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Texts are listed below for reference. Acts written in Greek and the Septuagint (LXX) are word for word the same but is this enough evidence to say the Ethiopian read from the LXX. Phillip probably could read both. The Ethiopian probably could read Greek, but the Ethiopian language was a semitic language similar to Hebrew. Is this a dead-end question, or is there more evidence to answer this question?

Do we know if a Gentile was allowed to own an Isaiah scroll in Hebrew? That would point to an LXX Isaiah scroll. Judaism did get to the point of not allowing the scriptures to be touched by human hands, but this probably occurred after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D.

Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this:

              “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter 
  and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, 
  so he opens not his mouth. 
               In his humiliation justice was denied him. 
  Who can describe his generation? 
              For his life is taken away from the earth.” 
                                  (Acts 8:32–33, ESV)

  ὡς πρόβατον ἐπὶ σφαγὴν ἤχθη 
     καὶ ὡς ἀμνὸς ἐναντίον τοῦ κείραντος αὐτὸν ἄφωνος, 
  οὕτως οὐκ ἀνοίγει τὸ στόμα αὐτοῦ. 
      Ἐν τῇ ταπεινώσει °[αὐτοῦ] ἡ κρίσις αὐτοῦ ἤρθη 
  τὴν  γενεὰν αὐτοῦ τίς διηγήσεται; 
     ὅτι αἴρεται ἀπὸ τῆς γῆς ἡ ζωὴ αὐτοῦ. 
                                  (Acts 8:32b–33, NA28) 

   ὡς πρόβατον ἐπὶ σφαγὴν ἤχθη 
     καὶ ὡς ἀμνὸς ἐναντίον τοῦ κείροντος αὐτὸν ἄφωνος 
  οὕτως οὐκ ἀνοίγει τὸ στόμα αὐτοῦ.  
     ἐν τῇ ταπεινώσει ἡ κρίσις αὐτοῦ ἤρθη, 
  τὴν γενεὰν αὐτοῦ τίς διηγήσεται; 
     ὅτι αἴρεται ἀπὸ τῆς γῆς ἡ ζωὴ αὐτοῦ, 
                                (Isa. 53:7–8, LXX)

 כַּשֶּׂה֙ לַטֶּ֣בַח
      יוּבָ֔ל וּכְרָחֵ֕ל לִפְנֵ֥י גֹזְזֶ֖יהָ נֶאֱלָ֑מָה 
 וְלֹ֥א יִפְתַּ֖ח פִּֽיו׃ 
    מֵעֹ֤צֶר וּמִמִּשְׁפָּט֙ לֻקָּ֔ח 
 וְאֶת־דּוֹרֹ֖ו מִ֣י יְשׂוֹחֵ֑חַ 
     כִּ֤י נִגְזַר֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ חַיִּ֔ים
                                (Isa 53:7–8, BHS2006)



        like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, 
  and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, 
  so he opened not his mouth. 
               By oppression and judgment he was taken away; 
  and as for his generation, who considered 
              that he was cut off out of the land of the living, 
                                                        (Isa. 53:7b–8a, ESV)


  Like a sheep being led to slaughter, 
     Like a ewe, dumb before those who shear her, 
  He did not open his mouth. 
     By oppressive judgment he was taken away, 
  Who could describe his abode? 
  For he was cut off from the land of the living 
                           (Isa. 53:7b–8a, JPS1985)
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  • 2
    I like this question! +1 Mar 13, 2023 at 2:24
  • 1
    @VladimirFГероямслава actually, Egyptian was related to Hebrew through membership in the Afroasiatic language family, though the difference was much wider than that of Hebrew and Arabic. In other words, Egyptian was not a Semitic language, but it was related to the Semitic languages. Mar 13, 2023 at 10:51
  • @RobertColumbia You are right (although my comparison was not that nonsensical given the extremely far time i prehistory when the split happened). However, I do not even understand why I read Egyptian when the question clearly says Ethiopian. So I was completely off. Mar 13, 2023 at 15:15
  • do you think Philip was also Ethiopian to speak with him? Greek was the international language; LXX was Egyptian version. Egypt was Greek, Ethiopia was closer to Egypt, and being a trader, businessman, the man clearly knew and read Greek like everyone else. Unlikely he was reading Hebrew or ethiopian version, but surely the conversation happened in Greek.
    – Michael16
    Mar 13, 2023 at 16:12
  • From what I understand, the LXX was the only translation available in the 1st century. Of course, Hebrew was available. That he had a scroll was impressive. An LXX Isaiah scroll might have been easier for a Gentile to possess. This kind of fact might answer the question.
    – Perry Webb
    Mar 14, 2023 at 0:07

4 Answers 4

11

Let me place these side-by-side for Acts 8:32, 33 from the BLB:

... He was led as a sheep to slaughter, and as a lamb before the one shearing him is silent, so He does not open His mouth. In His humiliation, justice was taken away from Him. Who will describe His generation? For His life is removed from the earth."

The LXX of Isa 53:7, 8 as translated by Brenton

... he was led as a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is dumb, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation his judgment was taken away: who shall declare his generation? for his life is taken away from the earth: ...

Lastly, here is the literal version of Isa 53:7, 8 from MT as translated by the NASB (ESV is very similar as the OP has already documented):

Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth. By oppression and judgment He was taken away; And as for His generation, who considered That He was cut off from the land of the living ...

It is immediately obvious that the text of the LXX is closer to the text of that in Acts 8, although the differences are (in this case) small. The BSB specifically notes this fact.

However, I am not sure that we can deduce much from this observation for the following reasons:

  • The record we have in Acts 8 is clearly not exhaustive and is not a verbatim transcript of all events associated with the story.
  • Further, Luke was not present and so must have been told by one of the witnesses who may or may not have reported the events verbatim, or simply an allusion to them.
  • The text of the LXX is far from uniform and we do not know which LXX version the treasurer was using (assuming he was reading the LXX).
  • Even if the Ethiopian was reading from the Hebrew, the witness may have simply recalled the more familiar text of the LXX when he told Luke.
  • Even if the witness recalled the Hebrew, Luke may have used the more familiar text of the LXX.

In any case, it is not germane to the point of the narrative; that is, it does not matter whether the Ethiopian was reading the Hebrew or the Greek - the point of the story was:

  • The miraculous meeting between the treasurer and Philip
  • The treasurer's willingness to understand Scripture
  • The treasurer's conversion to Jesus as Messiah
  • The treasurer's baptism
  • The work of the Holy Spirit in all these events as evidenced by Philip being whisked away at the conclusion of the baptism

Despite all the above I believe, on the balance of probabilities, that the Ethiopian was most likely reading from the LXX.

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    Great answer, +1. I agree LXX appears more probable, but since the account had to be retold at least once (to Luke), we cannot be certain. Mar 13, 2023 at 2:26
  • How about background information outside the Bible about how the Jews handled Hebrew scriptures? I gave you credit for what you do have.
    – Perry Webb
    Mar 15, 2023 at 0:57
  • 1
    @PerryWebb - that is a VERY general question that might be best answered in the Jewish commentaries at the time. However, these were Christians who began to diverge from the Jewish approaches significantly.
    – Dottard
    Mar 15, 2023 at 1:04
  • @Dottard - I've been looking there. Still am.
    – Perry Webb
    Mar 15, 2023 at 1:54
4

I don't know that the wording of Acts necessarily helps us answer the question. I'm trying to imagine how Philip would have reported this scene. Would he have given a verbatim report of what the Ethiopian was saying as he read the scroll aloud? Or would he have just said "The man was reading the 'lamb to the slaughter' passage from Isaiah"? In the latter case, Luke or his source would then have supplied the exact wording from whatever text he used himself.

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  • Luke should have getting this first-handed from Philip the Evangelist. They had face to face encounter in Acts 21:8-15. Mar 12, 2023 at 22:20
1

It is more likely, I think, that the man was communicating with Phillip in Greek rather than Aramaic, and almost certainly not his own native language (perhaps Ge'ez), which Philip would not have understood.

As for the scroll, the three possibilities are, I think:

  • The Ethiopian was reading a Greek scroll (i.e. from the Septuagint) and accurately quoted the Septuagint passage to Philip in Greek. I think this is the most likely.
  • He was reading a scroll that was in some other language (maybe Hebrew, or maybe Ge'ez), quoted it to Philip perhaps imperfectly in Greek, and either Philip or Luke recounted the correct Greek wording from the Septuagint to put down in Acts. I think this is less likely, but possible.
  • He was reading a Hebrew scroll, quoted it to Philip maybe in Hebrew, maybe in Greek, and either Philip or Luke emended what the Ethiopian said to be consistent with the Septuagint. I don't think this is very likely.

Another very remote possibility is that Philip and the Ethiopian communicated in Aramaic, with the scroll being either in Hebrew or Greek, and either Philip or Luke emended to align with the Septuagint.

0

Any discussion of “the LXX” can be very misleading. We have no extant Greek manuscript of Isaiah 53 from before the time when the New Testament was written. (Luke writing to the high priest Theophilus at AD 41.)

And we know that a NT reading could work into the Greek line, as occurred with Romans 3:13-18 becoming a section in Psalm 14 (13 in “LXX”). The same is quite possible here with the Greek of Vaticanus, Acts 8 affecting Isaiah 53 by a scribal smoothing to match the NT text.

Sinaiticus would be an alternate “LXX” text so-called.

You can note the wild card if you accept that this amazing phenomenally good condition manuscript was created at Mount Athos c. AD 1840 and was prepared by a scholar, Benedict, who often shows Hebrew skills.

As to the question, this understanding supports the idea of a Hebrew text read by the eunuch, and some minor midrashing in the Luke text. Or reading a Greek text that actually matches the Hebrew.

Good discussion!

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  • What about the Isaiah scroll dating about 200 BC in the Dead Sea Scrolls?; thus near the date the LXX was translated. Looking at Isaiah 53, the main difference from the MT is vowel letters. ancient-hebrew.org/dss/…
    – Perry Webb
    May 20, 2023 at 11:02

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