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The Old Testament

Different Editions of the Bible

In the 3rd century BCE, Jews living in Alexandria, Egypt undertook to translate their Hebrew texts into Greek to meet the needs of an expanding Greek speaking community. The Greek translation that came down to us differs in significant ways from the Hebrew Bible, an indication that there may have been more than one Hebrew version in circulation at that time.

Two differences in particular stand out. One is that the Greek version has 4 main parts instead of 3. The translators 'interpreted' or understood the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings as history rather than prophecy--quite a change! Another is that the Greek list of sacred books is longer than the Hebrew one. A quick glance at a Catholic edition of the Bible, which follows the Greek, then a Protestant one, which follows the Hebrew, will show the differences.

What might we make of such differences? It is heartening to realise that our forebears seem to have been well aware of differences of 'interpretation' and were prepared to live with them. Different views were argued but not, it seems, imposed.

As prospective interpreters of the OT ourselves, it will be good to keep their company. It is also surely significant that the Hebrew tradition does not call any of its books 'history' in the Greek sense, a sense that has had considerable impact on our own understanding of 'history writing' today.

One can see that the books of Samuel and Kings in particular feature prophets in prominent roles. Yet, along with Joshua and Judges, these books also tell the story of Israel's life in the land, the collapse of the monarchy and the ignominy of exile. Again, we come up against the limitations of our words. Each term offers something but not everything. It may be wise to keep both 'prophecy' and 'history' in mind when we come to reflect on the books Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings.

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Copyright © Mark O'Brien, OP. Catholic Institute of Sydney


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