Perhaps it goes without saying, but the Bible didn’t start as the Bible we know today. It was written over a vast span of time by many different authors. “According to the traditional view, the Old Testament Scriptures were produced from the time of Moses to the time of Malachi, that is, from about 1400 B.C. to around 400 B.C.” (1).  During this time the Bible, or more precisely the Old Testament, was written entirely in Hebrew.

However, while the Old Testament was written entirely in Hebrew, it was not written in the same forms of Hebrew. For instance, there seems to have been a substantial change in Hebrew grammar and script (how the letters are formed) between the time that Moses penned the Pentateuch and when Malachi finished his prophetic work (2). Unfortunately, we have no Hebrew manuscripts which were written before 400 B.C. (3). What we do have are manuscripts predating the time of Christ with uniform grammar and font. This suggests that by the time of Jesus, He and any other Jewish person who read a Hebrew Old Testament were not reading the original versions of the Old Testament. Instead they read versions with updated script and grammar intended to make the entire text more easy to read for contemporary Jews (4).

Another important clarification is needed at this point. Though it is true that Jews at the time of Jesus would likely have read from an updated Hebrew version of the OT, it is not necessarily true that this was the primary Bible they used. Instead, it appears that Jesus and His disciples were very familiar with a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible and were more likely to reference this Greek translation than the original Hebrew when writing the New Testament (5).

This Greek translation is often referred to as the Septuagint (LXX). The history and development of the LXX is a complicated topic, however it seems clear that “the Pentateuch was originally translated in Alexandria around the year 250 BCE, and the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures were translated within the following two or three centuries” (6). Like modern versions today, the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek was met with some resistance, however, the translation’s influence in early Christian history clearly demonstrates that the early church not only accepted the translation but relied on them heavily (7). The fact that the New Testament authors regularly cite from the LXX clearly validates it as a reliable source.

It is impossible to prove any single motivation that led to the first Greek translation of Old Testament (8). Nevertheless, it seems undeniable that this translation was written to benefit people who did not know Hebrew. It is perhaps telling that this version of the Old Testament was translated into Koine Greek. Koine, which simply means “common,” was the Greek used for “commerce and communication” throughout the empire (9). Thus, the LXX effectively made the Old Testament accessible to people otherwise unfamiliar with the Hebrew language or religion.

Implications

Considering the nature of the Bible that Jesus read provides us several implications in our quest to evaluate modern English versions of the Bible.

One important implication is that knowing that they were reading from an updated version and a translation of the Old Testament did not erode Jesus’ or his disciples’ confidence in the Bible. It is Jesus who said in Matthew 5:18 that not one jot or tittle would pass away from the Law. And Paul, who often quoted from the LXX, said in 1 Timothy 3:16 that, “All Scripture is profitable for teaching, rebuke, correction, and training in righteousness.” These types of comments reveal that Jesus and his disciples did not think the changes found in the Hebrew updates or the Greek translation impaired the reliability or effectiveness of God’s word.

It is perhaps worth noting that this trust in the translation of God’s Word is quite different from some other religions, most notably, Islam. The following quote, taken from Wikipedia, reveals that Islamic teaching suggests that one can never confidently apprehend the meaning of the Koran in a language or form other than its original

According to modern Islamic theology, the Qur’an is a revelation very specifically in Arabic, and so it should only be recited in Quranic Arabic. Translations into other languages are necessarily the work of humans and so, according to Muslims, no longer possess the uniquely sacred character of the Arabic original.(10)

Christians, if they follow Christ’s example, think otherwise. There is nothing magical about the script or even the exact word choices of the original Biblical authors. Instead, the power of the Bible is in its ability to communicate God’s message to us. While word choice is an indispensable tool in communication, Christians since the time of Christ have clearly believed that different words from entirely differently languages can be trusted to effectively communicate God’s message.

This is great news for the English speaking Christian. If the Hebrew Bible could be updated and translated into Greek without losing its trustworthiness or life-changing power (Hebrews 4:12), this gives us reason to believe that both the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament can be translated into our native tongue in a way that does not compromise the trustworthiness of the life-changing power of God’s message.

Of course, recognizing that the Bible can be reliably translated does not mean that every translation is equally accurate or helpful. Nevertheless, recognizing that Jesus himself, along with his disciples, relied on an updated and translated copy of the Old Testament gives us sufficient grounds to believe that we too could enjoy the privilege of reading the Scriptures in our native tongue.

 


(1) Ellis R. Brotzman, Old Testament Textual Criticism: a practical introduction. (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 1994), 37.
(2) Bruce Waltke and M. O’Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax. (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbraums, 1990), 17. Waltke states, “From the Amarna correspondence, Ugaritic texts, and other evidence, we can infer with reasonable confidence that before the Amarna period (ca. 1350 B.C.E) Hebrew possessed final short vowels, which would have differentiated cases with nouns and distinguished various prefix conjugations. The grammar preserved by the Masoretes, however, represents a later period, after these vowels have been dropped.”
(3) Waltke, 16, claims, “No extant manuscript of the Hebrew Bible can be dated before 400 B.C.E by the disciplines of paleography or archeology (even with the help of nuclear physics).”
(4) Brotzman, 42, states, “In summary, the Old Testament text was updated in several ways during the period from the writing of individual books until 300 B.C. Books initially written and copied in an archaic script were later copied and transmitted in the square script…. The spelling of the Old Testament text was also upgraded throughout this stage by the introduction of vowel letters.
(5) Karen H. Jobes and Moisés Silva, Invitation to the Septuagint, Second Edition. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015), 5, explain, “The Greek OT, not the Hebrew Bible, was the primary theological and literary context within which the writers of the NT and most early Christians worked. This does not mean that the NT writers were ignorant of the Hebrew Bible or that they did not use it. But since the NT authors were writing in Greek, they would naturally quote, allude to, and otherwise use a Greek version of the Hebrew Bible.”
(6) Jobes and Silva, 13.
(7) Referring to the Jewish resistance of the Greek translation, Jobes and Silva, 19, state, “It is also likely that the Greek translation of the Pentateuch did not enjoy universal favor among the Jews. The much later, minor talmudic tractate Sopherim states: “It happened once that five elders wrote the Torah for King Ptolemy in Greek, and that day was as ominous for Israel as the day on which the golden calf was made, since the Torah could not be accurately translated” (Sopherim 1.7).” Nevertheless, the Greek translation of the OT was still the dominant version for the early church as Jobes and Silva, 7, explain, “[T]he Greek, not the Hebrew text, was the Bible used by the early church fathers and councils. As Christian doctrine on the nature of Jesus and the Trinity developed, discussion centered on the exegesis of key OT texts. Because most of the church fathers could not read Hebrew, exegetical debates were settled using the Greek OT.”
(8) Jobes and Silva, 21, list common theories regarding the motivations for the origin of the LXX including (1) Ptolemy initiated it to complete his library or to access the law code of the Alexandrian Jews, (2) the Alexandrian Jews initiated it for liturgical, legal, or educational purposes, or (3) the Jerusalem Jews initiated it to influence Alexandrian Jews or, more broadly, to influence the Greek world.
(9) David Alan Black, Learn to Read New Testament Greek, 3rd ed. (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2009), 1, states, “It was largely a descendent of Attic Greek that was adopted as the official language of the Greek empire after the conquests of Alexander the Great, which accounts for its use in the New Testament. This new world language has been called the “Koine,” or “common,” Greek since it was the common language of everyday commerce and communication.”
(10) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quran_translations, cited 12/24/2016.
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