There are missionaries who tout early Greek translations of the T'nach (Jewish bible) as superior to the Hebrew. How one can insist that a translation of anything is superior to original is mind boggling -- would a Russian translation of Shakespear's Hamlet ("To be or not to be, that is the question?") as "to be alive or dead -- which is better" -- it "loses something in the translation" is an understatement!
Most missionaries who make this claim are woefully ignorant of Hebrew. I have read some of them saying the Septuagint (the name given to ancient Greek translations of the Jewish bible) is superior because it is "1000 years older than the Masoretic Text."
The thought "well, duh" comes to mind.
The Masoretic Text is NOT the Hebrew from ancient times -- the Masoretic text is not the oldest Hebrew we have either! What is the Masoretic text?
Hebrew is written only with consonants (there are no vowels). Think of how hard it would be to read English if words were written without vowels. Cn y rd ths sntnc (can you read this sentence)?
For learned Jews this is not a problem, as the vowel sounds are obvious in context. When it comes to the bible, we've been reading it for thousands of years without written vowels -- and if you ever attend a Synagogue where the Torah is read you will note if a reader "stumbles" on pronouncing a word many voices will correct him. . . everyone KNOWS the Torah!
There are lesser educated Jews, though -- and in the Diaspora (exile) Hebrew was used primarily in prayer and not in every day use. The Masoretes came up with their vowel notation method between the 8th and 12th centuries CE.
The oldest versions of the T'nach are in Hebrew, and one can only speculate as to why missioanries insist on referencing the Masoretic Text (MT) - ignorance of Hebrew is the most likely answer. . .
The LXX (Septuagint) was a translation ONLY of the תּוֹרָה / Torah / Five Books of Moses / Pentateuch (not נְבִיאִים / Nevi'im / Prophets and כְּתוּבִים / Ketuvim / Writings) were not part of the original Septuagint -- so the missionaries who tout the "Septuagint" reference Psalms or Isaiah -- and apparently are ignorant that they were not found in the Septuagint at all (since they are not in the Torah).
What is today called the Septuagint (which is the entire Jewish bible in Greek) are translations into Greek from persons unknown at times unknown. There was no quality assurance and as a result they became heavily corrupted over time. By the 5th century the Christians gave up on the LXX / Septuagint because it was so corrupt -- so why people now are debating this is really interesting. The term "self-serving" comes to mind. Origen, an early church father (died 232 CE) tried to piece together a decent translation by putting 6 different versions side by side (called the Hexapla). Here is what HE says about how bad the Septuagint had become "we are forthwith to reject as spurious the copies in use in our Churches, and enjoin the brotherhood to put away the sacred books current among them, and to coax the Jews, and persuade them to give us copies which shall be untampered with, and free from forgery." Origen, A Letter from Origen to Africanus, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 4.
There is also St. Jerome (early 5th century) who decided to re-translate from the Hebrew rather than rely on the Septuagint saying: "I was stimulated to undertake the task by the zeal of Origen, who blended (the Septuagint) with the old edition Theodotions translation."
Many of the "pro-Septuagint" missionaries are also "King James" translation enthusiasts. Yet the translators of the KJV (King James) also noted that the Septuagint (Greek translation) was corrupt. In the preface to the original KJV they wrote: "It is certain, that that Translation (e.g., the Septuagint) was not so sound and so perfect, but it needed in many places correction . . . . . the Translation of the Seventy (the Septuagint / LXX) was allowed to pass for current. Notwithstanding, though it was commended generally, yet it did not fully content the learned, no not of the Jews. For not long after (Jesus), Aquila fell in hand with a new Translation, and after him Theodotion, and after him Symmachus; yea, there was a fifth and a sixth edition, the Authors whereof were not known."
The Torah (Five Books of Moses) has very extensive rules around how it is written. A sopher (scribe) who writes a Torah must follow these rules. A Torah is prepared today exactly as it was in the days of Isaiah, David and Moses himself. The 'nach (Prophets and Writings) was codified by the Men of the Great Assembly between 410 BCE and 310 BCE. This is about 1000 years before the first Masoretes. All the Masoretes did (I say "all" but they did wonderful things to bring the oral tradition to written form) was add the vowel notations to make it easier for those less learned to read the text.
These same missionaries will claim that most of the Dead Sea Scrolls (ancient Hebrew copies of most of the bible which are 2000 years old (some more, some less) agree more with the Greek translations. This is false. In Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls by world reknowned scroll expert Lawrence H. Schiffman he writes that "60% Proto-Masoretic texts, 20% Qumran style manuscripts, 10% Nonaligned texts, 5% Proto-Samaritan texts, and 5% Septuagintal type texts. Further more, the Qumran style manuscripts have their bases in the proto-Masoretic texts. The Masoretic type texts were dominant in the time of the Hasmonean period (about 160 B.C.E.)."
These "Septuagint is superior" folks will state that the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) agree with the Septuagint (LXX) more often than the Hebrew. This is also untrue. First of all only 5% documents found at Qumran (DSS) were Greek versions of the Jewish bible.
Of those 5% no one knows who made those translations or when -- or why. . . . we do know that there were multiple translators / translations and that the Christians maintained them (poorly, as they themselves admit).
Consider 4QJer.b which is the Book of Jeremiah in Greek from Qumran (the DSS) but it is missing large parts of the book. The DSS Jeremiah is missing 2700 words that are in the Jewish (Hebrew) bible. Speaking of Jeremiah in the Septuagint: "the Greek text itself is uneven, an unevenness which in the past has led scholars to posit that the two parts of the LXX (Septuagint) (1-28 and 29-51) were prepared by two different translators. Recently it has been proposed, with persuasive arguments, that the second half of the Greek translation is a revision of an earlier translation, the so-called Old Greek text, the latter having survived only in the first half of the text of the LXX." [Craige, Kelley, & Drinkard, WBC].
Sticking with Jeremiah, Jeremiah 23.7-8 comes after 23.40 in the Septuagint (so some copiest "moved" it). Anyone considering the Septuagint as reliable is deluding himself (or herself).
There are scroll fragments from Masada (contemporary with the DSS) and from Wadi Murabit (early 2nd C. CE) that are even closer to the Masoretic Text (MT) -- Hebrew albeit without the MT vowel notations. These ancient Hebrew versions are virtually identical to the Hebrew we have today; thus, proving the antiquity of the MT.
Do not let the Dead Sea Scrolls sidetrack you -- much of what was found was in Qumran was stored in a "graveyard." Just because they are old does not mean they are "better." Jews bury holy writings when they have errors or can no longer be maintained accurately. Thus finding an ancient Hebrew document which was buried or hidden may mean it was put away for the very reason that someone made a mistake in writing it (or it was irrepairable due to age). . . Still, most of the DSS supports the Hebrew versions, not the Greek versions / Septuagint - this includes the Great Isaiah Scroll which is one of the seven original DSS recovered by Bedouin shepherds in 1947. The scroll is written in Hebrew and contains the entire Book of Isaiah from beginning to end, apart from a few small damaged portions.
Not to mention that a Greek translation (however old) is STILL a translation! Why would Jews be relying on a translation versus the original Hebrew (and Aramaic)? Would you consider a translation of Shakespeare to be comparable to the original in English? Then why consider a Greek translation that is known to have insertions and forgeries as well as copious other errors to be a viable alternative?
Which brings up another point -- many of these "Greek is superior" folks will say that most Jews were speaking Greek, not Hebrew, 2000 years ago. This is also false. Schiffman makes that statement (above), but so did the famous Jewish historian, Josephus, who lived in those times (2000 years ago). Josephus was born in Jerusalem, he was a priest who worked in the Temple. He was also a General, who surrendered to the Romans and became a favorite of the Roman elite. Josephus is most famous for his histories of the Jews. He wrote: "….I have also taken a great deal of pains to obtain the learning of the Greeks, and understand the elements of the Greek language, although I have so long accustomed myself to speak our own tongue (Hebrew), that I cannot pronounce Greek with sufficient exactness; for our nation does not encourage those that learn the languages of many nations. . ." Antiquities of the Jews 20:11:2.
Repeat that to those who insist that the Jews spoke Greek and not Hebrew. According to Josephus he had trouble learning Greek. Why? Because the Jews do not encourage learning other languages including Greek!
From the horse's mouth! The scholarly Encyclopedia Judaica wrote of what is today called the Septuagint:
"what we term the Septuagint is in fact an almost accidental gathering together of texts from diverse sources. . .scholars are struck by the very different ways in which translators approached their Hebrew. . . .We cannot even be sure of exactly what the LXX (Septuagint) "canon" contained. . .
For the most part, our earliest texts for this Greek material derive from codices (manuscripts in book form, rather than scrolls) from the third and fourth centuries C.E.; in particular, Codex Vaticanus, Codex Alexandrinus, and Codex Sinaiticus. The codices are uncials (that is, written in all capital letters) from important Christian scriptoria; therefore, they contain the LXX as part of their "Bible" (the New Testament completes it for them). . .it is certain that all sorts of scribal changes led to many differences, some substantial, between what the codices contain and what the earliest Greek (or Old Greek) read. . .
A reasoned and important conclusion from an analysis of all of this material is that what we term the Septuagint is in fact an almost accidental gathering together of texts from diverse sources.
. . . we simply do not know why translators treated their material as they did or why one Greek version of a book was chosen over another (when competing versions were available)."
Some people are under the perception that Hebrew changed from the time of Moses to the time of the bible we have today. They seem to think that ancient Hebrew is not the same as Hebrew today.
"Paleo-Hebrew", also known as K'tav Ivri in Hebrew was a different font, not a different aleph bet. . . Think of fonts in English: do any of them change the meaning of the letter? Nope – and neither does the font in Paleo-Hebrew. The letters in the ancient font (shown at the bottom of the image) are the same letters in the modern Hebrew aleph bet. All of the scripts in the picture represent the same exact letters, sounds, everything. They look different, just as English cursive handwriting letters look different than block English letters, but they are the same letters.
Which came first, k'tav Ivri or k'tav Ashuri? Most people think that k'tav Ivri (the bottom script in the image), aka "proto" or "paleo" Hebrew was the original form of letters for Hebrew, and was used by Moses to write the original thirteen Torah scrolls. Others contend that k'tav Ashuri (the top font, the one used in Torah scrolls) was in use by Moses, but as time went by it fell into disuse in favor of k'tavi Ivri. Whichever was ancient, about 2500 years ago the prophet עזרא / Ezra, returning from Babylonian exile, decided that k'tav Ashuri would be the only font used from that point on for a Torah scroll.
עזרא הסופר / Ezra the Scribe (a Jewish priest) was an amazing man. The Talmud states: "the Torah could have been given to Israel through Ezra, if not that Moses preceded him" (Sanhedrin 21b). Quite a compliment indeed!
Moses hand wrote thirteen Torah scrolls -- one for each tribe and one for the אָרוֹן הַבְּרִית /ʾĀrôn Ha'brît / ark of the covenant. When Jews were allowed to return from Babylonian exile it was עזרא הסופר / Ezra the Scribe who discovered three of those original hand written Torah scrolls penned by Moses himself.
Ezra found a few minor variances in the three scrolls. One Torah had the word נערי written as זאטוטי (Aramaic). A second difference was that in one the word מעונה was written מעון without the final ה. The last difference was that the word היא was written הוא (but pronounced the same -- 'hi'). Other than these, the texts were identical -- so there was no difference at all that impacted a single word or meaning. . .
Ezra also helped to found כְּנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה / Anshei Knesses Hagdolah / The Great Assembly. This august Sanhedrin included the last of the prophets including Mordecai (of Queen Esther fame), Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zachariah, Malachi, and Shimon HaTzadik (Simon the Righteous). The Great Assembly codified the Jewish bible (to include the books of the Prophets and Writings). Ezra himself wrote the books of Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles. Some missionaries think the bible is all "equal" and this is not true. The Torah (תּוֹרָה / instructions) is the holiest part of the T'nach, and the mitzvot in it cannot be changed (added to or subtracted from). The books in נְבִיאִים / Nevi'im / Prophets give us much of our history, along with messages that are important to us, the future generations. The messages of the prophets re-enforced the mitzvot of the Torah. Lastly, the books in כְּתוּבִים / Ketuvim / Writings are inspired by G-d, but they are not as holy as prophecy -- they do not rise to that level. Still, they have important messages, poetry, stories, etc.
For modern Hebrew readers reading a printed Chumash or T'nach (such as the Artscroll Stone Edition, or the Judaica Press translation) in Hebrew are reading the "Printed" Hebrew font.
A Torah scroll is handwritten using extensive safeguards using the Ashuri font (k'tav Ashuri).
Most handwritten notes, letters, and such are written in Hebrew cursive, and proto / paleo Hebrew used the Ivri (Hebrew) font known as k'tav Ivri.
The Hebrew word עברי (ivri) becomes "Hebrew" in English. It can be a noun and an adjective. The word stems from עֵבֶר / Ever, the great-grandson of שֵׁם / Shem (son of נֹ֫חַ / Noah and great-great-great-great-grandfather to אַבְרָהָם / Abraham).
To further confuse the issue missionaries will often speak of the "Masoretic Text" (MT) as if it is the Hebrew of the T'nach. It is not. Hebrew is normally written using only consonants. Vowels are not part of written Hebrew. If you were to visit Israel and pick up a local newspaper you would only see Hebrew consonants. Fluent Hebrew readers do not use vowel notations at all, even today. Torahs (of course) do not USE cantillation, e.g. the Masoretic vowel markings.
In the 9th century CE Jewish scribes who copied the T'nach added vowels and punctuation marks for the first time. Hebrew is written with consonants only, and the vowels are inserted by the reader when it is read out loud. It is usually pretty easy to know how to pronounce words based on the letters in them so it isn't as confusing as it might seem to a non-Hebrew speaker.
The idea of punctuation marks were to help the person less familiar with Hebrew. The סופרים / Sopherim (scribes who are responsible for writing Torahs according to the 20+ rules for copying them) wrote the consonantal text. The scribes also added the marginal notes. If you see dots or dashes under Hebrew letters you are seeing the Masoretic punctuation marks known as cantillation. Do not let missionaries confuse you with deflections into arguments about the Masoretic Text -- it is a red herring.
Sophiee Saguy has been countering false missionary claims about Judaism and the T'nach (Jewish bible) for nearly twenty years. You may find her on FaceBook and at the Messiah Truth forum.