Friday, November 18, 2016

Fact-Checking the Torah -- our first commentary

We still don’t know why it was important for Brenton to translate the Septuagint into English. You might think it was because Septuagint was important to Christianity – but Jerome realized in the 400s CE that the Septuagint was a bad translation from Hebrew.
Clement and Justin Martyr (100s CE) don’t quote from Septuagint. They say things that sound like Septuagint, but aren’t; as with Qumran, they are Greek versions of scriptural material, but they are not the version Brenton "translated".  Clement and Justin were trying to use Plato and other Greek writers to prove the value of Christianity to people who read classical Greek authors; the audience didn’t read Septuagint and quoting it would have meant nothing to them.
Then there’s Origen’s Hexapla. This collected six different Greek versions of Torah, with notes on the differences between them. Only the notes survive; in Field’s version (which is online), they are collated with the Septuagint to show what Origen was thinking about. Apparently the Hexapla wasn’t important enough to preserve intact.
Translators claimed to go back to Hebrew with both the English and French Geneva Bibles of the 1500s CE, and the King James Version, and so on. But since none of them had the faintest idea of modality or the other features of Biblical Hebrew known to 21st century linguistics, they actually translated in accordance with the received knowledge about Hebrew. That includes mistranslations like Ohozath in Genesis, as well as “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14, and “and.”
As long as people read translations – of ANY work – they are vulnerable to the carelessness, ignorance, and even willful errors of translators. As long as people claim to be experts when all they know are translations, so long will these people generate urban legends or cling to them. These incorrect translations play a role in almost every urban legend documented on this blog.
So if translations, which pretend to come straight from the primary document, cannot give good results, what chance do commentaries have, especially if they take their stand on translations? That’s what we’re about to find out when we look at Philo.
The first urban legend about Philo says that he used Septuagint. That’s a bad thing. However, his relationship to Septuagint is not one of unqualified faithfulness to the Greek. In particular, in his essay On Dreams I, lines 216-218, he discusses Lavan’s bargain with Yaaqov over the colors of sheep and goats. Philo uses some terms Septuagint doesn’t have and uses other terms the opposite of how Septuagint uses them. So when his commentators claim that such and such a phrase in Philo comes from the Septuagint, it better be exact in text and meaning, and somebody would do the world a real service by totting up how often that happens. Then they ought to compare it to how often the commentators cite to Septuagint when Philo doesn’t really quote from it. I would not be surprised if Philo says things that sound like Septuagint but aren’t.
But that doesn’t mean Philo’s commentary is useful for anything else but understanding Philo, as I am about to show.
© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights Reserved

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