Tuesday, 27 September 2005

Question from Reader 1: Are you reading the Bible in Greek?

QUESTION: Are you reading the Bible in Greek?


First, the Old Testament. In the Orthodox Church, the Old Testament is read in the Septuagint Version. The Septuagint is in ancient Greek, in a form of Greek called 'Hellenistic'. In the case of Orthodox Churches that are not Greek-speaking, the Old Testament is translated into the national language from the Septuagint.

The Oxford English Dictionary says this in its entry for ‘Septuagint’:

The Greek version of the Old Testament, which derives its name from the story that it was made by seventy-two Palestinian Jews at the request of Ptolemy Philadelphus (284-247 b.c.) and completed by them, in seclusion on the island of Pharos, in seventy-two days. (Denoted by LXX.)

The authority for the old story is the Letter of Aristeas to Philocrates, long known to be spurious, which purports to give contemporary evidence of the undertaking. The translation is now held to have been made of Egyptian Jews, independent of each other and living in different times.

There is a web site (link updated August 29, 2010) that has comprehensive information on the Septuagint, with many links.

The canon of the Septuagint is broader (it contains more books) than the Protestant version of the Old Testament, based on the Masoretic edition, and broader (but not much) than the Roman Catholic edition of the Old Testament.

The Septuagint exists in a fairly limited number of versions (ancient manuscripts). There is a critical edition.

The psalms are of course included in any edition of the Septuagint. In the Septuagint, the numbering of the psalms, and to a certain extent their division into specific psalms, differs from Western translations of the Old Testament based on the Masoretic edition of the Old Testament. The Septuagint also includes Psalm 151, not accepted in the West.

However, for the translations of the psalms, I have been using a service book called the Psalter. This contains the psalms with the readings, numbering and divisions of the Septuagint, but arranged for recital during the services in Church. The edition I am using was published in Athens in 2005. When I’m stuck for a word to convey the exact nuance of the Greek, I sometimes refer to the Revised Standard Version, even though it is based on the Hebrew. This is not very useful. The King James Version is more useful.

Next, the New Testament. I use the textus receptus of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. It is in the original Greek. In the critical apparatus of the edition of the Greek New Testament called Nestle-Aland (26th Edition), the readings denoted M (Majority) more or less correspond to the textus receptus, as the editors of Nestle-Aland themselves point out. Nesle-Aland is the standard critical edition of the New Testament in the original Greek. It contains most of the variant readings found in the manuscripts of the New Testament.

For the Gospel in particular, I depend on an edition of the original Greek originally published in Venice in 1847. When I am interested in the variant readings of a passage, so as to shed further light on the meaning of that passage, I refer to the variant readings in Nestle-Aland.

In translating the New Testament, if I am stuck for a word to convey the nuance I am looking for, I prefer to look at the King James Version, but I also refer to the Revised Standard Version. However, I do not have much confidence in the King James translations of the epistles of Paul, since those translations depart quite visibly from an Orthodox interpretation.

In cases of serious doubt about the meaning of a passage of Scripture, whether in the Old or in the New Testament, I refer to the commentaries of the Fathers of the Church, starting with St John Chrysostom.

In the case that I am translating a passage of Scripture as it is used in the Church services, I refer to the service books of the Orthodox Church for the exact form of the text to translate. That is why the translation of the Gospel in the previous post begins ‘The Lord said’. Reference to any edition of the New Testament, including the textus receptus, will show that that phrase is not in the Bible. In the service books of the Church, it is added to the Gospel passage in order to make the reading in Church smoother. Similarly, my choice of where to begin and where to end the Gospel passage was dictated by the service book for Orthros of the Feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross. It was not arbitrary. (Orthros corresponds in the West to ‘Matins’, the early morning service.)

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