Hebrew Versus Greek Old Testament

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Questions: I find a lot of things online saying that the Greek OT is better than the Hebrew OT. Are they right? Aren’t our English translations of the OT based on the Hebrew Bible? How can I read my NASB and not wonder if the Greek OT says something different that might be more accurate? Doesn’t the NT quote from the Greek OT in places where it is different from the Hebrew OT?

Great questions! Let me take them one at a time.

1. Is the Greek OT better and more accurate than the Hebrew tradition (MT) behind our English Bibles? The short answer is, “Generally, no, it isn’t.” In 2020, Emanuel Tov, perhaps the world’s foremost expert in OT textual criticism, wrote this: “Overall, compared with the other known texts, MT is generally the best text available. By ‘generally’ we mean that this is not the case in all words or all verses, nor in all books” (Evaluating (Proto-) MT – Part 9). To the best of my knowledge, Tov’s view is shared broadly by most OT textual critical scholars. As an aside, many online discussions of this issue appear misinformed.

2. Aren’t our English translations of the OT based on the Hebrew Bible? Yes, they are, but English translation committees as far back as the KJV have taken the Greek OT into consideration. There are multiple places where the KJV and modern versions follow Greek OT readings rather than the Hebrew text. There are good reasons to believe that the translators of our English versions have carefully compared all the evidence available. They have not slighted the Greek OT. They have evaluated it and followed it where they believe it is closer to the original than the Hebrew text we have.

There are good reasons to believe that the translators of our English versions have carefully compared all the evidence available.

3. How can I read my NASB and not wonder if the Greek OT says something different that might be more accurate? First, remember to pay attention to the marginal notes in whatever Bible you read (e.g., NET Bible notes). You’ll find references to alternate readings in the Septuagint (Greek OT), Syriac, and Vulgate with some degree of frequency. Second, you don’t have to wonder if the Greek OT says something different. English translations of the Greek OT are freely available online and in print. The NETS (New English Translation of the Septuagint) is one of the most recent. I would encourage you to compare them for yourself.

4. Doesn’t the NT quote from the Greek OT in places where it is different from the Hebrew OT? It is universally acknowledged that the NT quotes from the Greek OT (e.g., Hebrews 1:6 quotes Deuteronomy 32:43 LXX). But that is hardly remarkable. Of course, Greek authors, writing to Greek audiences, quote from the Greek version of the OT. Since the Greek OT agrees with the Hebrew OT in the large percentage of the text, the use of the Greek isn’t necessarily a choice against the Hebrew. It can be just a choice to use a familiar translation versus doing the difficult work of making one’s own translation that may raise more questions in the audience than are necessary.

Beyond this very large-scale picture, the complexity of evaluating the Greek OT is so thick that without extensive reading in OT textual criticism, one isn’t in a position to generalize, let alone make any determination on a case-by-case basis. Even with as much exposure as I have to the discipline, I feel hesitant to offer much more beyond a confident rejection of the idea that modern English versions have failed to consider Greek evidence in their translations of the OT.

Bottom line: Where all the textual evidence aligns, I have complete confidence that we have the original text. That’s most of the OT. Where the evidence diverges, my confidence level dials up or down depending on the nature of the evidence. In those few places, like 1 Samuel 13:1, where we can’t draw a conclusion with any degree of certainty, the translators note the ambiguity of the evidence. When the evidence is ambiguous, we should acknowledge it and base no doctrine or practice on it.

If you’d like to read more, then I suggest: Ellis R. Brotzman and Eric J. Tully. Old Testament Textual Criticism: A Practical Introduction. Baker Academic, 2016.

Adapted from the God’s Revivalist. Used by permission.

Philip Brownhttp://apbrown2.net
Dr. Philip Brown is Graduate Program Director and Professor at God's Bible School & College. He holds a PhD in Old Testament Interpretation from Bob Jones University and is the author of A Reader's Hebrew Bible (Zondervan Academic, 2008).