In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete discusses what we know about where our Bible comes from as he explores the following questions:
- What is the oldest complete Hebrew Old Testament manuscript in existence?
- Who were the Masoretes?
- What manuscript does the abbreviation “L” refer to and why?
- What happened in 1947 that changed the course of biblical scholarship?
- Why were the Dead Sea Scrolls an earth-shattering discovery?
- What is the Great Isaiah Scroll?
- What version of the Old Testament did Paul and Jesus probably read?
- Why do we have differences in the Hebrew Jeremiah and the Greek Jeremiah?
- Why did one Old Testament version win out against the others?
- Why is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament so important?
- What implication does the messy history of the Old Testament have on inerrancy?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Pete you can share.
- “The Masoretes job was to ensure (amid competing tribes, disagreements, politics) the faithful transmission of the Hebrew Bible. We owe them a lot.” @peteenns
- “What we see in the Dead Sea Scrolls is both wonderfully encouraging with respect to the originals, but also very messy leaving us actually less certain about the Hebrew original than before.” @peteenns
- “It’s not that the Greek translator did a bad job of following the Hebrew version or just decided to mix things up; he had an entirely different Hebrew version he was copying from.” @peteenns
- “It’s worth letting it sink in that the Old Testament that Christians read today doesn’t match completely to the Old Testament of Jesus and Paul.” @peteenns
- “Our Bible is not sort of magically dropped out of heaven, but it’s the result of a complex historic process, the beginning centuries of which are only dimly known.” @peteenns
- “One implication of understanding the history of the Hebrew and Greek Old Testaments is that it sort of takes the wind out of the sails of biblical inerrancy.” @peteenns
- “If God is so concerned about an inerrant original, God sure did a good job of hiding it by not preserving the original and by making a messy imperfect Greek translation the go-to Bible for the early Christians.” @peteenns
Mentioned in This Episode
- Course: Pastors for Normal People
- Patreon: The Bible for Normal People
Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People – the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.[Jaunty intro music]
Pete: Hey everybody, listen, before we get started, as you know, we have Pastors for Normal People coming up, but some of you might be wondering what this course is about and who it’s for so we invited the pastors who will be leading this course – Josh James & Jennifer Bashaw – to give us a little more information.[Music begins]
Jennifer: This course is designed for pastors who, for various reasons, find themselves reading the Bible in new ways and so they need to learn how to pastor from a new place.
Josh: This course is gonna be for any pastor who is evolving in their views, whether biblically or theologically or even socially, and also trying to address those issues in their churches by using the teachings and trajectories from the biblical text itself.
Jennifer: This may also include pastors who are in the process of deconstruction in churches that still hold more traditional views of the Bible and faith.
Josh: As a minister, I know what it’s like to preach and teach and lead while simultaneously going through the process of having to unlearn and relearn either denominational or personal theological commitments.
Jennifer: Overall, I’m excited about sharing my experiences and my love of scripture with people who have struggles like I have had growing up in the American church and serving in the church.
Josh: We are always deconstructing something; we’re always rethinking something.
Jennifer: You are not a heretic. The problem is not with you, the problem is with the foundations that have been laid in American Christianity. The problem is the fundamentalist ideas that have shaped evangelicalism.
Josh: Here’s the good news. This process of rethinking, of repackaging, of reimagining, it’s so good and it’s so freeing because it suddenly reinforces the idea that we can’t know it all, that certainty is a myth that maybe some of our right answers that we thought we had need to be understood in different ways because we’ve had new experiences because we heard new voices.
Jennifer: I’m also excited about helping pastors teach and preach the Bible from a new place with renewed purpose and renewed perspective.
Josh: Our deconstructions, they allow us to really learn how to trust Jesus in our ministries, and that is so valuable and so relatable.
Jennifer: I love the Bible, and I also love the church. It has shaped me and it has made me who I am. But I’ve experienced time and time again throughout my ministry career as a woman that the church does not read the Bible well.
Josh: Welcome to the mess. This is the beginning of a lifelong journey, and even if it feels awful in this moment, it’s actually so, so good.[Music ends]
Pete: We are excited to have Jennifer and Josh leading this course. They have lots of experience as pastors and also as seminary professors who have worked with pastors. If it sounds like this course would be helpful to you, please go to thebiblefornormalpeople.com/pastors to sign up. It’s pay-what-you-can, so no one will be turned away for lack of funds. So, we hope to see many of you there.
Okay, let’s get to this week’s topic. Imagine, imagine for a minute that you have a copy of the US Constitution in front of you. Let’s say it’s a Word document, you know, 12-point Times double-spaced, whatever. And you are wondering whether what you have in front of you matches the original (which is a dumb question because of course it does, but bear with me). There is a way of checking: I mean, you could Google it, but if you really wanted to know you could head on over to Washington DC and match it to the original in the National Archives. Pretty cool. But here’s the thing – you can’t do that with the Bible. There’s no original to check. Not even close.
So, that’s what we’re talking about today – what do we know about where our Bible comes from? And we’re going to keep this focus on the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible as it’s also called. I mean, the New Testament, that’s a whole other thing and maybe we’ll get to that one of these days, but not today. We’re focusing on the Old Testament, which was originally written in Hebrew. Well, almost all of it. There is a smattering of Aramaic, which is like a close cousin to Hebrew, but that’s another topic. So, I want to walk us backwards from the Old Testament we have to where it began – at least as best as we can tell. And brace yourself folks, there are some surprises along the way and a lot that’s just shrouded from our historical gaze. It is what it is.
Okay. So, the Old Testament doesn’t work like the constitution, where there is an original in plain sight. So, how does it work? Well, it’s more like the following totally hypothetical scenario. And let’s use Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel Les Mis to make the point. Imagine you have a copy of Les Mis and you wonder, “Gee, is this accurate?” Which, again, you’d never ask but let’s say you did. Now, right away you have a bit of a problem because Les Mis was written in French and you’re reading it in English. What exactly makes for an “accurate” translation? I mean, think about it. Translators make all sorts of decisions to try to get across the meaning of the original and there’s more than one way of producing a good translation. So, that complicates things a bit. But leaving that to the side, you really just want to know if your copy of Les Mis is, let’s call it a faithful rendition of Victor Hugo’s 1862 original.
Okay, well, it was written in 1862. But what if (remember, this is hypothetical), what if the oldest French text of Les Mis in existence were from, say, 1950? That’s as far back as you can go. That’s about 90 years removed from the original. So, okay, well you check that and sure enough, your copy is a faithful rendering of that 1950 version. Yippee. Fantastic. But now, because you’re curious and you’ve done some investigating, you’ve become aware of older bits and pieces of Les Mis, not whole copies, but single chapters here and there and parts of chapters and single pages and parts of pages and all of them written by hand and some of these come from the 1940’s, 1930’s, 1920’s and so forth. And the oldest of these bits and pieces, well, it goes all the way back to 1882, only 20 years removed from the original. So close, but that’s as far back as you can see. You still don’t really know for sure if your copy of Les Mis is a faithful translation of the original because you’re not able to get back to it.
Okay. But you do have bits and pieces of Les Mis that date back before 1950 all the way to 1882. What do we make of those? Well, glad you asked. There are thousands of them, let’s call them fragments of the book and they’re kept in a special warehouse and you, lucky you, you’ve got permission to have access to them and study them. And those fragments give us some part of nearly every single one of the 365 chapters of Les Mis. Some chapters are nearly completely intact and, in some cases – specifically chapters 36, 110, and 205 – well, from them we have two or three copies, right, of the same chapter. And this is an amazing find! We have parts of Les Mis way older than the oldest complete French copy from 1950. Hooray, yay, so happy.
However, you spend a few years studying these fragments because, remember, you’re really motivated to find out whether your version of Les Mis matches the original. And you study this, and you notice some things you hadn’t expected to see. The chapters that have multiple copies, well, those copies, they don’t match. Chapter 36 has, looks like three completely different versions. I mean, the topic of the chapter is the same, but in one of those versions sentences and in some cases whole paragraphs are missing compared to the other two. And even where the sentences generally match, still, some words are just different. You know, when you lay the three versions of chapter 36 side by side, you sometimes see different spellings of the same word, like, you know light. Light or lite or color with or without the “u.” And the three versions, judging by the handwriting, are clearly written by different people. Hmm.
And then you notice something else. You see patterns among those thousands of fragments, and this is huge. The kinds of quirks you see when you lay the three versions of chapter 36 side by side, well, those quirks show up in other much smaller fragments from other parts of Les Mis. And so, now you know what you need to do next. You quit your job, leave your family, and spend the next 5-10 years pouring over these thousands of fragments and organizing them. Ha-ha! See, you put the fragments in piles according to these quirks. And in due time after several years, you’ve got five piles and so it hits you like a lead pipe. These piles are not weird anomalies, they are evidence, evidence of different versions of Les Mis that once existed. You’ve done your work, hoping to get back to one original of Les Mis, and instead it looks like you have evidence of five very old versions. And you think all this work would pay off and give you more clarity, you’d think that after a decade or so of work you could answer more definitively whether your Les Mis matches the original, but no!
Now, true, a little good news here – one of those five piles matches really well the 1950 French version that your English version is translated from, which is way cool because you know your copy of Les Mis is a faithful translation of something much older than the 1950 version.
But. Oh, there’s always a but.[Large sigh]
The pile, hang with me folks here, the pile that matches the 1950 version, remember one of those five piles. The one that matches the 1950 version, the fragments in that pile, hmm, they only go back to 1890. Pretty good, but not very far back. At least one other pile goes back to 1885. So, the oldest complete copy of Les Mis in French from 1950, well, that goes back to a very old French version, but by no means can we claim it to be the original. Frankly, it’s really impossible to tell which of those five piles, if any, is the original. The only thing you have going for you is that the other four piles, for whatever reason, fell out of use. It’s only the 1890 pile that made it to 1950 intact.
So, maybe there’s a reason for that. Maybe that’s the original after all! Yeah, maybe. But you don’t really know. There could be all sorts of reasons why the 1890 pile rose to the top of the list. The others were maybe lost in a fire. I mean, after all, fragments from two of the piles have some burnt edges. Or maybe it was all political and some rich person had the other piles removed from circulation. Who knows? Bottom line – after all that work and quitting your job and leaving your family you don’t really know if your English version of Les Mis is actually based on the original French and we will never know until the originals are found, but finding them at this point looks unlikely.
Okay, so that was a rather clunky and long-winded analogy, especially since none of these problems exist for Les Mis. But – and you know where this is going – these problems do exist for the Old Testament. Boy, do they. In fact, it’s more complicated than our hypothetical example.
Ready? Okay. Well, for one thing with the Old Testament, we’re dealing with 2500 years of history, not 160. Also, and duh, we know who wrote Les Mis and when. It has a title page. But with the Bible, we really don’t know who wrote the individual books or when. The Old Testament books are anonymous and undated. I mean, there are clues in the Old Testament books that allow scholars to make some really good judgments about, like, generally when they were written. This is likely written before the Babylonian exile or after or within decades of such and such a century, something like that. But the books of the Old Testament don’t come with title pages, we’re on our own. So, with all this Les Mis business in mind, let’s, let’s do a brisk walk backwards from the Old Testament we have today and see how far back we can go. Full disclosure so you don’t get mad at me later, but you’ve already sensed this, we can go back pretty far but not nearly to the beginning. And the further back we go, just like the Les Mis fragments, the more messy it gets. And in case your brain is shutting down, don’t worry, we’re going to stay on the surface of things so we can just stay focused on the main point of all this.
And I’ll be tying things together at the end with some theological and practical implications of all this. But to get there, we do have to hit some details. And one of which is the following fun fact. You ready? Here we go.
The oldest manuscript we have of the complete Hebrew Old Testament is dated, hear me folks, get this, is dated to the year 1008 of the Common Era, as Christians would say AD 1008. Now, that’s pretty old. You know? It’s older than I am, but you know, do the math. That’s still 1000 years after Jesus and another thousand years after David. Anyway, this complete copy is housed in the Russian National Library, of all places, in what is called Leningrad, at least until 1991. Now it’s Saint Petersburg after the fall of communism, but let’s call it L for short for Leningrad, which is how it’s referenced among biblical scholars.
Now, we do have a slightly older manuscript. It’s dated to 930, but it’s incomplete. Around 40% of the Old Testament is missing, not really sure why. Could’ve been a fire, could’ve been stolen. So, there’s that. And you know, a lot has happened in the last century in our knowledge of ancient Hebrew of the Old Testament and some of which we’ll get to in a minute. But that manuscript, L, the one from 1008 is still the oldest complete Hebrew manuscript in existence. And it’s still the basis for translations we have today. You wouldn’t have the Old Testament as you know it without L.
Now, that 1008 CE Hebrew text, L, it has its own prehistory. It didn’t just appear or drop out of the sky. It was the product of the labors of a group of medieval Jewish scribes called Masoretes. Now we’re going further back in history, right? These Jewish scribes called Masoretes, they were active between 7th century and maybe just the beginning of the 11th century. And their labors are what lead to L, among other things that would unnecessarily complicate things, we don’t want to get into that. Mastoretes – very important, very important characters. Now, the name Masoretes comes from a Hebrew root that means to hand down, basically. Which is exactly what they did. Now – and I just need to drop this in because I don’t want to paint too simplistic a picture here – there were disagreements and politics and competing schools among the Mastoretes as there always are when the topic is religion, but long story short, they were responsible for the faithful transmission of the Hebrew Bible by hand long before the printing press.
I think these Masoretes were amazing. They not only copied the Hebrew text, but, for example, at the end of each biblical book, they gave useful information for future scribes. Listen to what they did, this is sort of blows my mind, quite frankly, what these Masoretes did. For example, in the book of Deuteronomy, the Masoretes tell us at the end of the book, they leave like a note, like a big footnote at the end. The Masoretes tell us how many verses are in the book of Deuteronomy and if you want to know, it’s 955. They also tell you which verse is the midway point, happens to be 17:10, although here, just a side issue, there were no chapter numbers or verses during the time of the Masoretes, those were added later on. They just give you the first few words of the line that’s the midway point and you’re just supposed to be able to find it. Just sit on that for a second. Imagine a Bible with no numbers, okay?
And since, I mean, that’s amazing enough, but since Deuteronomy is the last book of the Torah, the Pentateuch, the Masoretes also give us the total number of verses in the Torah. If you’re keeping score at home – 5,845. Not to mention, we are told, that there are 79,856 words –[Audible sigh]
And 400,945 letters in the Torah. You know, even with the age of computers, I continue to be very impressed with these Masoretes. Their job was to ensure amid competing tribes, disagreements, and politics, all that stuff, but their job was to ensure the faithful transmission of the Hebrew Bible. We owe them a lot.
So, let’s pause here for a second. If the Masoretes were about preserving the Hebrew Old Testament, and if they started their activity no later than the 7th century, well, that probably means that what they were preserving was already older. And that means that L, that manuscript from 1008 that’s the basis for our English Old Testament’s today, well, L probably goes back quite a ways before the 7th century. In fact, there is evidence for Masoretic activity, copying and things like that, as early as the 5th century. See, it looks like the roots of L go back pretty far. But how far?
Here’s where things begin to get more interesting and maybe a bit more congested, but we need to touch on something that seems a little off topic but it definitely isn’t. Okay, L, to repeat, is the oldest version of the complete Hebrew Bible dated to 1008. But there are earlier complete Old Testaments, they just happen not to be written in Hebrew, they’re written in Greek. Specifically, we have two Greek manuscripts of the 4th century that contain the entire Bible. They actually contain the New Testament too, because these are, these are Christian manuscripts, which is amazing. We’re back now to back now to the 4th century, the 300’s, right?
Now of course, these are obviously translations of the Hebrew, which means they are not really going to help us with the original, but this is still the kind of thing that makes textual scholars totally nerd out. See, these complete Greek bibles, they still take us back about 650 years before L. That’s just too tempting to let go. And here’s why textual scholars positively perk up. True, these are Greek manuscripts, but you know, we’re clever people. We know a lot about ancient Hebrew and Greek. It’s our life. You know, it might be possible to figure out in something like reverse-engineering to figure out from the Greek working backwards to what the underlying Hebrew was. It’s a long shot, but if you’re trying to get back to the original Hebrew Old Testament, you work with what you’ve got.
Now, I’m sure you’re way ahead of me here. Even if you could take a good stab at what the Hebrew might have been, that wouldn’t guarantee that you’re right nor would it guarantee that you’re any closer to the original. By the way, side issue here, give me ten seconds, scholars would do the same thing with something we’re not even going to talk about which is the Latin vulgate, the Latin translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew that was produced around 400 CE, around the same time. And all that is pretty speculative, but if ancient translations of the Old Testament are all you have, clever people, they’re going to try and tease some information out of it.
Imagine reading Les Mis in English, even if you know English really well and try to recreate the French underneath, even if you know the French really well, it just seems rather speculative and it’s not really an anchor. Well, that’s how things were until the magical year of 1947. We have to go forward in time before we can go further backward. What happened in 1947? Well, not only was this the year that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, but it was also the year the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were accidently discovered near the Dead Sea in Israel by a shepherd who apparently threw a rock into a cave trying to get his goats to come out or something like that. He heard a smash in the cave. He went into investigate and he saw some amazingly preserved scrolls that were kept in these huge clay pots and the rest is history. And anyone who goes to Seminary or graduate school has to learn about them.
Now, the Dead Sea Scrolls were an earth-shattering discovery for a number of reasons and one of which has to do directly with the search for the Hebrew originals and here it is. Found among these scrolls were a ton of Hebrew biblical manuscripts. From every book of the Old Testament except the Book of Esther, and people generally think it’s probably because Esther doesn’t mention God, so just wasn’t part of their collection of books. So, a ton of manuscripts, and by a ton I mean almost a thousand manuscripts and in one cave were found fifteen thousand fragments. That is quite a jigsaw puzzle and these manuscripts predate L by about a thousand to twelve-hundred years.
Yeah, they take us back to about the second century before Christ. In one single bound we’re back two centuries before Jesus. Yay Dead Sea Scrolls!
While I’m at it, slight side issue here, give me five seconds. I mentioned Esther. The fact that it’s missing from the Dead Sea Scrolls, for whatever reason, suggests the final canon, the authorized collection of official books that we have in our Bibles, that canon might not have existed yet, but again, that’s another topic. Still interesting. Boy, the Bible was in a fluid state early on, wasn’t it? Yeah, sure was. We’ll get to that fluidity a bit more in a second.
Anyway, Dead Sea Scrolls, this is all very good news. After all, we just entered a time machine and went back a millennium or more before the time of L. Scholars took note of some pretty amazing things. For example, what’s known as the Great Isaiah Scroll, prominently displayed in Israel, the Great Isaiah Scroll. Well, that’s the oldest, listen to this, it’s the oldest complete book of the Bible in existence. It’s got a few damaged parts, but there is a copy of the Book of Isaiah found at the Dead Sea Scrolls that’s basically complete and it’s dated to about 125 BCE. What’s pretty cool about this is that it generally, not exactly, but it generally matches the book of Isaiah in L. All sixty-six chapters are there and in the same order. It’s wonderful.
But there are differences too, between Dead Sea Scroll Isaiah and the L-version, those differences are also important. They tell us the Book of Isaiah didn’t just stand still for a thousand years but evolved over the centuries from, you know, the second century BCE to the year 1008. And the ins and outs of that evolution, that’s the real nerdy heavy stuff, we don’t need to be talking about that. But the bottom line is this: yes, the Dead Sea Scroll Isaiah is an older predecessor of L Isaiah. Not exactly, but pretty good considering the centuries.
Okay, well, you know, seeing as we now have a much older version of Isaiah thanks to the Dead Sea Scrolls, why don’t we just scrap L and do a reboot? Make Dead Sea Scroll Isaiah the basis for our English Isaiah’s today and keep L for all the other books that we don’t have full copies for from the Dead Sea Scrolls? Of course, I appreciate the enthusiasm, but not so fast. Why not so fast? Because, folks, this is where it gets really crazy, because there is evidence among the Dead Sea Scrolls, chunks here, bits and pieces there, of other Hebrew versions of Isaiah and some of those chunks and pieces are in places actually closer to L than that complete version of Isaiah I just mentioned.
You know, I feel the need to stop here just for a second, take a break, hydrate, do some breathing exercises. This is a lot to take in. I know. And believe me, I’m trying to boil things down to the essentials, which leaves me wide open to criticism from some very careful scholars who will want to know why I’m not mentioning X or Y and why did I oversimplify something a few paragraphs ago, blah blah blah. But this is The Bible for Normal People, we need to get to the point and here’s where we are at the moment. To regroup, the Dead Sea Scrolls put us a thousand years plus closer to the originals than we were before 1947. And what we see in the Dead Sea Scrolls is both wonderfully encouraging with respect to the originals, but also very messy leaving us actually less certain about the Hebrew original than before.
See, here’s the mess, just appreciate the mess, you’d think that the further back in time you go from a medieval manuscript, L, you’d think the further back in time we go, things would get clearer. It’s like our made-up example of Les Mis, the earliest French version comes from 1950, that’s like our L. But before that 1950-version, we had fragments of chapters that take us back to 1882, but those aren’t originals and plus they differ from each other. You’d like all those fragments from way back when to match the 1950-version exactly or at least very closely, but instead you’ve got five piles of Les Mis versions. Those pre-1950 piles, those are obviously, those are the Dead Sea Scrolls for us in our analogy.
And it’s a bit of a frustrating situation because the Dead Sea Scrolls took us back instantly to an ancient time, much closer to the originals. Yay! But what they give us is a messy situation that actually, it almost throws an invisibility cloak over the originals. Boo.
So, textual scholars, let’s talk about them. Here’s what they’ve done. They’ve analyzed these Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts, all those fragments and, long story short (and scholars please forgive me), they’ve sorted these pieces into piles and a commonly accepted theory, although by no means universally accepted, but a commonly accepted theory is that we have three piles and some scholars say there are more. But we’re going to keep it simple, alright? Just three piles. Fine. Thank you. We’re agreed. Okay.
Those piles are evidence of three, listen to this, this is huge, those piles are evidence of three pre-Christian versions of the Hebrew Old Testament. Now, to anticipate where this is going later on, I think there are spiritual and theological lessons to be learned from this messy early history of the Old Testament and we’ll get to that. We have to finish this Dead Sea Scroll story first, okay? We’ll get there.
Okay, anyway, I mentioned three Hebrew Old Testament version in the Dead Sea Scrolls, one of them is the version that is basically consistent with L. Another one of those versions is very important for us if we want to talk about the original and it deals with the book of Jeremiah. This is where I’m adding, like, there’s a real complexity here we’ve got to talk about if we want to talk about the originals, right. So just, this is not a digression folks, just hang with me here. To explain one of these other versions, not the one that gave us L, but one of the other two, to explain that we need to deal a little with the book of Jeremiah. Specifically, we have to deal with, at least take a stab at, the Greek translation of Jeremiah. Okay, again, this is not a digression folks and I think it’ll be clear enough by the time we’re done.
See, here’s what happened, years before the Dead Sea Scrolls, in the 4th century, around 332 BCE, the Greek King Alexander the Great, pretty well-known, he more or less took over the world, or at least those parts of it from his homeland and then moving far to the east into what are modern-day Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan. It’s quite a kingdom, and of course that included the land of Judea. Long story short, the language of the conquerors, Greek, soon enough became the language of the conquered. And so the conquered Jews, who were probably speaking Aramaic at the time, began to have children and grandchildren in a Greek-speaking world. The Greek language is bound to become a thing when we talk about the Bible.
Now, I just mentioned Aramaic and again, give me twenty seconds here if this interests you, but you know, why did I even mention it? Because now I have to explain it. Anyway, fast forward fifteen seconds if you want to, but Aramaic is, as I mentioned before, is a close cousin to Hebrew and Jews seemed to pick up that language while they were in exile in Babylon in the 6th century BCE. Aramaic was the language of the empire, which became the common language for Jews and Aramaic hung on well into the time of Jesus, who also spoke Aramaic. Anyway, as Aramaic became more common, guess what happened? The need arose for Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Bible and those translations are called targums, which is a word that means interpretation or translation or something like that and that’s worthy of a podcast series all by itself, don’t tempt me.
Anyway, what happened when Aramaic became the common tongue during the exile also happened after the Greek invasion a few centuries later, the need for Jews to have their Bible written in a language they could actually understand. And I’ll bet, I’m bringing this up because I’ll bet some of you have experienced something similar, maybe some of you have. I know I have. My parents were German immigrants and we communicated in German the first few years of my life, but when I started school and got encultured, I used German less and less. English became my dominant language. I remember a good bit of it, and I can still read and communicate in German, but my children grew up with English only. This is such a normal phenomenon. Anyway, lo and behold, Aramaic and Greek translations of the Old Testament are also on the Dead Sea Scrolls, but it’s the Greek I want to focus on here tying it now, finally, to Jeremiah.
See, you can’t help but notice, if you’re into this sort of thing, that the Hebrew and Greek versions of Jeremiah are very different indeed and we can see some of those differences right away in English. For example, look at Jeremiah 46-51, that’s a long section that scholars refer to as “oracles against the nations.” Basically, Jeremiah is listing one of Israel’s neighbors after the other and telling you God is going to let them have it. Well, if you go to a decent library or just some internet site that has an English translation of Greek Jeremiah, you don’t have to read Greek or Hebrew for this. You will find those oracles against the nations, they’re not found toward the end of Jeremiah the way they are in our English Bibles that are translated from the Hebrew, but they’re placed much earlier. They’re actually placed, like, in the middle of chapter 25. Well, what we call chapter 25.
Also, the Greek Jeremiah isn’t just in a different order, but it’s shorter. It’s considerably shorter. It’s about one-eighth shorter, which is about 2700 words. Okay, it’s the same basic book, just shorter and rearranged. But why? Why do we have these differences in the Hebrew Jeremiah and the Greek Jeremiah? What explains these very significant differences? Well, here’s the logical explanation and that held for a long time and maybe this is the first place you’re going as you’re thinking through this. Possibly, the Greek translator of Hebrew Jeremiah just screwed up. Maybe he had a late night, wasn’t very good at his job or whatever. He just mistakenly left a lot out and moved one huge section someplace else. “Oops, my bad.” Or maybe he wasn’t plastered or incompetent, maybe he just felt like doing it. He had reasons for, made more sense to him to put things over here to leave some words out, blah blah blah. He just sort of made changes because he decided to. Interesting, and that’s a rather logical, I mean, that’s what I would go if we didn’t know better. See, the Dead Sea Scrolls tell another story and now we’re really getting to the point.
See, it’s not that the Greek translator did a bad job of following the Hebrew version or just decided to mix things up. Rather, the Greek translator of Jeremiah, here we are folks, ready? The Greek translator of Jeremiah had an entirely different Hebrew version he was copying from where one-eighth was missing and the oracles against the nations were moved. How do we know? Well, the Dead Sea Scrolls have clear evidence of two Hebrew versions of Jeremiah. One that matches the quirks of the Greek translation as well as a Hebrew version of the, let’s call it normal, longer version of Jeremiah with the oracles against the nations at the end. That’s the Jeremiah we know. That’s pretty astounding.
See, we’ve gone so far back in time and instead of things getting simpler, they get more complicated. We have not one but two Jeremiah’s and in fact, you know, think about this, the fact that the Greek version was taken for one of them tells us that that Hebrew version was considered by somebody to be valuable, authoritative, worthy of being passed on. Think about this, maybe that Hebrew version was the original. Let’s linger here for a second, this is a big deal. To go back to our Les Mis analogy, the Dead Sea Scrolls have three piles of evidence that suggests three Hebrew versions of the Old Testament and it wasn’t until a few centuries later on, probably 2nd century CE that one of them won out over the others. That winner became the authoritative Hebrew version, the one that the medieval Masoretes passed on, the one that became L, the basis for our English Bibles. And now we’re getting to one of the big takeaways from all this talk about versions and scrolls.
The Hebrew version that “won” and that is the basis for our English translations, see, it has no real claim on being the original. It doesn’t. The oldest evidence we have is for diverse versions that co-existed with one of them eventually being deemed the most worthy. The other piles did not endure in mainstream Judaism. Now, we might ask, and we should ask, why did this version win out? Was this some arbitrary decision? No, probably not. But it’s hard to know what drove Jewish scribes to streamline things and marginalize the other piles and elevate one of them.
Possibly, okay just possibly, one reason might have been that the Greek translation of the Old Testament, remember, which was written by Jews and for Jews, well that Greek translation became the Old Testament of the early Christians. It’s the version, we know this, it’s the version they used, like in the 2nd century for example, to prove against Jews that Jesus was the Messiah. That even happens in the New Testament a little bit too. So, it’s the version, right, the Greek translation, it’s the version they used to prove against Jews that Jesus was the Messiah and, of course, Jews resisted that move and so perhaps they distanced themselves from their own Greek translation. Remember, they’re the ones who made it. The Christians are just using it, right? So, they wanted to distance themselves from their own Greek translation of the Bible and the Hebrew pile, the Hebrew version behind it, the Hebrew version that gave rise to it. Maybe that explains why, at least one of those piles fell into disuse. Reasonable, but not certain, but still. But it’s worth letting it sink in that the Old Testament that Christians read today, well first of all, it doesn’t match completely to the Old Testament of Jesus and Paul. And also, we can make no claim that our Old Testament is a faithful translation of the original, but it’s based on one ancient version that once co-existed with others that won out over them.
See, our Bible is not sort of magically dropped out of heaven, but it’s the result of a complex historic process, the beginning centuries of which are only dimly known. You know, some like to speak about what the Bible says “in the original Hebrew” thinking that the Hebrew Bible they read in seminary is the original, but we don’t have originals. The earliest evidence we have is diversity with no original in sight. And the Hebrew Old Testament we might want to call the original Hebrew is, it’s actually the work of Jewish tradition and then later medieval Jewish scribes. If we were to look at the Old Testament Jesus was using, Greek or Hebrew or Aramaic or whatever, it wouldn’t really match exactly what we have today.
Okay, so let’s draw this to a close and I want to do so by revisiting what I mentioned earlier – the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. This was a big moment in the early history of the Bible. See, the Greek, the Greek arose out of a need because the language of Judaism was shifting. But translating the Hebrew into Greek wasn’t governed by like a central translation office or anything like that. The Dead Sea Scrolls paint a different picture, similar to what we saw with the Hebrew. There is no one original. We can’t point to a moment in time and say oh, here is where the Hebrew was translated to Greek at this one time at this one place. Evidence of multiple Greek versions also exist among the Dead Sea Scrolls. That diversity still existed in Jesus’s day and it wasn’t streamlined for quite some time. Now here is my point: it has always struck me that the Bible, right what we call the Old Testament, that the Bible or the New Testament writers used, what they read, what they quoted from, it’s always struck me that this was a Greek translation and maybe using more than one version of the Greek.
See, the Greek translation was hardly perfect and had its own messy history. And so, it strikes me, for Christians, the climax of the Biblical story, Jesus of Nazareth, which relies so heavily on the story of Israel in the Old Testament, at that climatic moment in history, we have not only no inerrant original text, but we’re working with a translation with a messy history based on the Hebrew tradition with its own messy history.
One implication of understanding the history of the Hebrew and Greek Old Testaments is that it sort of takes the wind out of the sails of biblical inerrancy, specifically in the following way: Biblical inerrantists will generally recognize that the Bible they have is a translation, and therefore can’t be held to the standard of being inerrant in and of itself. So, it’s very common for biblical inerrantists to punt, if I may put it that way, and say something like, “Well, the Bible is still inerrant but in the original autographs,” is how it’s usually put. Meaning, what the original author wrote down is inerrant, even if our translations aren’t. Now, I’m not just picking on a minor point to start a fight. This idea is baked into the intellectual script of evangelicalism and fundamentalism. The problem, however, is that we don’t have the originals and we’ll likely never know if we do. And the earliest manuscripts we have from the Dead Sea Scrolls take us back to, again, the 2nd century BCE and give us more confusion, not less.
Now, before people start leaving comments and emailing me, I am very familiar with the apologetic machinery that surrounds defending the inerrancy of the originals even if God clearly didn’t seem remotely interested in preserving them. I’m not missing some small detail that would make everything come together nicely. The fact is that we do not have what evangelicals seek. And if God is so concerned about an inerrant original, God sure did a good job of hiding it by not preserving the original and by making a messy imperfect Greek translation the go-to Bible for the early Christians. The notion of an inerrant autographs, or inerrant originals, doesn’t do justice to the complexity we see in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The very idea of an original is actually rooted in a modern sort of bookish notion of authorship, you know, books are written by one person sitting down at one time blah blah blah. But biblical scholarship has made a very strong case over the last couple of centuries at least that the Old Testament has a long oral pre-history and when the Hebrew Old Testament began to be written down, it wasn’t to preserve the original inerrant autographs, rather written text, they grew over time out of very malleable, non-fixed, non-set in stone oral traditions and they grew in different ways in different times in different locations. You know, again, there was no central office for ensuring everyone had the same thing. This lack of central control of translation is what gave us the multiple versions of some Biblical books in the Dead Sea Scrolls like Isaiah and Jeremiah.
So, here’s what I’m getting at. It’s not just that we are missing the originals, but given time we might find them, rather based on what we know, this is a big point, based on what we know the whole idea of an original moment for at least many of the Old Testament Books is just ill-conceived. There is no birthday to the biblical books. And I think that’s the main place where the Les Mis analogy breaks down. See, Les Mis has a clear beginning and an original that was written by Victor Hugo in 1862. If we didn’t know that, if all we had were those old, pre-1950s fragments in five piles, we might conclude, hey, you know, all this Les Mis diversity, all this diversity in the fragments, they could somehow get us back to an original perhaps, but you know what? It’s beginning to make more sense to think that this diversity has been there all along. At least going much further back than we ever imagined. And settling on one as the authoritative go-to version, that doesn’t give us an original. And actually, just artificially cleans up the mess that we’re seeing.
In my more snarky moments, which I rarely have, but in my more snarky moments I think the Dead Sea Scrolls is God smiling down on inerrantists and saying take that. The great theological and spiritual value, for me, at least, this is how I see it, of having an Old Testament like the one we do with its messy 2000 plus year journey from then to now, well, it may be to remind us that only the spirit and not the Bible will be our true source of comfort, the anchor, that which helps us make sense of our lives.
The Bible is not broken, but it is what it is. Perhaps, the lesson from this long history we glimpsed, or better, the challenge of this long history is to learn to accept and rest in what we have as being adequate, even beautiful and powerful, while also setting aside the idea that our Bible simply must be a faithful rendition of an original in order for it to be of value, and if not, well, we can’t “trust it.”
Maybe the lesson of the Bible such as we have is not to expect of it things it can’t deliver, not to see it as the mind of God perfectly xeroxed for us, rather to see the messy history of the Bible is not a problem but telling us something about God. That God works in and through the mess, the complexity, the humanity. Maybe this Bible that we actually have can serve as a constant reminder to place our trust in God, whom we can’t control, rather than in the text that we think we can.[Music begins]
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