Thursday, December 20, 2007

A New Bible Translation Worth Checking Out

Thomas Nelson is preparing to release the The Orthodox Study Bible: Ancient Christianity Speaks to Today's World available for pre-order now.

Why would I recommend purchasing such a "denominationally-specific" study Bible that is not Lutheran? Because of the unprecedented translation, which is based on the New King James Version (a highly readable version, by the way).

Prior to this publication every English Bible has been produced using the Hebrew Masoretic Text and a hodge-podge of Greek text traditions for the New Testament. The Orthodox Study Bible is different, using the Septuagint for the Old Testament text and the Byzantine Text for the New Testament.

Why is this good? To answer this question, we need to know a little bit about the history of the text of the Old Testament.

The original manuscripts of the books of the OT from the hands of the prophets were most likely written in various forms of ancient Hebrew. These were copied over the centuries and no doubt updated at various times to reflect the changing grammar, syntax, and vocabulary of Hebrew. In the 3rd Century BC, the Greek-speaking King of Egypt Ptolmey II Philadelphus asked Jewish scholars to make a translation of their holy texts into Greek for the Library of Alexandria. Legend has it that 72 scholars gathered and independently translated the books. Upon completion they compared their translations and found that they agreed word for word. This was seen as a sign of divine inspiration of the translation. This version has since been referred to as the Septuagint ("70" in Greek) or LXX. Modern scholars dispute this story, noting great differences in translation style, some being nearly word-for-word, others being paraphrases of Hebrew texts, pointing to different translators with different theories of translation over time. But the fact remains that many Jews believed the LXX was the inspired version of the Old Testament texts, and it was used widely, especially in the Jewish diaspora (those Jews who lived outside of Judea).

This usage continued until the beginnings of the Christian Church. Many of the OT quotations in the New Testament are based on readings from the LXX. Modern readers note this when looking up the quoted passage in their English Bibles and realizing that something is wrong. It often appears that the NT writer was misquoting the text, or paraphrasing it, when in fact he was quoting directly from the OT LXX.

There began to be growing tension between Jews and Christians centered around the LXX, however, for many passages in the LXX are more explicitly Christological than some Hebrew versions at the time read. One example is Psalm 40:6. In the Masoretic text it reads, "Sacrifice and offering you have not desired, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required. (ESV)" But in the LXX it says, "Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not; but a body hast thou prepared me: whole-burnt-offering and sacrifice for sin thou didst not require." 1st Century Christians held this to be a reference to the body of Christ whom God prepared for our salvation.

By 70 AD, Rabbis were beginning to push for abandoning the LXX and returning to Hebrew versions. They claimed that Christians had deliberately changed the text of the LXX to bolster their claims about Jesus (which is completely absurd, given the numbers of Christians and the numbers of manuscripts scattered throughout the world). But by the early 2nd Century, Jews began to collect old Hebrew versions and eventually settled on a text tradition. What is remarkable about this text is that, like all early Hebrew, it contained no vowels. Rabbis were left to interpret the meaning of the words based only on the consonants. The complicating factor is that all Hebrew verbs are based on a three-letter root, and many nouns as well. One three-letter combination could be any number of words, based on what vowels were added by the reader.

But sometime in between the 7th and 10th Centuries, a group of Jews known as the Masoretes began producing a version of the OT which included "vowel-pointing," small marks under and over the letters to indicate what vowels to pronounce, and thereby the meaning of the word. Christians sometimes wonder how much was deliberately translated to avoid hints of Christian theology during this time period. But this is the text of the OT that is used for every English translation of the Bible--sometimes with reference and comparison with the LXX, but not always. Isaiah 7:14 is one of the few passages that English translators have used the LXX version instead of the Masoretic. The Greek LXX uses the word for "virgin," while the Masoretic text uses a generic word, almah, meaning "young woman." Matthew 1:23 quotes from the LXX, and so most English translations use this reading in Isaiah as well. In other passages, though, the Hebrew Masoretic text is unintelligible, and so translators appeal to the LXX to amplify the meaning. This is often noted in the margins of English Bibles.

Thus the Masoretic text does have some deficiencies, being a late version of the Hebrew Bible (the oldest copy dates to the 10th Century AD). It is also problematic in dozens of places where the older Greek OT seems to include Messianic predictions and anticipation of Christian theology, but it does not. In the interest of fairness, however, since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, scholars have noted that the Masoretic text is virtually identical to some Hebrew versions circulating in the 1st Century BC.

So we can ask the question, "Why do Christians read a version of the Hebrew text that was used by Jews purposely intent on rejecting Messianic predictions when a previous version of the texts, once affirmed as inspired by Jews exists? One even quoted by Jesus and the Apostles in the NT?" Good question. I believe the answer lies with Humanism, but I do not have space to delve into that.

The Orthodox Church has always used the Septuagint. They were using it when the Apostles preached and never stopped. Previous to the Orthodox Study Bible, the last English translation of the Septuagint produced was in 1850 (the Brenton translation). It's a difficult read. This new translation is based on the New King James Version. What this means is that as the translators worked, they compared their translation with the NKJV. Where they held the same meaning, the NKJV was retained. Where the LXX differed, the translators edited the text of the NKJV to reflect the LXX's reading.

Finally, someone may object to the notes and study helps of the Orthodox Study Bible, wondering if people will get false doctrine from those notes. Why not buy an edition which uses the LXX but doesn't have the Orthodox perspective in the notes? It would be nice for those in other church bodies, but so far Thomas Nelson (whose CEO is a Deacon in the Orthodox Church BTW) has not indicated they will be publishing any other version.

Let us consider this. The so-called "Concordia Self-Study Bible," putatively a Lutheran study Bible, is a lightly edited version of the Zondervan Study Bible, which is thoroughly Evangelical. The changes between the two are hard to spot, and I don't always agree with how the Zondervan editors nor the CPH editors interpret passages. Isn't that arrogant of me? Probably. But I don't think the Lutheran editors of the Zondervan Study Bible are always true to Lutheranism, nor the best interpretation of certain texts. At best, the Self-Study Bible is a minimal Lutheranization of an Evangelical study Bible.

Second, members of my congregation regularly read study Bibles that are un-Lutheran, like the Ryrie, the Scofield, the Zondervan, and various others of greater or lesser charismatic stripe. If people are going to use a study Bible, it makes sense to use a study Bible that is at least sacramental. The Orthodox Study Bible has the further advantage of giving us quotations from the Church Fathers, so we get to learn how early Christians interpreted various texts and not just modern scholars. Yes, I imagine there are will be some particular Orthodox positions. I've read reviews of the Orthodox Study Bible that claim it was edited for Evangelicals and Protestants who have, or are converting to Orthodoxy, and thus is tailored to answer their questions. I don't know about this one, as I've not seen a published copy yet.

But even for those who are rabidly anti-Orthodox (you know who you are), I still would recommend this edition, at least for the sake of the translation. You might even learn something from the notes too. ;)


  1. Rev. Eric J Brown said...

    I will have to get one of these. . . how interesting. I used to annoy my Hebrew profs at the Seminary. I had studied modern Hebrew at OU, and so I was used to reading Hebrew without any pointing (points are only for dictionaries in modern Hebrew) - so I would get unpointed copies of the text from on-line for class and read off of those.

    They would ask why, and I would respond that as the points were added later by non-Christian Jews, the pointing was in fact an anti-Christian commentary on the Hebrew text. They loved me.

  2. Rev. Benjamin Harju said...

    Good post on the textual tradition. I think very few people are aware that the Judaism of today springs from a form that was assembled after the destruction of the temple in AD 70. With no temple the only faction with any strength was the Pharisees. As I understand it, they reformulated the Jewish religion around the synagogue and intentionally against Christianity.

    WRT the "legend" of the LXX translation: I was under the impression it was only the Pentateuch that was translated in that fashion.

  3. Christopher D. Hall said...

    Pr. Harju--I was not aware of that distinction, and never heard or read it...but I may not have been paying attention :)

    Pr. Brown, what will the others think when we both show up at Winkels with one of these????

  4. Rev. Eric J Brown said...

    I don't know Pr. Hall - and we are the ones who can even claim to be good Jewish Rabbis - oi vey!

  5. Mike Baker said...

    Thank you, Pastor Hall.

    This post was fascinating. I'd like to see some more of these kind of academic topics on the Lutheran blogosphere.