What Can We Learn from Old Books?

Lessons to be understood in this day of multiple translations

In the late 19th century, textual scholars Westcott and Hort established a classification of types of ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. The reason for the classification was an attempt to understand the history of the development of the Greek text and determine the earliest witness to the text. Three of the oldest and most complete codices (Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus, and Vaticanus) had come from Egypt and so were placed in one group which was classified as Alexandrian texts. The conclusion that they were of the same type was based on the comparison of these texts with the majority of what were classified as the Byzantine texts. But in making the classification, little consideration was given to the comparison of the three codices to one another.

With the digitization of the Vaticanus in 1999, and now that of the Sinaiticus,  comparison has become a possibility.  The result is that the three manuscripts, although closely related in terms of geographic origin and time of composition, are in fact now considered three distinct types of text. That finding provides an interesting commentary to the statement of Origen of Alexandria, Egypt, who lamented:

‘. . . the differences among the manuscripts [of the Gospels] have become great, either through the negligence of some copyists or through the perverse audacity of others; they either neglect to check over what they have transcribed, or, in the process of checking, they lengthen or shorten, as they please.[1]

Origen’s comments are well displayed in the case of the Apocalypse represented in the Sinaiticus. Juan Hernandez Jr. of Bethel University, St. Paul, MN, presented a paper titled “Codex Sinaiticus: The Earliest Greek Christian Commentary on John’s Apocalypse?”  In an abstract he states:

The Apocalypse in codex Sinaiticus is a striking example of a fourth-century text that differs substantially from modern critical editions. It exhibits dozens of differences at key points, reflecting the concerns, interests, and idiosyncrasies of its earliest copyists and readers. Taken as a whole, Sinaiticus’s text of Revelation may constitute one of our earliest Christian commentaries on the book, disclosing its fourth-century milieu and anticipating the later concerns of Oecumenius and Andrew of Caesarea. This is no commentary in the contemporary sense, however. Sinaiticus’s readings range from the spectacular to the mundane and include the theological, the liturgical, the commonplace and even the infelicitous. It is a text ever in tension with itself, effective both in its capacity to obscure as well as in its regulation of meaning. Clarity and confusion co-reign and compete for our attention. Despite that, we can discern a concerted effort to elucidate the Apocalypse’s message by scores of changes throughout. Some of these are inherited. Others created. All affected the reading of the text.

So what can really be learned from old texts?  It’s apparent that scribes used their role to establish ideas that supported their views of scripture just as translators may do today. It’s our job to cut through the confusion and establish what may have been intended given our understanding of the milieu of the first century. It will be interesting to see what impact this realization of the differences between Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus and Vaticanus will have on the establishment of future eclectic texts. For the last century they have been given first priority in view of their age. But now that the extent of variation and text type has been established, that could well change.

[1]Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transition, Corruption and Restoration (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 152.

Tags: new testament, Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Vaticanus, Origen, Textual Study, translation

It’s beginning to look and sound a lot like . . . !

The left overs from Thanksgiving dinner have only just been finished and the environment has changed.  The pumpkin patch has given way to tree sales and the cornucopias in people’s front gardens replaced with lighted animals and angels. The supermarket shelves eggnog and other seasonal treats for those planning ahead.  Musak everywhere has rediscovered Rudolph and his red nose. Christmas is coming!

Christmas is frequently criticized for its materialistic elements and self indulgent approaches, elements that are the antithesis of the standard of life of Jesus Christ, the person that Christmas is supposed to represent.  Each year someone tries to reconcile the two opposites to salve the fevered brow of those who are concerned that the spirit of Christmas has been lost.  But few venture to even consider the thought that the followers of Jesus Christ never celebrated his birthday for probably the first two hundred and fifty years.  For one, observant Jews who were the majority of the first disciples always looked upon birthdays as something the pagans undertook.  The exact date of the birth of Jesus Christ is not given in Scripture, and like so many elements that are considered essential to Christianity today was of no interest to the first followers.

Origen of Alexandria, writing over two centuries after the death of Jesus follows this same line when he recorded a diatribe against the memories of birthdays, indicating that at the time of his writing, a day to remember the birth of Jesus was not part of the church calendar.  In his Homilies on Leviticus, speaking on the aspect of birth, Origen states:

. . . not one from all the saints is found to have celebrated a festive day or a great feast on the day of his birth. No one is found to have had joy on the day of the birth of his son or daughter.  Only sinners rejoice over this kind of birthday.  For indeed we find in the Old Testament Pharaoh, king of Egypt, celebrating the day of his birth with a festival, and in the New Testament, Herod.  However both of them stained the festival of his birth by shedding human blood. . . . But the saints not only do not celebrate a festival on their birth days, but, filled with the Holy Spirit, they curse that day.

In reality, the hedonism that is presently displayed in Christmas activity especially in the western world has a heritage much older than the birth of Jesus Christ in approximately 5 BCE.  The date of December 25 or as it was known in the Roman world has a history of indulgence and excess in the pagan world for hundreds of years before Jesus.  It was the date associated with the winter solstice under the Julian Calendar -- established by Julius Caesar -- and hence a time to rejoice in the rebirth of the sun.   To make Christianity palatable to pagans, the date was co-opted by church leaders in the 3rd century.  The result, people could continue to keep their own ways and claim to be christians as well. 

So actually, the spirit of Christmas has never changed.  We worship the self and our indulgence.  Jesus Christ has never had a part in Christmas.  It is not about him or for him that it is kept.

(Origen quote:  Gary Wayne Barkley, Homilies on Leviticus: 1–16 / Origen (The Fathers of the Church; Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1990), 156.)

Tags: Jesus Christ, Origen, Christmas, birthdays, Judasim

Original Languages reconsidered

Did the writers of the New Testament quote from a Greek translation of Scripture?

A commonly held view of previous centuries is that the writers of the New Testament quoted from the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament Scriptures. This translation was purportedly undertaken in AlexandriaEgypt, under the patronage of Ptolemy Philadelphus who ruled in the first half of the 3rd Century BCE.  This translation is commonly referred to as the LXX. 


This concept has been contested by many protestant writers who reject the idea of the LXX with its inclusion of the Apocryphal books, a canon accepted by the Catholic and Orthodox churches.  Protestant traditions have almost universally followed the Jewish canon of Scripture and reject the Apocryphal books as opposed to the canon presented by the LXX.


Despite the differences in canons accepted by the church groups, a frequently held view is that the writers did use the Greek translations in their writings.  However, current research calls into question the dogmatic “black and white” views of the past. 


Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, people accepted that there was simply one Greek translation of the Scriptures prior to the writing of the New Testament.  Subsequent translations into Greek were made by Aquila and Theodotion to aid Greek speaking Jewish groups in the Diaspora.


Such was not the case in the discoveries of Qumran.  Amongst the few Greek scrolls found atQumran were at least two families of Greek Scriptures; those that could be identified as LXX text types and another potentially older version, which has been labeled as OG or Old Greek.  Interestingly, it appears that the Old Greek texts bear a resemblance to the later translation of Theodotion, who possibly relied on this translation for the production of his own subsequent translation in the mid 2nd century CE.  Theodotion’s translation presented a Greek translation much more in harmony with the traditional Hebrew text which came to be known as the Masoretic Text.


If alternative Greek texts existed in the first century, we could then raise the question of which Greek texts were used by the writers of the New Testament.  Personally, I see that as the wrong question.  In reality, the times of the writing of the New Testament were times of a largely oral society.  People quoted source material from memory as they didn’t have personal copies to carry with them on their travels.  The closest the writers would have been to any texts would have been the nearest synagogue to them.


Add to this, another factor that influenced the idea of the writers quoting a Greek translation of Scripture which is also now redundant.  It was held that Hebrew was not spoken in the time of Christ and the early church hence everyone spoke Aramaic or Greek.  Once again the Dead Sea Scrolls have dismissed that argument.  Hebrew was at least spoken in the synagogue and it is possible to create a scenario where people were able to converse in several languages.  So writers of the New Testament who had lived in Judaea and Galileewould have known the Scriptures in Hebrew rather than Greek.


What then of the quotations of Scripture. In reality, rather than sending a messenger to the local synagogue to copy out a section of Scripture so that it could be quoted verbatim, a person such as Paul would have quoted from memory and possibly even translated from Hebrew to Greek themselves as part of the writing project.  Hence the idea of locating an exact form of Scriptures which the writers used requires that we consider in what language the writers learned of the Scriptures to commit them to memory. 


The idea of committing Scripture to memory may be unbelievable to we who live in the 21st Century, inundated with a deluge of information and knowledge.  Yet in the first century, the simple cost of writing and of the materials for writing meant that little was written.  No daily newspapers, magazines, libraries or radio, television, videos or the internet existed to occupy people’s time, hence what was read or heard was committed to memory.


So the simplistic model of previous centuries needs to be reconsidered.  In fact considering the use of memory, and the possibility of writers translating from Hebrew to Greek for their own purposes, raises a question about Origen’s editing of the LXX that we have today.  Did he amend various Old Testament Scriptures to read exactly as they appeared in the New Testament quotations?  This charge has been leveled against Origen in the past. It may bear further study.

Tags: new testament, Greek, Hebrew, Origen, Scriptures, LXX

Patristics and the Jewish Roots of Christianity

Musings from the Fifteenth International Conference on Patristic Studies

Last week (August 6-11) Oxford University hosted its Fifteenth International Conference on Patristic Studies, an event conducted by the University every four years.  This event brings together over 500 academics from the four corners of the globe and from all denominations. “Patristics” is a name given to the study of the Church Fathers from the post apostolic time of Clement I of Rome into the fifth century of this era. 

Delegates attended lectures and workshop sessions covering subjects often defined by century, geographical location and language: either Greek, Latin, Syriac, and or Coptic. Of particular interest to me were the sessions covering the Jewish and Christian interaction in the third century. 

Several papers were presented on various writings of Origen who wrote in some detail of the interactions he had with either Jewish Christians and/or Jews in both Alexandria and inCaesarea. The strength of his polemic against such people is indicative of the sense of challenge that existed even in the early third century to define Christianity as it appears today.

Clearly in Origen's time, people were very much more aware of the Jewish roots of Christianity, in a way that would surprise most present day people who claim to be Christian. The subject of identity formation of the emerging Christian community is currently well considered in academic circles, but conferences such as this highlight how antithetical so many of the leaders and opinion formers of this earlier period were to the foundation that Jesus Christ had laid. The result is a movement that would not even recognize its founder if he appeared today. 

One area of this period that highlights that difference and has shaped today’s Christianity more than the teachings of Jesus Christ himself is that of Christology, in which philosophical reasoning was brought to bear in the understanding of the nature of Jesus Christ. The historical period of the patristic studies covers the time in which the development of Christology led to the development of the doctrine of the Trinity and the attendant nature of God; doctrines which are used today to define whether or not a person is a Christian.

This period is a very crucial era to appreciate and understand. It has had a far greater impact on the development of what is today considered Christianity than did the era of Jesus and the Apostles.

Tags: Jesus, first christians, Origen, Apostles, Church Fathers, Jewish Christians, Patristics

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