Why Does My New Testament Quote the Old Testament Incorrectly?

Posted by Clark Bates
October 27, 2017

Have you ever been reading in the New Testament and read a passage where Paul or Matthew, or another writer, quotes from the Old Testament, and you turn to the passage in your Old Testament only to find that it doesn’t sound anything like that?  I certainly have.  For many years that puzzled me, and I have little doubt that it might puzzle you too.  Perhaps you’ve just been told that it’s because they used the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) in Jesus’ day.  While this is certainly true, a little more information might help you come to terms with some of the differences you find and how you can explain them to others.

How the Septuagint came to be

It’s an established fact that the Old Testament in use during the time of Jesus and his apostles was the Greek Old Testament, commonly referred to, today, as the Septuagint or LXX.  The advent of the Greek Old Testament is surrounded largely with mythology, the most popular account coming from a 2nd Century BC, Jewish pseudepigraphical work called “The Letter of Aristeas”.  In the “Letter” the story is told that 72 Jewish elders came from Palestine to Alexandria to translate the Torah (first five books) into Greek.  It’s said that they completed the work in 72 days and all did so separately without collaboration resulting in a miraculous unanimity between each text.

Now this story is, of course, rejected on historical grounds, but it’s likely that it still contains a kernel of historical truth.  It would be likely that, under the patronage of the 2nd century ruler Ptolemy II, Jewish scribes would have been tapped, due to their knowledge of Hebrew, to translate the Torah into Greek.  A large portion of the Israelite community was Hellenized at this stage of history and growing increasingly illiterate of their original Hebrew dialect.  The need for a “Hebrew” Bible in the language of the people was evident.  In keeping with the myth, it does also seem accurate that the initial translation into Greek was the Torah.

As time went on, other books were translated, the Prophets being the next most likely candidate, in keeping with synagogue custom of reading a section of each during service.  As the synagogues became increasingly Hellenistic, they would have needed readings translated into Greek for their Greek speaking congregation.  The next group of books to be translated would have been the Writings (Psalms, Proverbs, Eccl…) although it’s largely thought that the Writings weren’t quite complete by the time of Jesus, which could give some credence to his references to the OT in a bifurcated way (law and prophets) rather than a threefold division (law, prophets and writings) common in later records.

It was around this time that some of the work that we call the Apocrypha were also translated: 1 Enoch, the

Assumption of Moses, Tobit, Judith, 1-2 Maccabees, Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon, additions to Jeremiah, Daniel and Esther.  While some of these works were found in Palestine and even found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (notably Ben Sira and Tobit), they were not regarded with the same degree of sacredness as the other books of the Old Testament.

The difference between the Hebrew canon of Palestine and the Greek canon of Alexandria was largely complete by the time of the second century and the first Christian church, which is why many Christians simply received the LXX as the accepted OT, not knowing of the variation and being unfamiliar with the Hebrew language.  In fact, those church fathers who became increasingly familiar with the Hebrew language and text, were quick to disregard the Apocrypha as inspired text, just as the Jewish people before them.  As far as the other variations, they went unrecognized by most in the first few centuries of Christianity.[1]

At this point I must also note that the term “Septuagint”, which simply means seventy, was foreign to the text.  The title, “Septuagint” is a late attribution to refer to what was essentially a large body of various Old Greek manuscripts of the Old Testament.  It wasn’t a bound book, or even a centralized collection, this is often the misconception when it’s mentioned in common discussion.  Just as the Hebrew text of the Old Testament existed in several different recensions, the Greek Old Testament today cannot be easily nailed down to a single text.  So, it’s inappropriate to simply say “The LXX reads…” without knowing which LXX one is talking about, or whether such a reading was a part of the original LXX or came about during one of the recensional processes. It must be understood that what counts today as being the LXX may not be the same LXX that was used by the Apostles.

How all this effects the NT

With all of that in mind, what impact does this have on the New Testament quotations of the Old?  It’s common knowledge that the Apostles often quote the Old Testament in ways that don’t always agree with our English OT.  A key reason for this, is that the English translation of the OT in most circulated Bibles, uses the Masoretic (Hebrew) Text rather than the LXX.  In several places, these texts differ.  The reason for the differentiation can vary, but many are reducible to scribal mistakes or vocalization difficulties.  Here are two such examples:

The first involves Zechariah 12:10.

In the MT it reads

והביטו אלי את אשר דקרו

(wǝhibbīṭū ˀǝlay ˀeṯ ˀašer dāqārū)

It reads in English,

“And they shall look upon me whom they have pierced.”

Now, everyone is familiar with this passage, because it serves as a prophecy of the crucifixion of Christ.  The apostle John uses it in exactly this way in John 19:37.  However in the LXX it reads,

 και επιβλεψονται προς με ανθ ων κατωρχησαντο

(kai epiblepsontai pros me anth’ (h)ōn katōrḵēsanto)

Translated into English, it reads,

“And they shall look at me against whom they have mockingly danced.”

This is a rather significant difference in translation!  I should acknowledge that, from other translations like the Latin Vulgate and Syriac Peshitta we can confirm that the MT reading is the authentic reading, so the question isn’t which is right, but how did the LXX get it so wrong?

The source of the error becomes clear when the variant is realized.  The variant concerns the word דקרן (dāqārū).  The Hebrew letters ד (dalet) and ר (reish) look very similar to the untrained eye.  So similar that they are often mistaken for one another in translation.  When you make that mistake, the word דקרו (dāqārū), which means “pierce” becomes רקדו (rāqādū), which means “dance”.  Thus, the scribe, while familiar with Hebrew, made a simple, visual error, resulting a large gap in translation.

Another example involves Psalm 120:5 (119:5 in the LXX).

In the MT, it reads:

אויה לי כי גרתי משך / שכנתי עם אהלי קדר

(ˀōyā lī kī gartī mešeḵ / šāḵantī ˁim ˀohǝlē qēḏār)

Translated into English, we get,

“Woe is me that I have sojourned (in) Meshek / I have dwelt among the tents of Qedar.”

But, in the LXX it reads:

οἴμμοι ὅτι ἡ παροικία μου ἐμακρύθη / κατεσκήνωσα μετὰ τῶν σκηνωμάτων Κηδαρ

(oimmoi  (h)oti (h)ē paroikia mou emakrythē / kateskēnōsa meta tōn skēnōmatōn kedar)

Translated into English, reading,

“Woe is me, for my sojourn has been prolonged / I have dwelt among the tents of Kedar.”

The variant here is triggered by the omission of the preposition “in” in the first colon, which is common in Hebrew poetry.  Nonetheless the LXX translator vocalized the text differently, reading gǝrāṯī  “my sojourn” instead of gartī “I have sojourned” and mašāḵ “I have prolonged, drawn out” instead of mešeḵ Meshek. Now, the MT vocalization must be the original, because it fits with the parallelism of the second colon – sojourned/dwelt, Meshek/Qeda. In this case, while the MT is clearly correct, the LXX version does create a good sentence, one which, frankly, may allow for better theologizing than the MT.

Conclusion

In any case, the reason behind these two examples can account for a great many of the variant readings between the two Testaments.  For those cases that don’t fall into this defense, there is also the possibility of the author using an older Hebrew text not found in either the MT or the LXX.[2]  An interesting effect this “dual OT” usage has on the field of interpretation and inspiration is the question of which version should be considered inspired when uttered by an Apostle?  Do the quotations of the NT mean that the LXX is the inspired OT?  This is the conclusion of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

While this debate will continue regardless, my position on the matter is that the text delivered to God’s people at the time of its first implementation retains the inspiration of God.  Therefore, the Hebrew text, as close as we may come to re-creating the original, and not the Greek, is the inspired Old Testament.  In the case of the NT citations of the Old, where they differ, they are inspired only in so far as they serve the purpose of the Apostle in furthering the theological point being made.

I hope that in some way this brief (very brief) explanation of the LXX and its effect on the Bible will help assuage any uncertainty you may have faced when finding these differences.

 

[1] Origen, Melito of Sardis, Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory of Nazianzen, Hilary of Poitiers, Epiphanius, Basil the Great, Jerome to name a few.

 

[2] One such case is very possible in Paul’s use of Psalm 68 in Ephesians 4:8, as his quotation doesn’t correspond with either textual tradition but does have an affinity with the Syriac version.

4 thoughts on “Why Does My New Testament Quote the Old Testament Incorrectly?”

  1. “The advent of the Greek NEW Testament is surrounded largely …”

    Speaking on an article about typos, here is yours! Thanks enjoyed the article though!

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