Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint: What's the difference?

Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint: What's the difference?

Andrew Sholl

Since most Catholics and other Christians in Australia are used to a multiplicity of English translations of the Bible, I often have to point out that there is now only one Hebrew text of the Old Testament or Tanach: acronym of Torah (Law), Neviim (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings).

Now having said that there is only one Hebrew text, it must also be said that Hebrew became a minority language in many places in the Galut (Diaspora outside the Holy Land), as for example in Egypt.

Shortly after Alexander the Great's death, one of his Macedonian generals took over Egypt as Pharoah Ptolemy I Soter, who ruled Egypt from 323-282 BC.

Among his many talents, he was a man of learning and culture. It was he who asked seventy Jewish elders/scholars to translate the Hebrew Bible into Greek. The Latin word for seventy is septuaginta, from which this Bible is called the Septuagint (or the Latin number, LXX).

It is noteworthy that the Catholic Church from its beginning opted for the LXX version, as it contained certain useful additions, for example, in the Book of Esther there were additions which contained the Name of God, not found in the Hebrew Bible.

Hence there was a lot of argument among Jewish religious leaders as to whether to include this Book in the canon of the Hebrew Bible: in the end, it was included.

Also, there were slight changes in some wording. Thus, Isaiah 7:14 says, "the maiden [ 'almah] is with child and will give birth to a son whom she will call Immanuel."

On the other hand, Matthew 1:23 says, quoting from the LXX, "The virgin [ parthenos in Greek] will conceive and give birth to a son and they will call him Immanuel". Now 'almah (maiden) in Hebrew is not necessarily betulah (virgin), but even my Hebrew dictionary gives betulah as the second meaning for "maiden", no doubt because until the recent past, maidens were virgins, as a rule!

Let us now leap a few centuries: to 600-950 AD. By then many, if not most, Jews had forgotten the vowels and punctuation marks handed down orally. As it was now necessary to reduce to written form the oral traditions to the Biblical text, this was done by the Masoretes (from the Hebrew root meaning "to hand down"), a group of Jewish scholars in Babylonia and the Land of Israel.

Standard text

As Isidore Epstein wrote in Judaism (1959), "Their task was to supply the Biblical text with vowel points, accents and other signs by which the pronunciation and interconnection of words, as well as sentence markings and paragraph divisions, were indicated." (p. 183)

He continued, "In the end, Ben Asher's Palestine Masorah prevailed, not only over the Babylonian, but also over that of his rival (Ben Naphtali), and his Codex became recognised as the standard or Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible." (p. 184)

Finally, in May 1948, the State of Israel declared its independence. Providentially, not long before, the Dead Sea Scrolls were found near Qumran: among them an almost complete scroll of the Book of Isaiah.

This is of crucial importance if one compares the current Hebrew version to the one found in a large jar in a cave behind the Dead Sea.

One will easily notice that there is virtually no change, even after more than 2,000 years of copying the very same text by the Scribes! This is fundamental in demonstrating incontestably the reliability of that Biblical text ... and by extension, all other canonical texts which have come down to us.

Andrew Sholl founded the Association of Hebrew Christians in 1979.

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