Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Bible Translation, Part Two: From Septuagint to Syriac to Masoretic


In Part One we talked about the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures – the ‘old’ testament – that began while the Bible was still being written. Within a few generations of Babylon’s destruction of Jerusalem in 607 B.C.E., many Jews living outside of Israel could no longer read or even understand Hebrew. It seems likely that some bilingual Jews may have rewritten the Hebrew Scriptures into other languages their fellow exiles could read, though the rabbis disapproved and so far no ancient examples have been found.

The job of metergaman, translator, came into existence. These men would stand and read from the Hebrew scrolls, giving an on-the-spot oral translation of the reading into Aramaic. Where his reading was still not clearly understood the metergaman would add his own commentary to try to clarify it. Their explanatory speeches were called targums. Initially, the rabbis of those days frowned on writing down targums. Some time after the Jewish rabbis reluctantly gave in to Ptolemy’s edict that the Hebrew Scriptures be officially translated into Greek (the Septuagint), the targums with all their (uninspired) commentary also began to be written down, in Aramaic.

In some cases the commentary helped. In other cases, it added details that may (or may not) be true. 

For example, the Hebrew descriptions of the Ark of the Covenant in the Most Holy compartment of the tabernacle, and later in Solomon’s temple, include a Hebrew word that could be transliterated ‘shekinah’.

The targums explained shekinah as a miraculous light above the ark that illuminated the Most Holy so the high priest could see what he was doing. But the word actually means simply ‘dwelling’ or ‘presence’; it has no connection with “light”. So most accurate Bibles render it, for example, “I will present myself to you there and speak with you from above the cover. From between the two cherubs that are on the ark…” (Exodus 25:22)

 So was there a miraculous light in the Most Holy? Perhaps. But the bible doesn’t explicitly say so.

An eastern dialect of Aramaic was called Syriac. It came into wide use a couple hundred years after Christianity began. The Syriac Peshitta (an Aramaic word meaning “plain” or “simple”) text was the next translation project after the Greek Septuagint. Syriac Peshitta translations were whole Bibles, not merely the Hebrew Scriptures. They were created by Christian translators. Most of the oldest complete ones found so far date back to about the 5th century, but there is extensive evidence that there were earlier ones. The Old Testament portion was translated directly from Hebrew, no doubt annoying some of the rabbis. Some manuscripts give evidence that their translators also consulted the Greek Septuagint. The New Testament portion of the Peshitta was translated from Greek copies of the originals; then, later, from Latin translations.

Starting in the sixth century, Jewish copyists of the Hebrew Scriptures began implementing a series of standards that came to be called Masora, ‘preserving tradition.’ The Masoretes copied ancient Hebrew scrolls. The oldest existing Masoretic text is the Leningrad codex, dating from around 1100 C.E.

The Masoretes developed grammatical rules. They also invented signs and marks to be written under and around the Hebrew characters to explain pronunciation. They made mathematical notations in the margins to make sure their copies were exact replicas of the originals, marking the center line on a page, even the center letter in a line. They made note of where the text had been altered by earlier copyists. Some of the most common of these errors were where earlier copyists believed this or that phrase that contained Jehovah’s name was somehow disrespectful of Jehovah – and the earlier copyists had replaced ‘Jehovah’ with ‘Lord’, or had even changed the meaning of the sentence to throw a more positive light on Jehovah. The Masoretes carefully noted these changes. 

However, by the time of the Masoretes, the rabbis had already begun spreading the unscriptural tradition of never speaking Jehovah’s name, so the Masoretes seem to have used vowel symbols from the pronunciation of either Adonai (Lord) or Elohim (God) to remind anyone reading aloud to say the alternate word.

A very early all-Greek Bible known as the Codex Alexandrinus was removed (from Alexandria, Egypt) by the patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church and gifted to the king of England in the early 1600s. Unfortunately, it arrived about a dozen years after the King James was completed. The Alexandrinus dates to the early 400s C.E.

In 1846 a scholar named von Tischendorf discovered in a monastery in Egypt a complete Greek New Testament that has been dated to around 350 C.E. More recent finds of Greek manuscripts predate even that, with the earliest so far found being a fragment of John 18 that may date to 150 C.E. or even earlier, a mere 50 years after John wrote the original!

In 1892 twin sisters Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson trekked by camel to a monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai. They weren’t simply tourists. Between them, the ladies knew 12 languages! They had heard there was an extensive ancient library at the monastery. Ultimately, they found a Syriac book that dated to the late 4th century. It contained the four gospels. Today it is called the Sinaitic Syriac.

In 1933 archaeologists found a Greek manuscript that proved to be a ‘harmony’ of the four gospels. It is positively dated to earlier than 256 C.E., since it was buried in the debris of the Syrian city they were excavating that was destroyed in that year.

The value of Syriac Peshittas and other early manuscripts is seen in passages such as 1 John 5:7. Many Bibles translated later from Latin render that, “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” The older Syriac versions that have been found prove these words were not in the original: they were added by later Bible translators to bolster their false belief in the trinity. The discoveries of older manuscripts, particularly after the great surge in research that began in the 1800s, made spurious texts stand out like a sore thumb.

After or alongside Greek, Syriac and Latin, the Bible was quickly translated into other languages. 

“Wherever Christianity spread, translations of the Hebrew Scriptures were made based on the Septuagint. Thus, it became the basis for translations made into Arabic, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopic, Georgian, Old Latin, and Old Church Slavonic,”  according to Hebrew scholar Emanuel Tov, head of the Dead Sea Scrolls publication team.

An English Bible was actually pretty late to the game. We’ll get to that in Part Three

Feel free to leave a polite comment. To read Part One, click here.  

 Bill K. Underwood is the author of several novels and one non-fiction self-help book, all available at You can help support this page by purchasing a book.

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