Hengel and Gese on the LXX

I’ve been wrestling recently with the Protestant problem of the Septuagint. My tradition has considered the Masoretic Text and its 24 canonical books to be the Old Testament. The perception is that the LXX is a helpful translation of the Hebrew, but the Hebrew is the real thing. Yet the MT is medieval, and we know that it deviates in many places from the Vorlage of the old LXX. The text of Jeremiah is a prime example of this; we have found at Qumran both the proto-MT and the Hebrew basis for the LXX of Jeremiah, and it appears fairly certain that the LXX was the earlier version. The Qumran community evidently revered both versions to some degree.

This preference of the MT over the LXX is a relatively recent phenomenon, stemming from a Reformation desire to move away from the Vulgate. Jerome himself learned Biblical Hebrew and demonstrated that it was preferable in many instances over the LXX. (If you want a fascinating read, check out Jerome’s Hebrew Questions on Genesis, which is a running commentary and explanation of Jerome’s work comparing the Hebrew text of his day, the (proto-)Targumic material to which he had access, and the LXXs. It’s a shame that he was only able to do Genesis. This window into the Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic versions of the Bible in the 5th century is small but immensely helpful.)

I was recently re-reading Martin Hengel’s excellent book, The Septuagint As Christian Scripture: Its Prehistory and the Problem of Its Canon. He closes the book (pp. 126-27) with this quote from Harmut Gese:

“A Christian theologian may never approve of the masoretic [sic] canon. The continuity with the New Testament is in significant measure broken here. It seems to me that, among the effects of humanism on the Reformation, the most fateful was that the reduced pharisaic [sic] canon and the masoretic textual tradition which was appealed to as a ‘humanistic’ source were confused with one another and the apocrypha [sic] were set aside. With the thesis of the essential unity of the Old and New Testaments, of the one biblical tradition, the precarious question of the Christian interpretation of the Old Testament was settled….The New Testament brought the formation of Old Testament tradition to an end, a final conclusion. The formation of biblical tradition is thus, as a whole, concluded and thus, for the first time, in a deeper sense, canonical.” (“Erwägungen zur Einheit der biblischen Theologie,” in Vom Sinai zum Zion, Munich, 1990; pp. 16-17.)

I suppose my struggle is this: my tradition has taught me to try to be as faithful to the “original text” as possible, but it seems like such a thing is nearly impossible to pin down in the OT. (The texts of the NT are a different matter.) The textual and canonical history of the OT is quite fluid and choppy. In theory I would like to accept the LXX as Scripture. The main advantage, as Gese has noted, is continuity with the NT and the Church Fathers. But there are several theological and practical obstacles to my acceptance of the LXX.

1. The Septuagint has its own complicated textual history, as Hengel and others have outlined. The term “The Septuagint” implies that there is one, but there are really several Septuagints and many different witnesses to each. The unity and consistency of the MT, even if it came later, is at least emotionally appealing.

2. So, how do I teach the Apocrypha if I accept the LXX as Scripture? Is it fully authoritative in the church, or deutero-canonical? What does that even mean? I’m not a strict “inerrantist” when it comes to historical details in the Bible, but what of books like Judith and Tobit that appear to be complete fabrication? Reading the Apocrypha as Scripture would be a new hermeneutical challenge.

3. My church will not accept the Apocrypha. Could I be ordained in a tradition that does not esteem the Apocrypha as Scripture and yet teach it as Scripture?

4. I think there is much insight to be gained from a Hebrew canonical reading of the OT, particularly in the Writings. I also like the nuance and subtlety of MT Esther more than the theologized, pietized LXX version.

5. What does a Christian who accepts the LXX do with the Hebrew Bible? I love Hebrew and Aramaic, and I would hate to see Christians abandon the study of the Bible in these languages. Anyone who has read the Bible in Hebrew appreciates the beauty and complexity of these texts in their original languages. Even those who use the LXX acknowledge that it is Hebraicized Greek that is largely lacking in literary style.

So, what do I as an evangelical Protestant, broadly in the Reformed tradition, who likes the LXX? I know I’m not the only Protestant asking this question. I would appreciate your comments and suggestions.

About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, transplanted to Pennsylvania...lived and taught in Eastern Europe for six years…Old Testament professor, ordained minister, occasional liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth.
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7 Responses to Hengel and Gese on the LXX

  1. Rebekah says:

    My difficulty with answering your second question is not so much the possible “fabrication” of Apocryphal books like Tobit and Judith (the Hebrew books of Job and Jonah may be equally transhistorical), but whether or not there is theological continuity between these books and the entire canon. Should this be an issue? I’m not sure. Clearly, the theological emphases in the MT Esther are quite different from those in the LXX Esther. However, each reflects the theology of the faith community in which it was written and was accepted in some degree as authoritative. Should both be authoritative for the Christian Church today? And I’m still not quite sure what “authoritative” even means.

  2. Blake says:

    Thanks for your honest reflection Benj. As you know I’m not an expert in these topics by any means, but I’m not convinced that the inclusion of the apocrypha in the LXX should give it authoritative weight. In addition, even if the church fathers referenced it in their writings, does that indicate they viewed it with the same authority? Even if they did, is it possible they were wrong?

    You know that I come from a conservative, reformed tradition, but I don’t believe my questions come from a personal bias (at least not in totality). I guess I’m not convinced of your reasons to accept the apocrypha as authoritative. It seems more like an acceptance of tradition for traditions sake . . . but I guess that’s what Gese is after . . . .

    • thinkhardthinkwell says:

      @Blake: Thanks for your comments. I’m uneasy about the Apocrypha as well, mostly because I didn’t “grow up with it.” I agree that the Church Fathers made mistakes, and their citing a book does not mean it is “inspired”–e.g., the Didache. (Good grief–Jude cites 1 Enoch! That’s a can o’ worms…)

      But how was the authority of the OT established–or recognized? Is it determined for the church by the Jewish community or the Christian community? If the Christian community, then most Christians revered the Apocrypha until the Reformation. I’m not a medieval historian, but I would be interested to know the extent of the reverence for the Apocrypha in the pre-1500 Catholic Church and the Eastern churches.

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