I’ve always loved the story behind the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. It’s said that in the third century BCE Demetrius of Philerum, director of the renowned library of Alexandria in Egypt, petitioned King Ptolemy Philadelphus to have the sacred Jewish writings translated into Greek in order to fill an apparent gap in his library’s shelves. King Ptolemy, having a passion for the world’s religions himself, granted the request and so had a delegation sent to Jerusalem in order to recruit the most learned of the Jewish scholars and scribes. The tradition has it that 72 men in all agreed to undertake the colossal task of translating the sacred scriptures. Each of these 72 scribes, it is said, translated the text independently of one another, waiting to compare their finished products until all of them had completed the task. By what could only have been an act of God himself, each of the 72 translations are said to have been identical. The Septuagint, as this great literary work would be called, was clearly a divinely inspired translation.
From a historical perspective this story is suspect for obvious reasons. Most scholars posit that, rather than emerging at the behest of a gentile librarian, the Septuagint (which is abbreviated as “LXX” – the Roman numeral for 70) was probably developed over the course of a few hundred years primarily by Alexandrian Jews who were increasingly desirous of a more readily accessible body of Scripture in light of the fact that Hebrew, the language of the ancient texts, was no longer spoken. The lingua franca, thanks to the Hellenization of the Mediterranean by Alexander the Great, was now Greek.
Despite being developed in the Jewish community which no doubt found considerable use for it, the LXX would be far more influential in the Christian community that would emerge some 300 years later (a reality that would cause later Jews to regret the fact that their Scriptures, having been translated into a language that was spoken throughout the gentile world, had fallen into the wrong hands). The “Bible” that all of the writers of the NT would have been familiar with is the LXX. Paul’s famous statement about Scripture being “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16) is a reference to the LXX, not the Hebrew original. All of the OT references we find in the gospels intended to show Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law are quotations from the Greek LXX.
This last point is especially interesting when one considers the disparity between the LXX and the original Hebrew text. For example, the Hebrew of Isaiah’s famous prophecy about Immanuel can be rendered this way: “Look, the young woman is with child and about to give birth to a son. Let her name him Immanuel” (7:14). The scribes responsible for translating the LXX took the liberty of translating the Hebrew word for “young woman” into the Greek word parthenos which means “virgin.” Not knowing the original Hebrew and convinced that this prophecy was foretelling Christ’s birth, the gospel writers concocted a fabulous story about Jesus being born of a virgin. You may have heard of it. It could be argued that the entire doctrine of the virgin birth, a doctrine that is now forever enshrined in the creeds of Christendom, is based on a mistranslation!
A brief survey of the history of the LXX raises some questions about the way we view Scripture today. For example, is the LXX inspired Scripture even though it’s a translation of a more original textual tradition? If not, then are the fragments that have made it into our NT inspired? Were the scribes who translated Isaiah, for example, quickly taken up in the Spirit while contemplating how to translate the Hebrew word for “young woman” only to have the Spirit leave them shortly after the translation of that single verse?
To make matters even more complicated, the earliest copies of the Hebrew text we have are those of the Masoretes from the 7th to 11th centuries CE. The Masoretes, being faithful preservers of the oral tradition of the Scriptures that were passed on from generation to generation, decided that it was time their tradition be put on paper and so they transcribed the documents that we use today for the translation of our own English Bibles. The fact that we consider the Masoretic Hebrew text to be the authoritative version of the OT is based on the (not small) assumption that the Hebrew oral tradition was indeed successfully passed down from generation to generation completely untarnished. In fact, modern Christian translators are so committed to this assumption that we overlook the fact that the LXX predates the Masoretic Text (MT) by over 1,000 years! Could it not be argued that even though the LXX is a translation of a more original textual tradition it nevertheless ought to be considered more reliable than the MT simply because of its much earlier date of composition?
Many Evangelical Christians today claim that we ought to defer to the tradition of the Church when faced with difficult matters such as the status of homosexuals in the community of faith or the nature of the atonement. But if we are going to claim tradition as a source of authority then should we not be translating our English Bibles from the LXX since that is what the early church (not to mention the writers of the NT!) considered inspired? Some of these same Evangelicals boldly proclaim that every book that we have in our canon as Protestants (and only the set that we have in our canon) is without error. Again, where does that leave our sisters and brothers from the early Church (or the Eastern Orthodox tradition which uses the LXX)?
Personally, what I would advocate is not that we choose one of the two ancient textual baskets to put all our interpretive and lexical eggs in (although I think, if this is the route we are going to continue to travel, a strong case could be made that it ought to be the LXX over against the MT) but rather that we adopt a more fluid and organic understanding of what Scripture is to begin with. Doctrines like the inerrancy or infallibility of the Bible (but especially inerrancy) become increasingly difficult to hold the more one digs into the history of what we now call the Bible. Not only does one have to assume the original authors were inspired but also that each scribe, redactor, compiler, translator, and Church official responsible for ultimately making the Bible what it is for us today were inspired as well. That’s a lot of fallible and errant human beings involved in making up what some consider to be an infallible and/or inerrant group of texts. Indeed, that’s the stance some choose to take which I find not only incredibly difficult to defend but also completely unnecessary.
The doctrines of infallibility and inerrancy both attempt to protect the divinity of the Bible in the face of its all too human of origins. To say that the Bible is divine and is, therefore, without error is to make the same mistake as those throughout Church history who asserted that Jesus was so utterly divine that some part of his human nature must have been done away with and replaced with pure divinity, be it his will, his ego or whatever. Luckily, the councils did away with such thinking and the Church continued to affirm the paradoxical union of humanity and divinity in the person of Jesus. The point of the incarnation, at least as I see it, was not to show us that humanity could be replaced with divinity, as if the two were at odds, but rather that to be fully human is precisely what it means to be divine. The two categories are two sides of the same coin. God is to be found no where but right here in the midst of this chaotic, messy and complicated story that we call human history. Thus, the fact that the Bible is complicated and does indeed have mistakes whether historical, scientific or even, dare we say, theological, is precisely the point! We ought to expect nothing less (or perhaps, more) of a book that bears witness to this messy, mysterious and complex God.
To say that Scripture is inspired is to say that, in a unique way, it bears witness to the God we believe was fully revealed in the person of Jesus. To say it is authoritative means that as a body of believers we are committed to reading the text and rereading it, both devotionally and liturgically, wrestling with it, discussing it over a meal, and maybe even at times disagreeing with it but never, despite all the frustrations it may cause us, doing away with it. In other words, the authority of the Bible is not something it inherently holds but is something we grant it as the Church. The Bible is authoritative because we say it’s authoritative and we need no reason beyond that. And none of this has anything to do with whether or not there are any mistakes in the Bible or if it’s scientifically or historically accurate or if the virgin birth was based on a mistranslation.
To close I’ll say this: I have a love-hate relationship with the Bible. For so many reasons I am frustrated to no end with what I find in it–the violence, misogyny, exclusivism, etc. Most of the time these frustrations keep me from even cracking it open as much as I probably should (and when I finally do I’m usually left cursing under my breath). But regardless of my frustration I remain fascinated by the story this book tells. I think it has the potential to allow us to catch a glimpse of a reality that is much greater than the status quo. When it is enacted liturgically I think it offers us an opportunity to take part in something bigger than ourselves, something that calls us beyond the as-is structures of the societies we live in today.