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The Septuagint (2004)

by Jennifer M. Dines, Michael A. Knibb (Editor)

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Jennifer Dines provides an introductory survey of current scholarship on the Greek Bible - the Septuagint. She outlines its origins in the third to first centuries BCE, going on to trace its subsequent history to the fifth century CE. The Septuagint's relationship with the standard Hebrew text and its translational characteristics are examined, as is its value as a collection with its own literary and exegetical character. The Septuagint is shown to be an important source for biblical studies (both Old and New Testament), to make a distinctive contribution to the history of biblical interpretation, and to be of considerable interest for understanding the early development of both Judaism and Christianity.… (more)
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Suppose you're packing up a kit for some sort of Bible School. What do you include? Old Testament? Check. New Testament? Check. Septuagint? Uh....

That lack is unfortunate, because the Septuagint -- the early Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible -- is vital to our understanding of both Hebrew Bible and New Testament. Yet, for a very long time, it was almost ignored by Jews, Protestants, and Catholics alike. (The Orthodox use it -- it's their Old Testament -- but based on copies so corrupt as to have lost most of the value of the original texts.)

In recent years, that has been changing. Septuagint studies are a busy and active field. This book arises out of that ferment, and reflects many of the issues of today's Septuagint studies -- e.g. the nature of the translation, its history, and how it was viewed by both Jews and early Christians. In these areas, it is a sound if rather short overview, and quite educational.

Unfortunately, while these areas are of importance to the Septuagint scholar, they aren't really the reason the Septuagint matters. It is vitally important to the study of the Hebrew Bible because of its text, and to the study of the New Testament because of its wording.

Taking the latter first, much of the specialized theological vocabulary of the New Testament is what it is because the Septuagint reads what it does. For example, the Jews very early on took to substituting the word adonai, "Lord," for the divine name YHWH. The Septuagint adopted this substitution and put it into Greek as kyrios. They could have adopted, say, despotes, "Master," instead, and we'd today speak of the "Master's Prayer" rather than the "Lord's Prayer." But they adopted kyrios. Similarly, they adopted the word diatheke, a thing set forth, for the agreement between the adonai and the followers of Moses, giving us the term "covenant." They used nomos, "law," to translate Torah, which the Jewish Publication Society version of the Bible usually renders "Teaching." The list of such equivalences defined by the Septuagint is large, and is vital to understanding why the New Testament uses the words it does.

Sometimes the influence on the New Testament is even more direct. When the New Testament quotes the Hebrew Bible, it usually quotes it according to the Septuagint, even if the Septuagint isn't a good translation of the Hebrew -- and even bases doctrine on this. No instance demonstrates this better than Matthew 1:23, which quotes Isaiah 7:14. The Hebrew says that a young woman shall bear a son -- but the Septuagint mistranslated to say that a virgin shall bear a son, and Matthew quotes that and builds his whole Virgin Birth story around it. Many other New Testament arguments are built around quotations of the Septuagint, so knowledge of the Septuagint is crucial to understanding those quotes.

This is an area of great importance, obviously, and Dines touches on it, though I don't think she does the topic justice. The other issue, the meaning of the Septuagint for the understanding of the text of the Hebrew Bible, she hardly touches at all.

The earliest parts of the Hebrew Bible were probably written down before 1000 B.C.E. The last few books -- Esther, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs -- were completed later (how much later will depend on your view of the history recorded mostly by early Christian historians based on guesses rather than documentary sources), but certainly before the year 1 B.C.E. Yet, apart from a few scraps such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, our earliest manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible come from about the tenth century C.E. So those books had been copied by hand, over generations, for between one and two thousand years before our earliest extant copies!

Now think about it: How many books that are a thousand years old can you even read, let alone copy accurately? What are the odds that those copyists copied them accurately?

Actually, they're better than you'd think. Starting in the first few centuries C.E., the Jewish scribes adopted extraordinarily strict rules for copying, with the result that almost all recent copies of the Hebrew Bible are almost exactly alike. The problem is, the books were hundreds of years old before this process started. By the time the accurate copies started being made, there is good reason to believe that the text was already very corrupt.

And how can we correct that corruption? There is really only one tool, and that's the Septuagint -- a translation made before many of the corruptions happened. By comparing the Septuagint with the later Hebrew, we can produce a Hebrew text much more like the original than is the later state of the Hebrew. (I'm vastly oversimplifying here -- for instance, I'm ignoring both the issue of how the Hebrew was translated and the fact that the Septuagint itself has been miscopied over the years -- but it will do for a start.) The single most important use of the Septuagint is as a textual reference for the Hebrew Bible. Yet Dines skips over this almost completely. It's an incredible -- I'm tempted to say "unconscionable" -- lack.

That doesn't make this book useless. In the areas it covers, it's the best manual I've seen. Just be aware that the real importance of Septuagint studies lies in areas this book does not cover as it should. This volume belongs on your shelf of Septuagint books, but it definitely shouldn't be the only book there. ( )
  waltzmn | Nov 26, 2017 |
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Jennifer M. Dinesprimary authorall editionscalculated
Knibb, Michael A.Editormain authorall editionsconfirmed

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The Septuagint -- the Greek Bible -- represents the first known attempt to translate the Hebrew Scriptures into an Indo-European language.
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Jennifer Dines provides an introductory survey of current scholarship on the Greek Bible - the Septuagint. She outlines its origins in the third to first centuries BCE, going on to trace its subsequent history to the fifth century CE. The Septuagint's relationship with the standard Hebrew text and its translational characteristics are examined, as is its value as a collection with its own literary and exegetical character. The Septuagint is shown to be an important source for biblical studies (both Old and New Testament), to make a distinctive contribution to the history of biblical interpretation, and to be of considerable interest for understanding the early development of both Judaism and Christianity.

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