The Septuagint and Textual Criticism
Textual Criticism is a discipline that has gained much popularity over the last one hundred years or so, especially as related to the Bible of the Christian faith.
While this discipline has arguably been around since at least the late Middle Ages, there has seemingly been a distinct emphasis (among particular scholars, notably liberal Protestants) placed upon the Christian scriptures in recent decades.
I believe this concern and their approach is motivated by a number of factors—none of which are compatible with nor do they find their home within traditional, orthodox and catholic Christianity.
The purpose of textual criticism is to attempt to produce a text as close as possible to the original. Given this raw and simplistic definition, we can make a few observations regarding it within the context of the holy scriptures. And, as a point of emphasis, the existence and usage of the Septuagint (LXX hereafter) by Christ and the apostles (and the Orthodox, catholic Church) sheds both important and transformative light on this entire enterprise. Of the latter, I will make a few brief remarks and notes as well.
With that in mind, I firmly believe that textual criticism assumes and is dependent upon a few key, overarching concepts.
- The humanist principle of ad fontes: Ad fontes was a philosophical tenet of Renaissance humanism that literally translates from the Latin as “to the fountains,” meaning “to the sources,” or more specifically, “to the original source.” Inspired by the rediscovery of ancient, classical Greek works of philosophy and literature (due to the emigration of Greeks from the east after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in AD 1453), this principle dictated within the context of the Latin (“Western”) Church that Christians should return to their “original sources” in order to purify and reform the Church from perceived corruptions over the centuries. In the Reformation-era context (thanks largely to Martin Luther), this meant holding the holy scriptures to be the sole “source” for the Church, rather than the fuller historical context, that the Church arranged and put together the scriptures as part of its sacred tradition. It was a highly problematic move, one that has cost the West dearly over the last 500 years, producing schism upon schism. Going one step further, this principle also inspired the idea among Luther and his followers that the original text of the scriptures are only pure in their original manuscripts. For the Old Testament, this meant adhering to the Hebrew text. Unfortunately for Luther, this required using a medieval text (the Masoretic) that was over a thousand years newer than the Greek translation (the LXX) or even the Latin Vulgate (originally based on the LXX), which were already in use by the Church. Not only was Luther incorrect in assuming that the Bible was the source of the Church, but also in that the Hebrew Old Testament text available to him was more accurate or closer to the source than the Greek or Latin.
- A theology or scholarly viewpoint that discounts and places no faith in the Church or Tradition: While Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians are faithful to confess at least weekly “I believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic Church,” such faith is absent among textual critics, due to the disregard for the inherent authority for the preservation of the scriptures within the Church (for example, within liturgical texts and the writings of the Church fathers). While Orthodox Christians believe that the Church is guided and preserved from error by the Holy Spirit and the very presence of Christ in the apostles and their successors (Who promised He would never leave us, and that the gates of Hades would never prevail against the Church), adherents of textual criticism cannot, by principle, believe in such a thing. The essential dogma of textual criticism is that the text has been corrupted (i.e., mistakes have crept in through copying errors or intentional alterations by monks, scribes, etc.). This is the party line that Bart Ehrman and others espouse, but such a viewpoint (criticism) only holds water within a Protestant context.
- Closely related to the last point is a belief that the Bible is the “Christian Koran”: Again, the “corruption of scripture” dogma of Ehrman and liberal Protestant scholars only makes sense within a Protestant context and through having a Protestant understanding of the Bible. According to Protestants (mostly regardless of which sect or stripe), the Bible is the only true/special revelation of God to humanity. As such, they are a “people of the book,” just as in Islam. However, Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians are not bound by such constraints and therefore many of the “concerns” of textual criticism are irrelevant to us. For example, we do not of necessity claim that the scriptures are “inerrant”—that is, without mistakes or errors of any kind (this is distinct from the affirmation that the scriptures are true, which we hold to, which is sometimes called “infallibility,” though that word may imply that the Bible’s truths are subject to the logical standards of proof and falsification). Given that concession, the fact that a monk or copyist might have replaced the pronoun “they” with the more descriptive “the Gentiles” (in order to make the chanted word more clear in the liturgical setting it was always found) does not reveal a “corruption” of the text or some conspiracy regarding the original autographs, but rather the Spirit-guided common sense of a monk. Variant readings do not derail the faith of the Church, as might be cautiously hinted at within conservative, fundamentalist Protestant circles, nor do mistakes with regards to dates, names, places or other such things. The scriptures are a great witness to revelation, but they are not the only source of revelation, nor are they truly the “Word of God” (a phrase that most properly refers to Christ).
- And this leads to the final concept, and that is the fact that textual criticism relies upon a Nestorian Christology (and by deduction, Iconoclasm): Textual criticism precludes the possibility of accurate and/or faithful translation of a text, because it is believed this “corrupts” and “changes” the text in an irreversible and irreparable manner. Because of this (and related to the “inerrancy” remarks above), conservative Protestants will only claim that the “original autographs” in their original languages are truly “inspired” by God. This means that the English version of the Bible that everyone in their groups carries around are not actually the inspired “Word of God,” but rather a “best effort” translation of the actual Word of God. Word studies (in the original languages) become imminently more important for Protestants, as a result, since a translation can’t give us the same, exact meaning (or at least, an “inspired” meaning) of the text. From an Orthodox point of view, while there’s certainly nothing wrong with learning and studying the original languages of these ancient texts, it is not absolutely required in order to read and understand the text of scripture, as inspired by God. Rather, the interpretation of the Church is what’s missing. That said, this is Nestorian in the sense that it divides the translated words from their original, divine source (rather than seeing the translation as iconic or symbolic—in the classical, Greek sense—of the original words). To preclude the authenticity of translation is to preclude the authenticity of the Incarnation (and in fact, many Protestants will claim that Christ took on a human nature that was slightly different than ours, which is also Christologically heretical). Just as icons are true symbols of the saints they represent (and truly connect us with these saints in eternity), words and translations are true symbols of the original words, ideas and people found in the ancient text. The scriptures are not the ”Word of God,” but rather an icon of the Logos (Word) of God—Jesus Christ.
And so, building upon that last point, we can consider briefly the LXX—the Greek translation of the Old Testament scriptures made between the third and first centuries BC in Egypt.
The Orthodox Church considers the LXX to be the inspired scriptures of the Old Testament, even in light of the fact that they are (mostly) translations. This is, no doubt, primarily due to their authority and usage among Second Temple Jews, Jesus Christ (during his Advent ministry, as recorded in the Gospels), the apostles, and their immediate successors (the “early” Church fathers). In the New Testament, there are 320 direct quotations from the Old Testament. Of these, only five verses (1.5%!) appear to be sourced from a text that is at odds with or different from the wording in the LXX. At the very least, we could say the NT writers showed a strong preference for the LXX translation of the OT; that only seems fair. Beyond this point, however, there is much debate.
While there is little fanfare over the reality of the NT writers’ usage (and preference for) the LXX, they also many times show a “looseness” with interpreting the text of the OT that would make most present day Protestant exegetes cringe. There are many times where verses are quoted in part, “out of context,” dissected and combined with other verses (in different texts altogether) as well as paraphrased. There are instances where the NT writer was using a version of the OT that closely resembles the medieval Masoretic Text (MT) (perhaps four such instances, exclusively speaking, in the entire NT), but this almost seems random and isolated. In those instances, it seems the MT was chosen in order to best make (or support) the point at hand. What we don’t find, however, is a definitive belief in a single, original, authentic text. The behavior of the apostles—and the NT writers specifically—shows a more “fluid” approach to both the idea of “canon” and “original text.”
When the Dead Sea Scrolls (the manuscripts found near Qumran in the 1940s and beyond, hereafter DSS) are considered alongside the LXX, things become even more interesting (and problematic for proponents of textual criticism). There are numerous instances, for example, where the LXX and DSS align exactly in reading (throughout the OT scriptures), while also disagreeing with the medieval MT. For example, Genesis 1:9 reads “And the water which was under the heaven was collected into its gatherings, and the dry land appeared” in both the DSS (4QGenk) and LXX, but this passage is entirely missing from the MT. On the other hand, there are many verses or readings that make the DSS and MT to be in total agreement, while showing the LXX reading to be at odds with both (often with minor results, such as a change in exact grammar or phrasing, but not meaning).
So what does this mean? What this means is that there was not a single, authoritative, “original” text of the Old Testament scriptures, even in the first century AD (and perhaps even in the late centuries BC, when the LXX was translated and compiled). As such, the ad fontes and reductionistic approach of textual criticism is found wanting in light of such realities. The LXX does not show that the Greek translation was based upon the only version of the Hebrew scriptures, but that it was based upon a very popular one. Further, it shows that it is not necessary for the preservation, existence or propagation of the faith to have a single, authoritative text of the scriptures.
Finally, there is somewhat of an unspoken belief among Protestant scholars that Hebrew was a “sacred language” to the Judeans during the time of Christ and before. In other words, the scriptures (especially the original autographs) would have only been written in the Hebrew language, due to its supposedly divine quality. What we find with the DSS, however, is that even the most strict and “hardcore” of Jewish sects (probably the Essenes) was perfectly content with recording and transmitting sacred texts (including the scriptures) in multiple language, as the DSS were found in Greek, Aramaic and contemporary Hebrew renditions.
At the end of the day, textual criticism is an enterprise devoid of the Holy Spirit. The one holy, catholic and apostolic Church—and the sacred tradition of the Church—are both guided and preserved by “the Helper” and “Spirit of Truth.” We are not bound and required to have a single, authentic, original manuscript of the scriptures in order to constitute and make sense of our faith, for our faith is personal and our truth is found in Christ Himself, Who is Truth.
The irony of all of this is that neither Protestants nor textual critics have been able to produce or demonstrate a single example of an “original autograph” of the Bible at any point in the history of either textual criticism or Protestantism. Assertions of inerrancy for such texts is essentially an argument from silence. What is the point in saying that a text is inerrant which we don’t actually have?
Vincent Martini has a BA in Philosophy from Indiana University and is an Orthodox convert / layman in the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America. He resides in northwest Arkansas.