Monday, November 14, 2011

Not the King James Version: How a Bible shaped the history of the Churches

The story is well known: the King, considering the need to make holy scripture readily available in the vernacular, draws together dozens of scholars who are conversant in its ancient tongues. They combine their efforts, and produce a version still read today, and which has influenced many others. Its importance is such that some have regarded it as inspired in its own right, and as the only authentic translation of the scriptures for Christians.

No, not the King James Version.

This is the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. The Septuagint was the Bible known to and cited by the Christians who wrote the books of the New Testament scriptures, and was regarded by many Jews and Christians in the ancient world as literally or verbally inspired by God, through the work of seventy(-two?) sages who translated it (hence the name, from the Latin Septuaginta, seventy - LXX for short).

Legend attributes the initiative of translation to King Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt in the early third century BC. In the oldest known version of the story, the King assembles 72 Jewish scholars, feasts and tests them, then provides them with an ancient research centre to do their work. They compare their notes and happily produce the result - the translation of the Torah or Pentateuch, into Greek.

Subsequent versions of the story of the LXX move into more fanciful territory, suggesting that the scholars worked independently but all produced identical, inspired texts. This may be the first appearance of an idea later influential in various Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions, wherein scriptural authority involves a sort of divine dictation.

It is difficult to say how much even of the more sober version is accurate. Third century Alexandria is a plausible locale for the translation, since it was a centre of Hellenistic culture with a large Jewish population. There was a demand for such a Greek translation of the Torah, which for Jews then and since has a unique canonical status but which was becoming inaccessible to Jews who lived far from Judea and did not speak Hebrew or Aramaic. Not long after, the prophetic and other writings (as then collected) were similarly translated.

This of course was before there was a "Bible" in the later sense of a strongly-defined canon, let alone a single "book"; so some of the writings in the LXX did not later appear in later Hebrew versions of the scriptures. When early modern translators came to compile versions like the KJV they took the position that books handed on in Hebrew had higher canonical authority than those found in the LXX alone - hence the "Apocrypha" of the KJV, which provides a sort of intermediate, semi-canonical place for those Jewish scriptures that survived only in Greek.

The Septuagint however was the first Christian Bible, the "Old Testament" properly speaking - it is to its text that the much-misused quotation "all scripture is inspired by God..." (2 Tim 3:16) refers, perhaps even nodding implicitly to the story of how it was supposedly written. In some cases manuscripts of the LXX are the oldest versions of the Jewish scriptures that have survived. The LXX remains the Old Testament of the eastern Orthodox Churches (who are thus the only Churches who can claim to have kept the Bible just as they received it originally!). It influenced Jerome's Vulgate, and early modern translations including the KJV. Although the KJV translators sought to return to the Hebrew text, some of their translations reflected inherited theological positions influenced by the LXX - check how Matt. 1:23 and Isaiah 7:14 are translated in your Bible.

Although its obscure origins deprive it of an anniversary to celebrate, this Bible deserves as much attention and consideration as the KJV, as one which shaped Christian belief and history; for its influence extends across a far longer period and over many more cultures. Its origins and its shape also present some profound questions for Christians about what we mean when we speak of holy scripture.

[Based on a talk given at St Paul's College, Sydney, for the St James Institute, in September 2011. Photo of P. Rylands 458, of a 2nd century BC MS of Deuteronomy, public domain]