A few months back I went down a rabbit hole studying all the different ways to talk about swords and spears in the Old Testament (in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek).  It was a fun research project but it touched upon a much more fundamental problem when talking about the Old Testament.  Rather than write a long introduction to an already long survey, I let the draft languish.

This is that long introduction.

(Warning: much of what follows is a gross simplification of a complicated scholarly field.  I know no shame and I’m not consulting sources from my old training.)

As I think most people know (??), the books of the Old Testament were originally composed in Hebrew.  It’s a bit more complicated than that, involving many centuries and cultures, but for now let’s just simplify.  My old biblical studies friends can wag their fingers at me later.

Fewer people may know that, around 200 years before the birth of Christ, the Old Testament was translated into Greek in a massive project that came to be known as the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX).  It was the fruit of, but also necessitated by, the Hellenization of the Mediterranean world.  Major accomplishment!  Much important!  Thanks, Alexander!

The Septuagint would form the backbone of another major translation project several centuries later, St. Jerome’s “Vulgate.”  Part of what made St. Jerome’s work controversial in his own day was that he compared the Septuagint to other, Hebrew manuscripts also available to him.  It is for this reason that he is often considered the first modern biblical scholar.

Now I’ve glossed over a ton already, but I mostly want to focus on an important question: knowing what we know today about languages, translations, and the compositional history of the Old Testament, which manuscripts are “more authentic” or “more real”: Greek or Hebrew?  Which would you rather have, the Hebrew original or the Greek translation?

That’s a no-brainer, right?  Shouldn’t we check our Greek Septuagint against our Hebrew manuscripts and let the Hebrew be the authoritative one?

Paradigm Shift

This became a major topic during the run-up to and throughout the Reformation.  Catholic devotion to that sad, out-dated Vulgate/Septuagint tradition had to give way to better, fresher Hebrew manuscripts!  If you couldn’t find it in the Hebrew, throw it out!  Much like what happened in arts and sciences with the recovery of classical Greek texts, there was a strong reactionary movement of returning to the oldest sources.

That all makes sense for a number of reasons.  Sure makes textual sense, right?  We all wish we had Origen’s Greek Peri Archon and didn’t have to rely so heavily on the Latin fragments, right?  Stuff changes a lot when you translate, and translators make mistakes and are dumb!

There was also a strong religious/theological element to this movement that gave it a lot more legs than an academic fad typically would have.  This became a major element of the Protestant v. Catholic dispute over authority.  Catholics using crappy translations helped feed the narratives of both Luther and Calvin who sought to replace Catholic authority each in his own way.  As a result, for many centuries it was Protestants who blazed the trails of modern biblical scholarship and the so-called historical-critical methods.

That paradigm shift was so successful that pretty much no one in biblical studies disputes it today.  It’s just part of the standard landscape.  Older manuscripts are better.  Original languages are better.  Of course they are!  How could they not be?  Bibles for centuries now have bragged about being based on the best Hebrew manuscripts for the Old Testament books, especially the Psalms.

Plot Twist

So there’s a pop-history of the Hebrew v. Greek thing.  In general the Vulgate and the Septuagint are considered to be “crappy translations” of Hebrew.  Just compare them!  Man, what were these seventy (hence the abbreviation, LXX) scribes smoking when they rendered their Greek?  These Hebrew manuscripts say something totally different!  They didn’t even number the Psalms correctly!  No wonder the Catholic Church is so screwed up!

The other shoe, once it hits the table, is this: our Hebrew manuscripts are not our oldest ones.


There’s a naive tendency to think that our Hebrew manuscripts are older than our Greek translations because, hey, obviously, the Hebrew came first.  The problem with that theory is that our LXX manuscripts are muuuuuch older.  Not a little bit older.  Like a thousand years older.

The Hebrew manuscripts, the so-called “Masoretic Text” (MT) used by Jews to this day, are supposed to represent a faithful handing on of the Hebrew originals as they were preserved in the Temple over two thousand years ago.  But the only actual manuscripts we have of the Hebrew are about a thousand years old.  The Vulgate had been in use for over 600 years at that point!  The Septuagint, our particular focus here, is vastly more ancient still.

Now there’s no easy move here by which we can say one is superior to the other, because it’s like comparing apples and x-rays.  Maybe the Septuagint is just a really old bad translation and the Masoretic text really is continuous with the ancient Temple scrolls.  Maybe.

But we can tell a just-so story that reverses things pretty easily, right?  Watch: We have Septuagint manuscripts from the time when the Temple was actually still around and the Masoretic text is late, super-late, a much later invention.  Of course the Greek is more accurate!  Maybe the stuff that’s “added” to the Septuagint is actually “subtracted” from the Hebrew.  Maybe the MT is controlled and homogenized by the Masoretes!

Within Christianity, a whole apologetics game broke out of trying to show that Jesus quoted from the Septuagint so, duh, we should use it too.  Or, no he didn’t!  Yes, huh!

Boy that sure sounds like an unsolvable impasse, amirite?

Enter the Dead Sea Scrolls

You know what we need for this fight?  A healthy dose of archaeology!  And in 1946, we got one.

I think most people have at least heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls, even if they don’t know exactly what they are.  There’s about a bajillion books written on the subject and there’s always wikipedia for the overview.  Short version: the religious and ceremonial texts of an obscure Jewish community from around the time of Jesus.

The Dead Sea Scrolls were an enormously important archaeological discovery for lots of reasons.  It taught us a lot about a religious community living about 2000 years ago, it gave us new manuscripts that we’d never even heard about before, it gave us tons of new examples of language and usage, and it gave us much, much older Hebrew manuscripts for the Old Testament.

How to interpret the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls is a matter of scholarly dispute and has been since their discovery.  But let’s swing this back around to our little topic.  By gaining access to Hebrew manuscripts roughly on par, age-wise, with the Septuagint sources we already had, comparing the two languages was no longer a matter of apples and x-rays.  We’re in the apples-to-pears range, now!

You know what?  It turns out that a lot of the Old Testament manuscripts we found at Qumran are quite close to the Masoretic Text.  Hey, look at that!  We call them proto-Masoretic because they are not identical, but they show us that there was definitely a text tradition that the Masoretes were working from.  Cool!  Fight over!

Wait, the other shoe hits the table (again?).  Because we also found Hebrew texts that are not proto-Masoretic and, mirabile scriptu, Hebrew texts that substantially agree with the Septuagint.

A big, big part of what the Dead Sea Scrolls showed us is that both the LXX and the MT trace back to very old Hebrew sources which must be related at some point in the distant past prior to the composition of the LXX.  We learned that there was a diversity of Hebrew text traditions even at the time of Jesus and almost certainly going back much farther than that–probably to the time of the LXX at a minimum and maybe beyond.

Girls, you’re both pretty!

Back to the Present

What does that pop-survey mean for your typical Joe or Jane trying to be fancy by looking at the Greek and Hebrew when they study their Bible?  Just this: there is no reasonable way to compare the Hebrew in the left column of your tri-glot with the Greek in the middle column.  Or you can, but there’s no point.  Any Hebrew text you read in any modern Bible is Masoretic, and any Greek text is Septuagint.

There are a lot of places throughout the Old Testament where the translation differences are laugh-out-loud funny, and thousands of the more pedestrian sort.  It is very important to understand that the LXX translators weren’t “smoking something,” they just weren’t looking at the Hebrew manuscript that you’re looking at today.  Moreover, St. Jerome didn’t  have the MT on his left and the LXX on his right while making the Vulgate.  He definitely had the LXX, but he also had non-MT Hebrew for sure, as well as other Latin and Greek manuscripts.  The poor man translated the Psalms three different times!

It’s not even correct to say that one is “better” than another, unless perhaps we ever stumble upon true originals from 600 BC or whatever.  Even then, on that hypothetical day, we would have to grapple all over again with the Catholic v. Protestant battle over authority and the guidance of the Holy Spirit and God’s preservation of his people from error and the possible inspiration of the LXX and what a wisdom tradition is.

But that’s getting to a little too heady for what is, after all, meant as a casual introduction to talk of swords and spears in the Old Testament.  Just remember, the guys who made these texts thousands of years ago know the difference between a whip, a dagger, and a spear.  If the three languages show three different weapons employed by the same actor…

They’re all working from different manuscripts.


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