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]


  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

How the Dead Sea Scrolls help with New Testament studies


“It is written” – Quotations from the Old Testament in the New Testament (6)

Pesher HabakkukSeveral scrolls found at Qumran (‘Dead Sea Scrolls’) are commentaries on earlier biblical texts and are called pesharim because of their characteristic use of the Hebrew word פשר pesher which translates as ‘this means’, or ‘the interpretation is’, or similar. These commentaries typically quote a biblical text and then add a commentary beginning with פשר pesher ‘this means …’. There are some characteristics of the Qumran pesharim which are replicated in some New Testament quotations. However, while pesharim tend to be sustained verse-by-verse commentaries (although individual pesher-style interpretations are found embedded in other works) the New Testament writers interpret only small selections from the prophetic writings; there are no sustained verse-by-verse commenatraies in the New Testament. Dead Sea Scrolls scholar Joseph Fitzmyer argues that a pesher is a unique type of midrash and has no exact counterpart in the New Testament.[1] He concluded from his analysis, however, that “the exegetical practice of the New Testament writers is quite similar to that of their Jewish contemporaries, which is best illustrated by the Qumran literature.”[2]

Timothy Lim[3] has identified characteristics of the Qumran pesharim which enable us to recognise some of the quotations in the New Testament in that style. Identifying a specific fulfilment of prophetic oracles is one characteristic of a pesher. So when Matthew introduces a quotation with the formulaic “that it might be fulfilled” he is effectively interpreting the biblical text in much the same way as the writer of Pesher Habakkuk who could quote the prophet and then apply his words to a contemporary person or event. So when the author of Pesher Habakkuk wrote  פשרו על מורה הצדק  “this refers to the teacher of righteousness”[4] he was using a similar formula to Matthew’s “this is fulfilled [by Jesus]”.  While God instructed Habakkuk to write down what is going to happen, according to Pesher Habakkuk he hid from him how the prophecy would be fulfilled, but revealed it later to the Teacher of Righteousness (1QpHab col vii lines1-5). In this way, argues Maurya Horgan, the pesharim function as companions to the biblical text, “unravelling section by section the mysteries that were believed to be contained in the biblical text”.[5] The initial mysteries revealed to the prophet and the interpretation through the Teacher of Righteousness were both revelations by God. The New Testament quotations function in the same way. The initial texts are reinterpreted according to new circumstances in ways that, by modern standards, might seem to be misquoting or using texts without any regard for their primary meaning and setting, yet finding meaning in the words themselves that would not have been understood in their first context. Not only did the interpretation give new meaning to the words, it claimed to be the true hidden meaning.

[1] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “The Use of Explicit Old Testament Quotations in Qumran Literature and in the New Testament”, New Testament Studies 1961;7(04):297-333, p. 298

[2] Ibid, p. 330

[3] Timothy H. Lim, Pesharim (London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002, p. 82

[4] For example, in 1QpHab column vii, line 4

[5] Maurya P Horgan, Pesharim: Qumran Interpretations of Biblical Books, (Washington: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1979), p. 259

The Septuagint and the New Testament

Septuagint manuscript from The Schoyen Collection (#2649) containing a portion of Leviticus from second century Egypt - one of the oldest surviving manuscripts of this part of the Bible.

“It is written” – Quotations from the Old Testament in the New Testament (1)

There is a popular misconception that the earliest Christians used the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible as their Scriptures, and that all the quotations from the ‘Old Testament’ in the New Testament are from this Greek translation, commonly known as “The Septuagint” [1] . In later posts I plan to look at some quotations which are more likely to be drawn directly from the Hebrew (then translated into Greek by the New Testament writer) or from some other source, but first I will deal with some of the quotations which are most likely from the Septuagint. My purpose is to give an overview of some of the difficulties we face when the New Testament quotation doesn’t match up with what we find in our own Bibles, and to provide some explanations for why this happens (and perhaps some solutions).

In this post I will look at just one quotation which illustrates the problems quite well. During the early church meeting commonly known as ‘the Jerusalem Council’ (Acts 15:1-35) James quotes from ‘the words of the prophets’ (vv15-18), specifically from Amos 9:11-12. This quotation is closer to the Septuagint (LXX) than to to the Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT) [2] , although there are actually eleven differences between the version in Acts and the LXX [3] .

The most significant differences are highlighted by the underlined words below:

Acts 15:15-18 (NRSV)

“After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen;
from its ruins I will rebuild it,
and I will set it up,
so that all other peoples may seek the Lord
even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called.
Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things known from long ago.”

Amos 9:11-12 (NRSV)

On that day I will raise up
the booth of David that is fallen,
and repair itsbreaches,
and raise up its ruins,
and rebuild it as in the days of old;
in order that they may possess the remnant of Edom
and all the nations who are called by my name,
says the Lord who does this.

The difference is actually quite important in the context of the Jerusalem Council because it was specifically the words “all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called” to which James was appealing in accepting Gentiles into the church. However, these words are not in the Hebrew text although they are in the Septauagint. How, when and why were they changed? There are several possibilities:

  1. The translator who translated the Hebrew into Greek (the LXX) made a mistake, or a couple of mistakes, in reading the Hebrew and therefore made a wrong translation which James then uses.
  2. The translator was using a different Hebrew text to the one which eventually became the Masoretic Text (scholars call this ‘original’ text used for the translation the Vorlage). If so, there must have been at least two different versions of the Hebrew of Amos at the time when the LXX was translated. That is possible, and we have good manuscript evidence to indicate there were different Hebrew texts circulating in the first century CE, but which text then would be most faithful to the earliest or ‘original’ text?
  3. The translator deliberately altered the words to give it a different meaning for theological reasons.

For Christians who believe in the ‘inerrancy’ of the Bible any of these possibilities pose a problem: which text is ‘inspired’, the Hebrew Masoretic Text used for translating the Old Testament into English (which may include errors if we believe that the NT puts its stamp of approval on an alternative version), or the Greek Septuagint translation of a different Hebrew text (which is now lost), used by James and quoted in the New Testament? Either the MT is right, and the LXX and NT are wrong, or the LXX and NT are right and the MT is wrong. Do you see the problem?

So how could a translator or scribal copyist make a mistake in the first place? How does “that they may possess the remnant of Edom” become “all the Gentiles may seek [the LORD]”? Here is the Hebrew text of these words as they appear in the MT (without the vowel points, which were added later by the Masoretes between the 7th and 10th centuries CE):

למען יירשו את־שארית אדום

The difference rests mainly on two words (highlighted above). The Hebrew word for ‘Edom’ is אדום and the ‘o’ sound is represented by the letter ו. Strictly speaking written Biblical Hebrew is consonantal, and most of the vowels were added much later by the Masoretes. However, the letter ו is one of the four letters known as ‘Matres lectionis’ which were also used to indicate vowels and during the Biblical period a word could be written with or without it. It is possible that in some manuscripts the word for ‘Edom’ was written אדם. Now this presents a problem, because this is the same word as ‘mankind’ and ‘Adam’. In most cases there is no problem because the context will determine which of the three words is meant (although this is precisely the kind of problem that caused the Masoretes to later add marks to indicate the vowels and to avoid the confusion). So now we have two possibilities for how ‘Edom’ became ‘mankind’ (or Gentiles): the manuscript from which the LXX translator was working had אדם without the vowel ו and he read it as ‘mankind/Gentiles’ rather than as Edom; or, a scribe copying a manuscript at some point read אדם=mankind as ‘Edom’ and added the ו vowel to avoid confusion (but making a mistake in the process), and it is from this copy containing the error that our MT has come down to us. Take your pick.

Paleo-HebrewThe second difference is slightly more complicated. The word translated ‘seek’ in the LXX (ἐκζητήσωσιν) translates ירש which means ‘possess’. This would be the only place where the LXX translates ירש as ‘seek’. Twenty nine times the LXX uses this Greek word for ‘seek’ to translate the Hebrew word דרשׁ which differs only by the first letter, and seventy three times it uses it to translate the word בקשׁ which has only one letter in common. Some scholars suggest that the translator misread דרשׁ (seek) as ירשׁ (possess) which is possible especially if the copy from which he was working was worn, faded or smudged. McLay says it is less likely that he misread it as בקשׁ as this would require him to confuse two consonants which don’t look very similar[4]. However, and this is where I think it becomes even more interesting, we need to know that the Hebrew system of writing began to change after the Babylonian exile from ‘Paleo-Hebrew’ to the ‘block’ or ‘square’ Aramaic or Assyrian style that is still in use today (with some further modifications). The earliest copies of the scroll containing Amos (‘the Scroll of the Twelve Prophets’) would most likely have been in Paleo-Hebrew, and in this script the words בקשׁ and ירשׁ are much more similar. The chart shows these words in the square script which is now used, the Paleo-Hebrew in which Amos was probably first written, and the early form of the square script which is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls Isaiah manuscript to show how it may have been written if the Aramaic script was already in use. While ר and  ק are not similar in the square script they could easily be mistaken in Paleo-Hebrew. Similarly ד י and ב could also be mistaken, especially if the text was faded, smudged or damaged. Many scholars understand that the LXX text arose from a different version of the Hebrew text through a misreading of this kind [5] .

Where does this leave us? We can see how an error may have crept in somewhere and this explains why we have two versions of the words of Amos in our Bibles. But which one is likely to be original? Unfortunately there is no easy answer to this and scholars are divided on the question. Most scholars tend to prefer one version or the other depending on which one they feel best fits the context and until another ancient manuscript is discovered to shed more light on the subject we will have to be content with that.


[1] The ancient Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible are popularly called “the Septuagint”, although several different translations have all in fact been designated as such. There is probably no one translation which has a better claim to the designation than the others, so some scholars tend these days to speak of them as “Septuagints” (plural) and specify the particular manuscript to which they are referring, or collectively as the Greek Jewish Scriptures. Often when commentaries refer to “the Septuagint” (or by its abbreviation LXX) they mean the text and translation by Brenton (1844). For a good overview of current Septuagint scholarship see R.Timothy McLay The Use of the Septuagint in New Testament Research (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).

[2] I. Howard Marshall, ‘Acts’ in G.K.Beale and D.A.Carson (eds.) Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007) 589

[3] Gert J. Steyn Septuagint Quotations in the Context of the Petrine and Pauline Speeches of the Acta Apostolorum (Kampen, Netherlands : Kok Pharos, 1995) 252-3

[4] McLay, 23

[5] Marshall, 590

Was David “a man after God’s own heart”?

I’ve frequently heard it said that, according to the Bible, King David was “a man after God’s own heart” and that despite his serious moral failures (adultery and murder among them) his heart was, after all was said and done, “in the right place” and this somehow compensated for his major faults. But is it actually true? Does the Bible really say that David was “a man after God’s own heart”?

The text that is quoted in support of this claim is Samuel’s words to King Saul in 1 Samuel 13:14 “You have done foolishly; you have not kept the commandment of the Lord your God, which he commanded you. The Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel for ever, but now your kingdom will not continue; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart; and the Lord has appointed him to be ruler over his people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you.” The story goes on to tell us how David was the man who was chosen to replace Saul as King of Israel, so it’s perfectly natural to read this as meaning David was “a man after [God’s] own heart”.

But the Hebrew doesn’t necessarily read the same way as the English:

בִּקֵּשׁ יְהוָה לֹו אִישׁ כִּלְבָבֹו

The word כִּלְבָבֹו is better translated as “according to his own heart” so the sentence then reads “the LORD has sought a man according to his own heart” (the prefix כ means as, or according to) and a similar expression appears in 2 Samuel 7:21 where כְלִבְּךָ is translated into English as “according to your own heart”, the translators there correctly translating כ as “according to”.[1]

In Hebrew the “heart” is what we would call the “mind” – the seat of thought and intelligence. In other words “according to your heart” means “according to your mind, or will” and “according to God’s own heart” means God has sought out someone in accordance with his mind, or someone chosen by his own free choice.

Interestingly, a similar expression occurs in the Inscription of Nebuchadnezzar where the king refers to himself as “I his eldest son, the chosen of his heart” (column 5, lines 21, 22).

So the point of 1 Samuel 13:14 is that Saul’s successor would be a man chosen by God, by his own free choice, and it says nothing about the moral character or “heart” of the man so chosen.


[1] The ‘virtually unanimous trend in recent scholarship … understands the phrase “after [Yhwh’s] own heart” in 1 Sam 13:14 as a statement about Yhwh’s choice rather than David’s character’. (Benjamin J. M. Johnson, “The Heart of Yhwh’s Chosen One in 1 Samuel”  Journal of Biblical Literature Volume 131, Number 3, 2012). See also P. Kyle McCarter Jr, I Samuel: A New Translation with Introduction, Notes and Commentary (AB 8; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980), 229.  Since McCarter very few scholars have followed the traditional interpretation.