Did the Jews abandon the Greek Bible to the early Christians?

Nicholas de Lange explores the use of the Greek Bible amongst Jews in Late Antiquity with Greek Scripture and the Rabbis.

Law and Salvensen, Greek Scripture and the Rabbis, LXX and the Rabbis
T. M. Law and A. Salvensen, Greek Scripture and the Rabbis, Peeters, 2012, 271 pp., $64.

For too long scholars have pursued the study of the Greek bible and of rabbinic Judaism separately, and have placed the two subjects, as it were, in watertight compartments, without paying attention to their common ground, inter-relations, and possible mutual influence. Exceptions have been very rare. The most notable example is Zacharias Frankel (1801–75), one of the leading Rabbinics scholars of the mid-19th century. His Historisch-kritische Studien zu der Septuaginta nebst Beiträgen zu den Targumim: Vorstudien zu der Septuaginta (Leipzig, 1841) had the potential to mark a watershed. He took the Septuagint seriously as a source of rabbinic exegesis and religious ideas. But Frankel did not develop this interest further, and it was not taken up by his successors. The current view among rabbinics scholars is encapsulated in the words of a recent publication: ‘there is no trace of the Septuagint in the Judaism that we know from history’. Meanwhile, writers about the Greek bible apparently do not feel compelled to engage in any way with rabbinics. For example, the notes in the admirable current series of French translations of the Greek bible, ‘La Bible d’Alexandrie’, pay systematic attention to the reception of the text in early Christian exegesis but hardly ever mention rabbinic exegesis.

The reasons for this curious neglect are multiple, but in the end they all flow from the same source. Rabbinics is almost exclusively the preserve of Jewish scholars (particularly today in North America and Israel), while the Greek bible has been studied mainly by Christians, whose interest is often motivated by theological concerns. In an ideal world this should not affect the quality of scholarship, but in practice it has had undesirable repercussions. At the most basic level lies ignorance of the source languages: rabbinics scholars are rarely competent in Greek, and Greek bible specialists commonly feel out of their depth in rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic.

So deeply entrenched is the separation between the two subjects that some might wonder what would be gained by breaking it down. After all, the rabbinic movement only emerged in the late first century CE in Palestine and favored the Hebrew and Aramaic languages, whereas the Greek Bible was the product of an earlier age and was used by Jews in the diaspora who did not know Hebrew. What connection can there be between the two? According to a widely held view, when the Jews adopted rabbinic Judaism they abandoned the use of the Greek bible, which thenceforth became the possession of the Christian church alone. The bible of the Jews is the Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT), which is the basis of all rabbinic exegesis.

Recent advances in scholarship have challenged many of the assumptions underlying such claims. We now understand that rabbinic Judaism developed in a setting that was far more Hellenized than previously thought, and for centuries it was just one type of Judaism among others. Close inspection of the rabbinic texts shows that the rabbis in Palestine were not opposed to Greek bible translations; they praise and even quote from the translation by Akylas (also known as Aquila, although the form Akylas is the one found in the Greek and Hebrew sources, and is therefore preferred), a convert to Judaism who can be dated to the early 2nd century CE.

Fragments of Akylas’s translation survive in Greek, thanks mainly to the 3rd-century church father Origen, who included it in his massive collation of Greek bible materials, the Hexapla, side by side with several other translations then current among Jews. Behind the collection of articles reviewed here, based on an Oxford research project, stands another important project, aimed at collecting and reassessing all the extant materials for the reconstruction of Origen’s Hexapla, some of which have only recently come to light. Alison Salvesen first made her name with a 1991 study of the translation of Symmachos (or, Symmachus) and has been at the forefront of Hexapla studies ever since. Her chapter in this book considers the surviving fragments of Akylas and Symmachos in the context of early rabbinic Judaism. Although not a central one, Akylas found a place within the rabbinic tradition, but Salvesen concludes that there is no evidence that the rabbis embraced Symmachos. Revising her earlier view, she is now cautious about asserting a direct influence of rabbinic exegesis on Symmachos. In another chapter, Michael Graves compares examples of Akylas’s renderings with much later rabbinic exegesis and suggests that the rabbis may have used Akylas as a source.

Major advances in the subject of the volume are due to manuscript discoveries made in the past century or so, notably those found in the Judaean Desert (mainly but not only at Qumran), papyri dug up at Oxyrhynchos and other sites in Egypt or recovered from mummy wrappings, and the very important and less well known texts deposited in a lumber room (genizah) in a synagogue in Old Cairo. The Qumran finds have shed important new light on the early history of the Hebrew text of the Bible: they have demonstrated that, while the MT has a very long history going back beyond the beginnings of the rabbinic movement, other forms of the Hebrew tradition were also in current use, including those that underlie the earliest Greek translations which differ at many points from the MT. Pre-Christian Greek fragments from Qumran and among the Egyptian papyri have forced a re-evaluation of long held views on the variant texts circulating among Jews. And the Cairo Genizah manuscripts, which date from a much later period, have demonstrated that Jews continued to use Greek Bible translations centuries after the rabbinic movement became dominant in Judaism.

One of the most interesting discoveries made in the Judean Desert is a fragment of the Greek Minor Prophets. The so-called Greek Minor Prophets Scroll belonged to a group of translations aimed at revising the older Greek to bring it into line with the Hebrew text represented by the MT. To create this text, the revisers applied techniques of translation different from those employed by the earlier translators. The fragment may be as old as the second half of the last century BCE, thus antedating Akylas by well over a century. The late Dominique Barthélemy opened a new chapter in the study of the Jewish use of Greek bible translations with his Les devanciers d’Aquila (Leiden, 1963). He pointed to similarities between the approach adopted in this translation, in Akylas, and in other translations that Origen later incorporated in the Hexapla. He showed that the Hexapla derived from a long-established tradition of revising the older Greek translations to bring them closer to the text-form represented by the MT.

The Cairo Genizah finds have been important for two reasons. For the first time they have given us substantial continuous texts of the translation of Akylas. These in particular have been dated on palaeographical grounds to around the 6th century. Notwithstanding the lack of definitive proof that Jews were solely responsible for copying them, there is still no convincing argument to prove a Christian origin, and there is no hint in the substantial Christian literature of the period that Christians were using Akylas. These texts are potentially of great value in the study of Akylas’s translation technique and his relationship with other Greek translations, but scholars have not sufficiently exploited them for this purpose. T.M. Law demonstrates what can be achieved in this direction, opening up horizons for future comparison.

It is precisely at the time that these texts were copied – in the mid-6th century – that a legal decision from emperor Justinian mentions Akylas’s translation in the context of a fierce dispute within Jewish circles about the correct language in which to conduct the public reading of the scripture. The emperor decides firmly against a reading in Hebrew alone, on the grounds that people must be enabled to understand what is read. He expresses a preference for the so-called Septuagint, the translation used by Christians, but explicitly permits the use of Akylas. A good deal has been written recently about this important but enigmatic text known as Justinian’s Novella 146. Some writers have argued that the form of this text as an internal Jewish dispute is fictional. They argue that it was contrived so as to justify the emperor’s interference in the internal affairs of the synagogue with the aim of facilitating the conversion of the Jews to Christianity. In an important study in this volume, ‘Justinian’s Novella 146 and contemporary Judaism’, Willem F. Smelik argues cogently that the setting is reliable and that the novella is an important source for understanding the rivalry between proponents of Greek and Hebrew at this period. The novella does not mention rabbis specifically, but it hints at rabbinic promotion of a Hebrew reading and opposition to the use of Greek by the use of a rabbinic term (deuterosis) in connection with the use of Hebrew.

The Genizah also provides evidence for the continuing use of Greek Bible translations as late as the 12th century and perhaps beyond. In itself this is not a new discovery. We have some manuscripts attesting to the use of Greek translations right through the Middle Ages and down to the 19th century.  But the Genizah discoveries – consisting of glossaries, annotations and some continuous text – considerably challenge previously held views on the practice and demonstrate the continuing influence of older translations, notably that of Akylas. Greek-speaking Jews in the Middle Ages may have learned to read and interpret the Hebrew scriptures with the help of Greek translations, and they may have even read the Greek publicly in synagogue.

Greek Scripture and the Rabbis is a valuable contribution to Greek bible studies. Its eleven chapters represent the cutting edge of scholarship in this area. Even if few of them engage directly with rabbinic studies, taken together they draw attention to important questions, both methodological and substantial, in the study of the Jewish reception and use of Greek bible translations.