e., the Pentateuch).
The discussion of this section of the chapter hinges around the work of Origen of Alexandria/Caesarea, the third-century Christian scholar whose work broke new ground in illuminating the relationship between the Greek and Hebrew texts. Before Origen’s time, Christians faced with newer Jewish translations diverging from the Septuagint simply denied that the newer translations accurately represented the Hebrew text (pp. 174–78). They instead asserted the accuracy of the Septuagint and attributed the newer translations to anti-Christian bias and a Jewish desire to corrupt the biblical passages dear to Christians. Justin Martyr’s account of the Greek translation contains no miraculous elements, while Irenaeus of Lyons attests the well-known story about the translators being separated and all producing identical translations. Both authors, though, affirm that the Septuagint uniquely reflects the Hebrew text while the newer translations misrepresent their Vorlage. Their view links the Septuagint with the Hebrew text as joint witnesses against the newer Jewish versions.
Such an idea could no longer be maintained once Origen commenced his work on the Old Testament text (pp. 178–89). If his massive six-columned Bible called the Hexapla showed anything, it was that there were numerous differences between the current Hebrew text (columns 1 and 2) and the Septuagint (column 5), while the newer Jewish translations (Aquila: column 3; Symmachus: column 4; Theodotion: column 6) corresponded more closely to the Hebrew Bible. Origen himself produced a hebraizing recension of the Septuagint, saying that he was thereby ‘healing’ the Old Testament text. He seems to imagine that his work restored the Septuagint to its pristine state of conformity to the Hebrew Bible whereas it had suffered corruption in its transmission (pp. 180–81). He largely assumes the purity of the current Hebrew text, though he recognizes that it too may have suffered in transmission (p. 182–83). Most of Origen’s statements can best be understood as arising from the view that the original Septuagint faithfully rendered the original Hebrew and one or both texts have suffered corruption. However, some limited evidence does imply that Origen thought the Seventy translators themselves made certain small changes in the text in order to edify readers (pp. 183–85).
Patristic authors following Origen had to deal with the implications of the latter’s work though they still wanted to maintain a close connection between the original Septuagint and the original Hebrew text (pp. 189–97). They essentially retained the options promoted by Origen, explaining textual divergence in terms of corruption in either the Septuagint tradition or the Hebrew tradition. As opposed to the pre-Origen patristic authors, these later Church Fathers typically (not universally) admitted the accuracy of the newer Jewish versions, a point amply demonstrated by Origen. Eusebius of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa explain the variation between the Septuagint and the Hebrew text as resulting from intentional corruption of the Hebrew text by the Jews. The Septuagint reflects most accurately the original Hebrew text (pp. 190–92). Epiphanius of Salamis attempts to diminish the significance of the differences between the Septuagint and the Hebrew Bible by attributing these differences merely to the inevitable difficulties of the business of translating. He is also willing to accuse the newer Jewish translators of perverting the text of the Bible (pp. 192–94). Theodoret of Cyrus tends to explain the variations in the biblical text in reference to corruption in the Septuagint manuscript tradition (p. 195). All of these positions assume that originally the Septuagint corresponded to the Hebrew and that one of the marks of the authentic text of the Bible is its fidelity to the Hebrew text. (For more on this point, see my paper here.)
The survey of patristic authors ends with Jerome and those who responded to his work (pp. 197–208). One of Jerome’s main themes was to deny what had earlier been almost universally assumed, that the original Septuagint essentially reproduced in Greek the original Hebrew. Jerome argued that the Septuagint and the Hebrew text had suffered little corruption so that essentially the original of each textual tradition survived into his own day (pp. 197–202). The divergences between the Greek and Hebrew texts could not be explained by corruption in the textual transmission, but rather the Seventy translators must have made these changes. In fact, Jerome does explicitly charge the translators with changing the text of the Bible, either willfully or through their own ignorance (pp. 202–203). He himself adheres to the Hebraica veritas and he assumes that his detractors also acknowledge the authority of the Hebrew text, as demonstrated by his repeated demands for his readers to “ask the Jews” about the accuracy of his translation. While Jerome’s Latin translation of the Hebrew Bible was completely innovative in practice, he did inherit from his predecessors the theory of an authoritative Hebrew text.
Jerome’s opponents in the realm of biblical scholarship also seem to have accepted the authority of the Hebrew text but they continued to insist that the Septuagint most accurately rendered it. Theodore of Mopsuestia and Rufinus of Aquileia both charge Jerome with ignorance of Hebrew in comparison with the Seventy translators (pp. 203–204). Rufinus also parrots the charge issued by earlier Christians that the Jews had intentionally corrupted the Hebrew Bible, which text served as the basis for Jerome’s translation. The Septuagint, on the contrary, reflected the original text of the Hebrew Bible (p. 204). Augustine alone among Jerome’s contemporaries seems to have taken the latter’s textual work seriously while also maintaining the authority of the Septuagint (pp. 205–208). If Jerome had shown that the original Septuagint did not closely correspond to the original Hebrew text but rather introduced numerous changes, and if the Church has hallowed the Septuagint as the God-given Bible for Christians, then God must have approved, even ordained, the changes made by the translators. Over the course of his career, Augustine refined this innovative textual theory to its most sophisticated form in his City of God. Augustine asserted the inspiration of both the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint even in their differences; God had inspired the Greek translators to make changes to the biblical text for the benefit of Christian readers. Augustine’s mature position represents the first sustained attempt to divorce the authoritative biblical text (the Septuagint) from dependence on the Hebrew, though even Augustine continued to attribute a theoretical importance to the Hebrew Bible as an alternative record of divine revelation.
As a whole, my monograph demonstrates the importance of Hebrew scripture in the theoretical framework of patristic reception of the Jewish Bible. Christians in the first four or five centuries rarely paid attention to Hebrew in their Bible reading; Jerome is the major exception, and some other Christians—Origen especially, but also Eusebius and others—occasionally attempted to use available tools to incorporate Hebrew learning into their exegesis, without actually learning Hebrew. But though Hebrew did not prove to be of particular practical importance, throughout the period under investigation it retained great theoretical significance. Whether the issues involved canon, language, or text, early Christians often endeavored to connect closely their Old Testament to Hebrew scripture.