Augustine on the Septuagint

Some friends and I are reading through Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine together. It’s a pretty interesting volume. This week we met to discuss book 2 which had quite a bit to say about the Septuagint (LXX). For easy reference, here are some interesting quotes. And just because it would be exceedingly annoying to actually type these in, I’m just going to copy from ccat, at least usually.

Scripture in One Language

6. And hence it happened that even Holy Scripture, which brings a remedy for the terrible diseases of the human will, being at first set forth in one language, by means of which it could at the fit season be disseminated through the whole world, was interpreted into various tongues, and spread far and wide, and thus became known to the nations for their salvation. And in reading it, men seek nothing more than to find out the thought and will of those by whom it was written, and through these to find out the will of God, in accordance with which they believe these men to have spoken.

Interesting. He’s not ignorant of the fact that both the OT and NT aren’t written originally in the same language, so why this comment? At the very least it is clear indication that the LXX had by this time become "the Scriptures" as is just like the KJV can be seen by some as "the Scriptures" and not just a translation.

Knowing the Languages

16. The great remedy for ignorance of proper signs is knowledge of languages. And men who speak the Latin tongue, of whom are those I have undertaken to instruct, need two other languages for the knowledge of Scripture, Hebrew and Greek, that they may have recourse to the original texts if the endless diversity of the Latin translators throw them into doubt. Although, indeed, we often find Hebrew words untranslated in the books as for example, Amen, Halleluia, Racha, Hosanna, and others of the same kind. Some of these, although they could have been translated, have been preserved in their original form on account of the more sacred authority that attaches to it, as for example, Amen and Halleluia. Some of them, again, are said to be untranslatable into another tongue, of which the other two I have mentioned are examples. For in some languages there are words that cannot be translated into the idiom of another language. And this happens chiefly in the case of interjections, which are words that express rather an emotion of the mind than any part of a thought we have in our mind. And the two given above are said to be of this kind, Racha expressing the cry of an angry man, Hosanna that of a joyful man. But the knowledge of these languages is necessary, not for the sake of a few words like these which it is very easy to mark and to ask about, but, as has been said, on account of the diversities among translators. For the translations of the Scriptures from Hebrew into Greek can be counted, but the Latin translators are out of all number. For in the early days of the faith every man who happened to get his hands upon a Greek manuscript, and who thought he had any knowledge, were it ever so little, of the two languages, ventured upon the work of translation.

I’ve seen this last bit quoted numerous times before.

Preference for the LXX and Old Latin over Hebrew

22. Now among translations themselves the Itala is to be preferred to the others, for it keeps closer to the words without prejudice to clearness of expression. And to correct the Latin we must use the Greek versions, among which the authority of the Septuagint is pre-eminent as far as the Old Testament is concerned; for it is reported through all the more learned churches that the seventy translators enjoyed so much of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in their work of translation, that among that number of men there was but one voice. And if, as is reported, and as many not unworthy of confidence assert,(2) they were separated during the work of translation, each man being in a cell by himself, and yet nothing was found in the manuscript of any one of them that was not found in the same words and in the same order of words in all the rest, who dares put anything in comparison with an authority like this, not to speak of preferring anything to it? And even if they conferred together with the result that a unanimous agreement sprang out of the common labor and judgment of them all; even so, it would not be right or becoming for any one man, whatever his experience, to aspire to correct the unanimous opinion of many venerable and learned men. Wherefore, even if anything is found in the original Hebrew in a different form from that in which these men have expressed it, I think we must give way to the dispensation of Providence which used these men to bring it about, that books which the Jewish race were unwilling, either from religious scruple or from jealousy, to make known to other nations, were, with the assistance of the power of King Ptolemy, made known so long beforehand to the nations which in the future were to believe in the Lord. And thus it is possible that they translated in such a way as the Holy Spirit, who worked in them and had given them all one voice, thought most suitable for the Gentiles. But nevertheless, as I said above, a comparison of those translators also who have kept most closely to the words, is often not without value as a help to the clearing up of the meaning. The Latin texts, therefore, of the Old Testament are, as I was about to say, to be corrected if necessary by the authority of the Greeks, and especially by that of those who, though they were seventy in number, are said to have translated as with one voice. As to the books of the New Testament, again, if any perplexity arises from the diversities of the Latin texts, we must of course yield to the Greek, especially those that are found in the churches of greater learning and research.

Coming back to the KJV-zealot-nut folks, I find this approach to be very consistent with some "modern" fundamentalistic approaches to the Scriptures. Now, I’m not calling Augustine and fundamentalist. I’m just saying that this is exactly the kind of argument you would expect from some KJV-only fellas.

Of course I think it has been shown that the LXX can have superior readings to the extant Hebrew texts at times. But that certainly does not warrant the note above.


Carl W. Conrad 2008-12-22 07:13:52

You will find a comparable stance taken by ultra-conservative English-speaking Roman Catholics who seriously believe that the Douai-Rheims English Bible (which is nearly contemporary with the KJV) is the only acceptable English Bible still today -- on grounds that it is based on Jerome’s Latin Vulgate version which was itself based upon Greek and Hebrew original texts and the claim that Jerome knew Greek and Hebrew better than anyone of a later era could possibly know Greek and Hebrew. There is the same veneration of a specific FORM of the Biblical text and it seems based upon a notion of a sort of καῖρος when human sin and error were wholly overruled for the sake of an authoritative communication of the revelation. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that implicit here is that the translated version is superior in authority to the original Greek and Hebrew -- because nobody today could understand those Greek and Hebrew texts better than did Jerome.

Eric 2008-12-22 07:06:34

On a pragmatic level that conclusion is certainly warranted. If no one could know Greek and Hebrew as well as Jerome, or Hebrew as well as the translators of the LXX and that they did their translation perfectly, clearly there is no motivation to go back to the sources. And doing so would appear to come from a lack of piety.

Perhaps they should look back a little in history and realize that many were apparently arguing that translations were no needed of the Bible because they thought that Jerome’s text was the thing. Maybe they should realize that the main driver of the argument is not what was demonstrably true (I doubt it would take much to make a good argument that he was sometimes wrong) but rather the century and subgroup that they happened to be in. They want their translator to be inerrant because that’s what they read. The view seriously lacks historical perspective.

As for a belief that there was a time in church history where God overruled sin so a perfect translation could be made, well, I could make stuff up and say its true as well but that really wouldn’t make for a very convincing argument :)

Kent 2009-02-26 06:26:21

Logos Bible Software has begun working on the Göttingen LXX. This version will be morphologically tagged, and the apparati will be linked directly to the primary sources.

I thought you might be interested!

Göttingen Septuagint