16 June 2021

Pope Benedict: The Greek Old Testament (2)

So when Benedict XVI said that the LXX is "an independent textual witness", he was saying that, in any attempt to reconstruct an 'original text' of the Old Testament, the LXX is just as respectable piece of evidence as the MT (the Hebrew texts used in modern synagogues). The Reformation view that the 'Scriptures' should be translated from the 'authentic Hebrew Original' is a gross oversimplification. That's Common Sense, if you think about it: why should Hebrew manuscripts which date from hundreds of years AD be prioritised above the now lost Hebrew manuscripts which the Jewish translators in Alexandria two or three centuries BC had in front of them on their desks? Why should the LXX, 'the Bible' which S Paul knew and used, be viewed as inferior to the much later MT? Indeed: let me digress from the main thrust of my argument to say that it may well also have been Christ's Bible: the assumption that the Lord Himself always spoke Aramaic (or Hebrew) is dubious in view of the fact that he lived very near a large Greek city in a bilingual Palestine. (And did you know that the notices in the Temple at Jerusalem were in Greek?) S Mark records, in his Greek Gospel, that Christ spoke in Aramaic to the girl he raised to life and to the dumb man whom he cured. The most obvious conclusion to draw from that is that he normally spoke Greek but reverted to the local language, Aramaic, when raising a young girl or curing a handicapped man. In bilingual societies, it is common for the cosmopolitan international language of the world of men and of great affairs (English; Greek; French) to occupy a different sociological niche from that occupied by the old local language of hearth and family (Welsh; Aramaic; S Bernadette's Gascon). It was as a toddler that the Incarnate Word would have heard from his Mother the Aramaic term for Daddy, Abba. It was the language of mothers and children.

The LXX, then, is not a bit like old uncle Bob, of whom in polite company we are rather ashamed because of his uncouth manners ("It's the way he burps and dribbles as he eats his rice pudding with his mouth open ..."). And Alexandria (with which the LXX is associated) symbolises the height of Greek culture and civilisation. Athens had in comparison become something of a backwater. Alexandria was wealthy and sophisticated and it sucked into itself the artistic and literary resources of the Greek world. Its library, founded and sustained by royal patronage, was the greatest in the world. Its Librarians were the great scholars of Hellenistic antiquity. And its Jewish community was wealthy and humane and powerful and a patron of the arts. This is why Pope Benedict was right to see the LXX as a synthesis of Greek and Jewish erudition. And he was right to see this cultural marriage as "a distinct and important step in the history of Revelation".  It is not without the hand of Providence that S Paul was soaked in the LXX; that Christianity rode around the Mediterranean on the back of the LXX.
One more section of this to come.


Paul in Melbourne, Australia said...

These two discussions are amongst the most beautiful you ever wrote. This one, in particular, is very moving, Father.

Thank you for your discussions, which I can follow with my limited vocabulary of Aramaic. You are the best lecturer.

I wish I had the experience of listening attentively as one of your students.

Grant Milburn said...

I have been slowly working my way through the Hebrew of the MT and the Latin of the Vulgate. It seems it is time for me to broach the LXX, which I have shamefully neglected.

From last-minute Catholic convert Oscar Wilde:

"Of late I have been studying with diligence the four prose poems about Christ. At Christmas I managed to get hold of a Greek Testament, and every morning, after I had cleaned my cell and polished my tins, I read a little of the Gospels, a dozen verses taken by chance anywhere. It is a delightful way of opening the day. Every one, even in a turbulent, ill-disciplined life, should do the same. Endless repetition, in and out of season, has spoiled for us the freshness, the naïveté, the simple romantic charm of the Gospels. We hear them read far too often and far too badly, and all repetition is anti-spiritual. When one returns to the Greek; it is like going into a garden of lilies out of some, narrow and dark house.

"And to me, the pleasure is doubled by the reflection that it is extremely probable that we have the actual terms, the ipsissima verba, used by Christ. It was always supposed that Christ talked in Aramaic. Even Renan thought so. But now we know that the Galilean peasants, like the Irish peasants of our own day, were bilingual, and that Greek was the ordinary language of intercourse all over Palestine, as indeed all over the Eastern world. I never liked the idea that we knew of Christ’s own words only through a translation of a translation. It is a delight to me to think that as far as his conversation was concerned, Charmides might have listened to him, and Socrates reasoned with him, and Plato understood him: that he really said ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ποιμὴν ὁ καλός, that when he thought of the lilies of the field and how they neither toil nor spin, his absolute expression was καταμάθετε τὰ κρίνα πῶς αὐξάνει· οὐ κοπιᾷ οὐδὲ νήθει· , and that his last word when he cried out ‘my life has been completed, has reached its fulfilment, has been perfected,’ was exactly as St. John tells us it was: τετέλεσται—no more."

I always wondered how much truth there was in Wilde's somewhat romantic speculation. He was an aesthete, not an historian nor a very profound biblical scholar. Clio is under no obligation to arrange history so that it always does what is charming, romantic and appropriate. "You can't believe things because they're a beautiful idea", as Charles Ryder protested to Sebastian Flyte. But there may be something in Wilde's musings. Alexandria was the New York of its day: a large cosmopolitan city with a large Jewish population, not so far, even in those days, from Galilee, and very likely, the city in which Jesus learnt to walk and talk.

David J Critchley said...

There is a further prcision that I believe we can add, given that the translators of the LXX were Jewish. Regardless of the actual Hebrew text underlying the LXX, we can be sure that the LXX reflects the Jewish interpretation of that text in the circles within which the translators worked. To take the much debated case of Isaiah 7:14 as an example, we can be sure that whatever the Hebrew word was that the translators rendered as Parthenos, they and the circle around them interpreted that word to mean Parthenos.

Paul in Melbourne, Australia said...

Thank you, Grant, for reproducing this. I regard this passage from De Profundis as one of the most beautiful in English literature. For me, it is very moving and evocative.

Your observation about Clio is very elegant and succinct. As one of her minions, I am confident that she would be pleased.