17 June 2021

Pope Benedict: the Greek Old Testament (3)

So the LXX is not just a translation of the Hebrew OT; it is in itself a divinely given moment in the process of divine revelation; in a sense, rather like the discernment by the Church of the Canon of Scripture. It therefore deserves respect for and in itself, and is neither only nor even mainly a means to a different end (such as the reconstitution of a Hebrew 'original text').

But that concept of an 'original text' is, as I observed earlier, an idea characteristic of the Enlightenment but in itself questionable and now questioned. I think it can be sustained best in relation to an epistle of S Paul (there must presumably once have been one particular document which physically was taken by Phoebe from Corinth to Rome). But, even here, there is the overwhelming probability that all our existing textual forms go back to an early collection or edition of the Apostle's writings. Once you move beyond the Epistles, you run up against the relationship between Orality and Literacy in cultures predating the invention of printing, and particularly in the ancient world. Work has been done on this subject, both by secular Classicists (such as Rosalind Thomas of Balliol) and by NT specialists (such as Loveday Alexander at Sheffield). To put just one part of this briefly: in a fundamentally oral society, the written word often served as back-up for business which was mainly done orally. If you taught somebody cookery, this was basically done on the job, by word of mouth, in the kitchen. Books about cookery were supports, but they presupposed the oral and, in reaction to the oral, were texts that tended to fluidity. (You may yourself have a cookery book in your kitchen which, over the decades, you have modified, corrected, augmented as the result of your own practice of the culinary art.) Even in the letters of S Paul one finds hints that the person who (physically) carried the letter will fill it out, will explain it to the recipients.

So the 'Enlightenment' idea that, if only you had enough evidence and sufficient skill to deploy it, you could in principle reconstruct an 'original text', is dubious (it also puts disproportionate power into the hands of those who proclaim themselves to be Experts, and whose 'scientific' conclusions will probably be overturned by the generation which succeeds them). Even more dubious is the common Protestant superstition (a superstition because it erroneously makes into an idol, reifies, what should be one functioning element in ecclesial life) or fetich (a fetich because it is a paraphilia rather like being erotically fixated on your husband's ears rather than on his totality) that there is a static 'Bible' which stands as a test of doctrine over and above the life of the Church, and to which that life is subject and, even forensically, needs to be made answerable. 'Bible' is simply a vitally important element within a whole, within a traditio or paradosis. And this should, in my opinion, lead us to a privileging of those biblical editions which have fed and do feed the Church, have been cited by Fathers and Councils, and have been sanctified and authorised by sustained liturgical use. So: three cheers for the LXX. 

And ... my final point ... three cheers also for the Vulgate*. And I would include in my cheers the passage about the Adulterous Woman, in John 8, even if it is not an 'original' part of the Gospel, and 1 John 5:7b, even if that is not part of the 'original' text of its Epistle, and the last part of Mark 16; such passages, whatever their history, are still canonical Scripture. Incidentally, by Vulgate (Vg) I do not mean the NeoVulgate of S John Paul II, which I regard as subordinate to the 'real' Vg because of the 'Enlightenment' methodology of its production. There is most certainly nothing bad about it; it has the Church's formal approval. It just does not have the status, the auctoritas, of the LXX or the proper Vulgate (I suppose, a thousand or two years of intensive use might enhance the status of the NeoVulgate!). And, happily, the LXX and the Vg present us with texts which have considerable similarities. It's not nearly so often a matter of LXX versus Vg as it is of LXX+Vg versus The Rest. (The day, incidentally, when Orthodoxy abandons the Textus Receptus will be the day when, I hope, my Orthodox friends will become Old Believers!)

So don't throw away your English translations of the Vulgate, whether they be Dr Challoner's revision of the Douai-Rheims Bible, or Mgr Knox's translation, sadly underrated as it nowadays is. There is certainly no harm in the RSV (make sure that it is either a 'Catholic Edition' or else contains the 'Deuterocanonical Books', and do not ever use the feminist "New Revised Standard Version") ... it is probably the best of the modern Anglophone Bibles and it is certainly better to read the RSV than to read nothing ... but ... well, I've given you my own preferences!
* I do not include in the same three cheers the MT as used in the medieval and modern synagogue, because its text-type has been formed, for nearly two millennia, independently from and, to a degree, probably in reaction against, the Church. It has in its own right, of course, immense value and interest as a witness to the history of the post-Jamnian rabbinic Judaism of our present world, the product of that radical reconstruction which Diaspora Judaism needed after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple had rendered so much of the Jewish Bible obsolete.


Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Dear Father. Your readers may appreciate this link;


frjustin said...

As Fr Hunwicke states, "The LXX is not just a translation of the Hebrew OT; it is in itself a divinely given moment in the process of divine revelation".

St Augustine seems to have held this view. In the "City of God", he suggests that the Septuagint is inspired, and he gives a reason for it: "With regard to whatever is in the Septuagint that is not in the Hebrew manuscripts, we can say that the one Spirit wished to say them through the writers of the former rather than through the latter in order to show that both the one and the other were inspired" (De Civ. Dei 18.43)

And the Vatican II document Dei Verbum on Sacred Scripture states: “The Church from the very beginning accepted as her own that very ancient Greek translation; of the Old Testament which is called the Septuagint; and she has always given a place of honor to other Eastern translations and Latin ones especially the Latin translation known as the Vulgate” (Dei Verbum, 22).Note that the Septuagint was “her own” from “the very beginning”. Not even the Vulgate gets that much attention.

Paul in Melbourne, Australia said...

It is perfectly absurd for anyone to suggest that "[a]t that time, no one had a tape recorder to capture the words." In a largely oral society, oral traditions can be passed down through generations. As readers will recall, in 1920 Parry collected and recorded a living tradition by bards in Bosnia in the context of the Homeric Question. This culminated in Lord's The Singer of Tales, in which he applied it to Old English and medieval French poetry.

The process of collecting and recording these oral traditions was described by Papias: "I made enquiries about the words of the elders — what Andrew or Peter had said, or Philip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples, and whatever Aristion and John the Elder, the Lord’s disciples, were saying". There is also his famous statement about the sources for Mark's Gospel.

Thank you for reminding us of the oral tradition, Father.

My sister informs me that she frequently listens to experts on radio or TV contending that we do not know what Jesus said because the Gospels were not written until 200 years later.

Experts, indeed, who are ignorant about the duration of papyri, the Oxyrhynchus papyri and the work of Parry and Lord. They are so expert that they cannot read Koine or utter a word of Aramaic.

Dale Crakes said...

Fr I'm going to email you a scholarly 26 pg paper Misquoting Manuscripts?
The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture Revisited. It requires Greek so it beyond my competence level.

El Codo said...

Outstanding work, Father. The Septuagint has for unknown reasons been ignored and belittled. Thank you for this valuable contribution.

stebert said...

On the question of inspired translation, it is notable that the fourth instruction on the implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium on inculturation, Varietates Legitimae (1994) [AAS 87 (1995) 288-314], spoke on this issue.

"The encounter between the Jewish world and Greek wisdom gave rise to a new form of inculturation: the translation of the Bible into Greek introduced the word of God into a world that had been closed to it and caused, under divine inspiration, an enrichment of the Scriptures." (VL #9, emphasis added)

Albrecht von Brandenburg said...

Another excellant piece.

The "original text" of the Bible is a little like the "original text" of The Iliad and The Odyssey.

Talking about the Vulgate, let's make sure it's the original Jerome edition.


Henricus Minor said...

Perhaps one should refer to the Septuagint as an Hellenic version of the Old Testament, rather than, perhaps anachronistically, as a Greek translation

rick allen said...

It's all very well to say that the LXX is inspired, but if you're going to read it and study it and use it you need a copy of it, and unless you have a complete set of source manuscripts, and the time and ability to compare and judge them yourself, you're going to be using a text based on someone's judgment about best readings, supplemented with marginal notes of variations.

As to the utility of the MT, leaving aside any speculation that the Jews may have altered it to spite the Christians, the Hebrew Old Testament was still written originally in Hebrew, and reading it in Hebrew, even in what one believes an inferior text, provides the same interpretive advantage that reading any text in its original language has over reading it in translation.

The different versions have inherent merit, but unless one arbitrarily picks one and insists that the others be ditched, they surely imply an original, if probably inaccessible exemplar. But I see the LXX not so much as a way back to that exemplar, but as an interpretive step taking the Hebrew text toward Christianity, an Old Testament on its way to the New. Surely that's not inconsistent with Pope Benedict's recognition of the Septuagint's inspiration.

PM said...

Not to mention the Rylands Codex, which blew out of the water the German extremists' attempts to write off the Fourth Gospel as a Gnostic concoction from the late second century. CH Roberts (whom I once had the pleasure of meet) identified the Codex in the 1930s, by the way.

Gil Garza said...

Excellent discussion, Father! The Hebrew text of the Bible, as we all know, lacked vowels and any punctuation. The Targumim or vernacular translations of the Hebrew text offered important witnesses of the textual interpretive traditions of the communities that used them.

The Greek and Latin translations are invaluable witnesses of the canonical Hebrew Bible as received and believed by communities of faithful Jews in the ancient world.

The Masoretic text offered an early medieval Rabbinical interpretation of the Hebrew canonical text. The Masoretes revised the canon itself, they added vowels to the Hebrew text for the first time as well as adding marginal notes on the meaning of words and phrases. In many ways the Masoretic text represents the medieval Rabbinical Jewish community’s interpretation of the Hebrew text.