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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Ancient Translations of the Old Testament.

1.

By the end of the Second Temple period (4th–2nd cents. BCE) there were substantial communities of Jews who no longer had Hebrew as their first language, certainly outside the land of Palestine and perhaps even inside it. For many, Aramaic had become the everyday tongue, and all around the Mediterranean Greek became the lingua franca in the aftermath of the conquests of Alexander the Great (d. 323 BCE). Aramaic paraphrases of the HB began to be compiled, for use in the liturgy, where readings in Hebrew would be followed by an Aramaic translation, or Targum. Initially Targums were apparently improvised, and there was a dislike of writing them down for fear they might come to seem like Holy Scripture themselves. But later they were collected in writing, and a number have survived to this day.

2.

Various Greek versions of the Bible were also made. A legend says that the initiator of Greek translations was Ptolemy Philadelphus of Egypt (285–247 BCE), who ordered that a translation of the Torah should be made so that he could know under what laws his Jewish subjects lived. According to the legend, seventy-two scholars worked on the project for seventy-two days: hence their work came to be known as the Septuagint (meaning ‘seventy’, traditionally abbreviated LXX). The truth is probably more prosaic, but the third century remains the period when Greek translations of the Torah began to be made, followed by versions of other books too. Later translators set about correcting the LXX versions, among them Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion (see Salvesen 1991 ). About six different translators can be detected in the LXX itself. The version is in general faithful to the Hebrew, and far less of a paraphrase than the Aramaic Targums. Quite often the LXX seems to be a translation of a different Hebrew original from the one that has come down to us, and in some books, notably Jeremiah, it is obvious that the translators were dealing with a quite different (in this case, shorter) version of the book. Any quest for an ‘original’ text of Jeremiah underlying the MT therefore has to treat the evidence of the LXX very seriously.

3.

In the early church Greek was at first the commonest language, and the LXX has come down to us largely because it was preserved in Christian hands. Its divergent ordering of the books, as well as its inclusion of more books than the Hebrew Scriptures, came to be regarded as distinctively Christian features, even though in origin it is plainly a Jewish work. Once Latin displaced Greek as the language of the Western church the need was felt for a further translation into Latin, and various Old Latin MSS have survived, alongside the evidence of biblical quotations in Christian writers who used Latin. The Old Latin versions are translations from the Greek and thus stand at two removes from the Hebrew text. In the fifth century CE Jerome made a complete Latin version of the whole Bible from the original languages. This translation, which came to be known as the Vulgate, became the official Bible of the Western church until the Reformation, and continues to enjoy a high prestige in the Catholic church. Naturally both the Greek and Latin Bibles, like the Hebrew, have come down to us in a range of different MSS, and the quest for ‘the original LXX’ is no easier than that for the original HB. (See Roberts 1951 .)

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