Chapter 6 – Oracle Of The Jews

Chapter 6: Oracle Of The Jews

[Footnotes are in red and placed in brackets]

“They give us Scriptures, but Thou makest known the sense thereof.

They bring us mysteries, but Thou revealest the things which are signified.

They utter commandments, but Thou helpest to the fulfilling of them.

They show the way, but Thou givest strength for the journey.”

-Thomas `a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (1415)

According to Scripture the Hebrews were God’s oracles (Romans 3:1-2). It was unto the Jews that the Old Testament revelation and canon were committed. This is why twice in the Old Testament they were instructed not to add to or take from the word of God.

“Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.” (Deuteronomy 4:2).

“Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar.” (Proverbs 30:6).

Faithful Hebrew scribes took this task very seriously. Precise steps were taken in preparing the parchment upon which they wrote, and in preparing themselves in order to write on it. According to the Hebrew Talmud, a body of civil and religious laws that also provided commentary on the Hebrew Scriptures, the rules for the scribes consisted of the following:

  1. The skins of the parchments had to be prepared in a special way and dedicated to God so that they would be clean in order to have God’s words written on them.
  2. The ink that was used was black and made in accordance to a special recipe used only for writing Scripture.
  3. The words written could not be duplicated by memory but must be reproduced from an authentic copy that the scribe had before him. And, the scribe had to say each word aloud as he wrote it.
  4. Each time the scribe came across the Hebrew word for God, he had to wipe his pen clean. And when he came across the name of God, Jehovah (YHWH), he had to wash his whole body before he could write it.
  5. If a sheet of parchment had one mistake on it, the sheet was condemned. If there were three mistakes found on any page, the whole manuscript was condemned. Each scroll had to be checked within thirty days of its writing, or it was considered unholy.
  6. Every word and every letter was counted. If a letter or word was omitted, the manuscript was condemned.
  7. There were explicit rules for how many letters and words were allowed on any given parchment. A column must have at least forty-eight lines and no more than sixty. Letters and words had to be spaced at a certain distance and no word could touch another.

In his book, The Text of the Old Testament, noted Old Testament textual scholar Dr. Ernst Wurthwein mentions that the scribes counted the verses, words, and letters of each part of the Scriptures they were copying. [Ernst Wurthwein, The Text of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 19.] The Jewish historian Josephus (37-95 AD) comments on the preciseness of the Jewish scribes and their faithfulness in copying the Old Testament Scriptures:

“. . . for during so many ages as have already passed, no one has been so bold as either to add anything to them, to take anything from them, or to make any change in them; but it becomes natural to all Jews, immediately and from their very birth, to esteem those books to contain divine doctrines, and to persist in them, and, if occasion be, willingly to die for them.” [Flavius Josephus, “Flavius Josephus Against Apion,” Book 1, The Works of Josephus, trans. William Whiston (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987), 776.]

Some have taken Josephus’ statement to mean the contents of the Old Testament. Other have understood it to mean the canon of the Old Testament. Either way, his statement affirms the sacredness the Hebrews ascribe to Holy Scripture.

For years it had been thought that the Bible Christ used was the Greek Septuagint (also known as the LXX). The common thought was that the Jews at the time of Christ had all but lost their use of Hebrew since the international language of that day was Greek. However, with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (which will be discussed in greater detail in the following chapter), it has been established that the Jews did not lose their use of Hebrew. In fact, most of their writings (both sacred and otherwise) were written in Hebrew.

Alan Millard, Professor of Hebrew and Ancient Semitic Languages at the University of Liverpool, England, observed that for years scholars believed that Hebrew was limited to religious usage during the time of Christ. But from the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and books written in common Hebrew among them, it can now be established that a form of Hebrew, like the Hebrew used in the Old Testament yet distinct in form, was in use during the time of Christ and the apostles. [Alan Millard, Discoveries From the Time of Jesus (Oxford: Lion, 1990), 35.] This confirms what we find in the Gospels concerning the Hebrew Old Testament used by Christ. Jesus proclaimed; “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Matthew 5:18). It is interesting that Christ used the words jot and tittle which are Hebrew letters, not Greek. [Homer A. Kent, The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, eds. Charles F. Pfeiffer and Everett F. Harrison (Nashville: The Southwestern Company, 1968), 937.] Additionally, Jesus states in Luke 11:51; “From the blood of Abel unto the blood of Zecharias,” attesting to the Hebrew order of Scripture. The placement of Old Testament books are different in the Jewish order, ending with 2 Chronicles and not Malachi. In 2 Chronicles 24:21 we are told of the stoning of faithful Zechariah, and Christ’s statement not only spoke of the martyrdom of Old Testament saints, but marks the limits of the Hebrew order: from the beginning (Genesis) to the end (2 Chronicles).

The Masoretic Text

The Masoretic Text is the traditional Hebrew Old Testament text of both Judaism and Protestantism. The Roman Catholic Church historically has used the Latin Vulgate translated by Jerome, though this position has been revised and now the Catholic Church uses the Hebrew text. The Orthodox Church has historically used the Greek Septuagint. Masoretic comes from the Hebrew word masora, referring to the marginal notes added by Jewish scribes and scholars of the Middle Ages (known as the Masoretes).

Until recently, the most ancient manuscripts of the Hebrew Old Testament dated to the ninth century. This has changed with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which date from 168 BC to about 68 AD. The Scrolls provide us with Hebrew manuscripts more ancient than the previous manuscripts by one thousand years. What is interesting to the student of textual criticism and the believer in biblical preservation is that the majority of biblical manuscripts among the Dead Sea Scrolls agree with the Masoretic Text. [Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, eds., The Oxford Companion to the Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 160.] This further provides evidence of the text’s credibility and testifies to the accuracy of the Hebrew scribes in their reproduction of biblical manuscripts throughout the ages. Consequently, it establishes the preservation of the Old Testament text in Hebrew by God.

The earliest biblical fragments among the Scrolls come from the book of Leviticus (1QLev.a) and add support to the antiquity of the Masoretic Text. [Wurthwein, 148.] These fragments encompass Leviticus 19:31-34 and 20:20-23. There is but one minor variant from the Masoretic Text found in 20:21. The Masoretic Text uses the Hebrew word hoo while the Dead Sea Scrolls uses the Hebrew word he. It is the same Hebrew word and is a personal pronoun meaning he, she, or it. The two are used interchangeably throughout the Hebrew Old Testament.

Additional manuscripts have also been found that supports the Masoretic Text. In the early 1960’s biblical texts were discovered during the excavation of Masada, the renowned rock fortress where Jewish zealots made a successful last stand against the Roman army after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. These texts were approximately nineteen hundred years old, dating slightly before 73 AD when Masada finally fell. The manuscripts were exclusively Masoretic. [Ibid., 31.] To these we can also add the Geniza Fragments which were discovered in 1890 at Cairo, Egypt. These fragments date to the fifth century AD. They were located in a geniza, a type of storage room for worn or faulty manuscripts. The fragments number around two hundred thousand and reflect biblical texts in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic. The biblical texts discovered support the Masoretic Text. [Ibid., 12-13.]

In one sense, the Masoretic Text may be thought of as the Textus Receptus (Latin for received text) of the Old Testament. In fact, some scholars have referred to it as such.Like the Textus Receptus of the New Testament, the Masoretic Text is based on the majority of manuscripts and reflects the Traditional Text used. Although there are differences found in some Masoretic Texts, these differences are minor and usually deal with orthography, vowel points, accents, and divisions of the text. In 1524-25, Daniel Bomberg published an edition of the Masoretic Text based on the tradition of Jacob ben Chayyim, a Jewish refugee who later became a Christian. It was his text that was used by the translators of the King James Version for their work in the Old Testament. Wurthwein notes that the text of ben Chayyim was looked upon as almost canonical, and was considered the authoritative Hebrew text. [Wurthwein, 37.]

For about six generations the ben Asher family reproduced the Masoretic Text. Moses ben Asher produced a text in 895 AD known as Codex Cairensis containing the writings of the Prophets. Codex Leningradensis (cataloged as “Firkovich B 19 A”) dates to 1008 AD and was based on the work of Aaron ben Moses ben Asher, the son of Moses ben Asher. This codex is the oldest Masoretic manuscript containing the complete Bible. In 1935 the manuscript was loaned to the University of Leipzig for two years while Rudolf Kittel used it for his Biblia Hebraica, third edition. Kittel’s Biblia Hebraica has since then become the standard Hebrew text used by scholars in producing modern translations of the Old Testament.

Generally scholarship agrees that the Masoretic Text became the standard authorized Hebrew text around 100 AD in connection with the completion of the New Testament. It is obvious the Masoretic Text existed prior to the writings of the New Testament, and it was used as the official Hebrew Old Testament at the time of the establishment of the biblical canon. It has been used since as the official representation of the Hebrew originals.

The Greek Septuagint

The most notable Greek Old Testament, and arguably the most influential early translation of the Hebrew canon, is the Septuagint (LXX). The LXX is believed to have been translated from the Hebrew text by Hellenistic Jews during a period from 275 to 100 BC at Alexandria, Egypt. Scholars such as Ralph W. Klein have noted that the LXX used a different Hebrew text than the one found in the Masoretic Text. [Ralph W. Klein, Textual Criticism of the Old Testament: The Septuagint After Qumran (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974).] Jerome used the LXX extensively as a help in translating his Latin Vulgate, and it remains the official Old Testament of the Greek Orthodox Church.

The association of the Latin numeral LXX (70) with the Septuagint comes from a legend concerning the origin of this Greek translation. According to the Letter of Aristeas, Jewish scholars were chosen to translate the Law of Moses into Greek so that it could be added to the great library of Ptolemy Philadelphus in Alexandria, Egypt. The letter states that the High Priest in Jerusalem sent seventy-two scholars to the Egyptian king. According to this document, the High Priest writes to the king as follows:

“In the presence of all the people I selected six elders from each tribe, good men and true, and I have sent them to you with a copy of our law. It will be a kindness, O righteous king, if you will give instruction that as soon as the translation of the law is completed, the men shall be restored again to us in safety.”

Six scholars from the twelve tribes of Israel equal a total of seventy-two. It is assumed that the seventy is merely a rounding off of the seventy-two. It is further stated that they accomplished their task in seventy-two days. Even if the story given in the Letter of Aristeas could be taken as literally true, it deals only with the translation of the first five books of the Old Testament. Furthermore, most scholars note that there are differences in style and quality of translation within the LXX and assign a much greater time frame than the 72 days allotted in the Letter of Aristeas.

The most noted copy of the LXX, produced by Origen, is an Old Testament consisting of six parallel versions of the Scriptures called the Hexapla, meaning six-fold. The columns of the Hexapla consisted of: 1. The Hebrew text. 2. The Hebrew transliterated into Greek. 3. The Greek translation of Aquila. 4. The Greek translation of Symmachus. 5. The Septuagint. 6. The Greek translation of Theodotion. With the exception of a few limited fragments, we do not have Origen’s Hexapla today. We cannot fully reconstruct Origen’s fifth column, let alone a pre-Origenian Septuagint.

Origen’s Hexapla was revised and edited by two of his disciples, Pamphilus and Eusebius. As mentioned above, there were other Greek translations of the Old Testament during this time, in addition to the LXX, which were contained in the Hexapla such as the versions of Aquila and Theodotion. Some scholars believe that the translation produced by Theodotion replaced the LXX in the book of Daniel, so that the readings there are really those of Theodotion and not of the LXX. Others have claimed that this is not the case. Concerning Origen’s Hexapla and the LXX, the best scholars can say is that what has survived representsOrigen’s text. [Wurthwein, 57.] Two such manuscripts that represent the text of Origen are Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus of the Alexandrian line of manuscripts.

The LXX And The New Testament

There are a number of Old Testament quotations found in the New Testament that are said to be from the LXX. Several of these passages agree because of the limitations of translating Hebrew into Greek. Such would be the case in Genesis 5:24 as compared with Hebrews 11:5. The writer of the book of Hebrews and the LXX both use the phrase “God translated him” in reference to Enoch. The Greek, metetheken auton o theos, is the same in both the New Testament and the LXX.

Genesis 5:24 (KJV)

And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him.

Genesis 5:24 (LXX)

And Enoch was well-pleasing to God, and was not found, because God translated him.

Hebrews 11:5 (KJV)

By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found because God had translated him: for before his translation he had this testimony, that he please God.

At first glance it would seem that the passage in Hebrews is closer to the LXX. However, the Hebrew word for “took” in this passage is lawkakh, which means to take or move from one place to another. The Greek way of saying the Hebrew lawkakh is metetheken, which means “translated.” This is not a citation of the LXX, but a Greek translation of the Hebrew word for took.

There are times when the Greek of the LXX and the Greek of the New Testament match perfectly. There are also places where the two do not match. To explain this most scholars assume the New Testament writers were paraphrasing from the LXX. But once we explore the possibility that the citations are not quotations but paraphrases of the LXX, we can no longer be certain it was the LXX that was originally used.

Romans 9:17 illustrates this. While part of the passage seems to match the LXX, part does not at all match. This causes us to wonder why Paul did not fully quote the LXX if it was his source.

Exodus 9:16 (KJV)

And in very deed for this cause have I raised thee up, for to shew in thee my power; and that my name may be declared throughout all the earth.

Exodus 9:16 (LXX)

And for this purpose hast thou been preserved, that I might display in thee my strength, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth.

Romans 9:17 (KJV)

For the Scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth.

The last phrase, “and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth” is a perfect match between the New Testament and the LXX, as is the phrase “that I might shew my power in thee.” However, this also matches the Hebrew text as seen in the King James rendering of Exodus 9:16. It is important to note that there are differences between the LXX and the Greek New Testament at the very beginning and in the middle of the verse. The Greek New Testament begins with Oti eis auto touto exegeira se opos (For this purpose have I raised out thee, so that). The LXX begins with Kai eneken toutou dieterethes, ina (And for this purpose hast thou been preserved, that). These are two differing readings in both Greek and English. Moreover, the New Testament uses the Greek word dunamin (power), while the LXX uses the Greek word ischun (strength).

Since there are differences between the New Testament citations in both the LXX and the Masoretic Text, the question arises as to what translation the writers of the New Testament used. At times it seems they are using the Traditional Hebrew Text; at other times it seems as if they are taking great liberties with the Hebrew text. Sometimes their quote matches the LXX; other times their citation differs from the LXX. How do we resolve this dilemma?

First, not every passage cited as an Old Testament quotation is actually a quotation. Many times a given passage is simply an allusion or a general reference. Second, just because one quotes from a source does not mean he is fully endorsing that source. We find, for example, Paul citing from the philosophies of the Greeks in order to reach the Greeks (Acts 17:23; Titus 1:12). This did not mean that he accepted their philosophies. Third, we must remember that the writers of the New Testament had a unique position. They wrote under inspiration. Both the Old and New Testaments are Holy Scripture inspired by the Holy Spirit. It is God’s word and he certainly has the right to make changes as he sees fit, a liberty any author can take when self-quoting.

On the whole, it seems unlikely that the writers of the New Testament favored the Greek LXX over the Hebrew Masoretic Text. Sir Frederic Kenyon brilliantly observed that the biblical guardians of the Old Testament, the Jews, throughout history have not accepted the LXX. Josephus, for example, rejected the LXX because of its addition to the Hebrew canon of Scripture, as did other strict Jewish scribes. [Frederic G. Kenyon, The Text of the Greek Bible (London: Gerald Duckworth and Company), 29.] Likewise, scholarship recognizes that the enhancement of the LXX in history came not from the Jewish scribes but from sources within Christendom around the third century. Therefore, it does not seem likely that the New Testament writers would have embraced such a translation, at least not to the exclusion of the Hebrew text. Dr. Ernst Wurthwein correctly stated that the LXX does not shed light on the text of the original Hebrew, but only on how some interpreted the Hebrew text. [Wurthwein, 63-64.] Yet, many scholars of the past one hundred years or so have seemed to prefer it over the Masoretic Text, something Wurthwein found to be astounding. [Ibid.] When we consider all of this, we understand the wisdom of the KJV translators in preferring the Hebrew Masoretic Text for their translation of the Old Testament.

The LXX And The KJV Translators

It is interesting to note how the translators of the KJV viewed the LXX. They recognized that it was produced by interpreters and not by inspired prophets. They admitted that although the LXX translates many things well, it also failed many times and departed from the Hebrew causing the New Testament writers to depart from the LXX.

“. . . the Seventy were interpreters, they were not prophets. They did many things well, as learned men; but yet as men they stumbled and fell, one while through oversight, another while through ignorance; yea, sometimes they may be noted to add to the original, and sometimes to take from it: which made the Apostles to leave them many times, when they left the Hebrew, and to deliver the sense thereof according to the truth of the word, as the Spirit gave them utterance. This may suffice touching the Greek translations of the Old Testament.”

It is also clear that the KJV translators promoted the use of such translations since they recognized the importance of having God’s word translated into the language of those who cannot read Hebrew or Greek, despite the lack of quality and accuracy contained in those translations. Their argument with the Catholic Church, which at that time made a practice of burning Bibles that were in any language other than Latin, was that God’s word translated poorly was still God’s word and must be treated with respect and dignity. They illustrate their point with the Greek translations of Aquila, Theodotion, and the LXX.

“The Romanists therefore in refusing to hear, and daring to burn the word translated, did no less than despite the Spirit of grace, from whom originally it proceeded, and whose sense and meaning, as well as man’s weakness would enable, it did express . . . The like we are to think of translations. The translation of the Seventy dissenteth from the Original in many places, neither doth it come near it for perspicuity, gravity, majesty; yet which of the Apostles did condemn it? Condemn it? Nay, they used it . . . To be short, Origen, and the whole Church of God for certain hundred years, were of another mind: for they were so far from treading under foot, (much more from burning) the translation of Aquila a proselyte, that is, one that had turned Jew; of Symmachus, and Theodotion, both Ebionites, that is, one vile hereticks, that they joined them together with the Hebrew original, and the translation of the Seventy, (as hath been before signified out of Epiphanius) and set them forth openly to be considered of and perused by all.” [Ibid., xix-xx.]

The demeanor of the New Testament writers, early Christians, and the KJV translators regarding the LXX provide for us a two-fold argument. First, the importance of accuracy and nobility in regard to the translation of God’s word. Truth must not be replaced with either ease or simplicity. That which God has given is of utmost importance and should be proclaimed in its unique majesty. After all, one is dealing with the words of the most Sovereign King. Second, the vilest translation of men poorly done should be corrected, not destroyed or defamed. An inferior translation, when that is all one has, is better than no translation. Fortunately for English-speaking people worldwide, the second point has fallen prey to the first. Nevertheless, it is better to promote God’s word translated than to disparage it.

There is even more information in the book, including extended footnotes and three appendixes.

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