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Bible Source Texts

The Greek Translations of the Bible

Multiple Greek Translations and Corrections in the Early Church

Four Early Translations

I. "Septuagint" is the title commonly given to the best-known of all the translations of the Old Testament into Greek. This title embodies an old tradition that the translation was the work of seventy-two Jews who were sent to Alexandria for the express purpose of rendering their Sacred writings into Greek at the desire of Ptolemy Philadelphia, B.C. 285-247. This story can be traced to its source in a letter purporting to be written by one Aristeas who represents himself as a courtier of Ptolemy II. Aristeas writes to his brother and gives him a description of a journey he had recently made to Jerusalem; in the course of the letter, he tells him that the royal librarian, Demetrius, had so interested the king by his account of the Jewish Scriptures that the latter decided to have a translation made for his library at Alexandria; that the High Priest at Jerusalem acceded to his desire, and sent seventy-two elders to Egypt with a copy of the Law written in gold, and that the task of translation was accomplished in seventy-two days. This story was received without question by many of the Fathers of the Church, and it appears in various forms and with many embellishments.

While the letter is now proved to be a forgery, it at the same time enshrines an undoubted tradition. There was a large Jewish community in Alexandria in the time of Philadelphia, this king was interested in literary questions, and, above all, traces of a Greek version of the Pentateuch can be discovered at least as far back as the end of the third century B.C. It should be noted, however, that while Aristeas only speaks of the Law as being translated, it seems probable from the Prologue to Ecclesiasticus that about the year 130 B.C., the whole Bible existed in Greek, And the existence of a flourishing Jewish community in Alexandria would inevitably lead to the formation of such a translation. For as a generation grew up to whom neither Hebrew nor Aramaic were familiar, the readings from the Sacred Books in the Synagogue would have to be rendered into Greek. The fact that the translation is of unequal value certain books being very well done, others, e.g. Isaiah, being the reverse fully accords with the view that the origin of the translation must be sought in the needs of the Jewish community. At the same time we must not regard the LXX version as merely a kind of paraphrase such as are the Aramaic Targums, it is a translation in the true sense of the word, and in many places is slavishly literal, hence its immense importance for the exegete.

II. Aquila was a native of Pontus, and is said to have been a kinsman of the Emperor Hadrian, A.D. 117-135; he supervised the re-building of Jerusalem as Aelia Capitolina, after the overthrow of Bar-Cochebah. Originally a pagan, Aquila was converted to Christianity, he then became a Jew, and appears to have been a disciple of the famous Rabbi Akiba, A.D. 95-135. At that date controversy between the Jews and Christians was very keen we have an example of it in St. Justin's Dialogue. The LXX version was used by the Christians to refute the Jews, but the latter retorted that this version was full of errors, and did not represent the Hebrew text; moreover, the LXX was not, from the nature of its origin, an official translation, it had grown, and consequently it had not the uniformity of treatment which should mark an official version. Aquila was therefore called upon by the Jews to make an exact translation. This he did in the most servile manner, even translating the Hebrew particles which were merely indicative of cases, etc. Until recently, no remains of this translation were known to us save from fragments of Origen's Hexapla, cf. infra. In 1897, however, small portions of his version of 3 Kings 10:9-17, 4 Kings 23:12-27, Psalm 91:6-13, 92:4-10, and fragments of Psalm 22, were discovered as a palimpsest in the Cairo Geniza. These fragments fully justified St. Jerome's account of Aquila's work, cf. Preface to the Vulgate translation of the Gospels, Pref. to Job, and Ep. xxxii.

III. Theodotion was apparently a contemporary of Aquila, he is called an Ebionite by St. Jerome. He appears to have revised the LXX to make it conform to the official text. Only fragments of his work remain, except in the case of his version of Daniel which replaced the LXX version in the MSS. which have come down to us.

IV. Symmachus is referred by some to the age of Commodus, 180-192, but was perhaps contemporary with Aquila and Theodotion. Both Symmachus and Theodotion were led to make their translations by the baldness of that of Aquila, hence Symmachus is said to render rather sense for sense than word for word; for St. Jerome's account of these three translators, see his Pref. to the Chronicle of Eusebius.

Origen's Work on the Greek Text

The existence of these four versions side-by-side inevitably led to a great deal of confusion in the Greek text. This was accentuated by the fact, made known to us by Origen, that there also existed no less than three other Greek translations, which he, for convenience' sake, termed the "fifth," "sixth," and "seventh" versions, see St. Jerome Praef. in Chron. Eusebii; in Ep. ad Titum iii. 9 ; also Ep. cvi. In order to remedy this state of things Origen planned and executed an immense work. He arranged the texts in six parallel columns: in the first he put the Hebrew text, in the second the same text transliterated into Greek characters, in the third he put the version of Aquila presumably as being the most literal translator, in the fourth that of Symmachus who practically revised Aquila's version, in the fifth Origen put his own revised edition of the LXX, and in the sixth place came the version by Theodotion as being a revision of the LXX. In some parts, particularly in the poetical books, Origen added also the witness of the three other versions referred to above. The bulk of the completed work can be imagined, it must have numbered at least twelve thousand sheets!

The critical portion of Origin's task lay in the preparation of the fifth column. The LXX differed immensely from the current Hebrew; how were these differences to be estimated and how were they to be presented to the student? It was here that Origen made what we must consider his initial mistake. He assumed that the current Hebrew text was unassailable, hence all his efforts were directed to coordinating the LXX with the existing Hebrew. Passages, then, which appeared in the LXX but not in the Hebrew he marked with the sign known as the obelus, the close of the passage thus marked as doubtful was indicated by another sign known as the metobelus. Passages which were in the Hebrew but wanting in the LXX. were inserted from Aquila, and marked with an asterisk at the commencement and with a metobelus at the close. The whole work was completed between 240-245 A.D. It was placed, probably by Origen himself, in the great library at Caesarea in Palestine, where St. Jerome, as he tells us more than once, studied it. This library was still existing in the sixth century, but after the destruction of Caesarea by the Saracens in 638 we hear no more of the Hexapla.

The great work thus accomplished proved, however, the fruitful cause of an even greater confusion than that which Origen had set out to remedy. Though the Hexapla itself was too bulky to be reproduced, there was no reason why the column containing the corrected LXX. should not be copied separately, and this was done by Eusebius and Pamphilus the Martyr in the fourth century, cf. especially St. Jerome Ep. cvi., and his Pref. to Chronicles. But the publication of the separated column rendered the critical signs unintelligible, and copyists were in consequence tempted to omit them, so that an edition of the LXX became current which was in reality an admixture of the original LXX text together with the readings derived from Aquila.

Additional Greek Versions

Hesychius. About the same time as the publication of the Hexaplaric LXX in Palestine, a certain Hesychius undertook the revision of the LXX text current in Egypt, as well as a revision of the New Testament text, see St. Jerome Pref. to Chronicles; adv. Ruf. ii.; and Pref. to the Gospels. It is probable that we have traces of Hesychius version in the Coptic versions of the Bible, in the commentaries of St. Cyril of Alexandria, and even, according to Cerlani, in the Cod. Alexandrinus.

Lucian of Antioch, d. 311, made an independent revision of the LXX text at Antioch, this is referred to by St. Jerome, Ep. cvi., as the koine, or commonly current text, and as such is repudiated by him, cf. his Pref. to Chronicles, and his Comment, on Isaiah 58:11. Lucian's text is probably to be traced in St. Chrysostom and in the writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia, to a certain extent also in the Complutensian Polyglot; it became the standard text of Antioch and Constantinople.

The Syro-Hexaplar of Paul of Telia is referred to the years 616-617 by a note appended to one of the rolls. It is a servile translation into Syriac of Origen's LXX column; its early date and its servility to the original make it of great value. It is of especial interest from the fact that in the second volume, still preserved at Milan, we have the Syriac version of Daniel according to the LXX, a translation which was displaced from the LXX by that of Theodotion.

The existence, then, of all these editions and translations has tended to complicate the study of the Greek versions of the Bible we now possess, and has made it an almost hopeless task to attempt to restore the original LXX text.

The Manuscripts of the Greek Bible

These hand-written copies of the original texts may be divided into three classes:
(a) Papyri,
(b) Uncial MSS., i.e., those written in capitals,
(c) Cursive MSS., i.e., those written in a running hand.
It has long been the custom to draw a hard and fast line between the two latter classes of MSS., but it is beginning to be recognized that such a procedure is in no way justified.

As far as class (a) is concerned it is at present only too scantily represented; the oldest MSS. of the Bible which we possess are a papyrus containing Genesis 14:17, and another giving Psalms 12:7—15:4, both of these are in the British Museum. A fourth century papyrus also contains the Hexaplar text of Ezechiel 5:12—6:3, this is valuable as preserving Origen's obeli. Third century fragments of St. John's Gospel as well as very early fragments of St. Matthew and also of Genesis, have been recovered from Egypt during the last few years; there is literally no knowing what surprises may be in store for us from this source; at present, however, the papyri form an almost negligible quantity among the critical apparatus of the Biblical text. In class (b) the principal Codices (manuscripts in leaf form; as distinguished from a roll) of the LXX are the following:

Codex Vaticanas, known as "B." The early history of this MS. is unknown, it is thought by some to be one of the copies furnished for Constantine by Eusebius, see Vita Const, iv. 36. Palaeographers have no hesitation in attributing it to the fourth century, perhaps to the middle of it. This codex contained the whole Greek Bible save the four Books of Maccabees; it is almost complete even now, though mutilated in parts. It has no breathings, points are rare, accents are hardly ever given by the first hand, though some have been added by the correctors. It is written on vellum in beautiful penmanship. There are three columns on each page, an arrangement to which Eusebius, l.c. may refer.

Codex Sinaiticus, known as Aleph. The recovery of this precious MS. by Tischendorf forms one of the most romantic pages of the story of textual criticism. He rescued it in fragments discovered in the course of several expeditions to the convent of St. Catharine on Mount Sinai. It once embraced the whole Bible but is now considerably mutilated. It is written on vellum, and has four columns on a page, see Eusebius l.c. supra. Experts assign it to the fourth century. There are, with one exception, no breathings or accents due to the first hand. Many correctors have worked over the MS., some as late as the seventh century. No uniform edition has yet been published. It contains the four Books of Maccabees. It is preserved partly at Leipsic and partly at St. Petersburg.

Codex Alexandrinus, known as "A," is the treasure of the British Museum. It was presented to James I by Cyril Lucar, Patriarch of Alexandria and, later, of Constantinople. It is said to have been written by one, Thecla, whose identity is uncertain. The MS. differs from the preceding in that it contains tables of the Books, also of the Psalms for morning and evening. It has, too, a certain amount of extraneous matter in the shape of the Epistle of St. Athanasius to Marcella on the Psalms. The Psalter also has the spurious Psalm 151. The text is written on vellum and has two columns to the page. There are no breathings or accents by the first hand. It is very possible that the MS. was written in Egypt, and in the fifth century. The text has been corrected more than once. The tables show that the Psalms of Solomon once had a place in the MS. The New Testament is complete save for Matthew 1-25:6; John 6:50—8:52; 2 Corinthians 4:13—12:7. At the end are added the two Epistles of St. Clement of Rome.

Codex Ephraimi Rescriptus, known as "C." This MS. is a palimpsest, its original writing was defaced in order that the vellum might be used for copying some works of St. Ephraim. The underlying Biblical text was written probably in Egypt and in the fifth century. In the Old Testament portion we have only detached fragments of the Sapiential Books and Job. About three fifths of the New Testament is left. The text is written in single columns.

Codex Marchalianus, known as "Q." This codex is of the greatest interest for the student of the LXX text, for while the actual text is that of Hesychius, the margin contains a number of variants from Aquila, Theodotion, Symmachus, and the Hexapla LXX. Unfortunately it only gives the Prophets. The MS. is preserved at the Vatican, and was published in magnificent form by Ceriani in 1890.

Very Rev. Hugh Pope, O.P., S.T.M.
Doctor in Sacred Scripture,
Member of the Society of Biblical Archaeology, and
late Professor of New Testament Exegesis at the Collegio Angelico, Rome.

Fr. R. L. Jansen, O.P.,
S. Theol. Lect.; Script. S. Licent. et Prof.

FR. V. Rowan,
S. Theol. Lect.; Script. S. Licent. et Vet. Test. Prof.
Aggreg. in Univ. Friburgensi (Helvet).

Franciscus Cardinalis Bourne,
Archiepiscopus Westmonast.