Friday, April 18, 2008

NT use of the OT

I grew up rather wary of our American judicial system, leaving decisions on people's guilt or innocence in the hands of a group of "their peers" as the Constitution requires. What makes those peers capable of making such decisions? Have they been educated in sifting evidence? Have they the expertise necessary to come to good decisions? What about all of the passions that get in the way of the logical thinking required in a court room drama? Are peers, that is the average Joe on the street, fit for the job?

Well a few years ago I got to sit on one of those juries and I saw the drama from the inside. We were a group of very average Joes. A professor of music, a postman, a low level medical worker, a pawn shop owner, a woman who ran a limestone mine, etc. Not legal eagles! But two days in the court and three days in deliberations convinced me that every single one of us was intensely interested in coming to the truth and in seeing justice come out. We had very different ideas of that truth and of justice, but we all worked for what we understood. In the debates I saw minds change, light bulbs come on, feelings get hurt, compromises reached and justice was done. As the foreman of the jury, I can vouch that the result was impressively just!

In short, I am much less uneasy about a jury of our peers than I formerly was because I saw how well it worked in practice. It is messy, but I think it is valid.

The analogy stops there.

For years I have been uneasy with the New Testament writer's quoting from the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament rather than from the original Hebrew version. Why did they sometimes quote from this translation, given that there are in fact small, inferential differences at many places between the original Hebrew and Aramaic Bible and the Septuagint translation?

I am reading through the Commentary on the NT use of the OT, edited by Beale and Carson to review it for a journal. (This is why I haven't written here for a while, this book is over 1100 pages.) But I have begun to see that I can put much more faith in the NT authors' scholarship and integrity than I had previously supposed.

Any seminary student in the last 150 years has had to listen to profs explain that the NT authors played fast and loose with the OT text, twisting it (and even misquoting it) to their benefit, whatever suited their need at the time. But that is OK; if the Holy Spirit guided their work, then, even if they missed the point in the original text, at least they have the stamp of HS authority on thier misinterpretation so it is Scripture now.

But as I read through this commentary on each use of the OT in the NT I am coming to vastly different conclusions. The NT authors were very careful scholars; they compared texts with the original; they were very nuanced in their thinking. And I am coming to trust the Septuagint more as a valid and very useful translation. Those seventy Jewish scholars were not Caiaphas! They were faithful true Jewish believers is YHWH and in the coming Messiah. And they were scholars who intricately sifted the evidence before they made their choices on what Greek word to use to translate the Hebrew or Aramaic.

And the NT authors sat in judgement, from their hugely greater perspective of having walked with the promised Messiah, on the Septuagint. They did not quote from it blandly, complacently, as if it were the only version they knew. They used it when useful, yes, but more than that. They used it when it was right.

In Matt 1:26 Matthew quotes from the Septuagint translation of Isaiah 7:14. Matthew and the septuagint both call her a virgin, that is a sexually chaste woman. In OT parlance she has never known a man. Well, everybody knows that in the original Isaiah did not quite say that. He said "a young woman (very young but of marriagable age) would conceive and bear. . .".

Why did Matthew use this translation rather than reverting to the more strictly accurate Masoretic Text of the OT? Is the Holy Spirit puting the divine stamp of approval on a mistranslation? True, Matthew was using the Septuagint translation because it fit with the birth of Jesus as he knew it, but much more than that he evidently understood why the seventy scholars, presumably in debate like in a jury's deliberation, ended up going with a Greek word that signified more than the original Hebrew text. It seems that they quite reasonably linked this passage of the birth of a son (which in one way was fulfilled in Isaiah's life, perhaps with the birth of his own son) with the divine son spoken of in Isaiah 9:1-7 (which would require a second and greater fulfilment). Thus the birth, even two hundred years before Jesus' birth, was understood to be a supernatural birth by the translators of the Septuagint. Matthew, in quoting them, is affirming what they had surmised.

When he was less comfortable with their translations he made his own, for example in 4:15-16, or much more often he seems to have taken the Septuagint translation and modified it, usually back toward a more literal rendering of the original text. He was clearly involved in the scholarly work of comparing texts, evaluating subtle inferences, and all the tasks of careful exegesis in multiple languages.

But he was more learned than the fishermen, we will see if John is so careful with his quotes. After all, we have all heard, and I have repeated, that the NT authors were sometimes careless in their quotes. Perhaps by the time I finish this commentary I will know not to say that any more and I will gain confidence in their hermeneutic methods-just as I gained confidence in the jury system-by seeing it in operation.

1 comment:

The Masked Badger said...

Thanks Doug!

I am unaware of this new commentary.

However, I learned about the importance of the original context of quotations, whilst writing on essay on the use of the OT in Hebrews 1. That essay made a big impact on me.