I learned a long time ago that the cross-reference in the margins of the average Bible was a helpful guide to understanding how the New Testament (NT) and the Old Testament (OT) relate to one another. Somewhere around 2009 I also made the realization that some of the OT references listed in the NT were not quoted well or that some seem to be practicing some very poor exegesis. A friend that I met through church, who had already graduated from Bible college, mentioned that she was rather disappointed with the way that the NT authors used the OT passages completely out of context. At that time in my life I was not familiar with this particular issue so I poured myself into checking as many references as I could. For months I read and searched all the ways that the NT used the OT passages.
What I discovered was that quite often the NT either paraphrased the OT passage or that the NT simply misquoted the OT passage. Many of the misquotes that I found to seemed benign because they are not as much of a misquote as a re-working of the text. The misquote being discussed in this article is the rework type. The OT text quoted in Hebrews 10 clearly does not match what is in Psalm 40, but is it a serious problem? Also, what does this mean about the doctrine of inerrancy? Those questions will be answered in this article.
Below is an explanation of this type of error, found in the NT, as well as the reason why so many of these errors exist.
Text of Hebrews 10 against Psalm 40
Hebrews 10:5-7 King James Version (KJV)
5 ……. Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared me:
6 In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin thou hast had no pleasure.
7 Then said I, Lo, I come (in the volume of the book it is written of me,) to do thy will, O God.
Psalm 40:6-8 King James Version (KJV)
6 Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire; mine ears hast thou opened: burnt offering and sin offering hast thou not required.
7 Then said I, Lo, I come: in the volume of the book it is written of me,
8 I delight to do thy will, O my God: yea, thy law is within my heart.
The disagreement between Hebrews 10:5 and Psalm 40:6 is mostly concerning the proposed action that God had performed.
but a body hast thou prepared me (Hebrews)
mine ears hast thou opened (Psalm 40)
Did God prepare a body or did He open ears? Which one is correct?
Technically, they are both correct, but Psalm 40 in the original Hebrew is more correct. The passage is different in the book of Hebrews because the author of Hebrews quoted from the Septuagint (LXX), which was the Greek version of the OT, widely used in the first century. He did not quote from the Masoretic Hebrew text which is the basis for most modern OT texts. The LXX was the standard for first century Jews because the Greek language was the main language of the people at that time. Additionally, many of the converts of Paul spoke only Greek, so quoting the OT in Aramaic or Hebrew would have been a problem since his audience could not read it. Of course some early Christians could still speak and read Aramaic, but everyday life and interactions with others were done in Greek. It’s been suggested by others that the poorest Jews in Judea may have lacked the ability to really speak Greek. The barrier between Gentiles primarily speaking Greek and poor/rural Jews only speaking Aramaic presented real problems in the early Church. Perhaps, Paul’s calling to the Gentiles would best explain why he chose to reference the OT in Greek, rather than Aramaic or Hebrew.
The dependency of some people on the Greek OT raises an issue for the modern reader, which is that the LXX mistranslated or purposefully changed some of the Hebrew texts. It’s pretty fair to say that the LXX was carefree in it’s translation of the Hebrew. Moreover, there was no official single copy of the LXX. Many Greek manuscripts existed in the first century and they were not in universal agreement with each other or the Hebrew texts. So one cannot know for sure if some passages in the LXX were translated correctly, just from an unknown Hebrew manuscript. Just a few examples of the changes in the LXX are that the book of Job was dramatically re-ordered in the LXX and the book of Ester is quite a bit longer in the Greek than in the Hebrew manuscripts. These changes in the text are easily located because in modern times there exists a wide access to the texts, where as ancient texts were often transmitted orally.
The problems with the LXX would be irrelevant had the NT authors not used it as an authoritative copy of the OT. Paul almost always quotes from the LXX over the Hebrew. Clearly it was good enough for Paul. But did Paul know that it differed from the Hebrew? My guess is that he did know, but the idea of inerrancy concerning the OT scriptures was not as defined as our modern theology of inerrancy. The Jewish people very much had a canon that was “living” and changing. One community considered books like Esdras and Maccabees to be inspired and canonical, where as others would not. What the Essenes thought of as inspired and what the Pharisees thought of as inspired were often two different things. The idea of inerrancy was typically only given to the law and then later in the 3rd century to the prophets. It was not immediately important to declare the historical or wisdom literature to without error. Moreover, the Jewish faith was not closed to new revelation. God’s revelation to His people did not die with the prophets of our current version of the OT.
That being said, the text found in the LXX for Psalm 40:6 is not necessarily a misquote as much as it is a re-working of the passage. It appears that the translator of the Greek text took liberalities to insert a little play on words or a rhyme of sorts….. some have even call it a pun (myself not included). For those who are confident in their Greek abilities, I highly suggest that they read the article “The Function of Paronomasia in Hebrews 10:5–7“, by Karen H. Jobes. Karen is one of the most premier scholars on the LXX and was the Professor of New Testament Greek and Greek Exegesis, Emerita, at Wheaton College from 2005 to 2015. Most seminary professors reference her works on the Greek OT, no matter which seminary they teach at. She is a renown expert in her field.
Since most English speakers do not read Greek, I will give a gloss of the article below.
Jobes argues that the translator of Psalm 40 in the LXX employed a rhetorical device call a paronomasia. A paronomasia in English is just a play on words, which was heavily used in writings of first century Greek because the texts were often heard by a reader, not read by individuals. Much like the letters of Paul were read aloud to the churches, Greek texts in the form of plays, poems, and even history would create phonetic phrases and passages that were easy to remember. A good example of why this was helpful can be seen in learning a new language. When I was in high school German class it was not uncommon to learn a song or a poem in German. This is because we learn things that rhyme easier than things that do not. A rhyme reduces the number of word options that fit into the given location because whatever the word is, it has to continue on the same rhythmic trend. This is why most languages also have an alphabet song. Even learned adults sometimes recite the ABCs mentally or aloud by using the song they learned in grade school or kindergarten.
For the Greek speakers reading this article, here is the LXX version of Psalm 40 as presented in Hebrews 10, which contains the rhythmic version created by the LXX author.
5b Θυσίαν καὶ προσφορὰν οὐκ ἠθέλησας
Σῶμα δὲ κατηρτίσω μοι
6 Ὁλοκαυτώματα καὶ περὶ
ἁμαρτίας Οὐκ εὐδόκησας
7 Τότε εἶπον
Ἐν κεφαλίδι βιβλίου γέγραπται περὶ ἐμοῦ
Τοῦ ποιῆσαι ὁ Θεός τὸ θέλημά σου
5b: θυ- σί- αν- καὶ- πρὸσ- φο- ρὰν- οὐκ- ἠ- θέ- λη- σας
5c: σω̂- μα- δὲ- κα- τηρ- τί- σω- μου
6: ὁ- λο- καυ- τώ- μα- τα- καὶ- πε- ρίἁ-
μαρ- τί- ασ- οὐκ- εὐ- δό- κη- σας
7a: τότε εἰ̂πον·
7b: ἰδοὺ ἣκω,
7c: ἐν- κε- φα- λί- δι- βιβ- λί- ου- γέ- γραπ- ται- πε- ρὶ- ἐ- μου̂
του̂- ποι- η̂- σαι- ὁ- θε- ὸσ- τὸ- θέ- λη- μά- σου
Oddly enough, when reading the quotation in Greek, it is slightly reminiscent of the song from Cinderella, “Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo”. The Cinderella connections is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but demonstrates the power of a mnemonic device.
Put ’em together and what have you got?
When transliterated directly into English the Greek text would sound like the following paragraph. However, I did make one adjustment from Jobe’s version which I will highlight and explain afterwards.
Thy-si-an kia pros-pho-ran ouk e-the-le-sas
so-ma de ka-ter-ti-so mou
Ha-lo-kau-to-mat-ta kai pe-ri ha-mar-ti-as
en ke-pha-li-di bib-li-ou ge-grap-tai pe-ri em-ou
Tou poi-e-sai ho The-os to the-le-ma-sou
The rhyme is made up of endings that sounds like “sas” (σας) or “ou” (ου). I adjusted the part in RED simply because Jobe divided a word in half in order to force her version of the rhyme, however, I believe it works just fine while keeping the word in tact. Jobe also points out that the rhyme also aligns syllables sounding ending in the long “O” sound. This is harder to find than the more obvious σας/ου rhyme.
The power of this rhetorical tool is that it work subconsciously. Without having watched Cinderella in more than a decade, the rhythm immediately brought one of the most famous songs in to right to the top of my mind. I was not looking for an English connection, it just happened. These types of rhetorical tools are used quite a bit in cultures where written works were often spoken aloud.
With all this in mind, one still has to address the fact that the author of this Greek passage still changed the words. Did the meaning change along with the words?
Preparing a body VS opening ears
Before digging into this problem, it should be noted that “preparing a body” is not a great English translation of the Greek words “Σῶμα δὲ κατηρτίσω μοι”. The verb κατηρτίσω does translate into “prepare” or rather “you have prepared”. However, I believe a fuller translation could be found with the understanding that preparing in English and Greek means to “bring something to it’s proper condition or a state of readiness”. The English word “prepare” is a condensed word so we must not forget the full meaning of our own English words. When one prepares for a test, they are bringing themselves into a state of readiness. Thus, the full meaning of κατηρτίσω is not well captured in most translations.
The use of Σῶμα “a body” also contains an elusive meaning. The English translation says “a body you have prepared for me” but what is hard to deduce is who’s body it is or it’s relation to the word “me”. Here the Dative case in Greek will solve the mystery. The Dative case signifies a giving of something. A better English phrasing of the ending of verse 5 should be “a body you have prepared for (or given) me”. The meaning in the context of the Psalm is that the Lord was not pleased with just sacrifices or offerings but in learning the doing the will of the Lord.
This meaning is similar to what is seen in the phrase “my ears you have opened”. This is a common phrase denoting that the Lord is allowing one to learn His wisdom. How often did we hear Jesus echo this phraseology?
He who has ears to hear, let him hear. (Matthew 11:15)
Both passages suggest that the Lord was preparing one to learn and do the will of God.
Thus, the two passages are not that far apart in Greek. However, these idioms are not exactly clear in English. When read in the original language, and in right context, the misquote is not as much of misquote. However, should biblical translators wield this much free reign over altering the text? Should the Greek translators be aloud to tamper with the scriptures to blatantly?
Transmission of the Jewish scriptures
Despite mythical stories about how the LXX was initially translated perfectly by 70 different Jewish scholars, as recounted by Josephus and Aristeas, the LXX was not without error. However, first century Judaism was not concerned with exact 1:1 translation. Anyone who speaks 2, 3 or even 4 languages, as people did in the first century Mediterranean region, were well aware that no language has an exact 1 to 1 word equivalence.
Nevertheless, modern students of the Bible must address the issue that elsewhere in the LXX major translation errors or changes do exist. Is it possible to have an inerrant Bible if the authors of the NT quotes passages from the OT that are clearly altered and changed? I would suggest that the modern theory of inerrancy has greatly gone astray. The Bible is not perfect in every single word. It bears the obvious marks of the imperfect beings that God used to transmit His message. Moreover, the gospel message survived just fine for 300 years before there was even an official canon of scripture. If God can build His kingdom during those 300 years then He can manage to continue it’s expansion with a Bible that is, by most accounts, 99% accurate to the originals.
Inerrancy was never needed for God to save mankind.
Featured image of Papyrus 79, one of the older fragments containing Hebrews 10 in Greek, but certainly not the oldest.
Photo citation: K. Treu, Neue neutestamentliche Fragmente der Berliner Papyrussammlung, APF 18 (1966), pp. 37-48.