How the Bible was (re)written

Scribe writing a TorahI’m sure some people would love to re-write the Bible, perhaps leaving out the difficult bits such as those ‘commandments’ which are hard to follow, or making the foggy parts a bit clearer. In some ways translators do this every time they try to clear up a problem in the original languages by making it ‘simpler’ in English. The work of translation is also one of interpretation, and every translator inevitably has to interpret, or re-interpret, what they are reading for a new audience. Most are very good at it, although translations made by religious denominations run the risk of making the Bible say what they want it to say, rather than letting it speak for itself.

It may come as a surprise to some people to learn that the practice of re-writing the Bible began very early, while the Bible was still being written! In my previous post I wrote about the process of redaction and editing which took place as ideas were discussed, challenged, revised and reformulated. In some cases conflicting ideas appear in the Bible as it preserves more than one voice in the discussion, and we get an insight in to how ancient people wrestled with difficult subjects and formulated their religious ideas.

To illustrate the point I want to look at just one example of how the Bible preserves more than one ‘edition’ of a text using just one piece of evidence in the Book of Kings that it went through a process of editing, and it may only have been in the final stage (or stages) of editing that some Deuteronomistic ideas were added (such as blaming Manasseh for the exile four generations later). We have three similar but different versions of the reign of Zedekiah recorded in 2 Kings 24:18-25:12, Jeremiah 52:1-16 and in the Greek Septuagint version of Jeremiah 52. The table below compares the first three verses from each account.

2 Kings 24:18-20 Jeremiah 52:1-3 LXX Jeremiah 52:1-3 [1]
18 Zedekiah was twenty-one years old when he became king, and he reigned eleven years in Jerusalem; his mother’s name was Hamutal daughter of Jeremiah of Libnah.

19 He did what was displeasing to the LORD, just as Jehoiakim had done.

20 Indeed, Jerusalem and Judah were a cause of anger for the LORD, so that He cast them out of His presence. Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon.

 

1 Zedekiah was twenty-one years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem for eleven years. His mother’s name was Hamutal, daughter of Jeremiah of Libnah.

2 He did what was displeasing to the LORD, just as Jehoiakim had done.

3 Indeed, Jerusalem and Judah were a cause of anger for the LORD, so that He cast them out of His presence. Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon.

 

1 It being Sedekias’ twenty–first year when he began to reign—and he reigned eleven years in Ierousalem, and his mother’s name was Hamital daughter of Ieremias from Lobena.

 

 

 

 

 

It appears that the material in Jeremiah 52 was taken from Kings because it is almost identical, so similar in fact that it seems that the writer of Jeremiah either had a copy of Kings in front of him, or he copied from another source from which the writer(s) of Kings took the same material. Two people don’t tell the same story using the same words, in the same order, unless one is copying the other, they have collaborated, or they are using the same source. But now take a look at the ancient Greek translation of Jeremiah (known as the Septuagint). The first verse is much the same, with the names being modified in a way which is typical of a translation from one language to another, but then the next two verses are completely missing.

There are a few possible reasons for this. It’s possible that the translator decided to leave these verses out, but why he would do this is puzzling. There is no clear reason why a translator would delete these verses. Most scholars are of the view that the shorter Greek version is, in fact, a translation of a shorter Hebrew version of Kings, and that nothing was removed in translation. This means that the verses in our Hebrew version were either added some time after the translation was made into Greek (unlikely, as it would make this revision quite late) or, more likely, that by the time Jeremiah was translated into Greek, there were two Hebrew versions of Jeremiah circulating. The Greek translator used a version which was subsequently lost (a version without the additional verses), while the Masoretic Text preserved the other ‘longer’ version. This is the most likely explanation, and it is supported by the fact that there are actually quite a lot of differences between the Greek and Hebrew versions of Jeremiah. There is some further evidence in the Dead Sea Scrolls that the Hebrew version from which the Septuagint was taken was still in circulation at the time these scrolls were put in caves near Qumran.

It’s interesting that this additional material in the Hebrew version of Jeremiah contains the formulaic evaluation that King Zedekiah “did what was displeasing to the LORD.” While this evaluation of Zedekiah might suit its context, there are a number of times in Kings when the good deeds of good kings are recorded and then followed by the same words – “he did what was displeasing to the LORD” – making little sense in their context. However, it might make perfect sense to an editor who was working during or after the exile, and who was trying to make sense of why Israel and Judah were destroyed as kingdoms, to blame the kings – all the kings – especially if this editor was opposed to the institution of monarchy. Such an editor might feel compelled to add the words “he did what was displeasing to the LORD” several times throughout Kings, and then he or a colleague also added them to the corresponding place in Jeremiah 52 [2]. But by this time the ‘other’ version of Jeremiah was also circulating and so we ended up having two. The earlier Hebrew version(s) of Kings, however, is now lost (except for a few fragments found amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran) although evidence of its one-time existence is still there in the Septuagint.

_________________________

[1] Translation of the Septuagint is from Albert Pietersma and Marc Saunders, “Ieremias,” in A New English Translation of the Septuagint and the Other Greek Translations Traditionally Included Under that Title (eds. Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

[2] There are many similarities between Jeremiah and what scholars call the ‘Deuteronomistic literature’ (the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings), so many in fact that Jeremiah is also regarded as Deuteronomistic. Some scholars think it may have even been the writer of the book of Jeremiah (not Jeremiah himself), or his students/followers, who did the final editing of Kings and made some additions, including the one we’re looking at.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s