Importance of the 3rd Old Testament
To my surprise, skeptics who attack the Bible do not normally focus on inconsistencies between New Testament quotations and their Old Testament sources. No matter which Scripture translation you prefer, try opening your New Testament to a quotation. If you flip back to the Old Testament source of that quote, odds are strong that they will not match. If asked about those differences, we should have an answer. I submit that there were three perfect versions of the Jewish Scriptures (a.k.a. the Old Testament) in the first century.
THE HEBREW PROBLEM
Most of the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, and “Plenary Verbal Inspiration” holds that the original writings were perfectly penned. The original Hebrew/Aramaic was perfect, but we do not have the originals today. The Hebrew that underpins most modern Old Testament translations comes from the Jewish Masoretes in the 8th century A.D. While minor imperfections admittedly exist, Christians were reassured by the 20th century discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Those scrolls generally date to the first century or earlier, and most of them strongly agree with the Masoretic Hebrew text.
Yet the agreement between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Masoretic Hebrew does not solve the skeptic’s question. Rather, the DSS intensify that question. If the DSS prove the Masoretic Hebrew’s reliability, why do the apostles then appear to have improperly quoted such a reliable version of the Old Testament?
THE EARLY CHRISTIAN OLD TESTAMENT
Generally speaking, early Christians (including the apostles themselves) did not rely on the Hebrew version of the Old Testament, but on the Greek translation of it, called the “Septuagint.” The word “Septuagint” comes from a word meaning “seventy.” In the third century B.C., seventy-two Jewish rabbis translated the Jewish Scriptures into Greek. Many modern Christians dismiss the events of that translation as a myth, but first-century Jews and early Christians were convinced that God divinely inspired the Greek Septuagint translation, proving His inspiration through a miraculous agreement between the rabbis.
Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria said that the translating rabbis, “as if possessed, prophesied, in the course of translating, not each one something different, but all of them the same nouns and verbs, as if a prompter were invisibly giving them instructions.” Philo continued at length to describe the divine inspiration of the Septuagint, going so far as to call the 72 rabbis “not translators, but hierophants and prophets.”1
Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon (then Lugdunum) stated, “Thus it is the same Spirit of God who spoke through the prophets of the coming of the Lord, who properly translated through the elders what was really prophesied and who preached the fulfilment of the promise through the apostles.”2
If early Christians properly understood the Septuagint as divinely inspired, then the apostles had two Old Testaments from which to quote. They had the divinely inspired Hebrew and the divinely inspired Greek from which to quote. Since most modern Old Testament translations depend on the Masoretic Hebrew, and since the apostles tended to rely on the Septuagint, it makes sense that our Old and New Testaments differ. The apostles quoted from two versions, yet our modern Old Testaments are based primarily on just one version.
Yet many New Testament quotes differ from both the Masoretic Hebrew and the Greek Septuagint. So the fact that there were two divinely inspired versions of the Old Testament does not resolve the skeptic’s question.
THEORY OF THE UNPRESERVED-VERSION
One way to resolve our problem is to assume that one of our modern Old Testament versions is reliable while the other is deeply flawed. If the original Hebrew and the original Septuagint were both perfect, then we only need to assume that the modern copies of one of these two versions was not preserved well. Until 400 A.D., Christians did not generally use Hebrew manuscripts.3 Therefore one might argue that the Septuagint is perfect, while the later Masoretic text is deeply flawed (or vice versa).
From either perspective, this theory claims that the apostles quoted from two perfect versions, and one of those perfect versions was not well preserved over time. Hence, apostolic quotes which differ from both the modern Septuagint and Masoretic might derive from a purer early version.
THE TRANSLATION PROCESS
I’m no fan of the above theory. I believe we can trust both the Masoretic and Septuagint versions of the Old Testament. From this perspective, we can answer the skeptic by attributing the Septuagint translation process to the apostles. According to early Christianity, the seventy-two Jewish translators who produced the Septuagint were moved by the Holy Spirit to both edit down the Hebrew text and to expand upon the original Hebrew text:
In the first half of the third century, Origen of Alexandria insisted he “kept to the Septuagint in all respects,” because truths in the Greek Septuagint were veiled in the Hebrew: “The Holy Spirit wished the forms of the mysteries to be hidden in the divine scriptures, and not dealt with clearly and openly.”4
Bishop Epiphanius of Salamis in the latter 300’s AD in his On Weights and Measures, wrote, “For where they added words lacking in these [Hebrew writings], they gave clearness to the reading, so that we regard them as not disassociated from the Holy Spirit. For they omitted those that had no need of repetition; but where there was a word that was considered ambiguous when translated into the Greek language, there they made an addition. This may be surprising, but we should not be rash to bring censure, but rather praise that it is according to the will of God that what is sacred should be understood.”5
Augustine of Hippo in his “City of God” wrote circa A.D. 400, “We are right in believing that the translators of the Septuagint had received the spirit of prophecy; and so if, with its authority, they altered anything and used expressions in their translation different from those of the original, we should not doubt that these expressions also were divinely inspired.”6
THE THIRD OLD TESTAMENT
If early Christians correctly understood the Septuagint translation process, then we ought to extend the same Spirit-inspired process to the apostles. They had a divine Hebrew Old Testament and a divine Greek Old Testament. As they quoted these two versions, they often changed some words under the influence of the Holy Spirit, in order to bring forth hidden treasures. In other words, when an apostle’s quote differs from both the Masoretic and the Septuagint, the Holy Spirit thereby revealed a truth which had been hidden under the surface of the Hebrew and the Greek. Thus, the new Old Testament version, penned by the apostles, became a third and equally perfect form of the Old Testament.
The Masoretic of Psalm 68:18 says that the Lord “received gifts in man.” The Septuagint of the same text reads similarly. Yet Paul, moved by the Holy Spirit, created a new version of that passage in Ephesians 4:8 with the words “He gave gifts to men.” Paul did not contradict the Psalmist. He accurately revealed a truth that had been hidden all along, under the surface of the Psalmist’s words.
If a skeptic asks why the New Testament does not agree with the Old Testament, the answer is simple: There are three divinely inspired versions of the Old Testament. Sometimes the apostles quoted the Hebrew (which the Masoretic text has preserved fairly well). More often, they quoted the divinely inspired Greek Septuagint, which Eastern Orthodoxy has preserved for us. Quite often however, the Holy Spirit moved the apostles to bring forth entirely new things from the treasury of Jewish Scripture.
“Therefore every scribe instructed concerning the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old.” (Matthew 13:52)
- Kamesar, A. “The Cambridge Companion to Philo” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 66-67.
- Irenaeus, “Against Heresies” 3.21.4
- The famous exception to that rule is Origen of Alexandria, who produced the “Hexapla,” comparing the Hebrew Old Testament with the Greek.
- Law, Timothy Michael, “When God Spoke Greek” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 144.
- Epiphanius of Salamis “On Weights and Measures” as published in 1935 by the University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois. Edited by James Elmer Dean.
- Augustine, “City of God” 15.23