Which biblical manuscripts are ‘right’: Qumran, the Septuagint, or the Masoretic Text?

“It is written” – Quotations from the Old Testament in the New Testament (7)

And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says,

“Let all God’s angels worship him.” (ESV)

Commentaries usually propose two possible sources for this quotation in the New Testament from the Hebrew Bible:  Psalm 97:7 and Deuteronomy 32:43. Psalm 97 looks to be the closest match for this phrase, especially once we realise that the Septuagint occasionally translates the Hebrew word elohim with the Greek word angelos (the Hebrew MT of Psalm 97:7 reads השתחוו־לו כל־אלהים worship him all you gods [elohim] whereas the Septuagint reads προσκυνήσατε αὐτῷ πάντες οἱ ἄγγελοι αὐτοῦ worship him all his angels), and it is generally thought that the writer of the NT book of Hebrews usually quotes from the Septuagint (but more about this shortly).

But why Deuteronomy 32:43? If we are reading the King James Version (or one of many others) there doesn’t appear to be any connection. This is how the KJV translates the verse:

Rejoice, O ye nations, with his people: for he will avenge the blood of his servants, and will render vengeance to his adversaries, and will be merciful unto his land, and to his people.

The KJV follows the Hebrew Masoretic Text. Initially it looks like it has no connection to the quotation in Hebrews. However, several modern translations (such as the ESV below, with footnotes) include the additional words which I have underlined:

“Rejoice with him, O heavens;[a]
bow down to him, all gods,[b]
for he avenges the blood of his children[c]
and takes vengeance on his adversaries.
He repays those who hate him[d]
and cleanses[e] his people’s land.”[f]

Footnotes:

  1. Dead Sea Scroll, Septuagint; Masoretic Text Rejoice his people, O nations
  2. Masoretic Text lacks bow down to him, all gods
  3. Dead Sea Scroll, Septuagint; Masoretic Text servants
  4. Dead Sea Scroll, Septuagint; Masoretic Text lacks He repays those who hate him
  5. Or atones for
  6. Septuagint, Vulgate; Hebrew his land his people

It is evident from the footnotes in the ESV that there are several differences between the Masoretic Text and other ancient translations such as the Septuagint, Dead Sea Scrolls and the Latin Vulgate. Just to complicate things further, Romans 15:10 may also be quoting this verse in Deuteronomy:

And again it is said, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.”

If Paul is quoting Deuteronomy 32:43 in Romans then he is following the Masoretic Text with Gentiles or nations,  where  the Septuagint has “rejoice O heavens“. There could be a clue here that the writer of Romans is not the same person as the writer of Hebrews, but having said that, one Qumran version (think ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’) of this text reads “Praise, heavens, his people” (1QDtb) while another reads “Praise, nations …” (4QDtq) so we have two different Qumran-Hebrew texts of this verse and the Masoretic Text represents one Hebrew text while the Septuagint corresponds to another. Romans follows one version, while Hebrews appears to follow the other. The ancient Aramaic version known as Targum Onkelos has an Aramaic equivalent to the Masoretic Text with “Praise, Gentiles, his people”. The Samaritan Pentateuch has the same reading as the Masoretic Text.

Interestingly, in an article by George Howard published as early as 1968 he argued that Hebrews may very well have been following a Hebrew text which was different to the Masoretic text, rather than following the Greek Septuagint, and that Hebrews 1:6 is closer to Qumran Deuteronomy than to the Septuagint. He found that some quotes are actually closer to the Aramaic versions (Targum Onkelos and the Peshitta) than to either the Hebrew or Greek.

“It has been popular in the past to begin a commentary or an introduction to the Epistle by stating that the writer always uses the Septuagint version of the OT (sometimes in the form of Codex Vaticanus, but more often in the form of Codex Alexandrinus) and never shows acquaintance with the Hebrew). Since the discovery of the Qumran Literature and the impetus given by it to the study of the pre-Masoretic text, it is now probable that the text used by the author of Hebrews is, on occasion, closer to a Hebrew recension more ancient than the Masoretic Text.”[1]

But what about Psalm 97:7? If the writer of Hebrews is quoting from this psalm then we can forget the difficulties with Deuteronomy. There are some problems here too, although possibly not as much as with a Deuteronomy source. As I mentioned in my opening paragraph, the main difference between the two texts is that the Hebrew Masoretic Text of Psalm 97:7 reads השתחוו־לו כל־אלהים worship him all you gods [elohim] whereas the Septuagint reads προσκυνήσατε αὐτῷ πάντες οἱ ἄγγελοι αὐτοῦ worship him all his angels). To many scholars this isn’t much of a difficulty because we know that the Septuagint translators sometimes used ἄγγελοι angels in place of אלהים gods. However, Hebrews has “angels of God” rather than simply angels and this suggests the writer was tranlating from Hebrew בני אלהים sons of God rather than simply “gods” [elohim]. Interestingly, 4QDtq from Qumran has “sons of God” in Deuteronomy 32:43, so this may steer us back to a Deuteronomy source and away from Psalms.

It looks like a bit of a mess! At least two versions of one biblical text, with the New Testament writers quoting from both versions. How can they both be ‘right’? The problem is actually a modern one. Timothy Law, in an interview with  Peter Enns, has concluded rather well: ‘We know now that there were many other variant forms of the Hebrew scriptures circulating before the time of Jesus … the existence of multiple forms of scripture (Greek and Hebrew) in antiquity, both before, during, and after the time of Christ, did not bother early Christians. The search for an “original text” on which to ground one’s faith is a distinctively modern worry’ (his emphasis). It seems to me that the New Testament writers reflected current and earlier scribal practices where it was not necessary to copy or translate the exact form of words, but rather to faithfully transmit the ideas and the essential message.

[1] George Howard, “Hebrews and the Old Testament Quotations”, Novum Testamentum, Vol. 10, Fasc. 2/3 (Apr. – Jul., 1968), pp. 208-216

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