Time to Study the Old Testament……..Again – Part 3 – Transmission and Translation

Jeff Spector Mormon 7 Comments

I have to apologize for the lateness of this post.  I traveled to Europe a 3 times since before Thanksgiving and just couldn’t find the time to finish this installment until I finally got home.

In this part 3, I wanted to discuss how the Old Testament was transmitted, translated and how those things affect how the Old Testament is portrayed  in the New Testament.


Transmission refers to how we have come to have biblical texts.  Were they orally transmitted? Written down, by whom, when and under what circumstances.  For example, the Book of Mormon was transmitted to Joseph Smith by the Angel Moroni on Gold Plates.  Joseph then translated the texts “by the gift and power of God.”

For the Old Testament, the route of transmission was, how should we say, a bit more circuitous.

The commonly held belief is that God inspired Moses to write the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (the Pentateuch).  It is unlikely that these books or other number of biblical books were physically written down for a long time.  As scholars study the Torah (first five books of Moses), some issues arise. For instance, if Moses was the sole author of the first five books, how did he write about his own death?

Depending on the scholar, the written text of the Torah begins to appear around 600BC at the earliest.  But, the most commonly held belief is the around 450BC.  Before that, it was transmitted orally.  Even though we all know what happens when things are transmitted orally, the texts of the Old Testament are surprisingly intact when compared with versions such as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Translations/ Versions

There are two major versions of the Old Testament in use today.  One is derived from a Hebrew version called the Masoretic text, the other from a Greek translation known as the Septuagint.

Masoretic Text

The Masoretic Text (MT) is the authoritative Hebrew text of the Jewish Bible regarded almost universally as the official version of the Tanakh. It defines not just the books of the Jewish canon, but also the precise letter-text of the biblical books in Judaism, as well as their vocalization and accentuation known as the Masorah. The MT is also widely used as the basis for translations of the Old Testament in Protestant Bibles, and in recent years also for Catholic Bibles. In modern times the Dead Sea Scrolls have shown the MT to be nearly identical to some texts of the Tanakh dating from 200 B.C.E. but different from others.

The MT was primarily copied, edited and distributed by a group of Jews known as the Masoretes between the seventh and tenth centuries CE. Though the consonants differ little from the text generally accepted in the early second century (and also differ little from some Qumran texts that are even older), it has numerous differences of both greater and lesser significance when compared to (extant 4th century) manuscripts of the Septuagint, a Greek translation (made in the 3rd to 2nd centuries BC) of the Hebrew Scriptures that was in popular use in Egypt and Palestine and that is often quoted in the New Testament.

The oldest extant manuscripts of the Masoretic Text date from approximately the ninth century AD, and the Aleppo Codex (once the oldest complete copy of the Masoretic Text, but now missing its Torah section) dates from the tenth century. (From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

The current received text finally achieved predominance through the reputation of the Masoretes, schools of scribes and Torah scholars working between the 7th and 11th centuries, based primarily in Palestine in the cities of Tiberias and Jerusalem, and in Babylonia. These schools developed such prestige for the accuracy and error-control of their copying techniques that their texts established an authority beyond all others. Differences remained, sometimes bolstered by systematic local differences in pronunciation and cantillation. Every locality, following the tradition of its school, had a standard codex embodying its readings.  In Babylonia the school of Sura differed from that of Nehardea; and similar differences existed in the schools of the Land of Israel as against that at Tiberias, which in later times increasingly became the chief seat of learning. In this period, living tradition ceased, and the Masoretes in preparing their codices usually followed the one school or the other, examining, however, standard codices of other schools and noting their differences.

The earliest labors of the Masoretes included standardizing division of the text into books, sections, paragraphs, verses, and clauses (probably in the chronological order here enumerated); the fixing of the orthography, pronunciation, and cantillation; the introduction or final adoption of the square characters with the five final letters (comp. Numbers and Numerals); some textual changes to guard against blasphemy and the like; the enumeration of letters, words, verses, etc., and the substitution of some words for others in public reading. (From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

The Septuagint

The Septuagint or simply “LXX is the Koine Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, translated in stages between the 3rd and 1st centuries BCE in Alexandria. It was begun by the third century BCE and completed before 132 BCE. It is the oldest of several ancient translations of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, lingua franca of the eastern Mediterranean Basin from the time of Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE).

The Septuagint was held in great respect in ancient times; Philo and Josephus (associated with Hellenistic Judaism) ascribed divine inspiration to its authors.Besides the Old Latin versions, the LXX is also the basis for the Slavonic, the Syriac, Old Armenian, Old Georgian and Coptic versions of the Old Testament. Of significance for all Christians and for Bible scholars, the LXX is quoted by the New Testament and by the Apostolic Fathers.

Jewish scholars (see also Hellenistic Judaism) first translated the Torah into Koine Greek in the third century BCE. Further books were translated over the next two centuries.

The sources of the many differences between the Septuagint and the Masoretic text have long been discussed by scholars.  The most widely accepted view today is that the original Septuagint provided a reasonably accurate record of an early Semitic textual variant, now lost, that differed from ancestors of the Masoretic text.  Ancient scholars, however, had no reason to suspect such a possibility. Early Christians—who were largely unfamiliar with Hebrew texts, and were thus only made aware of the differences through the newer Greek versions—tended to dismiss the differences as a product of uninspired translation of the Hebrew in these new versions. Following the Renaissance, a common opinion among some humanists was that the LXX translators made a poor translation from the Hebrew and that the LXX became more corrupt with time.  (From Wikipedia)

Many of the oldest Biblical fragments among the Dead Sea Scrolls, particularly those in Aramaic, correspond more closely with the LXX than with the Masoretic text (although the majority of these variations are extremely minor, e.g. grammatical changes, spelling differences or missing words, and do not affect the meaning of sentences and paragraphs). This confirms the scholarly consensus that the LXX represents a separate Hebrew-text tradition from that, which was later standardized as the Masoretic text.

In the 3rd century BCE, most Jewish communities were located in the Hellenistic world where Greek was the main language. It is believed that the LXX was produced because many Jews outside of Judea needed a Greek version of the scripture for use during synagogue readings or for religious study. Some theorize that Hellenistic Jews intended the Septuagint as a contribution to Hellenistic culture. Alexandria held the greatest diaspora Jewish community of the age and was also a great center of Greek letters.  Alexandria is thus likely the site of LXX authorship, a notion supported by the legend of Ptolemy and the 72 scholars. The Septuagint enjoyed widespread use in the Hellenistic Jewish diaspora and even in Jerusalem, which had become a rather cosmopolitan (and therefore Greek-speaking) town. Both Philo and Josephus show a reliance on the Septuagint in their citations of Jewish scripture.

Starting approximately in the 2nd century, several factors led most Jews to abandon use of the LXX. The earliest gentile Christians of necessity used the LXX, as it was at the time the only Greek version of the bible, and most, if not all, of these early non-Jewish Christians could not read Hebrew. The association of the LXX with a rival religion may have rendered it suspect in the eyes of the newer generation of Jews and Jewish scholars. Perhaps more importantly, the Greek language—and therefore the Greek Bible—declined among Jews after most of them fled from the Greek-speaking eastern Roman Empire into the Aramaic-speaking Persian Empire when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans.

The Early Christian Church used the Greek texts since Greek was a language of the Roman Empire at the time, and the language of the Greco-Roman Church (Aramaic was the language of Syriac Christianity, which used the Targums). In addition the Church Fathers tended to accept Philo’s account of the LXX’s miraculous and inspired origin.  Furthermore, the New Testament writers, when citing the Jewish scriptures or when quoting Jesus doing so, freely used the Greek translation, implying that the Apostles and their followers considered it reliable.

When Jerome undertook the revision of the Old Latin translations of the Septuagint, he checked the Septuagint against the Hebrew texts that were then available.  He came to believe that the Hebrew text better testified to Christ than the Septuagint He broke with church tradition and translated most of the Old Testament of his Vulgate from Hebrew rather than Greek. His choice was severely criticized by Augustine, his contemporary; a flood of still less moderate criticism came from those who regarded Jerome as a forger. But with the passage of time, acceptance of Jerome’s version gradually increased until it displaced the Old Latin translations of the Septuagint.

The Hebrew text diverges in some passages that Christians hold to prophesy Christ and the Eastern Orthodox Church still prefers to use the LXX as the basis for translating the Old Testament into other languages. The Eastern Orthodox also use LXX untranslated where Greek is the liturgical language, e.g. in the Orthodox Church of Constantinople, the Church of Greece and the Cypriot Orthodox Church. Many modern critical translations of the Old Testament, while using the Masoretic text as their basis, consult the Septuagint as well as other versions in an attempt to reconstruct the meaning of the Hebrew text whenever the latter is unclear, undeniably corrupt, or ambiguous.  (From Wikipedia)

Old Testament Quotes in the New Testament

The Old Testament is either directly quoted or alluded to over 300 times in the New Testament.  Jesus himself quotes from 24 different books of the Old Testament.  In general, the New Testament writers quote from the Septuagint (“LXX”) version of the Old Testament, as it was then in common use among the Jews.  However, the quotations quite often are not exact; this can be attributed either to the author using a different source Bible, or simply to the author paraphrasing the quotation.  (From Wikipedia)

This can lead to proof texting of the Old Testament scriptures to prove a point that may not really be proved with the correct translation or use of the verse.

In Part 4, the final part of this series, we will discuss how we, as LDS, should study the Old Testament.



Comments 7

  1. I appreciate these posts. There is SO MUCH written about the Bible that it’s often too overwhelming to consider really studying it. Do you have any recommendations for books, a la slightly more thorough than Bible History for Dummies?

  2. “Depending on the scholar, the written text of the Torah begins to appear around 600BC at the earliest. But, the most commonly held belief is the around 450BC. Before that, it was transmitted orally. ”

    OK, so how did Lehi take a written copy of it to the New World on brass plates in 600 BC?

  3. As Jeff says, there is not consensus on when the Bible was written down. All it takes is one discovery to move Biblical dating back to the time of David (say 1000 BC) for the scholars to be proved wrong, which may or may not happen. For those who believe the Bible was first written down in 450 BC, obviously this would be a problem.

    The Documentary Hypothesis seems to indicate that the King Solomon first commissioned scribes to start compiling the Torah (first 5 books of Moses.) After the kingdoms split into northern and southern kingdoms, the hypothesis states that scribes from both the north and south came up with sort of parallel versions of the Bible, and have referred to these sources as J, E, D, and P. Obviously, these scribes predate many Old Testament prophets, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Malachi (to name a few.) The Bible was really evolving prior to this, and obviously Solomon’s Bible was drastically different than what we view as the Old Testament today, or the Brass Plates of Lehi, or even the Dead Sea Scrolls.

  4. With CowardlyLiar, how do scholars explain how Josiah and the temple priests in his day utilized a copy of the book of the law found in the ruins of the temple, 2 Kings 23? That meshes better with some variant of the documentary hypothesis than with a late oral tradition. (Of course, it’s difficult to say exactly what was in said book of the law; I’m curious how late-oral scholars explain that passage.)

  5. MH,

    Thanks for the back up material. I wasn’t planning on going into much more detail on that stuff, but rather just focus now on how to study the Old Testament. I was thinking of a Deuteronomy Revision post when we got to that section of the lessons.

    But I’m actually glad the BoM issue was brought up because I wasn’t thinking about that when I was writing these posts. Merely, just considering the history of the Old Testament.

  6. neal, there are scholars who believe that josiah was part of a conspiracy to drum up the book of deuteronomy. the documentary hypothesis says that deuteronomy was written by a different author than the other 4 books of moses, and they have called this author D, short for deuteronomist. according to this theory, josiah and baruch may have drummed up the lost book found in the temple.

    of course, the bible indicates it was legitimately found, so you can believe what you want here. joseph smith was familiar with josiah’s discovery and thought there were parallels to the book of mormon, which are easy to see. if we believe the bible story, he lived prior to lehi. this book would support the idea that scriptures existed prior to lehi and supports existence of scriptures at least as early as the 8 or 9th century bc.

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