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The Early Church and the Fallibility of the Hebrew Masoretic Text

As discussed in our previous article the Hebrew Old Testament, or Masoretic text, is not the original or  infallible source of the Old Testament and, therefore, not God’s word. The Jews that did not accept Christ as the Messiah began producing this altered text in the first few centuries after His incarnation with its completion around the 10th century AD. However, the truly infallible text of the Old Testament was instead written in Greek. Whether or not there was an earlier version that was in Aramaic or early Paleo-Hebrew is unknown. But by comparing texts we learn that Christ himself quoted from the Septuagint as did the Early Church, the Apostles, and Jewish writers such as Josephus and Philo. Here in part two we are looking at what the Early Church wrote about the Septuagint and the Jews altering the Old Testament text.

The Hebrew Bible was written in an attempt to remove prophecies that Jesus fulfilled as well as skew verses of the Old Testament that He quoted. The early Church mentioned this occurring as far back as the 2nd century AD:

But I am far from putting reliance in your (Jewish) teachers, who refuse to admit that the interpretation made by the seventy elders who were with Ptolemy [king] of the Egyptians is a correct one; and they attempt to frame another. And I wish you to observe, that they have altogether taken away many Scriptures from the translations effected by those seventy elders who were with Ptolemy, and by which this very man who was crucified is proved to have been set forth expressly as God, and man, and as being crucified, and as dying; but since I am aware that this is denied by all of your nation, I do not address myself to these points, but I proceed to carry on my discussions by means of those passages which are still admitted by you. For you assent to those which I have brought before your attention, except that you contradict the statement, ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive,’ and say it ought to be read, ‘Behold, the young woman shall conceive.’ And I promised to prove that the prophecy referred, not, as you were taught, to Hezekiah, but to this Christ of mine: and now I shall go to the proof. -Justin Martyr

But since you [the Jews] and your teachers venture to affirm that in the prophecy of Isaiah it is not said, ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive,’ but, ‘Behold, the young woman shall conceive, and bear a son;’ … I shall endeavor to [discuss shortly this point in opposition to you, and to show that reference is made to Him who is acknowledged by us as Christ (pg.216)…And I, resuming the discourse where I had left off at a previous stage, when proving that He was born of a virgin, and that His birth of a virgin had been predicted by Isaiah, quoted again the same prophecy. .. And Isaiah said, Hear then, O house of David; Is it no small thing for you to contend with men? And how do you contend with the Lord? Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign; Behold, the virgin shall conceive, and shall bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel. (Isa.7:14) …And Trypho answered, “The Scripture has not, ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son,’ but, ‘Behold, the young woman shall conceive, and bear a son,’ and so on, as you quoted. -Justin Martyr

Other early Church authors agree with Justin Martyr’s assertion that the “Hebrew” version was an alteration of the Bible:

And in many other of the sacred books I found sometimes more in our copies (i.e. the Septuagint) than in the Hebrew, sometimes less. I shall adduce a few examples, since it is impossible to give them all. Of the Book of Esther neither the prayer of Mardochaios nor that of Esther, both fitted to edify the reader, is found in the Hebrew. Neither are the letters; nor the one written to Amman about the rooting up of the Jewish nation, nor that of Mardochaios in the name of Artaxerxes delivering the nation from death. Then in Job, the words from “It is written, that he shall rise again with those whom the Lord raises,” to the end, are not in the Hebrew, and so not in Aquila’s edition; while they are found in the Septuagint and in Theodotion’s version, agreeing with each other at least in sense. And many other places I found in Job where our copies have more than the Hebrew ones, sometimes a little more, and sometimes a great deal more… while I paid particular attention to the interpretation of the Seventy, lest I might be found to accredit any forgery to the Churches which are under heaven, and give an occasion to those who seek such a starting-point for gratifying their desire to slander the common brethren, and to bring some accusation against those who shine forth in our community. And I make it my endeavour not to be ignorant of their various readings, lest in my controversies with the Jews I should quote to them what is not found in their copies, and that I may make some use of what is found there, even although it should not be in our Scriptures. -Origen (A.D. 248) Ante-Nicene Fathers vol.4 pg. 386-387

Now at this point we have an asterisk. The words are found in the Hebrew, but do not occur in the Septuagint. -Hippolytus (A.D. 225) Ante-Nicene Fathers vol.5 pg. 163

Protestant Scholars have learned that the original Hebrew was actually closer to Aramaic and not the same Hebrew of the Masoretic Text:

The Masorets were the most extensive Jewish commentators which that nation could ever boast. The system of punctuation, probably invented by them, is a continual gloss on the Law and the Prophets; their vowel points, and prosaic and metrical accents, &c., give every word to which they are affixed a peculiar kind of meaning, which in their simple state, multitudes of them can by no means bear. The vowel points alone add whole conjugations to the language. This system is one of the most artificial, particular, and extensive comments ever written on the Word of God; for there is not one word in the Bible that is not the subject of a particular gloss through its influence. -Adam Clarke

As a Hebrew scholar, he [Louis Cappell] concluded that the vowel points and accents were not an original part of Hebrew, but were inserted by the Masorete Jews of Tiberias, not earlier then the 5th Century AD, and that the primitive Hebrew characters are Aramaic and were substituted for the more ancient at the time of the captivity. . . The various readings in the Old Testament Text and the differences between the ancient versions and the Masoretic Text convinced him that the integrity of the Hebrew text as held by Protestants, was untenable. -1948 Encyclopedia Britannica article on Hebrew Scholar Louis Cappell

It was not until the time of Jerome that the Church even considered using the Hebrew version, which was not fully completed at the time. Jerome converted the Hebrew text that had been given to him and produced the Latin Vulgate. However, Augustine warned Jerome that the Hebrew was corrupt:

… I beseech you not to devote your labour to the work of translating into Latin the sacred canonical books, unless you follow the method in which you have translated Job, viz. with the addition of notes, to let it be seen plainly what differences there are between this version of yours and that of the Septuagint, whose authority is worthy of highest esteem. For my own part, I cannot sufficiently express my wonder that anything should at this date be found in the Hebrew manuscripts which escaped so many translators perfectly acquainted with the language. I say nothing of the Seventy, regarding whose harmony in mind and spirit, surpassing that which is found in even one man, I dare not in any way pronounce a decided opinion, except that in my judgment, beyond question, very high authority must in this work of translation be conceded to them. I am more perplexed by those translators who, though enjoying the advantage of labouring after the Seventy had completed their work, and although well acquainted, as it is reported, with the force of Hebrew words and phrases, and with Hebrew syntax, have not only failed to agree among themselves, but have left many things which, even after so long a time, still remain to be discovered and brought to light. Now these things were either obscure or plain: if they were obscure, it is believed that you are as likely to have been mistaken as the others; if they were plain, it is not believed that they [the Seventy] could possibly have been mistaken. Having stated the grounds of my perplexity, I appeal to your kindness to give me an answer regarding this matter. -Augustine’s letter to Jerome 394 AD

Later Augustine sent this letter below via Cyprian to Jerome in 403 A.D:

As I have sent you two letters already to which I have received no reply, I have resolved to send you at this time copies of both of them, for I suppose that they never reached you….
For my part, I would much rather that you would furnish us with a translation of the Greek version of the canonical Scriptures known as the work of the Seventy translators. For if your translation begins to be more generally read in many churches, it will be a grievous thing that, in the reading of Scripture, differences must arise between the Latin Churches and the Greek Churches, especially seeing that the discrepancy is easily condemned in a Latin version by the production of the original in Greek, which is a language very widely known; whereas, if any one has been disturbed by the occurrence of something to which he was not accustomed in the translation taken from the Hebrew, and alleges that the new translation is wrong, it will be found difficult, if not impossible, to get at the Hebrew documents by which the version to which exception is taken may be defended. And when they are obtained, who will submit, to have so many Latin and Greek authorities pronounced to be in the wrong? Besides all this, Jews, if consulted as to the meaning of the Hebrew text, may give a different opinion from yours: in which case it will seem as if your presence were indispensable, as being the only one who could refute their view; and it would be a miracle if one could be found capable of acting as arbiter between you and them.
A certain bishop, one of our brethren, having introduced in the church over which he presides the reading of your version, came upon a word in the book of the prophet Jonah, of which you have given a very different rendering from that which had been of old familiar to the senses and memory of all the worshippers, and had been chanted for so many generations in the church. Thereupon arose such a tumult in the congregation, especially among the Greeks, correcting what had been read, and denouncing the translation as false, that the bishop was compelled to ask the testimony of the Jewish residents (it was in the town of Oea). These, whether from ignorance or from spite, answered that the words in the Hebrew manuscripts were correctly rendered in the Greek version, and in the Latin one taken from it. What further need I say? The man was compelled to correct your version in that passage as if it had been falsely translated, as he desired not to be left without a congregation — a calamity which he narrowly escaped. From this case we also are led to think that you may be occasionally mistaken. You will also observe how great must have been the difficulty if this had occurred in those writings which cannot be explained by comparing the testimony of languages now in use.

Jerome later replied defending his translation, however, Augustine was correct in warning Jerome that the Hebrew was altered.

Conclusion

In the end we have not only the proof from within the Bible itself that the Hebrew Masoretic Text is not the true written word of God, since the New Testament exposes the alterations in the Hebrew as specific quotes do not match, but the early Church stands as a testimony to the lengths that some of the Jews went to in order to deny Jesus as the Messiah.

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