Thursday, November 29, 2007

Which text: Masoretic or Septuagint?

I'm currently studying two topics. (1) I'm reading Brevard Childs's Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, in preparation for two posts on the canonical approach. (2) I'm familiarizing myself with the book of Amos, because I plan to blog my way through the whole book.

Childs's proposal:

The two topics have come together this week, at least in my mind. It was triggered by Childs's assertions about the Masoretic text:
The thesis being proposed is that the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible is the vehicle both for recovering and for understanding the canonical text of the Old Testament. …

There were many different Jewish communities in the Hellenistic period with different authoritative texts. Why should the one community which finally supported the Masoretic text be singled out? The reason is that only this one historic community has continued through history as the living vehicle of the whole canon of Hebrew scripture. …

But was not the relation of canon and text very different for Christians from what it was for Jews? Did not Greek-speaking Jewish Christians continue to use the Septuagint as an authoritative text, as the New Testament and early church fathers appear to demonstrate? Why should decisions within the Jewish community, some of which extended chronologically after the rise of Christianity, be deemed normative in any sense for Christians? …

The crucial point to be made is that the early Christian community of the New Testament never developed a doctrine of scripture apart from the Jewish. It made no claims of having a better text of scripture, as did, for example, the Samaritans. …

In sum, the church's use of Greek and Latin translations of the Old Testament was valid in its historical context, but theologically provides no grounds for calling into question the ultimate authority of the Hebrew text for church and synagogue.1
I wish to make two points in response to Childs's proposal.

Two objections:

First, "that the early Christian community of the New Testament never developed a doctrine of scripture apart from the Jewish" is completely irrelevant. We should not think, anachronistically, in terms of a formal council giving its official imprimatur to a specific canon of books and a specific (Masoretic) text.

There was no promulgation of a canon even at Jamnia, as Childs knows. The various books were recognized as normative by the religious community (or communities) in a piecemeal fashion. The Law and the Prophets were agreed upon first. But the boundaries of the Writings and what we regard as the apocryphal texts were still disputed during the formative era of the Christian Church.

The determinative consideration was the practice of the various communities:  which books they treated as normative when they gathered for worship and instruction. Therefore it is irrelevant that Christians did not develop a doctrine of scripture.

As Childs indicates, the New Testament and the Church fathers appealed to the Septuagint as an authoritative text. This matters, because at many points the Septuagint is more open to a Christian reading than the Masoretic text is.

Which brings me to my second point. The establishment of a normative text was not a purely spiritual act, but also a socio-political one. The stabilizing of the Masoretic text enabled the religious authorities to seize control of the theological agenda. As Childs indicates (p. 98),
Following the stabilization of the Hebrew text, the various Jewish communities began to establish their identity on the basis of the Masoretic text.
Childs sees that development as constructive; and no doubt it was, in large part. But consider the very different perspective of Joseph Blenkinsopp. He says that the decisive factor in delimiting the canon
was the need to resolve conflicting claims to authority, the point at issue being the interpretation of the received corpus of tradition. This may not lead us to view writing, with Lévi-Strauss, as an instrument of oppression and control, but it should alert us to the possibility that it will embody claims of a polemical and tendentious nature.2
I submit that this polemical impulse — an impulse to seize control of the theological agenda from one's opponents — applies not only to the selection of a canon, but also to the many choices which had to be made as the text of the Hebrew Bible was standardized.

Childs indicates that the Masoretic text was stabilized around the end of the first century. In other words, it was stabilized after the core documents of the New Testament had been written.

We ought to consider whether partisan considerations were at work in the formation of the Masoretic text. In a follow-up post, I will consider the text of Amos 9:12 in light of that question.

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1Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament As Scripture. Fortress Press, 1979, pp. 97-99.

2Joseph Blenkinsopp, Prophecy and Canon: A Contribution to the Study of Jewish Origins. University of Notre Dame Press, 1977, p. 4.


D. R. Driver said...

"…at many points the Septuagint is more open to a Christian reading than the Masoretic text."

Really? I know the NT typically hears the OT on the basis of the old Greek translation, but this is a historic truism that doesn't automatically indicate how the church, post NT, ought to hear the OT. In that debate Jerome made seminal arguments, and in the end persuaded a reluctant Augustine.

Also, what do we mean by "LXX"? It's surprising how much of the literature still refers to this unproblematically, whereas it is a highly eclectic text. Even on merely pragmatic terms, the so-called LXX is not a straightforward option over against the MT.

Another pragmatic consideration: if one were to reject the MT in preference for LXX, if say Childs had in 1979, who in the guild would have taken the proposal seriously?!

Finally, on theological and historical grounds, I do think the Church's link with the synagogue is significant. It would be wrong to dismiss this consideration when weighing the place of the text traditions preserved in Judaism.

John said...

"…at many points the Septuagint is more open to a Christian reading than the Masoretic text."

Like Daniel, I would take issue with this statement. It does not hold up to rigid scrutiny.

Adrian Schenker shows in a recent monograph (Das Neue am neuen Bund und das Alte am alten. Jer 31 in der hebräischen
und griechischen Bibel. FRLANT 212, V & R, 2006) that the interpretive instances of both LXX and MT Jeremiah 31 find expression in the NT, the former in Hebrews 8:8-12 and 10:16-17 (the annulled covenant), the latter in Romans 9:3-4 (the irrevocable covenant).

It's time Christians woke up and smelled the coffee. The NT depends on a wealth of textual tradition that includes strands vehiculated by the MT, as well as strands of tradition found in the multifarious tradition we refer to as the "LXX" (hardly a unitary text in the first cent. CE).

An adequate doctrine of scripture ought to be able to embrace textual diversity at this level, as well as diversity around the edges of the books to include in the canon.

How might this work in practice? If I'm doing exegesis on Jeremiah, I would, based on a desire to maintain continuity with a tradition of interpretation of a common text by Jews and Western Christians since the 4th century CE, privilege the MT. At the same time, I would carefully interpret the version of Jeremiah of which the LXX is our chief witness. The history of interpretation of both editions of Jeremiah would receive attention. I would feel free, indeed, duty-bound, to appropriate and actualize both editions of the book of Jeremiah for a contemporary audience.

If I'm doing exegesis on 1-2 Peter and Jude, I would deal squarely with the facts. For the authors of these letters and the communities they wrote to, a version of the Enoch tradition was highly treasured and accepted as prophecy and revelation by them. I would not want to write a commentary on these books which failed to take the Enoch tradition with as much seriousness as does the letters themselves do.

The Ethiopian Orthodox might cite the NT precedent as grounds for the inclusion of 1 Enoch in their canon. In any case, why should I impose later conceptions of canon, in which Enoch was deliberately rejected, on either the NT literature or the Ethiopian Orthodox, both of which manifestly do the opposite? Don't we have more pressing things to pull at each other's beards about?

Commentaries of the kind I long for have yet to be written, though treatments of individual pericopes which take a number of text forms with equal seriousness exist.

My fundamental beef with Childs is not that he is sticks to the church's way of reading scripture. My beef is that he is not do this enough. In particular, his failure to engage in a liturgical hermeneutic a la Fishbane is a glaring omission. I also think a return to the older pre-Reformation and pre-Tridentine tradition is in order, in which the outer limits of the canon and the precise contents of the text of the component books were up for grabs. Why not return to allowing a degree of fluidity on these matters?

In practice, depending on the context and goals, why privilege one text rather than another, and one method of interpreting it (on its own, or, e.g., through the prism of NT and later tradition), except on a provisional basis, for practical rather than theological reasons? Why not contend that ultimately, a persuasive global interpretation of scripture ought to be viable across the entire range of the forms scripture has historically taken?

Tim said...

"…at many points the Septuagint is more open to a Christian reading than the Masoretic text."

Isn't this statement, despite what driver and john have each written, a simple fact. The LXX often seems to preserve (or to have adopted?) a reading that is more open to a Christian reading than the MT is. Isaiah 7:14 is a classic and simplistic example:
JPS Isaiah 7:14 Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign: behold, the young woman shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

לָכֵן יִתֵּן אֲדֹנָי הוּא לָכֶם אוֹת הִנֵּה הָעַלְמָה הָרָה וְיֹלֶדֶת בֵּן וְקָרָאת שְׁמוֹ עִמָּנוּ אֵל

LXE Isaiah 7:14 Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; behold, a virgin shall conceive in the womb, and shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Emmanuel.

BGT Isaiah 7:14 διὰ τοῦτο δώσει κύριος αὐτὸς ὑμῖν σημεῖον ἰδοὺ ἡ παρθένος ἐν γαστρὶ ἕξει καὶ τέξεται υἱόν καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Εμμανουηλ

Which reading is "more open to Christian reading"?

Likewise in Ps 22, in v.16/17 the LXX "pierce" and its lack of mention of "a lion" makes it easier to read this text "Christianly".

These are both somewhat simplistic examples, I have a conference today and tomorrow, so they will have to do... but I think the point could be made in more complex ways: The LXX is often more open to a Christian reading than the MT.

The question then is how we respond to this datum: we prefer the LXX because we are also more (or less) Christian, we prefer the MT because it is the lectio dificilior, we read both to get a more synoptic view...

Phil Sumpter said...

Unfortunately I come to this post belatedly and I'm writing from my in-laws place, so I'll just jot down my thoughts.

D.R. Driver - totally, the relationship between historical practice and what should be normative is a sensitive one. The theological significance of the people of God and their "ontological unity" (as Childs puts it) is fascinating and significant. Even in terms of historical practice, however, the NT didn't just use the LXX, it used various texts, sometimes prefering MT.

John - I've just read your comment. Thanks for the examples. I think, when talking of theological interpretation, i.e. interpretation oriented to knowledge of God, the question of normativity can't be ignored, which leads me to the less ecumencial position of insisting that it's not enough to look at the variety of traditions and respect them. We need to judge them too, and the criteria of the "ontological unity" of the people of God would be helpful for that.

Nevertheless, Childs does do what you desire, i.e. accept fluidity at the boundaries. See his subtle and sensitive treatment of this issue in his Biblical Theology (written before Fishbane). His approach to the LXX/MT question there ought to contextualize our judgement of his approach. He isn't an MT-only man, at least not in a straightforward sense.

why privilege one text rather than another

I think the answer to this question depends on your broader theological understanding of election and revelation. As far as I can see, as I said above, normative categories concerning text and canon cannot be ignored in favor of global ecumenism.

Tim - Childs is concerned about how the Christian church should read its Bible, i.e. as Scripture. He understands the gospel of God to be witnessed to by this text. The question then, of which text to read depends on a broader understanding of the Gospel. In the light of the Gospel, which is about God choosing for himself a people, the question of which text is more amenable to NT interpretation should be subordinated to the question of which people are the proper tradents of tradition. In Childs' view, this privileged, elected people is the Jewish people and so the continuity of this people is a significant factor in working out which text should function normativley (we Gentiles are simply grafted in). Given what has happened in the history of the people of God (the Jews), the MT must be given priority, despite the challenge this poses. It would seem that the logic that dictated which text should be read in the NT was less which one is easiest to interpret Christologically and more which one is being read by the local synagogue.