The Bible in Synagogue and Church
- The Order of the Books – most likely the order Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings) was adopted because this is the order in which the books were accepted as Old Testament canon, beginning from the period of Ezra and Nehemiah (4th C BC). After the Torah and the Prophets were canonized, everything left went into the box labeled “writings.” The Septuagint order gave rise to the Christian order (including the Apocrypha).
- The Time of writing – Despite the pious legend that it was written by 70 scholars working independently who produced the same translation, the Septuagint was probably written in stages over the period 250-150 BC. It was compiled because many Jews lived outside Palestine and spoke Greek. (Jewish communities in Alexandria and Babylon were large, having grown from the captivities.) The first part to be translated was the Torah, since that is read in synagogue in weekly divisions of a one-year cycle. Our use of lectionaries, by the way, derives from the Jewish background to Christianity.
- The Synagogue practice – early on in this period, the synagogue developed as Beit-Midrash (“house of study”). The Hebrew text might have been given translation and commentary in either Greek or Aramaic, depending on the locale. In the time of Christ, it is fairly clear that in Palestine the Torah was read in Hebrew in synagogues; commentary would have been in Aramaic, the common language of the Semitic people. The development of Aramaic commentary and/or translations came early, and some scholars date it already to the time of Ezra. Aramaic had become the lingua franca of the area, spreading out from the Persian Empire which had instituted it as the first language.
- The Church practice– when the church began to move into surrounding areas and found its majority base in Greek-speaking lands, it was only natural that the Septuagint would become the standard text for preaching and teaching, except in areas where Semitic languages held sway. (see # 6 below)
- The New Testament and early church writers bear witness to the primacy of the Septuagint. This is a matter of logic and locale. Most OT quotations in the NT come from the Septuagint. Especially in Mark we see many “Aramaisms,” but quotations usually reflect Septuagint texts below the Greek of the NT. The logic to this is clear: the documents that eventually made up the New Testament were, for the most part, addressed to gentiles who were mostly Greek-speaking.
- Early versions include the Peshitta, (“straight” or “simple”), the text of New (and Old) Testament in Syriac, a slightly later variation of Aramaic that was the literary language of the city of Edessa. Some Eastern Churches consider the Peshitta the authentic original New Testament. Parts of it date to the 2nd Century through the scholar Tatian; many scholars think the entire text comes from this era (the Peshitta omits II and III John, II Peter, Jude, and Revelation, which were not accepted by the eastern churches). In 435, Rabbula, bishop of Edessa, suppressed Tatian’s work in order to conform with practice across the East of using the Peshitta version of the Four Gospels. Both the antiquity and the abundance of manuscripts show the importance of the Syriac text – but the Greek text of the NT is primary. There is no known manuscript of an original Aramaic gospel.
- The Dead Sea Scrolls. We learn from the DSS the following: a. The relative soundness of the Hebrew texts that have come down to us, since the DSS are the oldest manuscripts that have been found. They date from anywhere between 150 BC and 70 AD; b. The fluidity of some of the texts like Exodus and I and II Samuel; and c. Lots about the Essene movement, since 30% of the scrolls are community literature. They do not mention Jesus Christ though the later scrolls are contemporaneous. Their greatest gift is their antiquity in relation to other Hebrew manuscripts and their inclusion of some additional psalms and prophetic portions, including stories about Noah, Abraham, and Enoch.
- The canon of the Greek New Testament was compiled over a long period. The so-called Muratorian Fragment (ca. 170) lists most of the books, but omits Hebrews as non-Pauline. The Councils at Hippo (North Africa) in 393 and Carthage (397) ratified the list we currently use. Despite these councils, some books were questioned. Eusebius the historian (ca. 310) listed James, II Peter, Jude, II and III John, Revelation, along with Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Didache, and the Apocalypse of Peter as antilegomena (“spoken against”). He also says Hebrews was contested on grounds that it was not written by Paul. Interestingly, Codex Sinaiticus, a major resource from the 4th C, contains both the Shepherd and Barnabas.
- So which languages did Jesus and the disciples use? Most people in Palestine, and in the Galilee in particular, knew both Greek and Aramaic. Aramaic had largely replaced Hebrew as the current language in Palestine and surrounding areas by the 6th C BC. The OT contains a few sections in Aramaic: Ezra 4:8 through 6:18; 7:11-26; Dan. 2:4 through 7:28; Genesis 31:47 (two words); and Jeremiah 10:11. Only those who studied in synagogues would have known Hebrew (that immediately limits the students to men). Remember that no one had a personal copy of the scriptures. The passage in Luke 4 where Jesus reads from the Old Testament – specifically from Isaiah 61 – probably means a Hebrew scroll. The passage in Acts 7 where Stephen preaches his inflammatory sermon that leads to his demise by stoning, however, is full of quotations from the Septuagint, which became the Old Testament of the church as it expanded throughout empire.
- Who Cares? When Islam arose in the 7th and 8th C, scribes were determined to produce a definitive text: no errors, no alternatives, no double readings. Christian scribes never felt the same compulsion. In fact, the church rejected the Diatessaron of Tatian (an attempt to create a seamless single Gospel utilizing materials from all four of the ones we have) in favor of the four Gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Perhaps the reasoning was: since Christ is the Word of God, it makes more sense to pay attention to his person than to the precise words in which he came and spoke to us. They tried to produce texts that were complete and correlated but they were not obsessive about it.