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OT Audiences: Beyond the Bible (Clarity of the Bible IV)

Are there any books by the audiences of the Old Testament? Yes. As we have seen earlier on in the series, the Bible is a whole library of books, and many of the authors were each other’s audiences. Also, voices of audiences outside Scripture have also come down to us as well: translators, commentators, and authors of other books.

These voices slightly overlap with the latest Old Testament authors, but with all the authors, they shared the unique, strong Jewish heritage and the ancient pre-Christian environment. So what they say about the meaning of the Old Testament is a huge help to us.

In Greek

Starting in the third century B.C., Jews translated their Scriptures (our Old Testament) into Greek. Their translation is known as the Septuagint.

‘Wait,’ someone might say, ‘I thought this was a list of voices outside the Old Testament.’ True, translations (if they are good) say the same thing as the original. But they say it in entirely different words, chosen (in this case) by entirely different people.

Here’s why this is great. Language naturally has fuzzy bits, but different languages have different fuzzy bits. If I say to you and your friend, ‘How are you?’ I might be asking about you alone or about both of you. The English you is fuzzy in this way. However, Chinese does not have this particular fuzz. Ni means you (one person) and nimen means you (two or more). Is Chinese the more specific language? Only in some ways. It has its own fuzzy bits that are not in English! So if you have the same message in two languages, each one of them clears up things that the other leaves fuzzy.

This is what happens with the Hebrew and Greek versions of the Old Testament. Because the Greek version comes from ancient Jews, who had special insight into the original Hebrew, it is the same message in a different language. Lots of fuzzy verses in the Hebrew Old Testament are clear in the Septuagint, because Greek has different fuzzy bits. Examples are pointed out in the footnotes of many English Bibles. (Often they refer to the Septuagint by the abbreviation LXX.)

In Aramaic

After the Exile (6th century B.C.), Jews more and more wanted translation and commentary in the Aramaic language on their Scriptures. The first were oral. This is probably what the Book of Nehemiah refers to in 8:8: ‘They gave an oral translation of God’s Law and explained it so that the people could understand it.’1 Written editions survive from the first few centuries after Christ, but the oral material is linked with the growth of synagogues long before Christ.2

This Aramaic material includes the Talmud, which comments on how to apply the Books of Moses. In the Talmud, ‘a whole people has deposited its feelings, its beliefs, its soul’,3 and these feelings, beliefs, and soul centre around Scripture.

The other major part of the Aramaic material is the Targums: translations/paraphrases of not only the Books of Moses but almost the whole Old Testament. Both as translations and sort-of commentaries, the Targums are ‘an important witness to the text of the Old Testament, comparable in value with the Septuagint’4 (italics mine). Like in a courtroom, the more witnesses to what was said, the better.

Hebrew grammarian Heinrich Prinz drew on the Old Testament and Targums together to study the teaching of the Trinity. Contrary to the common Muslim claim (since the 7th century A.D.) that the prophets had always been anti-Trinitarian like them, Prinz showed that many pre-Christian Jews (including the writers of Scripture) recognised the Word/Angel/Son of God and Spirit of God, laying the groundwork for the clear teaching of the Trinity.5

Other Books

In the centuries leading up to Christ, Jewish literature produced several books outside the Old Testament set. (There are traditions of publishing them along with the Bible under headings like Apocrypha.) We will look at two examples: Ecclesiasticus, a set of proverbs similar to the Biblical Book of Proverbs, and Tobit, a fanciful tale of the fortunes of Tobit the righteous Jew. Both books show respect for the Old Testament set.

Some in atheist/sceptical circles claim to see little or no real morals in the Old Testament, only selfish Israelite patriotism and priestly elitism. (This criticism perhaps says more about our own age, which is cynical about both patriotism and priesthood.) The wisdom in Ecclesiasticus and the righteousness in Tobit certainly affirm patriotism and accept priesthood, while also putting them together with some of the values that people do like nowadays, like compassion. The Old Testament itself does this, but Ecclesiasticus and Tobit help by further confirming that early audiences took it that way. They do this as independent voices, not just copying the statements of Scripture.

So…

Septuagint, Talmud, Targums, Apocrypha: It’s not just a list of words for a spelling bee; it’s a diverse set of witnesses that show us how the books of the Old Testament came across to early audiences.

References

1F. F. Bruce. (1950). The Books and the Parchments (3rd ed., p. 53). London: Pickering and Inglis.

2Payne. D. F. (1996). Targums. In I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible Dictionary (3rd ed.). Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.

3Darmesteter, A. (1897). The Talmud. Jewish Publication Society of America.

4Payne. D. F. (1996). Targums. In I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible Dictionary (3rd ed.). Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.

5Prinz, H. (1863). The great mystery: How can three be one? London: William Macintosh.

2 replies
  1. DarrenG
    DarrenG says:

    Good article, although translators removing “fuzzy bits” isn’t always great if the author deliberately chose to leave something fuzzy or ambiguous. Which is why puns are usually lost in translation.

  2. Luke Williamson
    Luke Williamson says:

    Yes. When I say “How are you,” and I don’t say whether I mean “just you” or “both of you,” it could be…

    (a) because the context makes it obvious
    (b) for no special reason
    (c) because I really don’t want to tell you. That means I’m deliberately using the fuzziness of English as a tool.

    The translator has to judge if it’s a, b, or c.

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