Thursday, March 26, 2015

Concerning the Translation of the Seventy (Septuaginta)

Some years ago I was reading through a commentary on 1 Samuel, the author of which made a strenuous defense for not utilizing the Septuagint when reconstructing the likely text. Among all of the manuscripts we have for the books of the Hebrew Bible, 1 Samuel is perhaps the worst, the manuscript tradition being essentially in shambles due to the corrupt text. It is not without reason that we frequently lean on the text of 1 Samuel as preserved in the Spetuagint. The author, however, presented a valid point of caution when reconstructing the original text based on the LXX. The Septuagint, for all its strengths, is still a translation of a Hebrew text. Although Qumran has bolstered some of its previously "odd" readings that were once dismissed as a mistranslation, the LXX still has its fair share of occasional paraphrases of the underlying Hebrew text.

This said, Qumran has bolstered the case for textual tradition of some of the variants in the LXX (compared to the Masoretic text) and there are still examples when the LXX is the only coherent witness to the text. The LXX is no longer a degenerate child of the Masoretic text. Rather, it is very probably the last surviving witness to a textual tradition of the Hebrew Bible that is otherwise lost.

The Septuagint is coming into its own as a critical benchmark in establishing the original text of the canon, as a literary and cultural witness to the development of Judaism and Christianity, and as a textual tradition that has a life of its own. In the process, we are just beginning to deal with the implications of treating the Septuagint as something other than an eclectic alternative to the mainline textual tradition.

Religiously, the LXX remains the reference point for the Orthodox Churches. Arabic, Ge'ez and Copitc versions all refer back to the text of the LXX. Among the diaspora churches in the West, there is a renewed push to produce vernacular Bibles that take the LXX as their basis.

Further to the point of published Bibles leaning on the LXX, it should hardly need noting that the many of the major editions all incorporate the Septuagint into their translation, especially to clarify the Hebrew text when it seems the Masoretic reading is corrupt. We can observe this in the New Jerusalem Bible, the ESV, and the NRSV. Even the Vatican's Nova Vulgata at times breaks from the Latin tradition in favor of the LXX.

The Septuagint's pedigree, it's history as a Jewish and Christian text, is still in the early stages of appreciation in the West. Western Christianity is in the midst of wrapping its head around the notion of the Septuagint as the first Bible of Christianity and the formative role if played in the composition of the New Testament and other early Christian writings. This appreciation is notable as it is coming out of many Protestant quarters. How will this be diffused in confessing bodies? We see some evidence of it in recent English translations. Will it lead to adopting the LXX canon in its entirety? Time will tell. More provocative, however, is the question of whether or not Judaism will come to embrace the Septuagint for what it is: a Jewish book. If so, what impact should the expanded canon of the LXX have on contemporary Judaism?

Linguistically, the Septuagint offers us tantalizing clues into how Judaism conceived of itself in a context that was both Greek and pre-Christian. One of the most alluring areas is the LXX's treatment of the names of God found in the Hebrew Bible. For the purposes of this post, I will focus on one of them, namely the LXX's treatment of Sabaoth (or Tzevaot). Perhaps the only divine name that is transliterated in the LXX. Typically a compound (Yahweh Sabaoth) in the Hebrew text, I am unaware of any cultural linguistic study that has reached a conclusion as to why Sabaoth was retained. We can speculate that by the time the text of the LXX is in circulation, Sabaoth had a connotation or function that either could not be adequately captured by Greek terms, thus cultivating a sense of urgency to transliterate the word. Conversely, we can also speculate that it was simply convention or laziness. In either case, this is a question that can be resolved only by study of the Septuagint as a monument of cultural linguistic expression, one which perhaps retains hints of Judaism that subsided with the twilight of the Second Temple period and for which we've scant understanding.

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