One of the many tasks that we will engage in with this Blog is an investigation into the nature of the text of the Bible in the original languages and the nature of the Greek translation of the Old Testament known commonly as the Septuagint. What follows is a serious philological examination of three Septuagint translations of an archaic Hebrew refrain, two of which end up in our liturgical texts. The content of this post may be particularly heavy in regard to Greek and Hebrew content, but it is hoped that the reader will be able to follow along even without knowledge of these languages.
Contrary to the dominant views held by many Orthodox apologists for the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, the relationship between the LXX and the Hebrew Bible is extremely complex from the point of view both of the transmission history of the Septuagint and the translation itself. What we know today as “The Septuagint” is actually an amalgamation of several sources each with its own history of transmission and redaction. Understanding the relationship of the LXX and the Hebrew Bible requires diligent philological work in the original languages, an understanding of the transmission of each text, and the knowledge of the discipline of textual criticism. Generalizing statements about the LXX or the Hebrew Bible are almost always proven false upon a close examination of the texts, and as a rule, a case-by-case examination should be made before trends can be established in any of the books that comprise the Old Testament. As an illustration of the complexity of the LXX as a translation, we will examine a particular hymnic refrain found three times in the Hebrew Old Testament and three different translations of it found in the LXX.
The Hebrew Text
In the Song of Moses found in Exodus 15, we find in verse 2 a rather peculiar line of Hebrew poetry:
עזי וזמרת יה ויהי לי לישוע
ˤozzī wǝzimrāṯ yāh wayyǝhī lī līšūaˤ
As far as scholars can tell, the text as found in the Masoretic Hebrew Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls manuscript 1QIsA presents several difficulties, making direct translation very difficult. The KJV translates it thusly:
“The LORD is my strength and song, And He has become my salvation.”
This phrase, found prominently in the Song of Moses, must have become a rather popular refrain in Israelite hymnography, for it occurs twice more in the Hebrew Bible, Isaiah 12:2 and Psalm 118:14 (117:14 LXX) with only minor variation or none at all.
עזי וזמרת יה יהוה ויהי לי לישוע
ˤozzī wǝzimrāṯ yāh YHWH wayyǝhī lī līšūaˤ
KJV: “YAH, the LORD, is my strength and song; He also has become my salvation.”
עזי וזמרת יה ויהי לי לישוע
ˤozzī wǝzimrāṯ yāh wayyǝhī lī līšūaˤ
KJV: “The LORD is my strength and song, And He has become my salvation.”
There are two chief problems in this refrain, the grammatically anomalous זמרת zimrāṯ and the particle יה yāh, which we will now examine in detail.
The word זמרת zimrāṯ is a noun used in series with עזי ˤozzī, normally translated “my strength.” However, unlike עזי ˤozzī, זמרת zimrāṯ does not have the pronominal suffix –ī meaning “my.” Rather, it stands in the construct case as if it did have a pronominal suffix at one time or was joined to another word. By itself, the word should be זמרה zimrāh without the t at the end. As it stands, it could be literally translated “My strength and the song of …” which does not make sense.
The particle יה yāh is normally taken to be a shortened form of the Tetragrammaton יהוה YHWH, the name of God normally pronounced as Yahweh. A shortened form of it, יה yāh, was commonly used in the expression הללו-יה hallǝlū yāh “Praise Yah(weh)” or in many Hebrew names that included it as a theophoric element, e.g. זכריה zǝḵaryāh “Zechariah (Yah has remembered).” This reading renders the translation “My strength and a song of Yah(weh),” which does not make much sense, or “Yah(weh) is my strength and my song,” ignoring the ungrammatical זמרת zimrāṯ as explained above. The other option is to see it as the remnant of an original, archaic pronominal suffix זמרתיה zimratuya “my song.” As we will see below, this will turn out to be the preferable reading. If it is taken to be such, it is possible that the Tetragrammaton in full or in short was omitted through haplography, a scribal error of writing a sequence of letters or words once though they occur twice or more in the exemplar text.
The Greek Text
Now let’s look at how the Greek translators understood this phrase. In Exodus 15:2, the original LXX translator gives us a very unique reading:
βοηθὸς καὶ σκεπαστὴς ἐγένετό μοι εἰς σωτηρίαν
“A helper and protector has become for me salvation.”
This might be familiar to many, as this rendering is used as the irmos of Ode 1 of the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete chanted during the first week of Great Lent, usually in the English translation “A helper and a protector – He has become my salvation.”
We should ask then, how did our Greek translator get “helper” and “protector” from “strength” and “song” as we found in the Hebrew? Keep in mind that Hebrew is written only with consonants and no vowels with the exception of some long vowels, which are represented by certain consonants that are able to do “double duty.” עזי ˤozzī could have been read in a number of ways, and one of those ways could have been עזר ˤōzēr, which is an active participle from the root עזר ˤZR meaning “to help” giving us “helper.” The last consonant, י yod, could have been easily mistaken in a hand-written manuscript for ר resh, and it appears that this is exactly what happened with our Greek translator – he read עזי ˤozzī “my strength” as עזר ˤōzēr “a helper.”
Moving now to זמרת zimrāṯ, we need to turn to any standard lexicon of the Hebrew Bible where we may find that the root זמר ZMR actually has two definitions, (1) the most common usage meaning “to sing,” and (2) a rarer usage meaning “to protect.” The Hebrew consonant ז zayin is historically derived from two different sounds that existed in archaic Hebrew, /z/ and /ḏ/ pronounced like the th in this. As the Hebrew language developed, these two sounds fell together into /z/. So, the two separate roots, ZMR meaning “to sing” and ḎMR meaning “to protect,” fell together into homonyms. This being the case, our Greek translator very adroitly chose the correct meaning of the word זמרת zimrāṯ contrary to virtually every other translation ever made! “Song” is not likely the correct meaning, as the word is placed in series with עזי ˤozzī as a hendiadys, two words put together that mean virtually the same thing such as “cloud and smoke” in Isaiah 4:5. The Greek translator subsequently may have ignored the particle יה yāh and read זמרת zimrāṯ as zōméreṯ, a feminine participle, which could be used in an abstract sense. Nevertheless. the Greek approximates what we could posit for a reconstruction of the original Hebrew reading, “(Yahweh is) my strength and my protection, And he has become my salvation.”
ἡ δόξα μου καὶ ἡ αἴνεσίς μου Κύριος καὶ ἐγένετό μοι εἰς σωτηρίαν.
“My glory and my praise is the Lord, and he has become for me salvation.”
The Greek translator of LXX Isaiah reads זמרת zimrāṯ in the sense of “song,” ἡ αἴνεσίς. The other Greek versions follow suit with Aquila reading ἐγκώμιον “panegyric” and Symmachus and Theodotion reading ὕμνησις “praising.” Deriving ἡ δόξα from עזי ˤozzī is more difficult, though it is more likely that the translator took a freer approach to his translation and chose a word more in keeping with ἡ αἴνεσίς. In other words, the translator of LXX Isaiah was more interested in creating a translation that read well in Greek rather than being slavishly literal to the Hebrew original. This is an element of what LXX scholars refer to as translation technique.
Psalm 118:14 (117:14 LXX)
ἰσχύς μου καὶ ὕμνησίς μου ὁ Κύριος καὶ ἐγένετό μοι εἰς σωτηρίαν.
“My strength and my song is the Lord, and he has become for me salvation.”
The Greek translator of LXX Psalms translates the Hebrew as we normally find it in English translations. Many will be familiar with this rendering from such translations or may recognize it from the Sunday prokeimenon of tone 2 often rendered as, “The Lord is my strength and my song. He has become my salvation.” The LXX translator took עזי as ˤozzī “my strength”, יה yāh as “Yahweh,” i.e. “The Lord,” and understood זמרת zimrāṯ as being the absolute זמרה zimrāh.
What to take away
As illustrated from the preceding discussion of three different Greek translations of the same Hebrew phrase, establishing which text is “right” or “wrong” is not an easy thing to do and may, in fact, be a red herring altogether. For example, we might look at the LXX translation of Exodus 15:2 and say that this is “right” and the English translations of the Hebrew are “wrong” – until we find the very same “wrong” translation in Isaiah 12:2 and Psalm 117:14 (118:14 Heb). When the Hebrew text is difficult to translate due to textual corruption or poorly understood archaisms, the various translators of the LXX often arrive at different conclusions, and it is beyond us to pronounce any one of them as being more “inspired” and thus more “correct” than another. Indeed, if we are to understand the LXX as being inspired by God in any way, we cannot place strictures on what that meant for the translators, who were often dealing with extreme difficulties in the Hebrew text, difficulties that only modern philology has been able to understand. It is established beyond doubt that these inspired translators often translated the Hebrew text in ways that modern philology would consider erroneous. This does not mean that the LXX translators were knowingly in error or would have had any way of avoiding those errors without the accumulated knowledge of centuries of philological and linguistic investigation. Nevertheless, whatever we may understand to be inspiration must not prohibit us from understanding the human realities of the translation enterprise itself. Inspiration of scripture in any form does not mean that the text will be free of scribal or translational errors.
The variety of the LXX translations, whether they agree or disagree with the Hebrew text as we have it today, should not be placed in opposition to the Hebrew text as if one were inspired and correct and the other neither inspired nor correct. Instead, both the LXX and Hebrew texts of the Old Testament – along with the Syriac Peshitta, the Latin Vulgate, and many other ancient translations – exist together as a veritable “cloud of witnesses” that have all played a role in bringing God’s written revelation to his people. As the LXX itself demonstrates in this case where the same hebrew phrase is rendered in three different ways, as the saying goes, “there is more than one way to skin a cat.”
Click the image below for a flow chart explaining the textual changes and translations as they occurred.