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Throughout the New Testament, authors often quoted or referenced the Septuagint (LXX) - a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, but there are several notable differences between the Hebrew text that we now have and Greek translations.

This becomes relevant in at least two quoted/referenced passages in the New Testament - the genealogies of Jesus (included in all 4 Gospels) which would have used the geneaology in Genesis 5 and the translation of "young woman" in the Hebrew text as "virgin" in the Greek Septuagint which is responsible for the notability of Mary, Jesus' mother being a virgin.

This brings me to the question: Is there any reason to believe that any or all of the authors of the New Testament were aware of these differences between the two texts?

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  • See comments on my edit for details of changes.
    – user17080
    Aug 1, 2017 at 22:14
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    At the time of the events depicted in the NT there were multiple versions of both the Hebrew and Greek OT in circulation. Only the Pentateuch was a "controlled" text in that there were three "master" copies in the Temple, each differing by a letter or two. As scrolls were rare and the polemics were mostly in the oral tradition, the characters depicted in the NT might not have cared much about the differences in the actual texts in the way that we can, having the means to compare texts and being after the masorete canonization. Each sage then had the text that he received from his teachers.
    – user17080
    Aug 1, 2017 at 22:50
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    @AbuMunirIbnIbrahim - That sounds like the start of a fantastic answer... Aug 2, 2017 at 1:56

2 Answers 2

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The Masoretic Text (MT) did not come into existence until some 700 years after the New Testament was written. As such, there is no possible way the New Testament writers could have anticipated differences between the Septuagint, which was available during their lifetime, and the Masoretic Text, which appeared long after they died.

Even considering the proto-Hebrew text from which the Masoretic Text is derived, I still do not think that we can assume that particular proto-text is the one that was extant during the time of the New Testament writers.

There are thousands of verses, for example, where the text in the Dead Sea Scrolls differs from that found in the Masoretic Text.1 In some cases it agrees with the Septuagint (LXX) and/or the Samaritan Pentateuch (SP), but not the MT; in other cases it agrees with the MT, but disagrees with the LXX and/or SP; in other cases it disagrees or agrees with all three. In still other cases, different Dead Sea scrolls disagree with each other. Thus, we cannot even be certain which particular Hebrew text would have served as a basis of comparison with the Septuagint. Given the vast number of differences between the MT and other Hebrew texts and the late origin of the MT manuscripts we have (11th century)2, however, it seems unlikely that the MT proto-text would have been the one against any such comparison would have been based.


1. See, e.g., apparatus of Abegg, Flint, and Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible (Harper Collins, 1999).
2. The oldest complete manuscript we have of the Masoretic Text is the Leningrad Codex, which dates to 1008-09 (AD). The oldest incomplete manuscript we have is the Aleppo Codex, which is a few decades older.

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    That's true in one sense - if we understand MT as the formalised Hebrew text that modern editions are based on. But in the more important sense it's clearly wrong. The OT was originally written in Hebrew/Aramaic, then translated into Greek prior to the NT writers. So the essence of the OP is still a good and valid question: to what extent did the NT writers know both texts and the potential differences between them. Dec 11, 2017 at 5:05
  • Peter - I expanded my answer to address the points you raise.
    – user33515
    Dec 11, 2017 at 14:45
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Any answer to this question is fraught with conjecture, but I will make a stab at it anyway. Take it for what it's worth.

In opposition to the idea that people would be aware of textual differences is the following set of assumptions:

  1. Scrolls were pricey and not well-distributed.
  2. Access for most people to sacred scrolls was at the Synagogue, and at the Temple for those in Jerusalem.
  3. Each synagogue did not have a full set of sacred scrolls (how you define "full set" at this time is also non-trivial), but rather a smattering (I could guess as to the identity of the most popular ones, but we're getting into more and more flimsy territory).

Therefore the likelihood of most people having enough specificity of access to the scrolls to note differences is low. I would assume that some were aware, but certainly not everyone.

Nevertheless, some people must have been aware of the different manuscripts circulating. Those who were bilingual, for example, must surely have been aware of differences in the Hebrew and Greek that they were hearing. Scribes who spent their time copying manuscripts were surely aware, though we have little evidence about how they felt/thought about the differences. The previous answer has made the wildly misleading claim that the Masoretic Text did not exist until 700AD. This is true in that the manuscripts did not have cantillation marks or cetiv qere, but that is like saying that the Septuagint we now have did not exist until they stuck in the chapter and verse numbers. The existence of the MT in Hebrew is much better attested at Qumran than the Septuagint (from Wikipedia)

According to Lawrence Schiffman, 60% can be classed as being of proto-Masoretic type, and a further 20% Qumran style with a basis in proto-Masoretic texts, compared to 5% proto-Samaritan type, 5% Septuagintal type, and 10% non-aligned.

The citation is for Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls by Lawrence Schiffman. I have the 1995 printing, and the chart cited is found on page 172. For a detailed summary of (roughly) current theories as to the status of various points of discrepancy between the MT and the LXX (in their Second Temple versions, as best we can reconstruct them) see this article by Immanuel Tov.

One more point before I answer your question head-on. With respect to the page you linked on the significance of Mary's virginity. William Yarchin may think that he has discovered the real reason for the virgin birth, but Luke makes that clear in his gospel. It's not simply a question of the prophesy of Isaiah, it's a question of paternity: Jesus is the son of God like Adam is the son of God, because both have no other father. Whoever wrote that answer on the page you linked clearly has a cursory knowledge of marriage customs, but he's clearly only read the cliff-notes and not the ethnographic studies. The central issue in virginity is ultimately inheritance and who carries on the family line, not women being property or "damaged goods". I'm not saying bride price had no legal significance (but in its conception it is not about the woman being property, though it has become that in various cultures at various points in history), but that significance is completely dwarfed by the issue of inheritance and - in the gospels - paternity. If Mary is not a virgin, then there is little reason to believe (from a first-century standpoint) that her offspring is the Son of God. Whether or not the translation of נערה into Greek is accurate (and for all we know it may have been accurate for the usage of bilingual speakers in Alexandria at the time), the virginity of Mary in the gospels carries a theological significance far beyond the fulfillment of the prophesy of Isaiah.

Now to your question, of the awareness of the authors of the New Testament, as a Greek-speaking Jew, I think it's unlikely that Luke was personally acquainted with textual variants. Matthew, on the other hand, grew up in the Galilee. As a student of Jesus (if not before), he was likely rather familiar with the scriptures. He traveled around Israel quite a bit probably learned a lot. It's somewhat likely he may have been aware of variations in Hebrew manuscripts, or at least differences between Hebrew and Greek.

Mark and John do not mention virginity, but similar arguments to those above might apply to them.

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  • Whoever wrote that answer on the page you linked - I mean... It's me, the OP. You can go ahead and say that - I will not be offended. Actually, this is a great point I had non considered and I would appreciate it as a comment on my linked answer once you have the reputation to do so. Great answer! And welcome to BH.SE. That does relate to this question - is this something known to NT authors and being used as a vessel to make a divinity claim? Or just a misunderstanding? Some combination of both? It's why I think the Q is interesting. Apr 17 at 15:48

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