Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Greek Bible among the Jews

This post continues a series I recently revived, summarizing the chapters of my book. Previous posts include an introduction, summary of chs. 2-3 on the Old Testament canon, and a summary of ch. 4 on the Hebrew language.

This post covers the first part of ch. 5, the final chapter of the book. This chapter considers the role of Hebrew scripture in Jewish and Christian views regarding the authentic text of the Old Testament. This post will cover the Jewish reception of Greek scripture, and the next post will cover the Christian reception. The question for the chapter as a whole is: to what did extent did the ancients think that the Bible in Greek (or Latin) ought to be dependent on the Hebrew text? If I use a Greek Bible, what theoretical importance does the Hebrew Bible have for me?

The Greek Septuagint became the Bible of some Jewish communities as also of most early Christians, with both Jews and Christians asserting the inspiration of the translation. Many scholars have assumed or argued that Greek-speaking Jews and early Christians promoted the Septuagint to the extent that they devalued the Hebrew text or even rejected its authority. This chapter challenges such views through close readings of the Jewish and Christian statements about the origins of the Greek translation and its relationship to the Hebrew text. While the Hebrew text featured minimally in the exegesis of those who adhered to the Septuagint, for the most part they affirmed the value and authority of the Hebrew Bible in their theoretical pronouncements on the authentic text of scripture.

After a brief survey of the state of the biblical text (Hebrew and Greek) at the turn of the era (pp. 143–46), I consider Jewish views on the relationship between the Septuagint and the Hebrew Bible (pp. 147–73). Several ancient Jewish sources narrate the story of the original Greek translation (pp. 147–52). The Letter of Aristeas provides the earliest account: seventy-two Jewish scholars from Jerusalem travel to Alexandria with Hebrew scrolls of the Torah and complete the work of translation in seventy-two days. Ptolemy, the Greek king in Alexandria, bows before the translation just as he had earlier bowed before the Hebrew Torah upon its arrival, and the Jewish community of Alexandria hails the accuracy of the translation and pronounces a curse on anyone who would modify it. Other Jewish authors such as Aristobulus, Josephus, and the Rabbis also relate versions of this story. Philo significantly declares the translators inspired so that they produced a perfect translation that captures both the wording and the sense of the original.

Two important points emerge from these narrations (pp. 151–52). First, the Hebrew text features prominently in the imagination even of those who feel secure in ignoring it in practice. Philo, for instance, justifies his sole reliance on the Greek translation by asserting that the translation reproduces the original Hebrew in every possible way; for him, the translation and the original text are “sisters, or rather […] one and the same both in sense and in words.” Second, all ancient Jewish sources restrict the Septuagint to the Pentateuch. Scholars commonly use the term ‘Septuagint’ in reference to the entire Greek Old Testament, an inheritance from Christian terminology, but ancient Jewish writers never use the term in this way. They do not relate translation stories for any Old Testament books except for the Pentateuch. Only the translation of the Pentateuch (and not, e.g., of Isaiah or of Psalms) appears to have provoked any sort of reverence on the part of Jews.

These points provide a helpful framework for ancient Jewish attitudes toward the relationship between the Greek and Hebrew texts (pp. 152–64). Some scholars have argued that Jewish opinion divided over the proper scriptural text, whether the Septuagint or the Hebrew text were authoritative. Evidence for this division comes from, on the one hand, statements such as those of Philo, praising the translation as inspired, and, on the other hand, the apparent contemporary hebraizing revisions of the Septuagint, which suggest that the Hebrew text was the standard to which the Greek translation must conform. However, the Jewish sources exalting the Septuagint refer to the Greek Pentateuch exclusively, while evidence for hebraizing revisions of Greek translations concern books outside the Pentateuch. The most dramatic evidence for hebraizing Greek versions comes from the Greek Minor Prophets scroll from Naḥal Ḥever, but there is no reason to think that Philo would have objected to a revision of the Greek Minor Prophets. He regarded the Greek translation of the Pentateuch alone to be perfect due to its inspiration, and there is little evidence that anyone objected to the quality of the Greek Pentateuch before the second century CE.

From the second century CE, however, Greek-speaking Jews encountered various available translations. Alongside the traditional Septuagint, newer Jewish translations by Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion appeared. Limited evidence prevents our being certain whether one of these newer translations proved more popular among Jews than the traditional Greek text, but at least some evidence—in the form of inscriptions and Christian testimonia—indicates that while the Septuagint continued in use among some Jews, others preferred Aquila’s literal style of translation (pp. 164–73). This should occasion little surprise, since we have seen that no Greek translation other than the Pentateuch enjoyed any sort of authority as an inspired text, and even the Pentateuch commanded esteem because it was thought to be a perfect equivalent of the Hebrew text. With newer translations emerging in the second century that showed the divergences between the Septuagint and the Hebrew text, some Jews apparently adopted a more literal translation (Aquila) rather than adhere to a traditional but (what they now saw to be) flawed version. For Greek-speaking Jews the Hebrew text of scripture seems to have factored heavily in their ideas about which Greek text was most authoritative.

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