Thursday, May 29, 2008

Welcome To The Septuagint - Hope You Enjoy Your Stay

Pltypus wrote to me requesting a quick Septuagint 101 in order to understand why the late Ko-Dee was so enamoured by this ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. I wrote a reply to him and decided to paste it here as well. Again, this is not an academic article. It was a personal mail written to a friend very, very late at night without any handbooks or history texts to refer to. I'm writing down from my faulty memory so some of the facts may be wrong (please do correct me when you spot historical errors) but the feelings behind what I wrote, the affection that I have for the Septuagint - that, at least, is genuine. Sometimes, that is what we all need - genuine affection:

The Septuagint that belonged to Ko-Dee is available from Amazon: (see link for more details).

The Septuagint felt like an exotic document from a long, lost age to me. In truth, it's the oldest manuscript of the Old Testament that we possess. True enough, it's a translation of the original Hebrew but, for many reasons, it's actually more well-preserved than Hebrew texts. The earliest extant Hebrew manuscripts date back to approximately 1,000 years LATER than the Septuagint manuscripts that we possess. Having said that, the fact that the Septuagint (henceforth LXX) is older than all extant Hebrew manuscripts does not make it more reliable or accurate. The Jewish scribes are known to have put in far more effort in preserving the Hebrew texts than we give them credit for. The LXX is thus (for lack of a more appropriate description) a very eccentric text! Students of the LXX readily admit their frustrations with it. It differs from the Masoretic Hebrew text in many, many areas but we cannot do away with it because - well, many of the NT authors actually quoted from it rather than the Masoretic Hebrew (e.g. the Epistle to the Hebrews used a lot of LXX quotations as the underlying Messianic Prophecies - do a quick comparison or refer to the footnotes of the NIV and you'll see that several of those verses never existed in Hebrew, but only in the LXX Greek translation!!!)

Doctor Ben accused the Dispensationalists of creating new doctrines because of their veneration of/dependence upon the KJV. A case can be made for the same thing with the LXX. The false teaching called "Ruckmanism" was propagated by Peter Ruckman who said that wherever the KJV differs from the original Hebrew/Greek, TRUST THE KJV because it's DOUBLY-INSPIRED! Now you can laugh at that but St. Augustine pretty much said the same thing about the LXX. You see, St. Augustine hardly knew any Hebrew but he was very proud of his Greek (he was an avid student of Plato, remember?). So he too maintained (in City of God) that wherever the LXX differed from the Hebrew, TRUST THE LXX! The reasons he gave for it was very funny too and it stemmed from his own anti-semitic attitudes towards the Jews! He believed that wherever the Hebrew text differed from the Greek LXX, then the Greek must be correct because Jews rejected the Messiah! "Huh?", you said? Exactly. But that was the sort of "ustaz-logic" accepted by people throughout the Dark/Middle Ages in Europe!!!

My personal fascination with the LXX had to do with BOTH the legends surrounding it as well as the true history that demonstrated the Grand Overture of God's Plan For Universal Salvation.

Firstly, the legends: According to the "Letter of Aristeas", Ptolemy II Philedelphus wanted a copy of the Hebrew holy books translated into Greek to be kept in the Library of Alexandria and was willing to exchange that from the Jews by freeing 100,000 Jewish slaves. What happened was that 70 (or 72, in some accounts) Jewish scholars worked in 70 (or 72, in some accounts) separate caves over a period of 70 (or 72, in some accounts) days. When they finally met up, they found that all 70 (or 72, in some accounts) translations matched each other word-for-word! So they believed that God was behind this translation!!! When this translation was presented to Ptolemy, he freed the Jewish slaves. Kinda like an ancient version of "Schindler's List", right? (Septuagint = Book of the Seventy)

Now, that legend can be easily disproved by even a rough reading of the LXX Psalms, Isaiah or Jeremiah. Those long books clearly show differences in style, syntax, and even translation methodologies (some chapters were extremely literal and others were about as free/paraphrased as the Living Bible!). However, the legend from the "Letter of Aristeas" was held to be true for many, many years. My personal theory is that the "Letter of Aristeas" itself was a fabrication of Hellenistic Jews and/or Gentile (Greek-Speaking) Proselytes who were feuding with the Hebrew-Speaking Jews circa 200BC-50AD. Hebrew speaking Jews did not disapprove of Greek translations but they preferred other Greek translations (e.g. the translation done by Aquila and Symmachus) to the LXX. The reasons behind this was not difficult to understand:

i) The LXX was not translated using common Greek but a particular dialect used by Alexandrian Jews in Egypt (there are legends saying that these Alexandrian Jews descended from that group that went with Jeremiah to Egypt after the Judean Exile). In today's terms, it's like having the Cantonese Bible rather than the Mandarin (Pu-Tong Hua) Bible. It was a dialect.

ii) The LXX soon became the Bible of the Christian Church and the Jews wanted to distance themselves from it. Having said that, even early Christian leaders (e.g. the Apostles and the Apologetic Fathers) were not uncritical of the LXX. As can be seen in the NT, there are many instances where Paul and other writers furnished their own Greek translations rather than quote from the readily available LXX.

Now, in view of point (ii) above, it is true that the LXX did play a very, very crucial role in the spread of Christianity (even before Augustine applied his "Ruckmanite" rule to make it the "Authorized Version" of his day). The key to it all had to do with the conquest/journeys of Alexander the Great. Up to this day, no one can explain satisfactorily why Alexander was more interested in an endless journey, an endless quest, rather than in ruling the lands that he conquered. My explanation is this - he wasn't out to conquer lands at all! He was out to conquer the mind. Everywhere that Alexander went, he brought with him the Hellenistic culture, arts, sciences, philosophies and literature. He built Alexandrias (capital cities named for being the center of Hellenistic culture) in every country. Even though his empire was torn in four following his death, the face of the earth changed after that. Hellenism replaced every other civilization as the dominant civilization of the world. Even the Romans were simply Greeks under a different dress - Latin was not the lingua-franca, it was a local dialect - it was Jerome's Latin Vulgate that really supplanted the dominance of the Greek language hundreds of years after other great Latin writers such as Ovid, Horace, Virgil and Seneca.

In short, even the average educated Jew (like Paul of Tarsus) was more trained in Greek than in Hebrew. Greek was like BM to him and Hebrew was like Jawi in Agama Class! With this in mind, the "new wineskins" that Jesus spoke about that was to be far more radical, far bigger than can be contained by the Jewish nation alone, and to be poured out unto the uttermost parts of the earth (Acts 1:8) required a different medium and language than the localized Aramaic of Palestine or the Hebrew of the synagogue. This was the centrality of the LXX in the early growth of Christianity.

History lesson over. Now, on to more personal reflections. When I studied Greek, I was more fascinated by the history behind the language than in the language itself. When I perused the LXX, I was more fascinated by the Alexandrian Community that produced this translation than in the overall Old Testament itself! Again, the sitz-im-leben thing! The Alexandrian Community differed in so many ways from latter Orthodox Judaism. First and foremost, they developed their own Wisdom tradition. Many apocryphal books would not have been preserved until today were it not for the efforts of these Alexandrian divines. For example, read the prologue to the Book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus). The prologue explains that the book was originally written in Hebrew but later translated into Greek (along with the rest of the LXX). But up to this second, no Hebrew manuscript have been found. In short, orthodox Judaism (with their strict adherence to questions of canonicity) did not have a place for that book and it would not have been preserved were it not for the LXX. It is the same thing with all the other books like the dictation of Jeremiah to Baruch, the histories of the Maccabean revolt, the writings of Esdras (Ezra), the angelic lore of Tobit, the Song of the Three Children, etc. What a great wealth of rich religious traditions would've been lost forever were it not for the LXX!!! Apart from that, the LXX was always a wondrous book to me (especially in the eclectic translation of Launcelot Brenton). It's like the Bible that we've always known but somewhat *different*. I don't know how to explain it. It's like when you read the LXX Genesis 8-9, and it talks about Mount Ararat, you feel the antiquity of the tale and place. You feel like you're holding a really old document and you'd like to take it all the way with you on an "Indiana Jones"-like adventure to Mount Ararat to look for the Ark. It's all childish nonsense, I'm sure of it, but it was grand romance when I first experienced it! (And I believe Ko-Dee felt the same too, when he first got his hands on it!)

[Note to Pltypus: See the pic above? That's how the Launcelot Brenton LXX looks like. It's not an Interlinear, it's got both the Greek text and an actual translation of it in English printed side-by-side. In other words, you can readily ignore the Greek text and just enjoy the English translation that was made directly from the LXX! Also, the Letter of Aristeas is available online for free. A fascinating story. I was obsessed with the book during my college days...]


Jenson said...

Hi Edmund,

Just a shameless comment, but the translator of the Septuagint, Sir Lancelot Brenton, was a Plymouth Brother, who was in Oxford during the time of men like JN Darby, BW Newton, and JC Philpot.

Just thought you might be interested to know this...

Anonymous said...

Hi Jenson,

Thanks for the info. I like Brenton's translation a lot. Was with La Tey in Kinokuniya Bookshop yesterday. Saw a new Septuagint translation by Moises Silva and gang. Just didn't have the same "ummph" as Brenton's original. Haha!

~ Edmund

J said...

Ahhh, another satisfied customer.

Jenson "Closet Brethren"

Anonymous said...

There's no "ummph" when you couldn't figure out the Greek alphabet, let alone the Greek syntax and grammar ... that's obvious :)

Learn to crawl before you run.

Johnson Lim

Cikgu Screwtape said...

Haha! Actually the folks at Jeremiah Blues do know their Greek. We know it like we do our French. Want to hear it?

~ Edmund

ACE68 said...

The greeks don't wear underwear and Johnson, your dick is showing.

Anonymous said...

Some people just love to hear their own voice. Even when it is out of context. Keep crawling johnsonboy, maybe you will learn to read someday.


Cikgu Screwtape said...

I admire your guts, johnsonboy. Last person to enter this waterin' hole talkin' 'bout grammar and syntax... well, he ain't doin' much talkin' no more.

~ Edmund

Anonymous said...

Hi Screw,

Yeah, I know you know your "greek" ... it's greek to you. Yeah.

So bullshit more. We are watching your "greek" research.

Johnson Lim

Cikgu Screwtape said...

There's this guy I know who is called "Tape". When he discovered my online handle "Screwtape", he thought that it was insulting to him. "Tape" is a good friend over at the SPCNET Forums so I bothered to explain to him the C.S. Lewis connection behind the "Screwtape" handle.

You, Johnson, are not my friend. You don't even have a right to refer to me as "Screwtape" - much less "Screw". So SCREW YOU.

~ Edmund

Anonymous said...


So are you Screwtape or Screwyou?

Do you have a sexual-oral-fixation cum fetish? Or are you suffering from serious deprivation? I guess your writings contain your Freudian slips. That explains all the sexual content.

Take care,
Johnson Lim

Anonymous said...


I think their problems are far more than merely sexual. This is a truly dangerous blog. They tried to cover their tracks (like serial killers) by deleting the old one and putting up this new and neater one but the contents do not differ much. The folks here are PAGANS posing as CHRISTIANS.

Shame on them.

In His Truth,
Albert Chua

Anonymous said...

The Screwtape fellow used to write a blog called "Hercules" or something. Last I checked, it was password-protected. I believe that they are using that blog for their nefarious plans and then pasting their blasphemous thoughts in this public "forum". So much for all their loud tirades against the fundamentalists. They drop the F-bomb on whoever disagree with their dangerous ideas.

In His Truth,
Albert Chua

Dr Danny Teh said...

Dear Albert,

It's about time someone exposed these posers for the PAGANS that they are. The real reason that they refused to state their beliefs clearly is because they are PAGANS pretending to be Christians.

It's obvious from their countless sexually-suggestive lines and their devotion to Eastern mysticism.

The folks here actually believe that just by reading several "Superfriends" and "Thundercats" comics that they can take on theologians and pastors (whose university degrees they envy/covet).


Anonymous said...

Hello Dr? Danny Teh,

Do you even understand this blog?

There are so many other posts in this
blog... why just comment in this one? because you're totally ignorant of culture outside fundamentalism. I said outside fundamentalism not christianity. You continue to dwell on your narrow point of reference from the Niagara Bible Conference.

Which is worse....the f-bomb or bigotry? vulgarity or pride? temporal mores or murder?

You have a skewed point of reference... The people in this blog do not have weird sexual preferences...contrary to what you believe. They are married people with kids! Just because they defend homosexuals does not mean they are gay...In the same way just because Jesus defends the adulterer or prostitute does not mean he is one..

Please get your facts right. Do you even know what is socio-rethoric? Stop making yourself look dumb. You can continue to display your ignorance here or you can fuck off..

Please do not hide your inadequate understanding of scriptural exegesis behind your supposed Greek knowledge.


Anonymous said...

Quack, quack, quack.

How's my Greek?

- Duck, Donald