The Greek Bible: A plea for the rediscovery of first century roots

The Rev. Prof. Carsten Peter Thiede

When the 27 writings of the New Testament were composed, none of the authors imagined that, some 300 years later, the Church would come to the conclusion that they are actually part of a “Canon“, of a collection called the “New Testament”. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, had the courage to draw up a list, in his 39th Easter festal letter of AD 367, which was approved by church leaders elsewhere. At long last, the consensus, which had developed over the past two centuries, was put into writing. To us, ever since, the New Testament has been a whole, and as such, it is more than the sum of its parts. But its parts remain individual Greek writings, most of them — Mark’s and Luke’s gospels and the Epistle to the Hebrews above all, in excellent hellenistic Greek. This is a challenge to editors, translators and readers today. Vernacular Bibles should recreate the greatness and individuality of these authors. We need this simply to understand the creative genius of these writers. For we should never forget that the writings of the Bible, and of the New Testament in particular, are indeed outstanding literature as well as God’s message to us. Theological truth and literary genius are no contradictions, they are two sides of the same coin. To understand this, we have to re-learn that at the beginning of the Church, the whole Bible, Old and New Testaments, was transmitted in Greek.

Martin Luther in Germany and William Tyndale in Britain translated the Old Testament from the Hebrew and Aramaic editions and the Greek New Testament from manuscripts available to them by recreating the text in their own languages and by shaping, some would say by creating, these languages in the process. Tyndale in particular, who was an outstanding Hebrew scholar, surpassing Luther, Melanchthon and others on the Continent by far, remains a model of accuracy and insight, and it is certainly one of the tragedies of the history of vernacular Bibles that he was burned at the stake, as a so-called protestant heretic, before he could finish his translation of the Old Testament. The textual basis of the Hebrew text has been improved in the 20th century, thanks to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. These later developments do not diminish Tyndale’s achievement at all. What we have to take into account, however, is something else, something well-known to Tyndale and Luther: the first Christians, including the authors of the New Testament writings, hardly ever used the Hebrew Bible. They all knew it, Pilgrim Stamps and they knew large sections by heart, as all Jews did, but in their quotations, and, for all we know, in their missionary work, they did not refer to it. Like all Jews in the Diaspora, like all non-Jews throughout the Roman Empire who were interested in the Jewish Bible — and there quite a few of them around — they read the Greek version, the so-called Septuagint. The Septuagint was the first Jewish translation for Jews who did not know enough Hebrew to read the original texts. It was produced in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC and thus, by definition, was not influenced by Christianity. In fact, the great first century Jewish philosopher and theologian Philo of Alexandria (c. 30 BC — to 50 AD) decreed that the Septuagint was to be seen on a par with the Hebrew Bible, as it was “equally inspired by God”.

In other words, all vernacular Christian Bibles, without exception, have given us and continue to give us translations based on a text which was not even used by the first Christians. What we need are vernacular editions of the Old Testament translated from the Greek Septuagint. One might consider this rather far-fetched, as it would be the translation of a translation. But this is not how Peter, Paul, John, Luke and the others saw it, and it certainly is not how the vast majority of first century Jews saw it. And what is more, the Dead Sea Scrolls have taught us that the Hebrew text used by the translators of the Septuagint was apparently older and less contaminated by scribal errors than the Hebrew text used by the Masoretes of the 8th century AD, which remains the textual basis of modern editions of the Hebrew Bible, and of translations based on it, to this day. In other words, vernacular versions of the Septuagint will serve a double purpose: they will provide all those who do not read Greek with the text used by the first Christians, including the New Testament authors, and, by proxy, it will give us both a valuable insight into a very old textual form of the Jewish Bible and into the way the Old Testament was already understood (including some textual additions) by Jews in the two centuries before Jesus.

Sir Launcelot Lee Brenton’s translation of the Septuagint, published by Bagster & Sons, is sadly out of print, but in view of the magisterial studies by Mogens Müller (The First Bible of The Church. A Plea for the Septuagint, Sheffield Academic Press 1996), Karen H Jobes and Moisés Silva, (Invitation to the Septuagint, Paternoster Press 2000), Martin Hengel (The Septuagint as Christian Scripture, T & T Clark 2002), and others, a new translation would be advisable, anyway.

However, and to avoid misunderstandings, one should not advocate a substitution. Translations from the Hebrew are part and parcel of our Christian heritage, and have shaped our understanding of the Jewish roots of Christianity ever since men like Luther and Tyndale translated the Hebrew books into the vernacular. But without translations of the Greek Septuagint, we are simply abandoning another side of our Judaeo-Christian heritage. An Old Testament translated from the Greek does not alienate us from our roots, it gets us closer to our roots as they existed, throughout the Jewish world. Sir Launcelot Lee Brenton’s translation was and remains a valiant attempt, but it was not really a model of accuracy. We need a Septuagint Tyndale, as it were, and a popular edition which would be made available to Christians who, all over the English speaking world, have a right to know the Bible used by the first Christians. Readers would then understand why there are what seems to be contradictions between a quote from the Old Testament in a New Testament writing and the actual passage in the Old Testament once they realise that the New Testament author did not use the Hebrew, but the Greek text which was the one to be found on the book shelves of his readers. There already is a “Dead Sea Scrolls Bible”, edited by Martin Abegg Jr, Peter Flint and Eugene Ulrich (T&T Clark 1999), translating all Biblical texts discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls into English. This is an indispensable tool for anyone who would like to know what the Hebrew text looked like at the time of Jesus, and before the Masoretes edited it in the 8th century, much as the Byzantine Christians edited the Greek New Testament, creating some 90 per cent of all manuscripts in existence today, without dispensing us from the task of looking into the evidence of earlier, pre-Byzantine papyri and parchments. Thus, a new edition of “The Bible of the First Christians”, of the Old Testament translated from the Greek, should be the next logical step.

Let us look at just one textual example from the New Testament, William Tyndale’s translation of John 19:19. It is, at first sight, a somewhat indirect illustration, and there are many others which have been assembled by Septuagint scholars, but it helps us to understand that it is not just about getting quotations and allusions right: it underlines the overall case for a return to the Greek text of the whole Bible as the Early Church produced it in their complete codices, and thus to the Graeco-Roman context of the period in which Jesus lived and his first followers wrote.

And Pilate wrote his title, and put it on the cross. The writing was, Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews. This title read many of the Jews. For the place where Jesus was crucified, was nigh to the city. And it was written in Hebrew, Greek and Latin. Then said the high priests of the Jews to Pilate: write not, King of the Jews: but that he said, I am the king of the Jews. Pilate answered: what I have written, that I have written.

Those of you who know modern translations of this passage will have noticed that Tyndale differs from virtually all modern versions. They have the three languages on the “Titulus” in the order Hebrew, Greek, Latin, whereas the current Greek editions of Nestle-Aland and UBS, faithfully followed by translators, prescribe the sequence Hebrew, Latin, Greek. In this case, even Luther’s modern revisers have changed the order. Historically, we now know that the Greek text of Erasmus which Tyndale (and Luther) used followed the Byzantine or Majority Text. This Greek version was established on orders of Constantine the Great whose mother Helena had re-discovered the original Titulus in a cistern underneath a temple built by Hadrian, on the site of Golgotha. Manuscripts of John’s Gospel, written and copied before this discovery, preserve the sequence Hebrew, Latin, Greek. This is how John, the eyewitness, had remembered it. He got the three languages right, and the contents, but not their order. To him, the exact sequence was of secondary importance. In legal terms, however, it was necessary for Latin, the official language of the Roman administration, to come last, as the Roman prefect’s seal. This is how we see it on the Titulus itself. When Helena returned to Rome with her fragment, the correct sequence obviously influenced the editors of those 50 imperial copies of the Greek Bible, employed by her son Constantine. As a consequence, the majority of all Greek manuscripts of John’s Gospel, in the Byzantine or Majority text, copied this sequence, and via Erasmus, it reached the early translators into the vernacular, Luther, Tyndale, and others. Modern editors of the Greek text, however, reversed the order: decreeing that the pre-Constantinian manuscripts of John’s Gospel give us the original text, they re-instituted the order Hebrew-Latin-Greek, and this is how we find it in current translations.

Who is right? Historically and legally speaking, Luther and Tyndale, and the Byzantine text, are right. In terms of the oldest extant Gospel papyri, the people behind the modern Greek editions of Nestle-Aland and UBS are right, and, by implication, modern translators who follow them. Is it justifiable to go against what appears to be the oldest surviving version of the original text, if modern archaeology and papyrology tell us that the textual decision made by Constantine’s editors is historically accurate, after all? Can we correct “John against John” in such a detail? I have chosen this example for a practical purpose: the inscription on the cross of Jesus was indeed in three languages. Hebrew, because this was the language of the Temple and the Bible and thus the cultic language of the alleged King of the Jews — Pilate obviously knew how to hurt the feelings of Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin who had forced his hand in the first place. Latin, again obviously, because it was the legal language of the Romans. Without it, the sentence of death passed on Jesus would not have been valid. And Greek, because it was the language everyone understood, Jews, Romans, local residents and literally hundreds of thousands of passover pilgrims. Everyone was meant to understand who was crucified on Golgotha, and why. This was the reality of life at the time of Jesus, of New Testament times. The four gospels preserve only the Greek version. But the fact remains that Greek was the language of the Jews who had come to Jerusalem, and of many in the Holy Land itself. There is archaeological and literary evidence for at least two, perhaps even four Greek-speaking synagogues in Jerusalem. Their Bible was the Greek Bible, the Septuagint, and their language was given pride of place as the centrepiece, so to speak, of Pilate’s inscription.

And thus, by way of this example from John 19:19, we may do worse than try and find a present-day Tyndale to give us an Old Testament translated from the Greek, and scholars who will give us versions of the New Testament which combine the contextual knowledge provided by textual criticism, papyrology, archaeology, and classical scholarship, with the philological and literary genius of William Tyndale.

This article by Carsten Thiede first appeared in the Church of England Newspaper no 5725 on Thursday 8 July 2004. The editor would like to thank the publishing director for granting permission to reproduce it here.