04 April 2005

A Septuagint Psalter

Although the Septuagint (LXX) began as a translation into Greek of the Hebrew Scriptures for use by hellenistic Jews of the disapora in the last centuries before Christ, it fell out of use within Judaism soon after the start of the christian era. As such, it now survives as the version of choice for the Orthodox Churches alone. Translations into other languages of the Old Testament are based on the LXX rather than on the Hebrew Masoretic Text.

For several years I have had in my personal library a handsomely-bound volume titled simply The Septuagint Psalms, translated by Baron José de Vinck and Fr. Leonidas Contos. Unlike the King James and Revised Standard Versions, this version dispenses with archaic pronominal forms such as thou, thine, &c. Unlike the NRSV and TNIV, it makes no concession to gender-inclusive language, e.g., in Psalms 1 and 8. The language is smooth, if not exactly elegant. However, there are several notable flaws, one of which is virtually inexcusable in such a collection.

First, there are no verse divisions within the chapters, making it difficult to locate specific passages. Second, and far more seriously, the Psalms are misnumbered. As indicated here, throughout most of the Psalter, Hebrew and LXX numberings differ by one, such that Psalm 95 in the former is numbered 94 in the latter. However, this is not consistently the case, which the editors appear not to have taken into account. By the end of the collection they erroneously suppose there to be 151 Psalms in the Hebrew, neglecting to notice that after Psalm 147 LXX and Hebrew numbers are once again identical. If any churches ordered this volume for congregational or choral use, they would have received a rude surprise upon arrival. A third flaw lies in lack of consistency in translation, at least in some places. It is well known that the LXX departs from the Hebrew in avoiding the use of the metaphor rock for God.* This is faithfully reflected by de Vinck and Contos in Psalm 94/95, but not, for some reason, in Psalm 17/18, where they appear to have followed the Hebrew.

Incidentally, a new Orthodox-sponsored English translation of the Septuagint is in the works, and it was due to come out sometime this year. When it appears, it will enable the publication of the first complete English translation of the Bible for Orthodox Christians. It remains to be seen whether this will bring some degree of liturgical uniformity to the various ethnic jurisdictions making up the Orthodox Church in North America.

* There is no general agreement as to why this is so. When I mentioned this to my father, who was raised Greek Orthodox, he said, without missing a beat, that this was because the pagan idols were made of stone; thus rock metaphors were avoided for the one true God. Whether or not scholarly opinion would agree, this explanation would appear to enjoy some currency among Greek Orthodox Christians.

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