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The motivation of Bible translators to get the Bible right in translation can be traced back to the Greek Septuagint, which was a translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. The Septuagint was widely used in the Greek-speaking world and was an important source for early Christian writers. However, as with any translation, there were challenges in accurately rendering the original Hebrew text into Greek, and later revisions were made to the Septuagint to improve its accuracy.
Jewish scholars such as Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion produced revised versions of the Septuagint that were closer to the original Hebrew text. These revisions demonstrate a commitment to accurately translating the Bible and have influenced later efforts to translate the Bible into other languages.
The reasons why the Jewish scholars revised the Greek Septuagint are not entirely clear, as we do not have direct accounts of their motivations. However, scholars have made several educated guesses based on the historical context and textual evidence.
One possible reason for the revisions is that the Greek Septuagint was not entirely faithful to the original Hebrew text and included various additions, omissions, and changes that had crept in over time. Jewish scholars may have been concerned about the accuracy and authority of the Septuagint and felt a need to produce a more faithful translation.
Another possible reason is that Jewish scholars were seeking to preserve the Hebrew language and culture in the face of Hellenization. The translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek was part of a broader cultural exchange between the Jewish and Greek worlds. The revisions may have reasserted Jewish cultural identity and emphasized the importance of the Hebrew language.
Additionally, some scholars have suggested that the revisions were motivated by theological concerns. For example, the Greek Septuagint used the word “kyrios” (Lord) to refer to God, whereas the Hebrew Bible uses the divine name JHVH. Jewish scholars may have felt that the use of “kyrios” in the Septuagint obscured the unique identity of the Jewish God and therefore sought to revise the translation.
Ultimately, the motivations behind the revisions of the Septuagint are likely complex and multifaceted and may have been influenced by a variety of social, cultural, linguistic, and theological factors.
It is certainly possible that theology and theological bias played a role in the revisions of the Greek Septuagint. The Jewish scholars who revised the Septuagint were likely deeply committed to their religious and cultural traditions. They may have had theological reasons for wanting to produce a more accurate translation of the Hebrew Bible.
For example, some scholars have suggested that the Jewish revisions of the Septuagint were motivated by a desire to distance themselves from the emerging Christian community. Early Christians widely used the Septuagint, an important source for their theological beliefs. The revisions may have asserted Jewish theological distinctiveness and resisted Christian interpretation of the text.
Another example of theological bias in translation can be seen in the use of the divine name JHVH in the Hebrew Bible. The Greek Septuagint used the word “kyrios” (Lord) to refer to God, which some scholars have argued was influenced by theological beliefs about the sacredness of the divine name. The Jewish revisions of the Septuagint may have been motivated by a desire to restore the use of the divine name in the text and emphasize the unique identity of the Jewish God.
There are Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible that use the Tetragrammaton (JHVH) instead of “kyrios” (Lord). These translations are known as “Tetragrammaton-Sēmeia” texts, and are believed to date from the first few centuries CE. And there are earlier examples of Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible that use the Tetragrammaton (YHWH) instead of “kyrios” (Lord), such as the Nash Papyrus and P. Fouad Inv. 266, which date from the 2nd century BCE.
The use of the Tetragrammaton in these Greek translations is notable because it is a departure from the standard Greek Septuagint practice of using “kyrios” to refer to God. This has led some scholars to suggest that the Tetragrammaton-Sēmeia texts may have been produced by Jewish translators who were seeking to preserve the use of the divine name in the Greek text.
However, the Tetragrammaton-Sēmeia texts are relatively rare, and most Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible use “kyrios” to refer to God. The Jewish revisions of the Greek Septuagint, while not using the Tetragrammaton, may have been motivated by a desire to emphasize the unique identity of the Jewish God and assert Jewish theological distinctiveness in the face of Hellenization and Christian influence.
These early Greek translations with the Tetragrammaton, as well as the later Tetragrammaton-Sēmeia texts I mentioned earlier, demonstrate that the use of the divine name in Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible was not entirely absent. However, the standard practice in most Greek translations was to use “kyrios” to refer to God, and it is possible that the Jewish revisions of the Greek Septuagint were motivated by a desire to restore the use of the divine name in the text.
Regardless of the use of the divine name, Jewish scholars’ revisions of the Greek Septuagint demonstrate a commitment to accurately translating the Hebrew Bible into Greek and preserving the authority and accuracy of the original text, even if it did not always live up to this expectation. This commitment to accurate translation has had a lasting influence on Bible translators throughout history.
Theodotion, Aquila, and Symmachus
Theodotion, Aquila, and Symmachus were all Jewish scholars who produced revised translations of the Greek Septuagint in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE. Each of these scholars made significant contributions to the field of Biblical translation and had a lasting impact on the way the Bible was understood and translated in later centuries.
Theodotion was a Jewish convert to Christianity who produced a revised translation of the Greek Septuagint in the late 2nd century CE. His translation was known for its faithfulness to the original Hebrew text and was widely used by Christian communities in the Eastern Mediterranean. Theodotion’s translation of the book of Daniel was particularly influential and was incorporated into the Christian canon.
Aquila was a Jewish scholar who produced a new translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek in the early 2nd century CE. His translation was known for its literalness and faithfulness to the original Hebrew text, and was widely used by Jewish communities. Aquila’s translation was particularly influential in Jewish exegesis and was cited by many later Jewish scholars.
Symmachus was a Samaritan convert to Judaism who produced a revised translation of the Greek Septuagint in the late 2nd century CE. His translation was known for its elegance and clarity and was widely used by Jewish communities. Symmachus’ translation was particularly influential in Jewish exegesis and was cited by many later Jewish and Christian scholars.
Together, Theodotion, Aquila, and Symmachus represent a tradition of Jewish scholarship that was committed to accurately translating the Hebrew Bible into Greek and preserving the authority and accuracy of the original text. Their translations influenced later Christian and Jewish scholars and demonstrated the importance of accurate translation in interpreting and understanding the Bible.
Here are a few examples of translation decisions made by Theodotion, Aquila, and Symmachus that were beneficial for being more accurate or more literal:
Theodotion’s translation of the book of Daniel included several revisions that were more faithful to the original Hebrew text than the Septuagint. For example, Theodotion translated the Aramaic word “pesar” as “parsin” instead of “upharsin,” which was used in the Septuagint. This was likely a more accurate translation, as “parsin” is a plural form of the word “peres,” which means “division,” and is consistent with the context of the passage.
Aquila’s translation was known for its literalness and adherence to the original Hebrew text. For example, in his translation of Psalm 1:3, Aquila uses the word “nachal” to describe a tree planted by a river, which is a more accurate translation than the Septuagint’s use of the word “rhiza,” which means “root.” “Nachal” means “stream” or “river,” which better conveys the image of a tree being nourished by water.
Symmachus’ translation was known for its clarity and elegance. For example, in his translation of Genesis 2:7, Symmachus uses the word “anapneō” to describe God breathing life into Adam. This is a more literal translation than the Septuagint’s use of “emphysaō,” which means “infused,” and better conveys the idea of God breathing life into Adam.
Overall, these examples demonstrate how Theodotion, Aquila, and Symmachus made translation decisions that were more faithful to the original Hebrew text and better conveyed the meaning of the text in the Greek language. Their translations set a precedent for accurate and faithful translation and had a lasting influence on the way the Bible was understood and translated in later centuries.
These Revisions Inform Us
The revisions of the Greek Septuagint by Theodotion, Aquila, and Symmachus tell us several things about the history of Biblical translation and interpretation:
The revisions demonstrate a commitment to accurately translating the Hebrew Bible into Greek. The Jewish scholars who revised the Septuagint were concerned with preserving the accuracy and authority of the original Hebrew text and sought to produce translations that were faithful to the original text.
The revisions highlight the challenges and complexities of translation. The Septuagint was an attempt to translate a Hebrew text into Greek, two very different languages with different grammatical structures and nuances of meaning. The revisions made by Theodotion, Aquila, and Symmachus demonstrate that even the best translations are subject to interpretation and may require revision to better convey the meaning of the text.
The revisions show the diversity of Jewish interpretation and exegesis. The revisions of the Septuagint were produced by Jewish scholars from different backgrounds and traditions, each with their own perspectives and methods of translation. The diversity of their translations reflects the rich history of Jewish interpretation and exegesis.
The revisions illustrate the lasting influence of the Septuagint on later Biblical interpretation and translation. The Septuagint and its revisions were important sources for early Christian writers and significantly influenced the development of Christian theology. They also had a lasting impact on the way the Bible was understood and translated in later centuries and set a precedent for accurate and faithful translation that continues to this day.
When we consider the various Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible from the 2nd century BCE up to the 5th century CE, a few overall conclusions can be drawn:
Translation was a complex and ongoing process. Translating the Hebrew Bible into Greek was not a one-time event but a continuous process that spanned several centuries. Jewish and Christian scholars produced multiple revisions of the Septuagint and new translations of the Hebrew text into Greek.
Translation was influenced by multiple factors. Translators’ decisions were influenced by various factors, including linguistic, cultural, theological, and historical factors. Translators often had to navigate complex linguistic and cultural differences between Hebrew and Greek and theological and interpretive issues.
Translation had a significant impact on Jewish and Christian thought. Translating the Hebrew Bible into Greek was important sources for Jewish and Christian exegesis and theology. The Septuagint and its revisions significantly impacted the development of Christian theology and played an important role in the preservation and transmission of Jewish thought and tradition.
Accurate translation was a priority for many translators. While translations were subject to interpretation and revision, many translators were committed to producing translations that were faithful to the original Hebrew text. Translators such as Theodotion, Aquila, and Symmachus made significant contributions to the field of translation and set a precedent for accurate and faithful translation that continues to this day.
Overall, the Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible demonstrate the importance of translation in preserving and transmitting religious and cultural traditions and the ongoing process of interpretation and revision that is necessary for accurate translation.
The primary weight of external evidence generally goes to the original language manuscripts, and the Codex Leningrad B 19A and the Aleppo Codex are almost always preferred. In Old Testament Textual Criticism, the Masoretic text is our starting point and should only be abandoned as a last resort. While it is true that the Masoretic Text is not perfect, there needs to be a heavy burden of proof in we are to go with an alternative reading. All of the evidence needs to be examined before concluding that a reading in the Masoretic Text is corrupt. The Septuagint continues to be very much important today and is used by textual scholars to help uncover copyists’ errors that might have crept into the Hebrew manuscripts either intentionally or unintentionally. However, it cannot do it alone without the support of other sources. There are a number of times when you might have the Syriac, Septuagint, Dead Sea Scrolls, Aramaic Targums, and the Vulgate that are at odds with the Masoretic Text. The preferred choice should not be the MT.
Initially, the Septuagint (LXX) was viewed by the Jews as inspired by God, equal to the Hebrew Scriptures. However, in the first century C.E. the Christians adopted the Septuagint in their churches. It was used by the Christians in their evangelism to make disciples and to debate the Jews on Jesus being the long-awaited Messiah. Soon, the Jews began to look at the Septuagint with suspicion. This resulted in the Jews of the second century C.E. abandoning the Septuagint and returning to the Hebrew Scriptures. This has proved to be beneficial for the textual scholar and translator. In the second century C.E., other Greek translations of the Septuagint were produced. We have, for example, LXXAq Aquila, LXXSym Symmachus, and LXXTh Theodotion. The consonantal text of the Hebrew Scriptures became the standard text between the first and second centuries C.E. However, textual variants still continued until the Masoretes and the Masoretic text. However, scribes taking liberties by altering the text was no longer the case, as was true of the previous period of the Sopherim. The scribes who copied the Hebrew Scriptures from the time of Ezra down to the time of Jesus were called Sopherim, i.e., scribes.
From the 6th century C.E. to the 10th century C.E., we have the Masoretes, groups of extraordinary Jewish scribe-scholars. The Masoretes were very much concerned with the accurate transmission of each word, even each letter, of the text they were copying. Accuracy was of supreme importance; therefore, the Masoretes use the side margins of each page to inform others of deliberate or inadvertent changes in the text by past copyists. The Masoretes also use these marginal notes for other reasons as well, such as unusual word forms and combinations. They even marked how frequently they occurred within a book or even the whole Hebrew Old Testament. Of course, marginal spaces were very limited, so they used abbreviated code. They also formed a cross-checking tool where they would mark the middle word and letter of certain books. Their push for accuracy moved them to go so far as to count every letter of the Hebrew Old Testament.
In the Masoretic text, we find notes in the side margins, which are known as the Small Masora. There are also notes in the top margin, which are referred to as the Large Masora. Any other notes placed elsewhere within the text are called the Final Masora. The Masoretes used the notes in the top and bottom margins to record more extensive notes, and comments concerning the abbreviated notes in the side margins. This enabled them to be able to cross-check their work. We must remember that there were no numbered verses at this time, and they had no Bible concordances. Well, one might wonder how the Masoretes could refer to different parts of the Hebrew text to have an effective cross-checking system. They would list part of a parallel verse in the top and bottom margins to remind them of where the word(s) indicated were found. Because they were dealing with limited space, they often could only list one word to remind them where each parallel verse could be found. To have an effective cross-reference system through these marginal notes, the Masoretes would have to have memorized the entire Hebrew Bible.