The Septuaginta, Scribes and Scholars

I am reading AnIntroduction to the Old Testament in Greek. Additional Notes by Henry Swete. The Grand Rapids seminary (mildly famous in the Netherlands because they revere our Kuyper, while we have almost forgotten about Abraham de Geweldige) have scanned the 1914 edition of this massive book, tagged it using something called “theological xml markup” and prepared a public domain pdf. With all the Greek, Hebrew and everything intact. It’s really a great read, and I wish I had a similar book about the Hebrew old testament and another one on the New Testament, with a final volume on the apocrypha.

Because what reading a book like Swete’s teaches you (and I guess it’s horribly out-of-date, but the findings in this book still haven’t filtered down into the common conciousness) is that life is complicated and that you cannot simply assert that some bible text is the undisputed text unless you delve really deeply into the gentle art of textual criticism. The same holds for the classical texts. Already Varro spent considerable time correcting manuscripts of Plautus, trying to find out which ones where authentically Plautus, and which versions where the ones most like what Plautus had written himself.

So, my nicely bound copy of Rahlf’s edition of the Vatican Codex (B) of the Septuaginta inspires more confidence in the correctness of the text than is really warranted when confronted with so old a set of texts.

The texts of the books of the Bible got mangled at an early date. In fact, for quite a few books the Greek translation prepared in Alexandria is earlier than the surviving Hebrew texts. That is to say: the Greek text is translated from a Hebrew text that is earlier than the oldest Hebrew text we know. Sometimes only the Greek text survives, even. And sometimes the results are mixed. The Greek text will have bits of text that are older, together with later interpolations. The order of the text can be mixed up pretty badly — and then the Hebrew
text will be just as messed up, but in a different way. So the masoretic Hebrew text from the second century (although the earliest monuments are later than that) is not the definitive text. On the other hand, Swete calls the translators of the Psalms “obviously incompetent” and the translator of Job “more familiar with Greek pagan literature than Hebrew poetry”.

And nowadays we’re pretty much agreed on which books belong to the Bible; and the general feeling is that the repressive church management high-handedly has prevented such endearing works as the Gospel according to Thomas from surviving. Swete’s book does a good job of dispelling that notion. In the fast and furious intellectual debate of the first few centuries of the Christian era theologians hotly disputed the right of some books to belong to the canon. The discussion was mainly about the newest candidates, for books that ended up in the old-testament (mostly under apocrypha — these bishops were scholars, not fools)
were being written up to the 50 BC, and often immediately translated into Greek for the benefit of Epyption Jews.

One thing leads to another, and given Swete’s discussion of the conception of the canon and the establishment of translations like the Old Latin and Jerome’s Vulgate (mostly Septuaginta, but with hints and emendations from the Hebrew current in his time, but still pre-masoretic),
together with the obvious historical continuity from Alexandria (where the first translations where made) even to the 17th century secondary sources Swete urges us to consult when in doubt about some finer points, to Swete himself, I was getting interest in textual criticism, so I took down Scribes and Scholars by Reynolds and Wilson from the shelf. Nothing like having your computer broken for regaining an interest in old passions (funny: I had never realized passion come from Greek “παθη”, which I encountered today when reading the day’s Gospel (mark 9, 10-15), and which should be written with an accent and a iota, but I don’t know how to do that with the Greek keyboard map.).

Scribes and Scholars is a very good book and I should replace my second edition with the third edition, and at a couple of points made me pause to ponder deeply.

The first was about accretions and restoring to purity. Both tendencies are very human and seen everywhere. The whole goal of textual criticism is to restore a text to purity through the accretion of scholarship. (Literally: this book as a nice illustration of a text of Homerus almost covered by scholia.)
Schmemann, one of the greatest Orthodox theologians, has written an entire book about the history of accretions to the Orthodox liturgy: Introduction to Liturgical Theology. (I have somewhere the draft of an essay on why his approach is not quite scholarly enough because he uses the apparatus of historical linguistics in the wrong context, namely he’s try to explain a synchronously working system through diachrony, and because a blanket denunciation of accretions equals the assertion that the Holy Spirit is no longer active in the church.) The Protestant churches came from a quest for restoration to the purity of the Apostolic church, and since then returns to apostolic norms have succeeded each other quickly.

Accretion and a return to purity happens in software, too — where it is mostly generational. I mean, a language gets bloated, like Java or Python, and then a new, small language is created. Which will get bloated with everything imaginable. Applications grow until they include the kitchensync, and then Kate replaces Emacs. (Note I’m carefully not saying anything about Gnome and KDE, although I thought the LWN discussion rather fun).

There is something natural and inevitable in this dance. In general, nothing gets ever thrown away, but there are points in time where a reduction of accretions happens all by itself. For instance, at a certain point in time schoolboys in Constantinople were a bit overloaded, couldn’t be bothered to read everything by the Attic dramatists, and their kind teachers reduced their load to three plays by each tragedian and Aristophanes. Result: the rest of these plays would have been lost if Italian visitors hadn’t abducted the few remaining manuscripts of the rest of those plays.

Which, of course, immediately reminds me of the very reduced curriculum my own kids get taught. But if I start writing on that topic, I’ll degenerate into mere ranting. And this entry is too long as it is. But then, Swete’s book is 912 pages.