The New Dead Sea Scroll Discoveries and the Septuagint

The world of biblical scholarship is abuzz this week with the new finds in the Judean Desert. I thought I’d draw attention to these, not only because it’s always important when new biblical manuscripts come to light, but also because these finds connect directly with Septuagint scholarship.

What are these new finds?

Photo credit: Eitan Klein, Israel Antiquities Authority

You can read all about these new finds in loads of places (e.g., here and here). It’s a fantastic story, but the short version is that for the first time in sixty years, archaeologists have uncovered numerous new items from the so-called Cave of Horror in the Naḥal Ḥever wadi. The discoveries are the result of renewed efforts by the Israel Antiquities Authority to prevent further looting of cultural treasures.

If you don’t think biblical studies is exciting, check out this slightly over-produced three-minute video. As you can see in the video, the Cave of Horror — fondly known as “Cave 8” — is very precariously situated a few hundred feet off the side of a sheer cliff. Scholars have known about the cave since the 1950s when it was discovered by (some very daring) Bedouins. Originally it contained over forty human skeletons — hence the name — that once belonged to Jews during the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans, along with a scroll of the Minor Prophets in Greek that is known known as 8ḤevXIIgr (Ra 943). We’ll come back to that soon.

Among the new items found in Cave 8 are some pretty astonishing things. For example, a massive and nearly perfectly preserved basket dated over ten thousand years old (now the oldest such basket known), a mummified child that is six thousand years old, a cache of Jewish coins, potsherds, and arrowheads. From the sound of it, these discoveries will not be the last.

What does this mean for Septuagint studies?

Photo credit: Shai Halevi, Israel Antiquities Authority

Among the various other finds are several dozen fragments of written texts, most of which are Greek versions of the books of Zechariah and Nahum. At this point, it looks like these fragments came from the same larger scroll discovered by Yochanan Aharoni in the ’50s (8ḤevXIIgr) and later examined by Dominique Barthélemy (1921-2002). These new fragments really are just that — fragments! — as you can see in the image to the right. 

These fragments are already being studied under the superintendence of Tanya Bitler, Oren Ableman, and Beatriz Riestra. So far, eleven lines of text have been reconstructed from Zech. 8:16-17 and Nah. 1:5-6 (in two different scribal hands), in which an example of the Tetragrammaton appears written in paleo-Hebrew. 

Part of what makes these fragments — and the scroll of which they are parts — so significant is that this particular Greek version of the Minor Prophets differs in certain ways from what we have in the Masoretic Text, which itself is the textual basis of virtually all modern translations of the Old Testament. In his seminal monograph Devanciers d’Aquila (Cerf, 1963), Barthélemy examined 8ḤevXIIgr and permanently altered scholarly understanding of the textual history of the Septuagint.

Prior to Barthélemy, scholars had noted similarities in various translation features between Judges, Ruth, parts of Samuel and Kings, and Lamentations. Of particular importance is the use of καίγε to translate the Hebrew וגם, an observation that goes back to Thackeray and which later became known generally as the Kaige Recension. In Barthélemy’s study, however, he showed that this tendency was even broader and earlier than Thackeray (or anyone else) knew. Barthélemy added into the group books like the Song of Songs, the Theodotionic version of Daniel, the recension of Aquila, and some other texts.

The critical point was Barthélemy’s explanation of how all these texts tied together. How do you connect figures like Aquila with translation features in parts of Samuel? Answer: 8ḤevXIIgr.

Barthélemy found the same kinds of translation tendencies in 8ḤevXIIgr that Thackeray and others had noticed in other places, indicating that the Kaige phenomenon was much broader and earlier than scholars ever thought. Not only that, but Kaige features were not indicative of a totally new translation inserted later (as Thackeray thought), but rather according to Barthélemy represented a revision of a Greek version already in existence. That revision was meant to bring the Greek version closer into alignment with the Hebrew text and it set a kind of precedent for later work such as the translation style we find in Aquila.

So what does this mean for Septuagint studies? It’s too soon to tell, but you better believe that these texts will receive a great deal of scrutiny in the years to come. If you want to read more about Kaige, I recommend you check out James K. Aitken, “The Origins of Και Γε.” In Biblical Greek in Context: Essays in Honour of John A. L. Lee, edited by James K. Aitken and Trevor V. Evans, Biblical Tools and Studies. Leuven: Peeters, 2015.

Further Implications

In another post, I am going to wade into unusual territory. Oddly enough, this seems to be a good moment to speak to some very bizarre and mistaken views about the Septuagint within Christian fundamentalist circles too, which I will do with as much charity as I can muster. More on that soon(ish maybe).

6 comments

  1. This is so cool!  I really enjoyed reading this.  You need to get to the Holy Lands!! me

    Linda Ross, Realtor

    Quinn & Wilson Realtor1494 Old York Road

    Abington, PA  19001

    LindaRossRealtor.com

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