Friday, June 26, 2020

Origen and the Hexapla: the Text & Canon Institute Interviews Dr. Peter Gentry

Several months ago, I and Peter Gurry had the chance to sit down and talk with Peter Gentry about Origen as philologist, his Hexapla, and the Text & Canon Institute’s upcoming colloquium (now rescheduled for March 11–12, 2021). In just over 20 minutes we touch on Origen, his great scholarly editions (the Hexapla and the Tetrapla), and also modern efforts to reconstruct the remains of Origen’s work. Also, I’m told I’m quite distracting in the video (but in a good way!). So enjoy that at least :).


  1. I have questions about the unity of the so-called Septuagint or Old Greek that have nagged me for a long time. And the way the scholars in this video spoke about it make me hope they can address them.

    This collection of books was not originally a single unified thing. It was a collection of multiple different books that were translated by different people who may or may not have known anything about one another's work in different places over a period of centuries. I think it's fair to say that it started off with a major translation of the whole Pentateuch that was in itself a single unified project of some sort, and a legend attributed this work to a group of 70 people (i.e. the septuaginta). But none of the other books outside the Pentateuch that were included in what Origen called the work of the 70 were part of that initial translation of the Pentateuch.

    And in fact, I think that it's highly likely that well before we even get to the later versions of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion, and even before the time of Christ, some of the books of the Old Testament had already been translated into Greek multiple times independently, with copies being made of these independent translations and their texts getting mixed with one another.

    But somehow, by the time of Origen, he seemed to consider there to be a single edition of all the books of the Old Testament in Greek that he could treat as a whole.

    What led to his seeing it that way? Never mind the fact that he labeled this entire edition, and not just the Pentateuch, as the work of the 70. But how on an even more basic level did all those books get together they way they did, prior to Origen doing that? Was there a prior anonymous recensional work of collecting them and publishing them together as a whole, or copying them onto a set of codices?

    If so, then when scholars today talk about either the Septuagint or the Old Greek, or whatever label they use for this, and these scholars still today talk about it as if it's a unified thing (not just physically unified in the famous major codices that came a century or more after Origen and that provide or main witnesses for the text of this thing), then shouldn't we understand that the thing they're talking about is not just the translations that were made for each separate book in the 3rd-2nd centuries BC, but also this editorial work of collecting particular editions of all the Greek translations of those books that then existed into a unified whole some time prior to Origen?

    1. I posed the above comment. Didn't realize I wasn't signed in at the time.

  2. from Alexander |Thomson

    Eric, Have you seen this earlier blog?

    Why Peter Williams Does Not Believe in the Septuagint
    by  Peter Gurry  May 21, 2015

    If you hang around Peter Williams long enough you will learn not to speak of the Septuagint unless you want a short lesson on the history of the translation of the Old Testament into Greek. In a recent lecture, Peter gave his reasons why he doesn’t believe in the Septuagint and why you shouldn’t either.

    [Alas! The video is no longer available, as the account has been closed!

    ]Peter Williams
    I'm not against the idea of a unity of a corpus of pre-Christian Greek translations. My point is that this needs to be demonstrated rather than assumed. I currently have not seen any compelling reason to suppose that a first century Christian (for instance) would have certainly thought that the Greek version of Isaiah used in his or her synagogue was part of a unified translation corpus with the Pentateuch.

    1. Yes.

      I'm not so concerned about the use of the label "Septuagint." I agree with what PJ said there. But whatever label we use, Origen's third column represents something that he regarded as a unified edition of the whole collection of the OT, which could be set alongside and compared to the alternative unified editions of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion. Origen attributed this entire set covering the whole OT to the 70. But that's really beside the point to me. Opting instead for another label like the "Old Greek" doesn't get around the basic problem I'm concerned with here, since that label also implies something more simple and unified than the variegated multiple Greek translations of many of the OT books that I think actually existed prior to the time of Origen or the works of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion.

      My main reason for believing the situation in that earlier period was messier than either the labels "Septuagint" or "Old Greek" implies is because of how much variation we see in Greek quotations from the OT in Christian literature from earlier than the time of Origen.

  3. from Alexander Thomson


    Your reply approach chimes with my own!

    Unfortunately, Peter's video is no longer available on YouTube, as the account has been closed! Perhaps it could be re-instated somewhere in this blog?

  4. from Alexander Thomson

    (Prepared earlier - but erased for some reason!)

    Thank you so much for this video!

    I am glad that the Masoretic Hebrew text is the decided preference!

    But, what are we to make of the "Septuagint"?

    I used to think that doubt was held only by Peter Ruckman and me - he a lover of the KJV and a decided KJV-Onlyist, and I a lover of the KJV and a decided non-KJV-Onlyist!

    So, simple souls seek simple solutions:-

    (1) Is the Letter of Aristeas sufficient evidence that the Pentateuch was
    translated before the time of Christ?

    (2) Do fragmentary and/or sporadic evidences support the view that other portions
    of the Hebrew (and Aramaic?) texts were also so translated?

    (3) Are not most extant documents Christian? Where are the Jewish (and/or other
    non-Christian) documents?

    (4) Why is there not the expected abundance of pre-Christian documents?

    (5) Why do the New Testament quotations not show a unified Old Greek Bible? Some quotations appear to come from the "Septuagint"; some appear not quite to come from it; and some could come from anywhere (so to speak)!

    The whole matter is as clear as mud to me, or at least getting lost in muddied waters; and a good engineer (or two or three) is preyed in aid!

    1. Alexander, in answer to your questions:

      1) Yes. And in addition to the Letter of Aristeas, there's plenty of other evidence.

      2) Yes. There's a Greek copy of the Minor Prophets from Nahal Hever. Interestingly, I believe that all of the other Greek manuscripts of canonical OT books known from the DSS are of portions of the Pentateuch. But there are also quotations in Philo and the NT. And see also especially the Prologue to Ben Sirach, which mentions already existing Greek translations of "the law itself, the prophecies, and the rest of the books." Additionally, there is occasional internal evidence that suggests a setting for the translation of a given book.

      3) Yes. And one reason for this is that as rabbinic Judaism and Christianity sought to distinguish themselves from one another, one way they did this was by making boundaries around which versions of the scriptures each of them were to use. For many early Christians, the Hebrew copies were repudiated as being what the Jews used, and for many rabbinc Jews, the Greek versions were repudiated as being what the Christians used.

      4) I'm not sure why you would expect an abundance of pre-Christian documents. Apart from the Dead Sea Scrolls, where would these come from?

      5) I think there are several things at work here:
      a) Quotation from memory
      b) Independent translation of a given passage from Hebrew into Greek by the author of the NT book or a source he is using, possibly including early Christian testimonia
      c) Use of copies of a Greek version of a book that are revised from the "Old Greek" that would come to be preserved in the later major Majuscules or exhibit significant textual variations due to scribal activity
      d) Use of a copy of a totally different independent Greek translation of a given OT book, separate from the "Old Greek"
      e) Use of a copy of a mixed text of the OG and something else

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  6. from Alexander Thomson

    Dear Eric,

    Thank you for your reply. I hope that others will contribute, as this whole question is a very vexatious one for many!

    My initial thoughts on your responses:

    (1) (a) We both agree that the Letter of Aristeas can be taken as sufficient evidence that the Pentateuch was translated early, before the time of Christ.
    (b) Would you have note on, or location(s of, the other evidence, please?

    (2) (a) I have never been satisfied about the date of the Nahal Hever document.
    Tov, and some earlier scholars, place it within the first century (latish, it seems); but Roberts, and some others, place it within the range 50BCE to 50CE.
    (b) It seems to be held as a revision of a Greek translation, in a direction nearer to the MT than the "LXX" - if so, evidence of rejection of a "Septuagint".

    (3) (a) We seem to be agreed that the extant documents are, very largely, Christian. That alone is disturbing in an historical review.
    (b) Granted that, after the time of Christ - and it would have to be, surely, at the earliest, after the Fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the Jews might have repudiated Greek translations, and not permit or encourage such to be done, but would they -indeed, could they - have systematically destroyed virtually all existing copies? Besides, doesn't Tov say somewhere that we can make too much of this supposed idea of rejection; and didn't the Rabbis permit Greek copies for Greek-speaking synagogues that were everywhere established - even in Jerusalem?

    (4) I would expect to see clearly-recognised copies of a pre-Christian Greek Bible to turn up in many places, if such had been a reality! If other Jewish documents were preserved or escaped destruction, I see no reason why copies of a Jewish Greek Bible should be any different - at least, in a sufficient quantity to allay doubts of the existence of such a Bible!

    (5) Your four classes of difference illustrate the point exactly - that there was no unitary product that commanded recognition and respect as the Jewish Greek Bible - else, quotations would be not so diverse, and we should be able to see that a unitary Bible lay behind the quotations!

    I really am most grateful to you, as you are the first person in a long time who has been at all generous enough to discuss these matters. Otherwise, I am quite shocked by the sparse treatment they receive!

    Every Blessing,


    1. 1)b) For the most part the other evidence has already come up elsewhere in my reply: DSS, Philo, NT quotations, prologue to Sirach

      2) The Nahal Hever scroll may itself not be pre-Christian, but it's a copy of something that is. And the fact that it seems to be a revision of an earlier existing Greek version of the Twelve toward the Hebrew text only further pushes back the timeline for that Greek text that it revised. I don't see this as a rejection of that Greek text at all, just an acceptance of it and an attempt to improve it.

      3)a) I don't see anything disturbing about that.
      b) Yes, but even if those Greek scriptures existed at that time in some synagogues, in order for them to be preserved, they would generally still need to continue to be used in synagogues in later centuries. But at some point they ceased to be. It's not impossible that some still exist from that early period somewhere in a geniza. But that would be a major serendipitous find, and hardly something that we should simply expect.

      4) Why would you expect that? We hardly have any pre-Christian Hebrew manuscripts outside of the DSS. Or for that matter, very many manuscripts of anything at all from before that time.

    2. More on your response 3)b). Destruction wouldn't need to be systematic or even deliberate. Destruction over time is what naturally happens to ancient manuscripts. It is their preservation which requires deliberate care or otherwise special circumstances.

    3. I think there are some other pre-Christian hellenistic Jewish writings (e.g. Greek Additions to Esther, 3 Maccabees, Sibylline Oracles, etc.) that were written in Greek and that have quotations of both the Pentateuch and other OT books from Greek translation. But I'm not sure how many quotations (especially non-Pentateuchal ones) can be gleaned from those.