8 minutes

What is the Original Old Testament Text

Have you ever wondered from where we got our Old Testament? What is the original Old Testament? The Old Testament (OT) is the scripture that Jesus read. It is the basis of our New Testament, without which we struggle to understand our faith. As we come to the 500th anniversary of Reformation Day, it is difficult for the typical Christian today to recognize that throughout most of Christian history, the Bible was not available in the common languages.

The Protestant Reformation changed that. For over a millennium, the Bible was written in Latin and only the educated could read it. Worse, only those high up in the religious hierarchy could “understand” (interpret) it. This was not how it always was. Before the Bible was translated into Latin, it was written in the common language of the people.

The New Testament (NT) was written in Greek. Greek was the common language of the Roman Empire. The Gospels, Epistles, Letters and Revelation were all written in Greek so that all people, Jew or Gentile, could read them. Remember, in every circumstance, the books of the NT were written to individuals and churches that were either Gentiles or a combination of Jews and Gentiles.

The Language of the Jews?

In fact, even the Jewish people didn’t speak Hebrew any longer. The Jewish people gradually began speaking Aramaic after the exile into Babylon in 605 BC. Aramaic was the language of the people of Aram and of Chaldea (Babylon).

Some people, like Daniel, lived through the Babylonian Empire and lived to see the Jewish people return to Jerusalem. This happened in 536 BC when Cyrus fulfilled Isaiah and Jeremiah’s prophecies to allow the Jewish people to return from exile back to the land of promise. However, most of the returnees to Jerusalem were born in Babylon and spoke Aramaic (Ezra 3:11-12).

This is why Jesus himself spoke Aramaic rather than Hebrew. During his time on earth, the people of Judea and Galilee, and the entire region, spoke Aramaic. Hence, we see words such as “Abba,” “Raca,” “Talitha kum,” and “Eli, eli, lama sabachthani.” These are all Aramaic phrases.

Additionally, as we read the Gospels, we find that most of the OT quotes are from the Septuagint. The Septuagint is the Greek version of the Old Testament. The reason the Septuagint is used, rather than the Hebrew, is because most people didn’t read Hebrew any longer and the Septuagint was readily available.

Some say that the Gospel of Matthew was originally written in Hebrew. However, there has been no evidence for this and is based on Matthew’s Gospel being written for a Jewish audience and the assumption that he would have therefore written his gospel in Hebrew. However, the fact that most people were reading the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew texts proves that most of Matthew’s audience would have better understood Greek than Hebrew.

The Language of the Old Testament

So we can say with certainty that the NT was written in Greek, with a few Aramaic words and phrases throughout. However, what about the OT? What language was that written in?

The OT was written in Hebrew. Again, some portions were written in Aramaic:

  • Ezra copies letters and notices in Aramaic that were originally written in Aramaic (Ezra 4:8-6:18, 7:12-26).
  • Daniel writes a great part of his historical narrative in Aramaic (Daniel 2:4b-7:28)
  • Jeremiah has one verse in Aramaic (Jeremiah 10:11)

Of course, we recognize that Jeremiah, Daniel and Ezra all lived during the Babylonian and Medo-Persian Empires, which used Aramaic as the common language.

However, other than a few scattered words, the rest of the OT is written in Hebrew.

So we come to an interesting question: From where do we get our OT translations?

The Original Old Testament

Almost all of our English OT texts are translated from the Masoretic Text (MT). This is also the text used for the Jewish Tanakh, the Jewish scriptures read by the Jewish people today. The MT comes from the Masoretes, Jewish rabbis writing between AD 7 and 10.

However, as already mentioned, this is not the only ancient version of the OT to which we have access. We also have the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek OT, with portions of the LXX going back to the third-century.

Finally, we also have a third source: the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS). These are fragments of the OT found in caves in Qumran (West Bank) in 1947. These texts date back to the second-century BC. The Dead Sea Scrolls are written in Hebrew with some Aramaic and Greek. They consist of every canonical book of the OT except for Esther. (Why? A possibility: The Essenes, the copiers of the DSS, were extremely ascetic, did not approve of alcohol, and therefore did not celebrate the holiday of Purim. Hence, they decided to skip the book of Esther.)

The Masoretic Text, the basis for most of our English Bible translations, compares well with the older Septuagint and Dead Sea Scrolls. The three together allow us to recognize that what we now consider our OT, or the Jewish Tanakh, can safely be trusted.

The Problem

However, we still have a problem. I came across this while doing research for a book I was writing. I looked at Psalm 22:16 (English version):

For dogs have surrounded me;
A band of evildoers has encompassed me;
They pierced my hands and my feet. – Psalm 22:16 NASB

In the book, I was describing how Paul would have spoken to other Jews about Jesus and would have used Psalm 22:16b as evidence of Jesus’ crucifixion being prophesied over a thousand years before his death. I envisioned that Paul would use this verse to hammer home that Messiah was to be crucified. I decided to use the version found in the Tanakh.

To my surprise, the same verse in the Tanakh has this (English version):

Dogs surround me;
a pack of evil ones closes in on me,
like lions [they maul] my hands and feet. – Psalm 22:17 JPS Tanakh

First, for those paying attention, you will notice that the verse numbers are different. This is because the Hebrew translations of the Psalms numbers the Directions at the beginning of the Psalm as verse 1 where our English translations make the Directions at the beginning of the Psalm an introductory heading and verse 1 begins after this.

To the point I am making for this writing, you will notice that the last part of the verse is completely different from our English translations:

They pierced my hands and my feet. – NASB

like lions [they maul] my hands and feet. – JPS Tanakh

Could it be that one of the most important verses of scripture, which describes the crucifixion of the Messiah about 1,000 years before Christ’s death, be a mistranslation made by scribes trying to show that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah?

I did some more research. I found that our NASB version matches both the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls. I knew that the Masoretic Text matched up well with both the LXX and the DSS but apparently, there are some differences, and in some cases, very important differences, such as this one.

Additional research found some other interesting differences:

In 1 Samuel  17:4, we find that Goliath is “six cubits and one span” tall. This comes to 9’6”. That is taller than the 8’11” Robert Pershing Wadlow, measured in 1940 as the world’s tallest man according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

However, the Septuagint has Goliath at “four cubits and one span” tall. This is 6’6”. Which is right? If we look at the DSS, we find Goliath listed at “four cubits and one span” tall. A final historical view comes from Josephus, who tells us that Goliath was “four cubits and one span” tall.

Would this mean that Goliath wasn’t a giant? Actually, the average male in those days would have been smaller than 5’6”. David has been estimated to be 5’2”. So Goliath would have been a foot taller than the average man and over a foot taller than David. For comparison, today, the average man is 5’10”. We would probably consider someone who is 6’10” a giant.

Some Additional Examples

Therefore, Saul said to the Lord, the God of Israel, “Give a perfect lot.” And Jonathan and Saul were taken, but the people escaped. – 1 Samuel 14:41, NASB (from the MT)

 

Therefore Saul said, “O Lord God of Israel, why have you not answered your servant this day? If this guilt is in me or in Jonathan my son, O Lord, God of Israel, give Urim. But if this guilt is in your people Israel, give Thummim.” And Jonathan and Saul were taken, but the people escaped. – 1 Samuel 14:41, ESV (from the Septuagint).

If you read the first version, you will notice that it actually doesn’t make sense. The second version explains what is really happening in the chapter. What caused this difference?

The Jewish rabbi who copied the MT made the mistake of losing his place. Notice that the word, “Israel” is just before the error. What apparently happened is that the scribe saw the word “Israel,” wrote it down and then when his eyes went back to the original text, he went back to the wrong instance of the word, “Israel” and continued copying from there. Hence, he missed everything between the first iteration of “Israel” and the last one.

A final example comes from 1 Samuel 11.

Now Nahash the Ammonite came up and besieged Jabesh-gilead; and all the men of Jabesh said to Nahash, “Make a covenant with us and we will serve you.” – 1 Samuel 11:1, NASB

This passage begins with Nahash the Ammonite besieging Jabesh-gilead. But why does Nahash do this? Here is what is missing according to the Dead Sea Scrolls:

Now Nahash king of the Ammonites oppressed the Gadites and the Reubenites severely. He gouged out the right eye of all of them and there was no one to save Israel. There did not remain an Israelite man who was beyond the Jordan whose right eye Nahash king of the Ammonites did not gouge out, except seven thousand men who escaped from the hand of the Ammonites and went to Jabesh Gilead. And they were there about a month. Then Nahash the Ammonite came up, and encamped against Jabesh Gilead: and all the men of Jabesh said to Nahash king of Ammonites, “Make a covenant with us, and we will serve you.” – 1 Samuel 11:1, Dead Sea Scrolls

In this case, the NASB, as well as every other English translation that I know about, does not have the first part of this verse. The missing part clarifies why Nahash besieged Jabesh-gilead. He was chasing down the escapees from Gad and Reuben.

The Point

Why bring this up? We English speaking Christians tend to assume the English translations we read are the autographs (the original versions written by the Biblical writers). However, that is not what we believe. We know that the Bible is God-inspired but we should not think that our English versions are the exact replicas of the autographs. There are accidental mistakes, like seeing “Israel” and then skipping down to the next one. There are purposeful mistakes, like the Masoretes attempting to remove the crucifixion from Psalm 22.

It is important that we are honest when the evidence points to our English version being less than accurate. This does not mean God’s word is corrupt. It simply means our translators are human and make mistakes.

So what is the original Old Testament? It can probably be found when we combine the best of the Masoretic Text, the Septuagint, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. There is also the possibility that another excellent manuscript might be found that is older and more accurate and if that happened, we should add that into the mix.

It is the job of each individual Christian to try to determine what God has said in His word. It behooves us to think like Bereans and test everything. After all, the Bereans were testing the teachings of Paul, which is our scriptures today and yet they were considered noble.

Hence, when you’re reading your Bible, if anything doesn’t seem to make sense or sounds like something is missing, check it out. There’s the possibility that another OT text has something to teach you.

Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. – 2 Timothy 2:15

Maranatha! (btw – another Aramaic phrase found in the New Testament…)

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