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In the realm of biblical studies, two primary textual traditions stand at the forefront when considering the Old Testament: the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint. Understanding these two significant sources provides a richer and deeper insight into the textual history of the Bible. This comparative study aims to elucidate the characteristics, history, and implications of the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint.
Understanding the Masoretic Text
The Masoretic Text (MT) is the authoritative Hebrew text of the Old Testament for Rabbinic Judaism. It gets its name from the Masoretes, Jewish scribes, and scholars working between the 7th and 10th centuries C.E., dedicated to preserving the text of the Hebrew Bible.
Key Features of the Masoretic Text
The Masoretes sought to maintain the original text while adding a system of vowels and accents to standardize pronunciation and interpretation, as the original Hebrew was only written in consonants. The MT also includes the ‘Masorah’— marginal notes serving as a guide to reading and understanding the text.
Importance of the Masoretic Text
The MT has been foundational for modern translations of the Old Testament due to its presumed fidelity to the original text. Its most complete and oldest extant version, the Leningrad Codex, dates to 1008 C.E.
Grasping the Septuagint
The Septuagint, often abbreviated as LXX, is the Greek translation of the Old Testament, produced between 280 and 150 B.C.E. It is named after the tradition that seventy (or seventy-two) Jewish scholars translated the Torah—the first five books of the Bible—into Greek.
Peculiarities of the Septuagint
The LXX includes several books not found in the Hebrew Bible, known as the Deuterocanonical books or Apocrypha, reflecting differences in the canon of Scripture between Jewish and early Christian communities.
The LXX was created to meet the needs of Greek-speaking Jews in Egypt who were no longer fluent in Hebrew. Its language and style are less rigid than the MT, often providing a smoother Greek rendition at the expense of strict adherence to the Hebrew structure.
Role of the Septuagint
The LXX holds a prominent position in Christian history. It was the version of the Old Testament most commonly used by the New Testament writers, evident in their citations of Old Testament passages. Its significance extends to its influence on early Christian thought and the development of Christian theology.
Comparative Analysis: Masoretic Text vs. Septuagint
Discrepancies between the MT and the LXX occur due to translation differences, variant source texts, and scribal errors. For instance, Jeremiah’s text in the LXX is considerably shorter and arranged differently than in the MT. Another example is the different chronologies in Genesis 5 and 11, where the MT and LXX diverge in the patriarchs’ ages.
Variations between the MT and LXX can sometimes lead to different theological interpretations. A famous instance is Psalm 22:16 (22:17 in the LXX). The MT reads, “like a lion my hands and feet,” while the LXX says, “they pierced my hands and feet”—the latter often connected with the crucifixion of Christ in Christian interpretation.
The Masoretic Text and the Septuagint, each with their unique strengths and weaknesses, provide an invaluable resource for understanding the rich textual tradition of the Old Testament. A comparative study of these texts allows scholars and theologians to appreciate the complexity of biblical transmission, enriching our comprehension of Scripture and its history.
Weighing the Difference, Masoretic VS. Septuagint
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 if 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 used 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. 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 by way of these marginal notes, the Masoretes would literally have to have memorized the entire Hebrew Bible.
The Tetragrammaton (Divine Name; Jehovah JHVH) in both the Greek Septuagint and the Masoretic Text
The Tetragrammaton, a term referring to the four-letter divine name of God (YHWH) in the Hebrew Bible, is central to discussions about the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint. This name, often pronounced as Yahweh or Jehovah, is fundamental to understanding God’s self-revelation in the Old Testament. Its usage and representation vary between the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint, offering insights into different theological and cultural contexts.
Tetragrammaton in the Masoretic Text
In the Masoretic Text, the Tetragrammaton appears as four consonants JHVH, reflecting the original Hebrew. This divine name appears over 6,800 times, demonstrating its significant role in the Hebrew Bible.
However, the Masoretes, who developed the system of vowel pointing to aid in correct pronunciation, faced a conundrum when it came to the Tetragrammaton. Out of some misplaced reverence for the divine name and misunderstanding the commandment not to take Jehovah’s name in vain (Exodus 20:7), they decided not to vocalize it as it was written. Sadly, almost all modern Bible translations have followed in their footsteps. Think of the words of Jesus Christ, which were spoken at the time of this misplaced tradition: Jesus said the Jewish religious leaders were “making void the word of God by [their] tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.” (Mark 7:13)
Instead, there has been this mistook belief that they inserted the vowel markings for “Adonai” (Lord) or “Elohim” (God) into the Tetragrammaton, signaling readers to pronounce the divine name as “Adonai” or “Elohim” instead of its original form. This tradition resulted in the form “Jehovah,” a hybrid reading combining the consonants of JHVH and the vowels of Adonai.
OTTC: THE SACRED PERSONAL NAME OF GOD THE FATHER: The Myth That Jehovah Was Pointed with the Vowel Markings of Adonai
Tetragrammaton in the Septuagint
When it comes to the Septuagint, the treatment of the Tetragrammaton is more complex due to the cultural and linguistic context of the Greek-speaking Jews. The earliest manuscripts of the Septuagint represent the Tetragrammaton in various ways.
In some of the oldest Septuagint manuscripts, such as the Fouad 266 papyrus, the Tetragrammaton appears in Hebrew characters within the Greek text. This practice suggests that the earliest translators held a similar reverence for the divine name as their Hebrew-speaking counterparts.
However, as Hellenistic Jews became less familiar with Hebrew, the Tetragrammaton was replaced by the Greek term “Kyrios” (Lord), mirroring the reading tradition in the Masoretic Text. This practice became widespread, and most extant copies of the Septuagint use Kyrios instead of the original Tetragrammaton.
In both the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint, mistaken reverence for the divine name affected how the Tetragrammaton was represented and read. In the Masoretic Text, this mistaken reverence led to the use of substitute readings and the creation of the hybrid form “Jehovah.” In the Septuagint, it led to the supposed replacement of the Tetragrammaton with “Kyrios,” reflecting the linguistic and cultural shifts among Greek-speaking Jews. Understanding these traditions deepens our appreciation of the sanctity of the divine name and gives us some frustration over what happened in different Jewish and Christian contexts.