The Legacy of the First Revised Bible Translations The modern impulse to get the Bible right in translation has its roots in the Jews who revised the Septuagint. John D. MeadeMany Christians today read the Bible through revisions of original translations. We read the Revised Standard Version (RSV), a revision of another revision of the King James Version; English Standard Version, a revision of the RSV; the New King James Version, another revision of the King James and on and on. Translation committees simply find it easier to revise already existing translations by conforming them to a more contemporary understanding of the Hebrew and Greek texts and updating English diction as needed. Instead of de novo translations, they produce thorough revisions of older translations and in many cases improve the accuracy and readability of the older translation. Nothing is new under the sun. Ancient Jewish communities who read the Scriptures in Greek translation were the first to revise older Greek translations. These older Greek translations are popularly known as the Septuagint (an abbreviated Latin term meaning “Seventy”) and probably are to be dated between 280–100 BC. But even before the Jews finished translating each Hebrew book into Greek, some Jewish communities had already begun to revise the older ones. What are these Jewish Greek revisions? Why were they undertaken? Where do we find them? What do they tell us about the Bible’s history and our own translation proclivities? Learning more about the ancient Jewish revisions and why they were undertaken not only tells us more about the Bible’s history, but it also explains our modern-day practice too. The impulse to revise Bible translation Ancient translators and revisers do not tell us explicitly why they did what they did. But the historical background and the texts themselves suggest why Jews revised their texts. In the third to second century BC, in the library at Alexandria, Egypt, grammarians like Aristarchus of Samothrace were carefully correcting the copies and texts of Homer’s Iliad.1Francesca Schironi, The Best of the Grammarians: Aristarchus of Samothrace on the Iliad (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2018). Perhaps, the Jewish revisers simply followed their lead in wanting more accurate texts of their scriptures in Greek. To do that, they revised or corrected the earlier translations by conforming them more closely to the standard Hebrew text. An illustration of the Septuagint translators from the Nuremberg Chronicle. Wikimedia The translations themselves suggest two other motives for revisions: (1) bringing the older translation into greater alignment with the standard Hebrew text and (2) ensuring their Greek translations reflected current interpretation of the text. Regarding the first reason, the old Greek translator of Job worked as a paraphrast or epitomizer, abbreviating the original, longer Hebrew text by about one-sixth in length. But the Jewish revisers wanted to restore or correct the older translation by supplying an equivalent Greek line for every Hebrew line of the poetic speeches. Regarding the second reason, the most famous example of interpretive revision probably comes from Isaiah 7:14. The Septuagint contains “Behold the virgin (parthenos) will conceive…,” while the revisers have “Behold the young woman (neanis)….” Hebrew ‘almah could mean “virgin” or “young woman,” and Jewish interpretation of this passage could have shifted between the older and newer translations. Though debate persists over whether the Jewish interpretation of this passage evolved from “virgin” to “young woman,” what is clear is that, as parthenos came to mean only “chaste woman” in Greek, the revisers adjusted their translations to neanis “young woman” to reflect the current Jewish interpretation of this word to mean “maiden of marriageable age.” What’s significant is that both of these reasons—textual accuracy and correct meaning—are still major reasons we revise Bible translations today. Both these reasons—textual accuracy and correct meaning—are still major reasons we revise Bible translations today. Understanding the ancient Jewish revisions Several ancient Jewish revisions of the Septuagint have names associated with them. Most famous among them are “the Three”: Theodotion (post 30 AD), Aquila (ca. 130 AD), and Symmachus (ca. 200 AD). We will return to them. Most other revisions were anonymous. The church father Origen of Alexandria discovered two other versions which he called “the Fifth” and “the Sixth,” since the texts did not have names attached to them. But before these famous revisions existed, we now know that Jewish communities had long been revising their older Greek translations. The dividing line between an original translation and its revision is not easy to establish. Thus, for the earliest manuscripts of the Greek translations, some debate exists among scholars for what constitutes an early witness to the original translation and what is evidence for its earliest revision. That said, scholars do agree that some Jewish communities were revising older Greek translations since we have manuscript evidence from as early as 2nd–1st centuries BC showing revisions of Numbers (4QLXXNum) and Deuteronomy (Papyrus Fouad Inv. 266b-c). That is, these texts show a revision of the older Greek translation towards the standard Hebrew text. A brief example comes from Numbers 4:7 where the old Greek translation has, “And over the presentation table they shall throw over it a wholly purple cloth, and the bowls…” But 4QLXXNum has “And over the presentation table they shall throw over it a wholly purple cloth, and they shall set on it the bowls…,” which agrees with the standard Hebrew text. If the original translation of Numbers occurred around 280 BC, this revision could have been carried out about hundred years later. Probably in the first century BC, a Jewish community engaged in a major project of revising older translations and producing new translations for books like Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes. We call this tradition the “kaige tradition,” since it employed a distinctive Greek translation kaige (καίγε) “and even” for Hebrew gam/wegam (גם/וגם) “and even.” This tradition produced a literal or formal equivalence translation of the standard Hebrew text, not unlike our own English translations that follow in the tradition of the NASB. Here we can locate the famous Three revisers within the overall tendency to revise the older Greek translations. Although the kaige tradition included mostly anonymous revisions and translations, the kaige did include the more well-known reviser, Theodotion, and probably peaked and was perfected in the work of Aquila. Both of these revisions represent very literal translations and even stereotypical equivalents (each Hebrew word rendered by the same Greek word) in the case of Aquila. Later, Symmachus rendered the Hebrew more functionally (think closer to the NIV) and generally avoided the approaches introduced by kaige. For example, Theodotion would usually render Hebrew ’el “God” with Greek ho ischyros “the powerful one” and Aquila would render the same word with ischyros “Powerful One” (as a proper noun). Symmachus came later and used the more typical Greek rendering theos “God” instead of continuing the idiosyncratic rendering of the kaige tradition. When later Jewish and Christian debates over the interpretation of the Scriptures arose, usually the debates centered on the texts of the Three and the Septuagint. But scholars now see that early Christian exegetes sometimes used the revisions of the Three for their interpretations more than has been recognized in the past. When the Apostle Paul quoted Isaiah 25:8 in 1 Corinthians 15:54 he quoted the text of Theodotion (“Death is swallowed up in victory”) and not the text of the Septuagint (“Death, having prevailed, swallowed them [nations] up”) or the later reading of the Masoretic Text (“He will swallow up death forever”). A variant Hebrew text does not explain the differences. Rather, the translators and revisers read the same Hebrew consonants differently, and in this case, Paul must have agreed with how Theodotion’s version conveyed the Hebrew with its emphasis on God’s “victory” over death. Where we find the revisions We observe the earliest revisions from the manuscripts themselves. For example, we can observe the kaige tradition directly in the fragments of the Greek Minor Prophets scroll from Nahal Hever. This scroll was discovered in 1952 and 1961, and, amazingly, another part of this same scroll was found as recently as 2021. A very interesting feature of this Greek scroll is its exhibition of the divine Name or the Tetragrammaton in proto-Hebrew letters. The Nahal Hever scroll with the Tetragramaton in proto-Hebrew script (lines 3, 5). Wikipedia How about the remains of the Three? Unfortunately, the Three only survive fragmentarily. Some of Aquila’s translation for 1 Kings 21:7–17 and 2 Kings 23:12–27 survives, but most of the remains of the Three come from Origen of Alexandria’s Hexapla, where these revisions were included. But the Hexapla does not survive in full. Rather, we find most remains of the Hexapla in the margins of Greek manuscripts, citations in patristic commentaries, and ancient translations like Syriac. The last edition of the hexaplaric fragments was published in 1875 by Frederick Field. The Hexapla Institute, which is now hosted by the Text & Canon Institute, seeks to publish new critical editions because more evidence of the Three has since come to light. Newer editions will further our knowledge of the Three’s language and approach to the revisionary task. What these revisions tell us Although most of us don’t read the remains of the Jewish revisers directly, we do encounter Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion in the footnotes of our English Bibles (see, e.g., Job 5:5). Interestingly, the early English Bible prefaces appeal to the Three by name, ensuring they play a part in the English Bible’s history. Describing the benefit of various Bible translations throughout history, Myles Coverdale (1535) says, Whereas some men think now that many translations make division in the faith and in the people of God, that is not so: for it was never better with the congregation of God, than when every church almost had the Bible of a sundry translation … Beside the seventy interpreters, is there not the translation of Aquila, of Theodotion, of Symmachus, and of sundry other?2Spelling updated. Even the venerable Preface to the KJV 1611 mentions Aquila, Theodotion, Symmachus, and the anonymous Fifth and Sixth translations as responses to the perceived problems in the Septuagint translations. In this way, the work of the ancient Jewish revisers was seen as a powerful precedent for revisions made more than 1,000 years later. Overall, the Jewish revisions attest the conservatively copied Hebrew text.3But even here these fascinating revisions tell different tales. For example, the ending of Job in the older Greek translation came to have a longer ending beyond the Hebrew text which ended with “And Job died an old man and full of days.” The earlier reviser, Theodotion, continued to revise the longer ending of Job, while the slightly later revisers of Aquila and Symmachus ended their revisions precisely where the Hebrew ended. Their literal translation approach reveals the antiquity of the standard Hebrew text. Thus, where we can consult these readings, we can usually see that Hebrew text as the base text. Sometimes, these translations show a different Hebrew reading than the Masoretic Text and as such become very valuable witnesses to the textual history of the Hebrew Bible. Conclusion The Bible’s history has many chapters. The Masoretic Text, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Septuagint constitute major developments in the plot. As such, the revisions and later corrected texts like those produced by Origen often are overlooked. But these textual endeavors show a great interest in possessing the correct text and as such tell us much about the texts’ creators, curators, and users. Today, when we read or attempt revisions of our older translations, we can rest assured that we’re participating in a long-standing tradition, one that has roots in the impulse to get the text right. That tradition and its history are worth exploring more deeply so that we can also understand our own impulses and desires.Notes1Francesca Schironi, The Best of the Grammarians: Aristarchus of Samothrace on the Iliad (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2018).2Spelling updated.3But even here these fascinating revisions tell different tales. For example, the ending of Job in the older Greek translation came to have a longer ending beyond the Hebrew text which ended with “And Job died an old man and full of days.” The earlier reviser, Theodotion, continued to revise the longer ending of Job, while the slightly later revisers of Aquila and Symmachus ended their revisions precisely where the Hebrew ended.