Wednesday, August 12, 2015

John Owen Again on the Septuagint (LXX) Issue Related to the Presuppositions for the Preservation of Scripture, Meanwhile Answering James White

So many words in a title.  This post is mainly about what John Owen wrote.  I am teaching the book of Hebrews to folks at Mid-Coast Baptist Church next week in Brunswick, Maine.  I've taught through Hebrews three times in my life, but I have been doing some reading.  You can download for free the pdf of a five volume commentary by John Owen on Hebrews, which is too much to read before I go, but I wanted to see some things that John Owen said about Hebrews, to get his thoughts. It was helpful in one way that is not related to Hebrews itself.

When James White began attempting to talk about his own scriptural presuppositions, and it began looking like someone walking through thick mud up to his neck, he dropped "Jesus' use of the Septuagint."  He said it very haltingly.  I can only guess why he wasn't really chipper about bringing that up, but my speculation is that he knows it doesn't work, that it doesn't count as a presupposition for a defensible position on preservation.  It is just another dust cloud.  If you take the argument to its end, which I'm sure he hopes someone does not, it crashes and burns big time.

Old Testament textual critics now correct the traditional text of the Old Testament by using "the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls."  I'm sure to some people that sounds really neat.  They are saying that the Old Testament needs correcting.  They can't even stop with the Old Testament, so what hope is there that they can or will with the New Testament?

I can't write everything about this, because I've got to get to the John Owen point I was making.  I'm pretty sure no one has this material out there and I want you to have it.  However, before I do, can you for a moment wrap your brain around the idea that these OT textual critics are using a Greek translation from the Hebrew to correct the Hebrew?  These are some of the same men who criticize Erasmus for "back translating from the Latin to the Greek in Revelation."  That's only bad when it helps their cause.  I've never said I was opposed at the preservation of God's Word in languages other than the original languages.  I'm happy about Latin speaking people having the Bible in their language. But I digress.  I don't want to turn this into a session on Erasmus.  Neither do I want to go off on the criticism of eclectic text supporters that it is wrong to take a trajectory from an English translation to its underlying text.  They, of course, can only accept that when it travels through a Greek translation into a Hebrew text, eradicating their complaint about trajectories to original language texts from their translations.

If you believe that Jesus quoted from "the Septuagint," you are left with a low view of scripture.  You then believe that the Hebrew text of the Old Testament was lost.  You also believe that Jesus was very satisfied with a corrupt translation from a corrupt text that differed from the Old Testament text received by God's people.  Even the Old Testament textual critic believes his Septuagint is corrupt.

Reader, you may wonder why I put "the Septuagint" in quotes.  There is no settled Septuagint.  You are not referring to one translation when you say "the Septuagint."  There is no "the Septuagint," and most textual critics like White would be happy to have you keep thinking that way.  There is little evidence that some established Greek translation of the Old Testament existed before Jesus from which He could quote.  The view we should take should be the one that respects the inerrancy of scripture the most.  Saying that Jesus quoted the Septuagint doesn't do that.

A position that does respect the Bible and is a historic position based on biblical presuppositions is the one taken by John Owen that I have also read in some more contemporary books on the Septuagint.  Hebrews quotes a lot of Old Testament, especially Psalm 110.  In Owen's first volume on Hebrews, he spends a few pages speaking on this issue that we're talking about.  I'm not going to give you all the pages.  I'm going to give you the explanatory quote.  Owen writes (pp. 67-68):

Concerning these, and some other places, many confidently affirm, that the apostle waved the original, and reported the words from the translation of the LXX. . . .  [T]his boldness in correcting the text, and fancying without proof, testimony, or probability, of other ancient copies of the Scripture of the Old Testament, differing in many things from them which alone remain, and which indeed were ever in the world, may quickly prove pernicious to the church of God. . . .  [I]t is highly probable, that the apostle, according to his wonted manner, which appears in almost all the citations used by him in this epistle, reporting the sense and import of the places, in words of his own, the Christian transcribers of the Greek Bible inserted his expressions into the text, either as judging them a more proper version of the original, (whereof they were ignorant) than that of the LXX., or out of a preposterous zeal to take away the appearance of a diversity between the text and the apostle's citation of it. And thus in those testimonies where there is a real variation from the Hebrew original, the apostle took not his words from the translation of the LXX. but his words were afterwards inserted into that translation.

Owen says more, but this is the essence of it from the Hebrews commentary.  He's got a whole section on it in his biblical theology too, which was only recently translated from the Latin.  This is Owen's position.  This was an accepted position.  This fits biblical presuppositions.  It is also a defensible position.  White's position is not defensible.  "The Septuagint" sometimes follows the Hebrew Masoretic and sometimes it doesn't.  White and others selectively use it.  With their usage, they are in very murky waters theologically.  Owen's position is an old position. It's what believers have thought.  You actually can't prove him wrong.  His position has theological underpinning.  His position should be believed.  I believe it.

15 comments:

d4v34x said...

"I've never said I was opposed at the preservation of God's Word in languages other than the original languages."

But if it isn't in the original language, is the autograph actually preserved?

So theoretically, you're open to English preservation?

Kent Brandenburg said...

Hi D4,

In the context of what I wrote, I was saying exactly what I was saying, which was that, if, for a 1000 years in the Western world, there was a Bible preserved for those people in the Latin, I am not opposed to it. It's almost as if you must be opposed to it for the sole purpose of believing in the original language. Preservation is original language preservation, but believing in that is not a denial of preservation to a whole people group in their own language. They have the Bible. That's all I was saying. If you see the same thing in the Latin as you do in the Greek, that means something. Does this relate to the English? Yes, insofar that the English translation agrees with the Greek text, scripture has been preserved for us in the English. It's just different because the Latin is a much older language.

As this relates to James White, are you concerned one iota that he would change the preserved Hebrew text with a Greek translation? Please answer that. Are you opposed to Old Testament textual criticism that changes the Hebrew Masoretic with a translation of it, that is, a back translation of the Greek into the Hebrew to solve what is considered to be a textual problem? Are you concerned that someone thinks that Jesus was quoting a corrupt translation that came from a different Hebrew language text than what was preserved? Your turn.

Terry Basham, II said...

thanks for the tip to look for owen's hebrews commentary, just got it.

George Calvas said...

"As this relates to James White, are you concerned one iota that he would change the preserved Hebrew text with a Greek translation?"

"Are you concerned that someone thinks that Jesus was quoting a corrupt translation that came from a different Hebrew language text than what was preserved?"

If you believe that Jesus Christ was quoting OT HEBREW scriptures, and in the synagogue was then teaching in Hebrew, and all the apostles were Hebrews, learning any written language based on the OT Hebrew scriptures, then what language were the gospels "originally" written in?

It is not that difficult if you believe the presuppositions as quoted above.

d4v34x said...

I am concerned at least to the point of an iota, yes.

d4v34x said...

However.

"someone thinks that Jesus was quoting a corrupt translation that came from a different Hebrew language text than what was preserved"

This is what I was taught at our alma mater in doctrine class. At least sort of. And since my preservation presuppositions aren't quite what yours are, it doesn't trouble me as much as it likely does you.

I do think the back translation is something else again, though.

Kent Brandenburg said...

D4,

Here's what happens. People read a commentator who says that Jesus quotes the LXX and then report that without thinking through the repercussions. There are many problems including that the LXX and what Jesus "quoted" don't match up much of the time. The bigger problem is that He was quoting something corrupt and secondarily that it conflicts with the Hebrew text.

KJB1611 said...

The LXX argument doesn't help a critical text person unless he is willing to accept incredible corruption in the Bible. For instance, Jeremiah 49 in the Hebrew MT is in Jeremiah 29 and 25 in the LXX. Huge sections of the book are in totally different places. Would Christ think it is OK to chop up books of the Bible and put them in different places? Also Pastor Brandenburg is totally right that a critical edition of the LXX does not even exist. Most people who have a "the" LXX have in their hands a copy of a single MS of the LXX, that in Vaticanus. The Gottingen Septuagint, which actually is a critical edition, is not yet completed.

George Calvas said...

"The bigger problem is that He was quoting something corrupt and secondarily that it conflicts with the Hebrew text."

Ok, yes, we agree, therefore did the apostles write the gospels in Hebrew?

Scott R said...

I'm not sure if this is the best place to leave this comment, but given that this is the most recent post about James White, I will proceed.

I am not sure why White tends to be so condescending and contemptuous towards those with those whom he disagrees. (In some of his older appearances, he comes across as a bit pedantic but far more agreeable.)

Anyway, White's personality issues aside, it seems like each side has a difficult challenge for each other, which neither side can adequately address.

I believe White is correct to request TR advocates to produce the perfectly preserved document to which they refer. On the other hand, it does seem strange that it took until 19th century for the church to recapture the (ostensibly) more accurate readings due to modern textual techniques and the discovery of additional manuscripts.

Aside from turning to liberalism - which views the scripture as fungible through an unbelieving eye - or atheism, which dismisses the Bible wholesale, I'm not sure if there are any satisfactory answers to either challenge. (Not that I would consider either liberalism or atheism satisfactory.)

For the average believer, I wonder if the debate is overstated, however.

Those who are aware of textual criticism and embrace it, do engage in a certain level of cognitive dissonance. (I.e. "I believe the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, but I simultaneously believe small elements have required correction due to new manuscript discoveries.")

Nonetheless, this does not affect their belief in the authority of scripture in any practical manner.

Personally, I find myself somewhere between a Majority Text and TR view - I would not reflexively dismiss the verses found only in the Latin and/or very late manuscripts for example.

Nevertheless, the disparities among the families of text affect the exegesis/exposition of the scripture by theologians and preachers more than practical doctrine. This tends to limit the impact of the debate to those who engaged in this practice - namely pastors and other teachers.

While not irrelevant, for the believer who primarily relies on an English translation and does not examine the nuances of the grammar or terminology, I believe the textual issues has been overemphasized.


Titus Quinctius Cincinnatus said...

And thus in those testimonies where there is a real variation from the Hebrew original, the apostle took not his words from the translation of the LXX. but his words were afterwards inserted into that translation.

Nice. That's pretty much the position I arrived at on this question, and glad to see it's not a new-fangled one.

Titus Quinctius Cincinnatus said...

The LXX argument doesn't help a critical text person unless he is willing to accept incredible corruption in the Bible.

Thomas, also along this vein, we should note that the LXX's entire book of Daniel that now exists is actually a re-translation made around 180 AD by Theodotion, an Ebionite heretic. He made this re-translation because the form of Daniel in the LXX prior to this was so corrupted and degraded that it was apparently nigh to unusable. Of course, because he was an Ebionite, Daniel in the LXX would now be corrupted in favour of its spurious doctrines to the extent that those would have conflicted with what Daniel in the MT says.

Tyler Robbins said...

I'd be VERY interested in what you do with Heb 1:6. If you're skeptical about the LXX, then what OT verse was the writer quoting?

Kent Brandenburg said...

Tyler,

I would be very interested in what you do with Hebrews 6:18 with all that teaching about oaths and immutability and inability to lie and God's promise of preservation. God doesn't have to make an oath, but He does out of mercy to us, but He doesn't need to because it's impossible for Him to lie. Is this just a hypothetical verse? Or is it real? In the real world, does God actually lie? I believe He doesn't but I'm very interested in what you do with that.

Gill: these words are cited from ( Psalms 97:7 ) where the angels are called Elohim, gods. So Aben Ezra on the place observes, that there are some (meaning their doctors) who say, that "all the gods are the angels"; and Kimchi says, that the words are not imperative, but are in the past tense, instead of the future.

What would your problem be with Gill on this?

James Bronsveld said...

Tyler,

Further to the citation from Gill, I would note that citation as we often think of it today is very technical and precise, but that has not historically been the case. The comment from Gill actually illustrates this point when he states that Psalm 97:7 says that "angels are called Elohim, gods." The wording is not exact. The use of targums is not uncommon, and in keeping with the New Testament writers' practice of providing inspired commentary to Old Testament prophecies and statements. Luke 4:18 is an example of this, where the Lord Jesus cites from Isaiah, but does not give a word-for-word quotation that follows either the Hebrew received text or the LXX. I recommend reading Thomas Strouse's paper on "Christ and His Use of Targums."

Skepticism of the LXX is not a TR-only or KJV-only position. It's been widespread throughout its history. It's actually somewhat ironic that CT proponents frequently give far more lattitude to lesser-known manuscripts behind the LXX than they will to the manuscript copies behind the TR. However, the argument that "Jesus used a notoriously obscure and corrupt translation, so I have liberty to make one just like it" is too intoxicating for modern textual critics to pass up.

At the risk of over-quoting Owen (twice in one week) on the LXX, "Strange that so corrupt a stream should be judged a fit means to cleanse the fountain."