Masoretic Text vs. Septuagint: Minor Theological Changes

Now that we’ve briefly covered what the Masoretic Text (MT) and Septuagint (LXX) are, we can go back and explain some of the differences that arose from purposeful emendation rather than from scribal accident. Now, don’t get me wrong, scribal errors are cool too, but lots of folks have talked about such things already. What I think may be less obvious to us are these purposeful changes that arise in translation and transmission. 
One of the difficulties in talking about the differences between the MT and the LXX is that there are so many it sometimes gets tough to figure out a good one, especially if—like me—you’re not an expert. Luckily, my friend John Johnson (who’s almost finished writing his dissertation on the theological differences in the LXX text of Exodus and a fellow HUC-JIRer) is. So I reached out to him to ask what he thought a good, bite-sized example would be. The below is heavily based on his reply to me: the ideas and good stuff are his; any incomprehensibility is all mine.
Even if we restrict ourselves to the Greek translation of Exodus (GrEx), there are dozens of theologically-significant differences when compared to the Masoretic Text (MT). Many of these differences can be grouped into general theological categories; one of those categories is the “approachability” of God, those places where people and God interact or meet. Sometimes, the changes are made in order to emphasize that God was incorporeal (an important and growing distinction present in Platonism of the time, but not present in Stoicism or ancient Near Eastern thought) or transcendent(not on this plane of existence). For example, let’s look at Exd 19.3
ומשׁה עלה אל־האלהים ויקרא אליו יהוה מן־ההר לאמר כה תאמר לבית יעקב ותגיד לבני ישׂראל                  

When Moses went up to God, Yahweh called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel…’
καὶ Μωυσῆς ἀνέβη εἰς τὸ ὄρος τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ ἐκάλεσεν αὐτὸν θεὸς ἐκ τοῦ ὄρους λέγων τάδε ἐρεῖς τῷ οἴκῳ Ιακωβ καὶ ἀναγγελεῖς τοῖς υἱοῖς Ισραηλ

And Moses went up into the mountain of God and God called him from the mountain, saying ‘These things you shall say to the house of Jacob and report to the children of Israel.
At first, these passages seem incredibly similar! There are only two changes which seem pretty slight: the Greek passage includes that Moses went into the mountain and removes that God called to Moses. But what changes is that Moses no longer has unmediated access to God in GrEx like he does in the MT! Taken alone, this wouldn’t be a big deal: maybe the scribe(s) just made a mistake; maybe it’s just a quirk of translation; but it isn’t. These sorts of changes accumulate into a consistent theologically-driven decision.
Even cooler, is this same uneasiness with God’s imminence and corporeality also show up in some other ancient translations which are under the same sorts of Platonic influences (Targum Onkelos softens slightly with קדם יוי  “before God,” while Pseudo-Jonathan completely bypasses the issue with “Moses went up on the second day to the top of the mountain.” Targum Neofiti takes a different approach, stating that Moses went up למתבוע אולפן מן־קדם ייי  “to seek instruction from before God”).
These sorts of minor theological changes can be glossed over if you’re not paying attention, but they’re critically important for reconstructing the sorts of changes that occurred and how those sorts of things were read in antiquity. But, most of the time, we only notice them when something big occurs. Next time, we’ll talk about one of those “big” theological changes (this time, one which is lead by the MT!) that we’d be more likely to notice.

Published by Jared Saltz

Biblical Studies Faculty (Florida College). PhD candidate at HUC-JIR. Husband, father, student.

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