Saturday, February 20, 2010

Since we've been talking about the LXX...

Daniel O. McClellan has written a great post on his blog dealing with some of the issues involved in its translation and transmission. Here's a quote:
In Septuagint studies a common caution against appealing to wildly speculative translator exegesis to account for divergences between MT and LXX is the recognition that the translators were working with a text they recognized as authoritative and unique, and so would have been reluctant to deviate much from the Vorlage. This been confirmed to some degree in a few LXX books where research (particularly of the Finnish school) confirms a high degree of fidelity to the Vorlage combined with dynamic equivalency. In these books, many seeming divergences actually fall within the semantic scope of the Hebrew, if they’re not mistakes or derived from a distinctVorlage.[1] I think caution is in order, though, and I’ll explain why.
Check it out! Reverencing the Text of the Bible

The link was incorrect. fix'd.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Septuagint Pt. 2

This was originally going to be a reply in responses of the previous thread, but it was too long, so it becomes a post.

It is foremost a response to some of Josh's and Hebrew Scholar's objections, but I would like to start out by saying that Helgi's NT professor is a nut. He's part of the Jesus Seminar for goodness sake.
Now that that's off my chest, Lets talk a little more about the Masoretes. It was not their intention, I'll agree, to change anything in the text. They took the best available consonantal texts as the basis for their work. However, they give thousands of alternate vocalizations that would require different consonants. Many of these, it's true, are simple waw – yod shifts, but there are plenty of other differences as well. In other words, their received oral tradition was not the same as the base text. Futhermore, we have clear cases within the development of the Masoretic tradition where the marginal reading (the spoken text) is moved into the main text, and the original consonants disappear. We also have cases of normal scrible errors, mostly with resh and dalet and things like that. Even though the Masoretes display a fidelity that is almost super-human within the scribal world, they were not perfect. Indeed, no two even of the Masoretic manuscripts are identical. There is only one that is in complete agreement with it's own Mazorah (scribal notes), Codex Aleppo, and that text was the work of Aaron ben Asher's lifetime. He spent years correcting and re-correcting it to get it to the state of perfection it is. Granted, the differences are generally negligible, but they do exist. No scribe is perfect.
I agree, of course, that the Hebrew transmission of the text has been much more faithful that the Greek transmission. That is obvious. It doesn't change the fact that there are times when we can tell, due to the nature of the variant, that the translators had a different Hebrew text or tradition of vocalization before them. When there is such evidence, it is not to be taken lightly because it is certainly not an error created by a clumsy or faithless greek scribe who didn't even know Hebrew. The LXX, on many occasions, represents an alternate form of the Hebrew text going back to 250 B.C. (or whenever various books were added). This does not automatically mean that it is the “original Hebrew,” any more than variants found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Samaritan Pentateuch, or the variants with the the Masoretic tradition itself. It means that, when you find these kinds of differences, you place the reconstructed Hebrew text from LXX next to the MT (and the DSS, if your lucky) and try to work out what happened.
As far as Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, I don't think they are perfect witnesses to the original translations of the LXX. I believe I said they were “fair representations.” The Masoretes were probably the best scribes in history. However, they were not the only erudite school of scribes ever to have arisen. The Alexandrian scribal school was the most renowned of its time, and there were many good Jewish scribes there as well. In fact, Philo of Alexandria believe the LXX translation itself was inspired down to the letter, just as he believed of the Hebrew text. The scribes of Alexandria took the transmission of the LXX very seriously. They did not, of course, approach the level of erudition displayed by the Masoretes, but they were the best of their time. Furthermore, the LXX, contrary to the New Testament, was born in Alexandria. It's transmission in that city was carefully controlled from the time of its creation. I do not mean to suggest that there are no problems with the text. There are. I'm just saying that they its pretty good.
Speaking of the Dead Sea Scrolls, those are definite versions of the Hebrew text that are more ancient than any other, and they often disagree with the MT (and many times agree with the LXX). And don't try to bring arguments about sectarian bias. Most of the Biblical manuscripts at Qumran pre-date the sect itself, and there are very few signs of any sort of sectarian interpolation in those manuscripts. Indeed the very most ancient Biblical texts, those two micro inscriptions found in burial caves at Ketef Hinnom, dated to the seventh century B.C., differ VASTLY from the traditional Hebrew text. They are so early, however, that I question whether the people who made them and used them even thought about any kind of “Bible.” They may just as likely been using something that was repeated with various forms by the priests at the Jerusalem Temple, and were not trying to use a biblical text per-se. That isn't to say that there wasn't some kind of sacred scripture at the time, just that I'm not sure the maker of the scrolls would be any more concerned with it than with the daily rites at the temple.
Aside from those two inscriptions, however, I do think the MT represents the most ancient base texts, older than those at Qumran or reconstructed from the LXX. The Hebrew spelling of the MT is characteristic of the Persian period, as where the spelling at Qumran is from the Hellenistic period. This means that the tradition adopted by the Masoretes reflects an earlier form of consonantal text.
Yes, now is the time to do the double take. The spelling conventions of the MT date to the Persian period. In the first temple period, they only used mater lexiones (consonants that represent vowels... it's complicated...) at the end of words. Assuming there were written Hebrew traditions prior to the first temple period (and assuming that they would have used an alphabetic rather than sylabic scripts), it is doubtful that they would have used any mater lexiones at all (no other alphabetic writing systems of that period do so). In any case, it is nearly inconceivable that whatever traditions we have preserved reflect the spelling of anything prior to the exile. Indeed, the farther back one goes, the less precise it seems scribes cared to be. This is somewhat troubling when it comes to a text with the antiquity of the Hebrew Bible, especially when our earliest manuscripts are many hundreds of years after the original.
Of course, for Josh, I imagine the Torah is of particular concern. We may be very thankful that in all of the various versions, the Torah is the most well established textually. The variants there are not so many or so difficult. The variants in spelling between the DSS and the MT are still everywhere, but the assumed reading is hardly different (indeed, the additional Mater Lexiones in the DSS often confirm a masoretic vocalization that would not be apparent from the consonants of the MT alone). The Torah appears to have been transmitted by all involved with the utmost care as far back as our manuscripts allow us to see (except for some very obvious interpolations by the Samaritans, but even they have been very careful overall). There are still problems, but they are not too bad.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Septuagint and Hebrew textual criticism

I'm known among my classmates as someone with a fondness for the Septuagint (the Ancient Greek translation of the the Hebrew bible; LXX for short). The Septuagint is the earliest surviving translation of the Hebrew Bible into any other language.* I have an Orthodox Jewish friend who is quite partial to the traditional Hebrew text, as one might imagine (not that I don't like it). This friend, Josh, is always asking where anyone would get the idea that the LXX is more authoritative that the traditional Hebrew text. Unfortunately, there has never been the adequate time to explain the issues involved, but I do better in writing than talking anyway.
It is to be said from that start, that it very much depends upon what means by “authoritative.” In such a situation, I hardly feel that it's my place to tell to a Jew what is authoritative for his system of belief. Orthodox Judaism holds the Masoretic Text (MT) as the authoritative version of the Bible for their religion (to simplify the story), and I'm not going to argue that they should do anything different (I might argue that they should believe Jesus is the Messiah, but one thing at a time, I guess). 
The question is first and foremost a matter of textual criticism. The problem is that no two biblical manuscripts (prior to the invention of the printing press) say exactly the same thing. Now, in both Old and New Testaments respectively, there is a family of texts to which the vast majority of manuscripts conform, but all of those manuscripts are later than might be desired. In the case of the New Testament, most scholars think that those manuscripts do not best represent the original text, as most of the very earliest manuscripts are somewhat different, and for various reasons, a certain family of ancient manuscripts appear to be the most accurate. Luckly, in the New Testament, we have thousands of manuscripts, many of which are very ancient. Though we can never be sure what the original text was, we have witnesses for most documents quite near to the time of their composition.
For the Hebrew Bible, the traditional text is generally thought to represent the most ancient form of the text. Unfortunately, the earliest of these texts are from the eighth century C.E. The group who produced this text, known as the Masoretes, I would consider to be the greatest scribes who every lived. They took the best Hebrew manuscripts of their time, compared with some of the others, added notes about where vocalization differed from the consonantal texts. They counted words, the counted letters, they counted everything. They invented the system of Hebrew vowels that is still used today (for which first year Hebrew students might hate them). They produced excellent manuscripts, and with an accuracy has never been matched before or after. After doing the world such a great service, they did us almost an equal disservice; the destroyed nearly every Hebrew manuscript prior to their work, locking the Hebrew tradition down to a single family. We don't know what manuscripts they used, and more importantly, we don't know which manuscripts they rejected.
Now, the Masoretes are not wholly to be blamed for this. The Romans, much earlier, had destroyed any documents they found in Hebrew. They also, doubtless, bereft posterity of many Biblical manuscripts, not to mention other interesting documents that would have shed light on second temple Judaism, and probably even earlier times. The Dead Sea Scrolls are, as far as I know, the only substantial Hebrew documents to be preserved from the second temple period. There may be a few others, but they are not so important (or I am very ignorant, which is also possible [remembered later that there has been some good stuff discovered at Masada]). At any rate, they certainly are the oldest biblical texts ever discovered (with the exception of two tiny inscriptions on silver scrolls discovered my one of my teachers a few miles off from where I now sit). Unfortunately, most of the Biblical texts at Qumran are so fragmentary that they are of little use for tracing the history of the text. However, we do have complete witnesses to Isaiah and Habakkuk there, and there are sometimes interesting things to be found in the fragments as well. They are just swell.
However, there are other sources of knowledge about the state of the text in ancient times, and those are the ancient translations. The foremost, as already mentioned, is the Greek, the LXX. The translation of the Torah was in the late third or early second century B.C., and all of the books were probably finished in some kind of fixed form by the middle of the first century B.C., as they appear to have been in wide use throughout the Roman empire by the end of the first century C.E. Naturally, this was a purely Jewish translation, as Jesus wasn't yet born. In the Torah, it is a fairly literal rendering of the Hebrew, and in other books, the style varies, from wooden literalism, to very free idiomatic translation and even paraphrase. The best and some of the earliest manuscripts we have are from the third century C.E., the famous Sinaiticus (א) and Vaticanus (B), produced by the Alexandrian scribal school. Very luckily, this is considered among the best scribal schools of antiquity, and it is also the city where the LXX was originally produced. These manuscripts, though they probably have some corruptions, give a fairly good representation of the original form of the LXX (not that all sections are free from difficulty). Both Jewish and Christian scribes were involved in their transmission, though the Jews had recently rejected the LXX translation, and began sticking more closely to their own Hebrew and Aramaic translations, as well as a new, extremely literal, Greek translation made by one Aquila.
Speaking of Aramaic translations, known as targums, they probably existed orally for a very long time, since the time of Ezra at least, becoming ever more fixed in form, and were written down around the second or third century C.E. Our earliest manuscripts are from the sixth century, as far as I recall. The Targums are fond of paraphrase, and will occasionally add an explanatory note here or there directly into the text. It has also been updated over time to conform more closely to the traditional Jewish interpretation of the Hebrew text. We have much earlier fragmentary targums from Qumran, but they have a lot of differences from the major targums used today, illustrating that this was a somewhat fluid tradition in early times, controlled by the interpretation of the Hebrew.
Though with both the Greek and Aramaic versions, the texts we have are later than one might want, since they are copies of a more ancient translation, they take on a totally different life than the tradition from which they were made. All of the traditions inevitably take on changes as they are passed from hand to hand, but they take on different changes. What this means is that, amongst all of them, we can come closer to what the original version may have been. The more we have, the better.
There are a few other ancient versions of note: The Samaritan Pentateuch. We don't know when the Samaritans first had their distinctive version of the Torah. They claim they have had it since it came from Sinai, and the Jews changed it. However, their text, as far as I know, has more traces of sectarian bias. I haven't done the study myself. It is undoubtedly quite ancient, and should at least be consulted when working on the Hebrew text. The Samaritan communities here in Israel have recently developed a system of vocalization for their text in this past generation. Before that, all of the vowels were transmitted orally. Unfortunately, these texts are very expensive to buy. The first English translation of it with commentary is now at the presses. One of my classmates was involved in the editorial process.
Also to be mentioned are the Latin and Syriac versions, the earliest Christian translations. The Old Latin versions were, unfortunately, based on the Septuagint, and serve us much better to illuminate the history of that text than the Hebrew. The Syriac version his also heavily based on the LXX, but it seems to be conferring with a Hebrew text as well. It must be used very carefully. The later Latin Version, the first commissioned by the church, is Jerome's Vulgate from the end of the fourth century, a translation directly from the Hebrew. It is, overall, a good translation. It appears to represent a Hebrew tradition very closely related to the the traditional version still used in Synagogues today (which makes the divergences even more interesting).
Now, when dealing with all of this evidence there are several things to take into consideration. The translations are very interesting in and of themselves, as they very much represent the theologies and interpretations of the communities that created them (this, perhaps, is where my love for the LXX is really founded. It shows us how Jews were reading the Bible in pre-Christian times). However, if one is simply inquiring as to history of the Hebrew text, One must be very careful how they evaluate the evidence. There are many cases of explanatory words and phrases being added by the translators, and one must be aware of such things. In additions, there can be changes which are clearly scribal errors in the receiving languages. What is most interesting are cases that reveal scribal changes and errors in the Hebrew.
There are cases where the Masoretic text (MT) is very difficult to understand, and the LXX says something totally different. When this happens, one attempts to reconstruct the Hebrew underlying LXX. Sometimes, is seems clear that the translators simply changed the meaning so it would make sense, or a Hebrew scribe added a word (a much more rare occurrence). Other times, you will find that it is the difference of a single Hebrew letter, and when that is amended, the MT makes perfect sense. These are the kinds of the things the textual critic is looking for. There are even times when you find that the meaning is totally different, but the reconstructed Hebrew text is identical. It is only the Vowels that are different. This is even more interesting, since the vowels were only written down in the time of the Masoretes. However, occasionally, the LXX, Targum, or the Latin version will attests a different tradition of vocalization. It is often up to the textual critic to decide which of these vocalizations makes more sense in context, and there are few objective criteria to be used (aside from conventions of Biblical Hebrew orthography, which themselves are hotly debated).
However, I must impress that, overall, there is great unity among the various textual traditions, and the stand as a testament to the good work of the Masoretes and their predecessors. There are some exceptions. Jeremiah and Samuel are huge problems textually. The Psalms are also not great. Still, the messages of these books are not greatly changed by such problems.
This further raises questions about which form of text any particular community should be exegeting. To that, I don't have an answer. Catholics have the Latin versions and the Canons for interpretation, Eastern Orthodox have the Byzantine text of the LXX. Orthodox Jews have the MT and the Midrashim as a source of authority. As protestants, we say that we are trying to reconstruct the original text. However, most of the books of the Old Testament (in contrast to those of the New), went through extremely long periods of editorial process, and it is difficult to say which text is then the “original.” In some books, it seems there are textual witnesses from before the completion of a large part of the editorial work (such as Jeremiah). On the other hand, even the MT represents, in a way, a final phase of editorial and interpretative decisions (as do all translations, ancient and modern). As a student of scripture, this is a fascinating process. As a Christian who goes to scripture as a source of authority, I must admit it causes some perplexity, and leaves me in search of paradigms for inspiration and authority that do justice to the complexity of the text we have. That question, I must leave for others until a later time. I certainly don't have an answer at the moment, and theology isn't exactly my strong suit. Reading the Bible tends to mess up one's theology.

*With the possible exception of some fragmentary Aramaic versions from Qumran, which may be contemporary.

P.S. Having recently read some things by Prof. Emmanuel Tov, this post seems so yucky and inadequate. I really need to look more into OT textual criticism. 8^(