The Value of the Hebrew and Greek Old Testaments

Septuagint Translation of Leviticus 2This is our pastor’s newsletter article for the September 2017 edition of “The Shepherd’s Voice.”


The Value of the Hebrew and Greek Old Testaments

By Pr. Rich Futrell

Today, we have two primary Old Testaments: The Hebrew, called the “Masoretic Text,” and the Septuagint, a Greek-language translation, whose manuscripts predate the Masoretic Text by about 1,000 years.  Almost all our translations of the Old Testament into English are based on the Hebrew text.

For centuries, Jewish scholars copied the Hebrew Old Testament.  One school of scribes from the 6th-10th centuries were called “the Masoretes.”  They provided a critical link in the chain of transmitting the Hebrew-language Old Testament.

Frustrated with differences in the texts, the Masoretes compiled a composite text based on what they deemed best.  So, how did they do?  Some early rabbinic sources, from around 200 AD, mention several passages of Scripture where they believed the original text differed from the originals.  In the 3rd Century, Rabbi Simon ben Pazzi called these readings “emendations of the Scribes,” believing these to be deliberate scribal changes.

Most of the Masoretes also held this view.  In other words, the Masoretes themselves thought they received a corrupted text, and so their compiled version also had to contain errors.  Were they right?

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls helps answer this question.  For these scrolls are dated to as early as 200 BC and many parts the Old Testament still survive.  Comparisons of the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Masoretic Text show about a 5% difference, most of which are minor “typos.”

Still, some differences are worth noting.  Consider Psalm 145.  In the Hebrew, each line starts with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, with the next line followed by the next letter.  In the Masoretic Text, one line is missing.  The Dead Sea Scrolls and Septuagint, however, preserve this verse: “The Lord is faithful in his words and holy in all his works.”

Now, all this would be philosophical navel-gazing if it were not for Jesus and the New Testament.  The New Testament cites the Septuagint in 340 places, but the Hebrew only 33 times.  So, over 90% of the time, Jesus and the writers of the New Testament preferred the Greek-language translation of the Old Testament.  Now, this isn’t weird, for Greek was the everyday language of the Mediterranean basin during those times.

When we look at the times Jesus quoted the Septuagint, some of the differences He brings out are significant.  Consider Matthew 12:18-20:

Here is my Servant …  I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles….  He will not break a bruised reed, or snuff out a smoldering wick until he has brought justice through to victory.

Now, check out Isaiah 42:1-4 in the Masoretic Text:

Here is my servant … I have put my Spirit on him; he will bring justice to the Gentiles.  He will not break a bruised reed, or snuff out a smoldering wick until he has established justice on the earth.

When Jesus applied these verses to Himself, He revealed what He came to do—“victory,” not “establish justice on the earth.”  “My kingdom is not of this world,” said Jesus (John 18:36).  His “justice through to victory” was His death and resurrection.

Responding to people asking Him about the children praising Him on Palm Sunday, Jesus replied in Matthew 21:16: “From the mouths of infants and nursing babies, you have prepared praise.”  Jesus quoted Psalm 8:2 from the Septuagint:  The Masoretic Text reads: “From the mouths of infants and nursing babies, you have established strength.”

By quoting from the Septuagint, Jesus teaches God will bring about praise to Him from even babies who are still nursing at the breast.  When Jesus applies this verse to Himself, He reveals He is God incarnate.  “Strength” makes no sense during the events of Palm Sunday.

In Luke 4:18-19, Luke records what Jesus read aloud in the synagogue.  This shows the Septuagint was the Scriptural text because Jesus read something lacking in the Masoretic Text:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind to set free the oppressed …

Isaiah 61:1 in the Masoretic Text reads:

The Spirit of the Lord God is on me because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and freedom to the prisoners …

Since Jesus read, “recovery of sight to the blind,” which is not in the Hebrew text, we get a snapshot of the Old Testament used by the Jews in the Synagogues: The Septuagint.  There are plenty of other examples, but these are enough for now.

So, the Septuagint was the de facto Old Testament for Jesus and His Apostles, but it is still a translation.  So, we should not ignore the Hebrew text, if only for that reason.  Also, when the Hebrew employs a literary device or form of rhetoric, not in the Septuagint, we can value what they were meant to give the original hearer (like Psalm 145 mentioned earlier).  For something is almost always lost or added during translation.

In the instances when the original Hebrew used “word play” or poetry, not understanding the text in such a way harms what we are to take in from the text.  We find an example of this in a conversation between Jeremiah and God.

Then the word of the Lord came to me, asking, “What do you see, Jeremiah?”  I replied, “I see a branch of an almond tree [Hebrew, shaked].”  The Lord said to me, “You have seen correctly, for I watch [Hebrew, shoked] over my word to accomplish it.” [Jeremiah 1:11-12]

The meaning conveyed to Jeremiah by God’s response comes in a bit of word play between shaked and shoked.  The word play reveals God is so perceptive that nothing misses His attention.  This shows, with even more vigor, that His word will accomplish what He sends it to do.  “Almond” and “watch” convey none of this extra information.  The form also carries meaning, not simply the content of the words.  We can only get this in the Hebrew, for the Septuagint uses karuinan (almond) and orao (watch).

Ah, let’s do one more since this is fun.  During creation, before God began to bring to the world into a functioning creation, Genesis tells us, “Now the earth was formless and empty” (Genesis 1:2).  The Hebrew is tohu wabohu.  Here we get a rhyme but also the reinforcement of sound.  “Tohu” means something like desolate.  The “wa” functions as an “and” with “bohu” meaning empty.  The combination of these sounds reinforces the desolation and emptiness, with one multiplying the effect of the other.

The Septuagint has aoratas kai akataskeuastos (unseen and unformed).  This conveys the information but turns “tohu vabohu” into two separate ideas since “unseen” and “unformed” are different enough to turn the “and” into a separator.

So, what’s the point of all this?  To study the Old Testament, and even the New Testament, requires looking into both the Hebrew Text and Greek-language Old Testament.  Doing this helps us understand a text more fully, delighting in what God wants us to know.  For if God “bothered” to preserve both for our instruction, how can we not take the effort to learn from both?

This is one reason Jesus has pastors in His Church so they can bring you the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27).