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Asbury Bible Commentary – Ancient Versions
Ancient Versions

Ancient Versions

Although we do not have the original manuscripts that comprised the books of the OT, we do have copies of those books in their original languages. In addition, we have many translations from Hebrew or Aramaic of those ancient manuscripts into various other languages. These extant ancient Hebrew/Aramaic documents are of inestimable value for establishing the best possible reading(s) of the sacred text(s) that have come down to us. It will be possible to note only the most important ancient versions.

Aramaic Targums (Bruce, 123; targum means “translation”) are primary Aramaic translations based on the Hebrew text. They arose after the Exile (586-538 b.c.) because many of the Jews had lost the ability to read or speak their mother tongue. Beginning in the time of Ezra-Nehemiah, when the Hebrew text was read, an Aramaic translation, or paraphrase, was produced for the hearers. No more than one verse of the Pentateuch nor more than three verses of the Prophets could be translated and commented upon at one time. These oral interpretations were simple, but grew to become significant so that they were eventually recorded in writing, thus giving rise to the Aramaic Targums. These targums were read regularly in the synagogues. The translations and paraphrases themselves also became arcane and difficult to understand. The surviving targums come from Palestine or Babylon.

There are targums for nearly every part of the OT. The official targum for the Pentateuch is called the Targum of Onkelos; it arose in Babylonia in the second-third century a.d. The official Babylonian targum of the prophets, both former and latter, is the Targum of Jonathan ben Uzziel. The targums for the third part of the Hebrew Bible, the Writings, are diverse. Other targums arose, such as the Targum of Pseudo Jonathan covering the Pentateuch, a Palestinian targum on the Torah, and targums on the Hagiographa, or Writings, of the Hebrew Bible. Targums are also evidenced in the Qumran documents, such as the Targum of Job and one on Leviticus. While most biblical books have a targum for them, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel do not. These targums have proved to be helpful in testing the reliability of the Masoretic text and in indicating the state of Hebrew texts used in the late b.c. and early a.d. era.

The Septuagint, meaning seventy (LXX), is an ancient Greek translation of Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts produced sometime c. 285-246 b.c. in Alexandria, Egypt, supposedly at the order of Ptolemy Philadelphus. The tradition concerning this translation is found in the Letter of Aristeas. Supposedly, seventy-two Jews were chosen and sent to Alexandria from Jerusalem to translate the Torah (Ge-Dt) into Greek. They completed their task in seventy-two days! Various versions of this story exist. Much of modern scholarship believes that this translation took place over a long period of time and culminated not long before the Christian era.

For some unknown reason, the resulting ancient version was called the Septuagint. Possibly it was given this name in memory of the seventy sons of Israel who went to Egypt (Ex 1:1-7) or in recognition of the seventy elders who accompanied Moses up mount Sinai (Ex 24). The Prophets and the Writings were translated after the Pentateuch, but opinions vary as to when they were completed. Probably they were completed by the time of Jesus ben Sirach, late in the second century b.c.

However, the LXX was the Hebrew Scriptures, plus much more. The Apocrypha (see “Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha,” pp. 141ff.) were included. The Pentateuch was well translated, the Prophets and Writings were a free rendering of the Hebrew text and simply inaccurate in some places. Passages are transposed from their original placement in the Hebrew manuscripts. Jeremiah is much shorter in the LXX, an additional psalm is added to the Psalter, and Job is much shorter than in the Hebrew Masoretic text. It appears that a good bit of this is because of the fluidity of the Hebrew manuscripts available at this time, although this is a moot issue. The LXX was largely preserved by the Christian church; the Jews rejected it fully by a.d. 100, using their own Hebrew canon that did not include the Apocrypha. However, most of the OT quotes in the NT are from the LXX version rather than the Hebrew manuscripts known to us now (Ellis, Longennecker).

The LXX was first printed in the Complutensian Polyglot Bible of 1522. The most used edition of the LXX in the twentieth century was completed by Afred Rahlfs, Würtemburg Bible Society, 1935.

Various revisions and rival versions to the LXX were produced. Rival versions included the excessively literal translation of Aquila (a.d. 30); the relatively free, but well done and reworked Greek version by Theodotian (a.d. 190), based on an earlier pre-Christian Greek translation. Theodotian's Daniel quickly replaced a corrupted LXX translation of Daniel in the church. Symmachus, a.d. 170, produced another version in which he tried to be accurate, but produced a Greek idiomatic (a modern day “dynamic equivalency” product) version.

Origen (a.d. 185-254) attempted a revision of the LXX itself. His Hexapla (sixfold) was completed in a.d. 245; it was the OT in six parallel columns. This work ran to seven thousand pages and included: (1) Hebrew text, (2) Hebrew text in Greek letters, (3) Aquila's Greek version, (4) Symmachus' Greek version, (5) Origen's revised LXX, (6) Theodotian's Greek version. Origen's goal was to bring the LXX, column five, into conformity, as much as possible, with the Hebrew text of column one. Hesychius for Alexandria and Lucian of Antioch produced later recensions of the LXX.

The language of the LXX greatly influenced the language of the NT and has been beneficial, as well as troublesome, throughout the centuries of Bible translation. It does preserve a translation of the OT from a Hebrew text that was over one thousand years older than our extant manuscripts representing the Masoretic text. But, as noted earlier, the quality of the Greek of the translation is poor at times. The LXX also has pride of place for being the OT text used most by the early Christians. The Greek of the LXX illuminates the semantic range of NT Greek words. It was a missionary tool used by God to spread his gospel throughout the Mediterranean world.

However, it was the Latin Bible, Jerome's Vulgate (popular, common), that powerfully influenced the church for over a thousand years. Two centuries after Christianity moved into the Roman world, Latin translations became necessary. Many, some unworthy, secondary Latin translations were produced based on the Greek LXX or other extant Greek texts. Thus, old Latin secondary translations of the OT abounded in Jerome's day; and at the request of Damascus (Roman bishop, a.d. 366-84), Jerome undertook a new standard edition of the Latin Bible. Using the Hebrew text, He completed his translation in a.d. 405, having lived in Bethlehem since c. a.d. 386 in order to perfect his Hebrew. He did not translate the Apocrypha and held a low view of them (Mikra, 81f.). However, not until the ninth century was the supremacy of his new translation fully recognized. The fortunes of Jerome's work varied through the centuries. Its use in textual criticism and reconstruction is minimal, but its influence upon the thinking and language of Christians in Europe and the West generally has been enormous. Many other versions of the OT were produced; English versions alone would require a book to list them and their histories.