11 August 2003

Translating the Septuagint

Two days ago I mentioned the longstanding reluctance of the Greek Orthodox Church to allow the translation of the koine New Testament into a more contemporary Greek idiom. A similar approach has been taken to the Septuagint Old Testament (LXX), which is preferred by the Orthodox to even the original Hebrew text from which it was translated in the last centuries of the prechristian era.

There is now a project under way to translate the complete Septuagint into English. This would enable the publication for the first time of a complete Orthodox version of the Bible in our language. About a decade ago something called The Orthodox Study Bible was published, but it included only the New Testament and Psalms, and these were rendered, oddly enough, in the New King James Version. This will soon be superseded by the complete Bible now in process.

One of the peculiarities of the Septuagint Old Testament is that, wherever the Hebrew uses the metaphor "rock" to refer to God (e.g., Psalm 95[94]:1), the LXX deliberately avoids this, replacing it with another expression. Scholars are not certain why this is, and it is cause for debate. Even my exceedingly knowledgeable colleague, Dr. Al Wolters, does not know.

However, when I mentioned this to my Greek-Cypriot father, he said, without missing a beat, that the ancient translators' aversion to speaking of God as "rock" was due to the fact that the idols of the pagans were made of stone. Interesting. I don't know what the scholarly community would make of his explanation, but at the very least it seems indicative of what Greeks themselves believe about the issue. It seems plausible to me, although I am by no means an expert.

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