November 8, 2010 Length: 47:02
Fr. Tom responds to some email questions he received after his recent episode entitled "How to Read the Bible." In particular he talks about reading the Old Testament and explains the role of the Septuagint in the Church.
I would like to make a couple further comments about reading the Bible, particularly reading the Old Testament, and in some sense also understanding how the New Testament uses the Old Testament especially in its texts. I think my own opinion would be… And let me stress again, I want to always stress this: this is my own opinion. I mean, reading things, trying to understand things, making suggestions—this is how I understand it. It’s certainly not dogma; other people could have different opinions, different understandings, and I’m sure many people do.
One of the big debates having to do with reading the Bible has to do with reading the Old Testament and particularly the translation of the Old Testament. I received a few emails after my last presentation suggesting some method of Bible reading, about not firmly and clearly insisting that for the Orthodox Church and for ancient Christianity, the Old Testament was in fact, allegedly, the Septuagint version, which was a certain translation into Greek of the Hebrew Bible. There are those who say that the Old Testament for the New Testament was the Septuagint, was this particular translation of the Bible into Greek. It was a Greek text. Then the allegation is also made that consistently when the New Testament is interpreting the Old Testament, they’re interpreting the Septuagint Scripture, and when they’re quoting it, they’re consistently quoting this Greek translation called the Septuagint.
Sometimes even very funny things are said. I heard a very eminent priest, Orthodox priest, say, when advertising the Orthodox Study Bible, which presents the Old Testament in an English translation of the Greek translation from Hebrew called the Septuagint, he advertised this as saying, “This is the Bible that Jesus used.” You know: “Read the Bible that Jesus used!” Well, you know, that’s simply not true. Number one, we don’t know what Bible it was that Jesus used. There were various texts and various scriptures around at the time of Jesus, including various scriptures in Hebrew and Aramaic and Aramaic targums, and we don’t know what Jesus used. We don’t know how he learned it. We don’t know what texts he had and what he read and what he didn’t. But one thing’s for sure—I think it’s for sure; maybe I’m wrong—and that is that Jesus never read it in Greek. So he never used the Septuagint. The Old Testament translation into Greek called the Septuagint was not Jesus’ Old Testament.
Now, it certainly was the Old Testament of most of the writers of the New Testament Scriptures, certainly St. Paul, but at the same time, the Apostle Paul himself knew Hebrew. He read Hebrew. He probably knew Aramaic. He probably knew various texts. Now we have to remember that if the New Testament writers—the writers of the four gospels and St. Paul and so on—were writing in Greek, and maybe even to a large degree were writing for Greek-speaking audiences, both Greek-speaking Jews and Gentiles, they obviously would use the Greek text, and they would use the Greek text that was already available to them. As an example, if I were speaking about the holy Scriptures to somebody and I speak English, I would virtually all the time, unless I’m making some particular point, be quoting the Scripture in one of the English translations.
Then, of course, we have many different English translations, and I would be choosing one. Maybe sometimes I would be combining a couple together; maybe sometimes I would be saying: You know, these translations that we have, whether it’s King James or RSV, neither of them seem to be really accurate enough relative to what the Old Testament text actually says, and then when you deal with the Old Testament text, you would have to be dealing with the translations we have in English from the Hebrew, which would be a medieval Masoretic text, which is not at all the Hebrew text that would be around at the time of Jesus, or we may be using a translation that was made from the Greek, like, for example, if we read the Old Testament in the Orthodox Study Bible, we are reading an English translation from the so-called Septuagint, the Old Testament translation into Greek called the Septuagint. But here again, even the English translation in the Orthodox Study Bible is an English translation of that particular Greek text which was a translation of the Hebrew text, done a long time ago.
And we have to know two things. Not only are there many different English translations of the Septuagint, just like there’s many different English translations of the New Testament Scriptures, all of which we have only in Greek—we have nothing in the New Testament written in any other language but Greek, although some people think that Matthew’s gospel was probably written in Aramaic or Hebrew first and then was quickly translated into Greek, maybe done immediately, but all we have is the Greek; we don’t have anything before it—but at the same time, we also know that the gospels generally—Mark, Luke, John—although they’re written in Greek, they are written by people who either knew Hebrew or were catechized, were taught by and converted by people who did know Hebrew and did read the Scriptures in Hebrew as well as in Greek.
So I guess the only thing I want to say right now is this. Let’s not oversimplify the subject. Let’s really not oversimplify the subject. And secondly—this would be my opinion, very strongly—let us not canonize as inspired word of God any particular translation. Or I would even go further: or any particular variant text that we have. I think we honestly have to deal with the texts that we have as we have them. I think the wisest thing, the most reasonable thing in my mind would be: we study all of them. We read all of them. If we’re reading the Bible in English, we could read a lot of different English translations. We could read many translations that are of the Greek Septuagint which was itself a translation of the Hebrew Bible at the time of Christ or around the time of Christ, done by Jews.
However, probably, the Septuagint as we have it now was only put in its form second or third century after Jesus. That’s very important also. Another important point is that this Septuagint translation… And it’s called Septuagint, by the way, because it was claimed to be done by 70 or 72 Hebrew rabbis, Greek rabbis, and the legend of Aristeas was that 70 different rabbis went into 70 secluded, secret rooms. They all translated the Scripture, and they all came out with the very same translation. It was then spread about that this was, on the basis of this legend, that that translation was inspired by God. Well, I think we have to be very careful with something like that. First of all, we have variant texts even of the Septuagint. There’s differences in different texts that we have, even in the Greek.
But the other thing is that we must know is that around the time of Jesus, at the end of the old era, the before-Christ era, and certainly at the time of Christ and shortly after Christ, there were several different Greek translations of the Old Testament. There was not only the Septuagint. There was the Lucian translation, Aquila, Symmachus, Theodotion. In fact, Origen, one of the early Christian biblical scholars, he listed the various variant texts that he could find, and he found several Greek translations of the Old Testament Scripture.
So I really think that we have to be very, very careful here. I would say that—again, I would repeat—my suggestion would be to readers of the holy Scriptures, first of all, if you’re only an English reader or a reader of the Bible only in English, read several different translations; look at the various translations that exist and read what they have to say; see how they are differently translated. Here you can even read English translation not only of the Hebrew text, the Masoretic text, which would be a medieval Hebrew text, which most of the translations that we have in English are, certainly the King James, the Revised Standard, the New Revised Standard, the New American, the Intervarsity or whatever it’s called—there are various Bibles, Jerusalem—but virtually all of them were done from Hebrew. I believe they’re all done from Hebrew text. So you could read a lot of those.
But then you could read the various Old Testament translations of the Septuagint, of a Greek translation from the Hebrew that was very old and very venerable. And, as we’ll see, it’s the one that’s used in the Orthodox Church liturgically. I’ll comment on that in a minute.
However, I think that even if we’re reading translations in English of the Septuagint, or of the Greek, read different ones, because they’re different. I mean, there’s the Orthodox Study Bible is one; there is the Old Testament translation of the psalms of David from the Septuagint that I had as a young man, and it was translated by Fr. Lazarus Moore into English. Then there was another recent new translation of the Septuagint done by a newly departed Don Sheehan. They were going to use it for the Orthodox Study Bible, but then decided not to. Then you have the Brenton translation of the Septuagint with Apocrypha, and a very classical one, where you have Greek on one side and English on the other. When I read the Septuagint in Greek, that’s the one that I use, that Greek text.
But in any case, what we have to see is that there’s lots of different texts and English translations of lots of different texts in the Old Testament, some from Hebrew, some from the Greek translation of the Hebrew that’s very old. Now, my own opinion about which is the best and is the Septuagint the official, canonical Old Testament for Orthodox Christians—my own opinion on this—and again, I could be wrong, but I’ll share it; you give me the air time—I think that I would say that the best thing to do is to read them all, see what they all say, take into account differences—and there are pretty serious differences: not only differences in the translations, but there are differences in the actual texts. If you take the Septuagint Bible, the texts are very different from what we now have as the Hebrew text. Jeremiah is much shorter, for example. The chapters are in different order. It’s a different kind of a thing which, if you’re really going to get into it, then you’ll notice that when you start reading them. But I think the best thing to do, the wisest thing, is just to read them all, see what you have, and draw some kind of conclusion about it.
The next thing I would say is that my own opinion would be that of St. Philaret of Moscow. There was a huge debate on this issue in Russia, by the way, in the 19th century when they were translating it into Slavonic, the Bible, and into modern Russian. They had the Slavonic translations of the Old Testament, especially the liturgical texts, especially the Psalter, and that was done in the earliest time, Cyril and Methodius beginnings, where you had a Slavonic rendition of the psalms, for example. But even the Slavonic editions and translations differed from one to another, and then there’s certainly some places where it’s very clear they just made a mistake; they just didn’t know what the Greek was saying and they translated it wrongly.
So when you’re dealing with translations, you have to always be aware that there might be mistakes in the translation, and many people think—of whom I am one—that there were some translations even in the Septuagint, even the one that was brought into the Church… Now, some people would say: Divine providence wanted those mistaken translations to be brought into a church for a very particular reason. Maybe that’s true, but one thing’s for sure: The Septuagint differs from the Hebrews that we have, and when you read the actual texts in context, it sounds like the Hebrew makes more sense than what the Greek text says, which is then translated into English. I’ll give you a couple of examples of that in a minute.
But in any case, St. Philaret of Moscow held the position that in the Slavonic Psalter, in the Slavonic text, the Russian Orthodox Church should just keep what they have. St. Theophan the Recluse thought that, too. You know, you’ve got it. St. Theophan was very severe. He thought that in general the Greek Bible, the Greek translation, the translation of the Greek Orthodox Church that the Russians received, that was the authoritative canonical Scripture for the Orthodox Church. However, St. Theophan himself knew Hebrew. He studied Hebrew. He looked at Hebrew. He saw the variations. But then he—I believe I’m right; maybe I’m wrong, but certainly St. Philaret of Moscow… And by the way, you can read about this in a book by Fr. George Florovsky called The Ways of Russian Theology, where he has a chapter on the problem of biblical translation into Slavonic and Russian. Then you’ve got to trust Fr. Florovsky: Is he giving the right views? Is he complete? Is he accurate? We’re at the mercy of scholars, translators, and human beings. We’ve got to always realize that.
I do believe, personally, that the wisest and most reasonable thing would be to read them all and to see which ones make the most sense and to see if there are some differences. Maybe there are texts where the Hebrew text that we have does seem to make more sense than the Greek translation that we have, which seems to have been mistaken. You usually can tell why it was mistaken. You can tell why it was mistaken because of vowel pointing. If you point Hebrew words with different… You see, Hebrew doesn’t have vowels; it has consonants. You’ve got to provide vowels. So you can provide different vowels, and if you do it different ways, you get different words. That’s what accounts, technically, for these particular differences. It’s just: You understood the text differently. What did the text actually say? Who is there that could tell us what the original Jew reading the Hebrew text at the time of Jesus, what text he had and what he understood and how he understood it, and if he translated, how he would translate it? Because he still—it’s passing through his human understanding.
We might piously say God inspires by the Holy Spirit all of this to be absolutely pure, accurate, inerrant, with no mistake, and this particular Greek translation called Septuagint is the Orthodox translation of the Old Testament, and this is the one that we have to use and so on. Well, my opinion is—and here St. Philaret said it—let’s read them all and come up with what we think is probably the most accurate reading. So when he was speaking about how to translate the Scripture into modern Russian, and a lot of that modern Russian translation was done by non-Orthodox people who were scholars and were often reading the Hebrew Scripture and the Greek and they were translating what they thought seemed to make the most sense. He said, well, why not do that?
Then the point that he was making, and I believe this is a point I would make is that I do not find personally—again, maybe I’m wrong—any variant reading, whether it’s within the same language or whether it’s because of translation—in other words, a variant reading in Hebrew or a variant reading in the Greek New Testament, where one text would say “Son of God,” the other would say “Son of man” or whatever—which really, ultimately, makes much difference dogmatically. I can’t think of one that would change the Christian faith if it were accepted one way or another. I really can’t. Even that famous Isaiah 7:14 about “a virgin will conceive and bear a child,” the Septuagint clearly says parthenos which means virgin, and almost all of the English translations, certainly the old Revised Standard annotated, noted Bible done by Oxford with the Old Testament which includes all the larger canon, the so-called apocryphal works which for us Orthodox are part of the Bible, when it comes to that particular text, they put in a note and they say “or virgin”—“young maiden or virgin.” They don’t lie about it. They say it could be translated virgin. Here the Church would take virgin. So I don’t know if there’s any translation or anybody grinding any axes one way or another that would make major changes with the Christian faith. If somebody could find one or two, let me know. Email me and let me know. But I don’t know what they would be.
Very often, a translation which may even be a mistaken translation… Let’s say you have a Hebrew text and the Greeks didn’t understand it and they mistranslated it, even that mistranslation very often can be something that still may be true. It may be a mistranslation, but it still may in fact not be outrageously wrong or incorrect or heretical or whatever. So I do think that we have to just look at this and see all the variations we have, see how complicated it is, and try to do the best we can with what we’ve got as far as meditating and understanding the word of God as given to us in the holy Scriptures.
Now, we also believe—and here I would be very firm on this point—that we have to remember at all times that the Bible is not a Quran. It’s not fallen from heaven in some kind of divinely dictated form. That really did come into Christianity at the time of the Reformation, the sola scriptura, the idea of sufficiency of Scripture and inerrancy of Scripture, and every jot and tittle, because Jesus said, “Not a jot or tittle will pass…” Well, this meant literally that every jot, every tittle, of the Hebrew Scripture was inspired by God directly, and when it was translated into Greek, the one by the 70 elders was inspired by God in every single point of its translation. Well, first of all you couldn’t even hold that because the translation is often different from the Hebrew, well, at least the Hebrew as we know it now. I don’t think that that’s necessary to hold at all. In fact, I think that’s very unreasonable. In fact, I think it’s absolutely inaccurate relative to the data that we have in these various texts.
So I think that’s important to keep in mind, that the holy Scripture for us is not the Quran. It’s not a divinely dictated text. In fact, for us the word of God is a Person. It’s Jesus Christ; it’s not a text. St. Ignatius of Antioch said in the second century: Christ is our archives. A lot of times the battles with heretics was about interpretations of certain texts. Here the holy Fathers would say, well, you’ve got various texts, but at the same time what we have is the living Tradition of the understanding of the Church itself, inspired by the Holy Spirit, of which these texts themselves are the product and to which these texts themselves bear witness. But they are not magical. They’re not mechanical. They’re not absolutely inerrant in every single thing that they say, textually.
Here I think we could even go further and say: You even have different accounts of the same stories in the Bible, the Old Testament and the New, which are contradictory with each other. I always use the example of the infancy narratives in Luke and in Matthew. They’re different. They’re quite different. They’re essentially the same; the basic material is the same, but many details are different. They’re different for different theological purposes. They’re different for different evangelical purposes. They’re different to make different points.
Now let’s go to the New Testament use of the Old. Here I would just say one very simple thing. I don’t think you could deny at all that you cannot prove a consistent use of the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek in the New Testament. You just can’t; you can’t. When the New Testament quotes the Old, sometimes it does so very freely. Sometimes it even changes the Old. There’s a text in the psalm that says, about the Lord held captivity captive and men brought gifts to him. St. Paul takes that same text in Ephesians and relates it to the Ascension of Christ and says: He led captivity captive and he took everything up into heaven, and God gave gifts to men. He gave gifts to men. The Old Testament says the men gave gifts to God; the New Testament says God gave gifts to men. So you just have free renderings very often of the Old Testament.
The writers of the New Testament weren’t sitting there with texts in front of them that they were quoting. They heard it in the synagogues; they heard it in the church. Most of the time they heard it orally. Many times they may never even have seen a text. We Orthodox Christians, ancient Christians, I think would actually say that doesn’t matter. That’s no big deal. We’re not 16th century Protestants. We don’t have a Quran. We have a collection of Scriptures. Even when people say, “The Bible said,” well, which text? Which version? Which book? Which point? One Roman Catholic scriptural scholar, Raymond E. Brown, he said: If you say a sentence like, “The Bible says,” it would be like saying, “The library said,” because the Bible is a collection of writings, and a collection of writings that sometimes tell the same stories rather differently, certainly in different words and for different reasons.
So we must get away from what I would call this quranic approach to the Bible. The Bible is not a Quran. Yes, it’s God-inspired; it’s God-breathed, for what it wants to tell us. Yes, there are translations that may have some mistakes in them; it ain’t the end of the world. But once you see what they are, it’s no big deal. Sometimes you might even say the mistaken texts still can be true; both versions which are different can be true.
Let me try to give you a couple examples of that in the Psalter. The Psalter is the easiest to use, probably one of the most—how can you say?—differences in the Psalter is in one of the psalms that’s used as the six psalms of matins in the Orthodox Church. It’s Psalm 88, where the Revised Standard Version and also the King James Version, because they’re done from Hebrew, would say this around the 9th, 10th, 11th chapters. It says:
Thou hast caused my companions to shun me. Thou hast made me a thing of horror to them. I am shut in so that I cannot escape. My eye grows dim through sorrow. Every day I call upon thee, O Lord. I spread out my hands to thee. Dost thou work wonders for the dead? Do the shades (that means the dead people who are in Sheol) rise up to praise thee?
Because the Psalter’s very clear that the dead people cannot praise God. You cannot sing Alleluia if you’re dead; you have to be raised by God to praise God. So it says:
Dost thou work wonders for the dead? Do the shades rise up to praise thee? Is thy steadfast love declared in the grave, or thy faithfulness in Abaddon? Are thy wonders known in the darkness? Or thy saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
Well, that tenth verse, in the Septuagint, says:
Dost thou work wonders for the dead? Will the physicians raise up those who are dead?
So in place of shades or ghosts or dead people, they have the word “doctors” or “physicians.” Why? Because that word in Hebrew, if you point it differently, you get “physicians” instead of “shades.” The translator, the Hellenistic Greeks who translated into Greek, decided to put “doctors.” Fr. Ephraim Lash thinks that was inspired, probably, because in Alexandria people were thinking that the physicians and the doctors would save them. So when they translated, they said: Do you think the doctors will save you? You think the doctors can raise up the dead? Now, that’s a very true point. Doctors can’t raise up the dead. However, the point still remains: Does it mean: “Will the dead people rise up to praise you?” or does it mean: “Will the doctors raise you up?”
Well, either way, it’s a kind of edifying sentence, but in my opinion—God forgive me if I am wrong—it makes much more sense to translate it “the shades” or “the dead people” rather than “doctors.” In my opinion, it originally certainly was not “doctors.” In my opinion, it originally certainly was not “doctors.” It certainly was not “doctors.” But you’ve got “doctors,” and in Slavonic, you’ve got “doctors.” And in the Liturgy, you go to church in the Orthodox Church, you’ve got “doctors.” Maybe that’s inspired; it’s okay, but my opinion is it’s a mistake. It’s wrong.
Another example would be the famous Psalm [67 (68)], the Paschal psalm: “Let God arise. Let his enemies be scattered. Let those who hate him flee from before him,” and so on. Then you get down to the [15th] verse, where it says,
O mighty mountain, mountain of Bashan, O many-peaked mountain, mountain of Bashan, why look you with envy, O many-peaked mountain, at the mount which God desired for his abode? Yea, where the Lord will dwell forever?
So the author in Hebrew anyway is telling this mountain: Don’t think you’re so great. You’re mighty, you’re big, you’re many-peaked, but in fact the Mount Zion in Jerusalem is the place where God is. Now, if you read, however, the Septuagint, what it says there instead of “the many-peaked mountain,” it says this:
The mountain of God is a rich mountain, a mountain of curds, a rich mountain. Why do you imagine mountains of curds? This is the mountain in which God is pleased to dwell, for the Lord will dwell in it forever.
That “curds” meant curdled milk. This is the mountain of the curdled milk, the mountain which is a rich mountain with milk. Well, even Basil the Great who didn’t know Hebrew and read it in Greek said he used this as a foreshadowing of the Virgin Mary, that she is the mount from which the God will come, and she’s filled with milk and she’s rich, a rich mountain with mountains of curds, and it’s the mountain [in] which God was pleased to dwell, and the Lord God will dwell in there forever, and he dwelt in the Virgin’s womb.
But, again, my own opinion—God forgive me if I’m wrong—is it probably has nothing to do with curdled milk. That seems to be a mistake. That’s not what the text was interested in saying. Let’s take a look and see how the Orthodox Study Bible translates it. “Let God arise. Let his enemies be scattered,” and then you have here:
The mountain of God is a fertile mountain, a mountain richly curdled with milk, a fat mountain. Why do you think about other mountains richly curdled with milk? This is the mountain of God, the mount that God consented to dwell in. Truly the Lord will lodge in it to the very end.
Well, again, is it about curdled milk, or is it about having many peaks? It seems to me that when you read it in context, the many peaks makes more sense. There are other places. By the way, it’s this very psalm where it says, “Thou didst ascend the high mount, leading captives in thy train and receiving gifts from among men.” St. Paul quotes this in Ephesians, says, “Thou hast ascended the high mountain. Thou went into the holy place, leading captivity captive in thy train, and you gave gifts to men.” St. Paul simply changes the text itself.
Another text that we could mention is the text “Who is so great a God as our God?” that famous prokeimenon, where it says in the text, “Now is the change of your right hand. Now the right hand of the Most High has changed,” it says, which we sing in church. If you read it in Hebrew, the change is for the worse; if you read it in Greek, the change is for the better. It could be both. When God is destroying the enemies, and you think of it in terms of the enemies, then the change is for the worst; if you think about it in terms of the righteous people that God is saving when he overcomes the enemies, then the change of the right hand is for the better. But there still is a difference in the two texts. You can’t say that they’re saying exactly the same thing. In fact, they’re saying the opposite thing. But maybe the meaning when you put it together is the same.
Another very famous text where you have again a very similar problem is in one of the six psalms that’s read at vespers, the vesperal Psalm 104 in Hebrew. You have this text. It says:
Bless the Lord, O my soul. Lord my God, you are very great, clothed with honor and majesty. You cover yourself with light as with a garment. You stretch out the heavens like a tent. You have laid the beams of the chambers on the waters. You make the clouds your chariot. You ride on the wings of the wind.
Then it says: “Who makes the winds thy messengers, fire and flame thy ministers.” So the Hebrew text says, when it’s talking about creation and cosmology and the animals and the plants and everything that God made, that’s the theme of the psalm; the theme of the psalm is the creation of the world and all its various forms. So it makes sense that he would say, “You make the winds, your messengers. You make fire and flame, your ministers.” Now, in the Septuagint and in the letter to the Hebrews, that’s completely changed. “Messenger” in Greek is angelos, angel. So they translated it: “You will make your angels spirits and your servants a fiery flame.” The seraphim were called flames. So they used that text as a text to show the creation of the angels. “You made your angels spirits, and you made your servants fiery flames,” meaning angelic beings.
Then it says in the Hebrew letter that for a time God sent his Son to be a little lower than the angels. But here is another difference, because in the Hebrew text it says “sons of God,” which was the heavenly court, which then came to be the angels in the Greek. So you could have one translation—“He made him a little less than God”—and then you have another one where it said he made him a little less than the angels. Well, both are true, but the texts really are different. You still can decide which one seems to make the most sense.
Well, you can say God made his angels spirits. Certainly the Scripture teaches angels, bodiless powers; certainly they’re spirits. Certainly God’s spiritual beings are like fiery flames, because the very word, seraph, and so on means a flaming fire. So the angels are like fiery flames. But I think in this particular psalm that’s not what the author originally is interested in. He’s more interested in saying that the winds become the messengers of God, the heavens declare the glory of God, the earth shows his handiwork. You have all the lofty mountains and the waters and everything showing forth God. And fire and flame even become the ministers of God, his servants of God.
So there are differences, and very often it seems that the translation of the Hebrew text, in its context, seems to make more sense than what the Septuagint translation says in its context.
Then you have other issues. For example, in Psalm 51, which is used very often in church, it says, “Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God, God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will show forth your praise.” Now that’s translated into Greek even as “blood-guiltiness,” and it becomes in all the English translations “blood-guiltiness.” “Deliver me from blood-guiltiness.” Probably the translator and the author had in mind that David had killed the guy. So: “Deliver me from the sin of murder, and my mouth will show forth your praise. Open my lips; I will declare your glory.” Because I am guilty of blood-guiltiness.
But sometimes people say, “Well, gee, that’s nice that David says that, but when we say it, is it true?” You could say, “Well, yeah, if we hate our neighbor, we’re murderers,” and so on. But if you look at it again, carefully and scientifically, scholarlily, you discover that that word in Hebrew for “blood-guiltiness,” if you point it a different way with different vowels, it doesn’t say “blood-guiltiness”; it says “the silence of sin.” In the Scripture there was the teaching that when you were a sinner you were condemned to silence. So if you read the text as saying,
Deliver me from the dumbness of sin, from the silence of sin, O God, God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. O Lord, open my mouth; my lips will show forth your praise. Open my lips; my mouth will show forth your praise.
It seems like the context has to do with speaking and proclaiming God when one has been struck dumb or when one has been struck silent. So it does seem that if you translate it that way, it makes more sense. And it would make more sense than either the Septuagint or all of the English translations which say “blood-guiltiness.” Maybe it’s just a mistake. Maybe it should say “the silence of sin.” I don’t know. It seems that way to me.
Now, to me personally that doesn’t matter that much, because if you’re guilty of blood-guiltiness you definitely can’t speak. You’re definitely condemned to silence until you’re forgiven and pardoned and purified. But why not make it more generically? “Deliver me from the silence that comes from my sins”—because David not only killed a guy, he committed adultery: he had many sins, and he was struck dumb and unable to speak God’s word until God reinstated him and forgave him and healed him. So why not say, “Deliver me from the silence of sin, O God, God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. Open my lips; my mouth will show forth thy praise.” It seems to make more sense, but “blood-guiltiness” is probably okay, too. It’s no big deal. Nobody’s going to be saved or condemned because of that translation.
But the point I want to make is: It’s complicated, folks. It’s not so simple. There is no the Bible, not even there is no the Hebrew Bible. At the time of Jesus, there were variant readings and paraphrases of the Hebrew and the Aramaic before you even got a Greek or any translation into Latin or Greek, not to speak of Church Slavonic or English or French or Spanish or Italian or Portuguese or however many languages the Bible has been translated into.
But in my opinion, speaking vulgarly, it ain’t a big deal. It’s not a big deal. It really isn’t a big deal. At least for me, it’s not a big deal. There’s no problem. The consistency is there. The theology is there. The total vision is there. Sometimes when you put it all together, you are only more enriched; you’re not more impoverished or led into temptation or led into error: you’re more enriched. You could say and then you’re freed also, because we know we’re not stuck with a book! I’m tempted to say like Islam is.
And even Islam, they have to interpret that book. I don’t know, but probably, my guess is that there’s even probably a big debate among Muslims, what is the official, correct Quranic text. Which is the one that God dictated? Well, they have that problem if they believe God dictated it and it has to be only in Arabic. We, Jews and Christians, don’t have that problem. We can deal with various texts and variant readings and different versions and different words and sometimes “Son of God,” sometimes “Son of man”; sometimes “the sons of God,” sometimes “angels”; sometimes the winds are made angels and sometimes the angels are made spirits. We can deal with all that; it’s not tragic. In fact, I would almost say it’s the opposite of tragic. It’s enriching; it’s freeing. But we have to read what we have to read.
Now, one last point for today. It is true, absolutely true, that the Greek Orthodox liturgy, from which all other languages in the Orthodox Church have been translated—the Slavonic, the Romanian, the Arabic, whatever—was originally written in Greek, was originally composed in Hellenic-speaking culture, and therefore used the most prominent available Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures that basically had become commonplace already among the Jews. St. Paul was raised reading that Greek translation, even though he dealt with it very freely when you study him carefully in how he quotes the Bible. Sometimes St. Paul quotes somebody and says it’s Isaiah; it’s not Isaiah at all: it’s Hosea, or a combination of Hosea and Isaiah mixed together. Many of the Scripture passages quoted in the New Testament are compilations of Isaiah, the Psalms, and somebody else, put together as if it was one integrated text, which it’s not. It’s several verses from several different places.
And that’s okay; that’s how it works. That’s our faith; that’s what we do. That’s how we deal with the Scripture. Sometimes we even give different meanings of texts that we know very well didn’t mean that in the beginning. In the Dead Sea Scrolls they do that, too. It’s called pesher, pesher interpretation, where, for example, Habakkuk would say, “The righteous live by faith” or “By faith we are made righteous,” and then that text would say: You see, that’s what Paul is teaching and Habakkuk taught it, too. But was Habakkuk saying exactly what Paul was saying? Maybe, maybe not. Or “a virgin shall conceive and bear a child.” I don’t think anybody at that time thought that they were predicting a virgin birth of the Messiah, but once the Christians read it, they say, “Oh my goodness, this applies to Jesus! This is our faith.”
A classic example would be this. It says in the psalm,
The heavens declare the glory of God; the earth shows forth thy handiwork. Day to day proclaims speech, night to night knowledge. Yet there are no words, there is no speech, but their voice has gone out to the ends of the earth, their words to the ends of the universe.
And then what happens in the Christian Church? That verse becomes a prokeimenon, and it’s applied to the apostolic preaching of the Gospel. “Their voice has gone out to all the world, their words to the ends of the universe.” And we sing that in church every Thursday when we remember the holy apostles. St. Paul quotes it that way in the letter to the Romans. But here no one can deny that its original text in the Old Testament had nothing to do with apostolic preaching. In fact, it had nothing to do with human preaching at all. It had to do with the heavens declaring the glory of God and the earth showing forth its handiwork, and day to day proclaiming knowledge and night to night proclaiming wisdom. And then it says, “But there are no words,” it’s all silent; nevertheless, “their voice has gone out to all of the world and their words to the ends of the universe,” speaking about the cosmos, speaking about the heavens and the stars and the glory and the trees that are declaring the glory of God. Then the New Testament applies it to human beings.
So that’s how we play with the Bible. That’s how we use the Bible. I use the verb “play” because it’s alive, it’s free, it’s within a tradition, and, to end today again with the same point, it is all understood in terms of Jesus Christ. You read it through the lens of the crucified and glorified Christ. Every word has to do [with] how it can relate to Jesus. Again, we want to say it has a multiplicity of meanings; it has very many layers; it can be used in different ways.
So when it comes to the Old Testament, I would say, yes, it is true that Orthodox liturgy uses the Greek translation from the Hebrew called the Septuagint, and Slavonic and other languages use this same Greek translation. It becomes a kind of authoritative text within our liturgical life. And that’s true, and we should read it that way and interpret it that way and try to understand it that way, how it’s used there.
But we can also say it has a Hebrew substratum that is different. Sometimes its translation is different; sometimes it may even be mistaken, but that’s okay. It’s not a big deal; it’s not life-and-death. In fact, it may even be enriching. It may help us to understand deeper and better how God is and how God acts and how God speaks with human beings and how human beings interact with God and how we live and understand our faith and how we even contemplate the holy Scripture. Because every time a priest or anybody else gives a sermon, they are already putting into their own words the words of the holy Scripture. When you retell a story, the story becomes different, even in preaching. Certainly if you go to the holy Fathers—take John Chrysostom. When he’s quoting Scripture and so on, he’s very loose in his quotation, just like St. Paul is loose in his quotation of the Old Testament. But that is how it is; that’s the way it is, and it’s okay.
So if you apply all of this to our reading the Bible—and let’s just speak about us Americans who only know English, we Orthodox Christian Americans who only know English—what should we do? I would say: We read everything available that we have. We read many different English translations to try to catch what is being said. We see the nuances and the differences in each one. We read the Septuagint translation from the Greek. We read the modern translations we have from the Hebrew. We put it all together, and we love God and contemplate God and learn about our faith and try to put it into practice.
When we go to church, the prokeimena and the readings from the Old Testament, they’re taken from the Septuagint, and they’re taken even from the Apocrypha—the song of the three youths and so on, which are not in the Protestant Bible that rejects the Old Testament larger canon, which is Jewish. So we see how fluid it is. But when we go to church, we sing what is there. “Who is so great a God as our God? You are the God who works wonders. Now is the change of the right hand Most High,” and then we could notice that it may be a little bit different in Hebrew than it is in Greek, but it doesn’t matter. It enriches what’s going on.
Or we can go there and say, “He makes his angels spirits, his ministers a fiery flame”; or we can go there and say, “He makes the winds his messengers, fire and flame his servants,” and both are true and both are right. When we read the New Testament letter to the Hebrews, we see that they use the Septuagint, and they use that in order to speak about the incarnation of Christ, that in fact he becomes lower than the angels, and it’s not with angels that God is concerned.
This is how we do it. May God help us. May God help us, but I think we should be not rigid. We should be reasonable. We should be obedient—and obedient both to the fact that the Church uses the Septuagint in the liturgy as well as obedient to the fact and the truth of God that that’s a translation. It may be mistaken in some places. We have Hebrew versions which are somehow different, and we should learn from them all and thank God for everything, especially the work that people have done in collecting texts, copying texts, translating texts, explicating texts, annotating texts—all for the sake of our knowledge, our wisdom, and ultimately even for the sake of our salvation. Thanks be to God that we have all these things—lexicons, and all the things that we have—because it’s only enriching, and it is certainly not harming. So may God help us.