Two Years’ Progress: Canon, LXX, and the WCF

One of the humbling things about blogging is sifting through one’s archives.  Reading one’s own public personal and intellectual diary is dangerous, as is calling attention to thoughts that made it onto the web in their infancy rather than in maturity.  But that’s part of the beauty of blogging: seeing good ideas develop and bad ones die (or get recycled and published on HuffPo).

In December 2009 I posted a piece entitled, “Hengel and Gese on the LXX.”  I thought I might interact with portions of this piece in order to see if and how my thinking on the issue has changed in nearly two years.

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. (THTW, 12/1/09)

I still agree substantially with this paragraph.  I’m still not sure what to do about two versions of Jeremiah.  J. Daniel Hays has written an excellent introduction to this issue from an evangelical perspective, though I disagree with some of his conclusions.  It appears that one version of Jeremiah’s prophecies was “published” and circulated in Egypt, and then a second version (a proto-MT) was circulated in Palestine and Babylon during or soon after the prophet’s lifetime.  Which is the “inspired” version?

The Jeremiah issue indicates two things.  First, our doctrine of inerrancy needs to be flexible enough to include all stages of textual development, including oral performance by a prophet, transcription by a disciple, and subsequent scribal edition.  “Authorship” simply worked differently in the ancient world.  I don’t think it bothers most conservative Christians that we have no actual writings from Jesus, only four Gospel accounts–Jesus’ disciples preserved the tradition faithfully, and so the process of inspiration continued from the time Jesus spoke until the disciples wrote them down.  Similarly, we shouldn’t “freak out” just because Jeremiah used a scribe, Baruch, who “published” two versions of his oracles.

Second, evangelicals need to be careful not to impose notions from NT studies about textual criticism and original autographs on the OT texts.  There simply isn’t a bright, solid line dividing “original autographs” from later scribal additions.

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.)  (THTW, 12/1/09)

This week on Ancient Hebrew Poetry blog, John Hobbins translated for us several excerpts from Jerome, and this one blew my mind.  Jerome makes the point that the Hebrew canon includes 22 books: Law (5), Prophets (8: Josh-Jdg-Sam-Kgs-Isa-Jer-Eze-Twelve), and Writings (9: Job-Pss-Prv-SoS-Eccl-Est-Dan-Ezr/Neh-Chr), with Ruth appended to Judges and Lamentations appended to Jeremiah.  He then argues that these two books should be counted separately, thus making 24, which corresponds to the number of elders around the throne in Revelation 4!  Very creative.  I’m not sure I take his interpretation of Rev 4 seriously, but the fact that he affirms what we think of as the Hebrew canon, even at the turn of the 5th century, is fascinating.

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.)  (THTW, 12/1/09)

Here is a qotation from Jerome (John Hobbins’ translation):

“This prologue to the scriptures may serve as a helmeted introduction to all the books which we turn from Hebrew into Latin, that we may be assured of knowing that whatever is outside them is to be set aside among the apocrypha [a Greek loanword and technical term for writings without dogmatic authority]. Thus Sapientia, which is commonly ascribed to Salomon, and the book of Jesus son of Sirach, and Iudith and Tobias, and Pastor [The Shepherd of Hermes] are not in the canon. The first book of Macchabei I find is Hebrew, the second is Greek, which can be proven from their φρασις [phraseology].

Jerome, contra Gese, affirms the (proto-)Masoretic canon in the ancient church.  The irony is that the Catholic Church, by adopting Jerome’s Vulgate including the Apocrypha, did not adopt Jerome’s notion of the Hebrew canon.  Gese’s argument that Protestants threw out the Apocrypha after the humanists discovered Hebrew in the Renaissance is incomplete: Jerome knew the Hebrew canon long before the Reformers did.

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?  (THTW, 12/1/09)

My objections to the LXX still stand today, and are even stronger now in light of my understanding of the Apocrypha’s early non-canonical status.  Even if the MT has some textual problems, the LXX’s problems are even greater.  I still have hermeneutical concerns regarding books like Esther and Daniel, but perhaps they are not as great when fabrications like Judith and Tobit are definitively excluded from the canon.

I now minister in a confessional church, in which all officers must subscribe to the system of doctrine contained in the Westminster Standards.  WCF 1:2-3 makes very clear that the books of Scripture include the traditional Hebrew canon (albeit in the LXX order), and the 27 books of the NT.  The Apocrypha “are of no authority in the Church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings.”  The prooftexts include Lk 24:44, in which Jesus demonstrates himself in “the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms,” the Psalms being synecdochic of the Ketuvim.

The WCF confirms Scripture’s authority as “given by inspiration of God to be the rule of faith and life.”  Furthermore, 1:8 gives warrant for the pursuit of historical meaning in the original languages:

“The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which, at the time of the writing of it, was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and, by His singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as, in all controversies of religion, the Church is finally to appeal unto them.  But, because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God, who have right unto, and interest in the Scriptures, and are commanded, in the fear of God, to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated in to the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come, that, the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship Him in an acceptable manner; and, through patience and comfort of the Scriptures, may have hope.”

The more I study church history and the ancient background of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, the more I am impressed with the Westminster Standards for their breadth of theological understanding and enduring relevance even after the rise of historical criticism.  The WCF must be understood in its 17th-century Anglo-European context.  But as a representation of Scriptural doctrine, it is still a masterpiece that remains relevant in an anti-confessional age.

My views on Scripture have changed quite a bit in two years–if they hadn’t, I would wonder whether I’ve been wasting my time.  But my studies have only confirmed for me the inspiration of Holy Scripture, and the sovereignty and goodness of the God who revealed and reveals Himself by them.

יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר, נָבֵל צִיץ; וּדְבַר-אֱלֹהֵינוּ, יָקוּם לְעוֹלָם

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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2 Responses to Two Years’ Progress: Canon, LXX, and the WCF

  1. Pingback: Best of 2011 | think hard, think well

  2. Pingback: New Article in EJT on LXX, Jeremiah, Textual Plurality, and Theological Interpretation | think hard, think well

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