Wednesday, March 26, 2008


After so long a time, we now have, within the space of a year, two complete English translations of the Septuagint, the Old Testament of the early Church, and still the Old Testament for Orthodox Christians. One is a scholarly edition, the New English Translation of the Septuagint, published by Oxford University Press and typically referred to as NETS ($19.80 at Amazon; thanks Iyov!). I’ve written about this translation previously. Now there is also the St Athanasius Academy Septuagint, the trademarked (!) name of the Old Testament included in the new Orthodox Study Bible: Ancient Christianity Speaks to Today’s World published by Thomas Nelson Publishers (the New Testament translation included is the New King James Version, which was likewise the “boilerplate” used as a guide to the translation of the Septuagint, in a role analogous to that of the NRSV for NETS). The OSB is available in both a hardback and a “genuine leather” edition, and least expensively from Amazon (hardback only is available for pre-order; available now in hardback and “leather” from Conciliar Press). As I’ve already described the NETS, I’ll now briefly review the new Orthodox Study Bible (henceforth OSB) and proceed to a comparison of these two welcome translations.

First, as is patently indicated by its title, the OSB is a study Bible intended primarily for an English-reading Eastern Orthodox Christian audience and other English readers with an interest in Orthodoxy. At the bottom of each page are notes of varying lengths, though tending toward brevity, rather like those of the Oxford Annotated Bibles. There are various single-page study articles interspersed throughout both Testaments, covering subjects like Ancestral Sin, Sacrifice, The Tabernacle, Types of Mary in the Old Testament, and so on. There are likewise a number of different full-color pages including reproductions of various icons, which the Orthodox are well-known for. A number of different articles and helps are likewise included: Acknowledgments, Special Recognition, an introduction, a page listing the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant Old Testaments, a page of abbreviations of patristic authors and materials used in the notes, “Overview of the Books of the Bible” by Bishop Basil (Essey) of Wichita and Mid-America, “Introducing the Orthodox Church,” “The Bible: God’s Revelation to Man” by Bishop Joseph (al-Zehlaoui) of Los Angeles and the West, “How to Read the Bible” by Bishop Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia, a “Lectionary” which is not precisely the actual liturgical lectionary of the Eastern Orthodox Church but is intended for a devotional reading schedule, a glossary of terms and phrases used in the notes, pages of morning and evening prayers, indices to the annotations and study articles, the traditional list of The Seventy Apostles (see Luke 10), and a set of full-color maps. Throughout the OSB, each book of the two Testaments is given an introductory section including Author, Date, Major Theme, Background, and Outline. All this indicates therefore a volume of satisfying heft, and of a great variety of resources typical of study Bible of our day and age.

I have not delved deeply into the OSB yet, but can give some initial impressions. First, there are various pearls of patristic wisdom strewn about in the notes, with attribution only by abbreviated name, not by work. There could have been more, which would rather have been appreciated, of course, but at the very least citations should have been included, whether for a quotation or for the more vague sorts of allusions worded by the annotators. Otherwise, the notes are fairly consistent in following a Christocentric interpretation in the Old Testament, the traditional Orthodox approach which makes for such rich hymnography. When, however, they drift into mere summary of the sections above, they are rather jejune and entirely unnecessary.

The icons are a mixed bag of quality. There are some beautiful ones: a the Three Holy Youths in the Furnace from a mural at Vatopaidi Monastery, Mount Athos dated 1312; The Transfiguration by Photi Kontoglu; and St John the Forerunner by Father Gregory (surname not given). The rest are of varying quality, some being quite sentimentalizing, some veering toward mere painting. A consistenly better collection of icons could have been presented, as our holy icons are treasures of the Church and there are hundreds of recognized works written in great sanctity and also recognized to be of great artistic value. This was also a complaint of the icons included in the first Orthodox Study Bible: New Testament and Psalms. Astonishingly, all of the icons presented in that earlier volume, several of which received complaints regarding their quality, were included in this volume, along with a few others.

My copy is the “genuine leather” edition, with gilt-edged pages. Apparently these days, “genuine leather” means what used to be called “bonded leather.” The cover of this one feels more like cardboard, of much lesser quality than even the first OSB, which wasn’t of great quality at all. And the binding is glued, not stitched, which is truly unfortunate (and cheap). In combination with this, the margins are miserly, so that the text veers into the gutter (where the pages meet in the middle of the open book). The print is, however, comfortably large, though the line spacing seems a bit cramped. Each page is two-columned, fully justified (that is, both sides of the text block meet the edges of the columns). I would have this OSB rebound with a better quality cover, but the glued binding and small margins would result in it being unusable, as the gutter problem would grow even worse once sewn. Nice. There is only one register (the bound-in ribbon bookmark) unlike the old OSB which included two. The page edge gilding is the spray-on kind that is already leaving little flecks of gold everywhere. So, as an example of bookbinding, I would not rate the OSB well.

The use of the New King James Version in the New Testament is still an issue. For the amount of time this translation was in process (roughly ten years since I first started following it), an entire New Testament translation based on Constantinople’s Ecclesiastical text could have been easily produced. Instead, we have this translation based on the hybrid Textus Receptus, and Byzantine readings noted in the translation as readings of the “M-Text” and readings from the Nestle-Aland/UBS text noted as the “NU-Text.” With all the effort put into producing the Septuagint translation, a little more to produce a translation of the Ecclesiastical text would have been appreciated. As it stands, therefore, this “Orthodox Study Bible” is only half Orthodox: in the Old Testament only. A few quotations of Church Fathers in the notes doesn’t fix the NT.

The order of the books follows the traditional Orthodox order, except in mysteriously placing the Prayer of Manasseh not after the Psalms, where the Odes would normally be, but as the last column on the last page of 2 Chronicles, where it appears to be a part of chapter 36. Then there is the confusion of the two Ezra books and Nehemiah. In the Septuagint, it is usually the case (as in NETS; also see here) that there is 1 Esdras, the alternate partial Chronicles/Ezra-Nehemiah book, and then the Hebrew Ezra and Nehemiah books are combined as 2 Esdras, with 23 chapters. The OSB inexplicably has 1 Ezra (the 1 Esdras above), 2 Ezra (Hebrew Ezra), and Nehemiah. Though I do recall this as an option among Greek treatments of the titles of these books, it’s not as common as the other. In Daniel there is a serious problem with the page headers. At the beginning of Daniel is, as is proper, the book of Susanna, and at the end, Bel and the Serpent. Unfortunately, the page headers take the verse of Susanna as the chapter of Daniel, so the header on page 1237, the second page of Susanna/Daniel, reads “Daniel 41″ and the next page “Daniel 42.” At the end of the book, page 1261 has the header “Daniel 21″ and the next page “Daniel 22.”

So, the OSB appears to be at the very least a step in the right direction, and I do expect myself to warm to it to a certain degree, but its shortcomings are real and inexcusable. I know quite a number of people worked on this Bible for a long time. It should have been better. It could have been better. Why is it not better?

Now I’d like to look at the two Septuagint translations in comparison. The NETS is, of course, a scholarly effort of great erudition, designed for use as an academic tool. The OSB is designed for use as devotional reading. For this reason, the OSB doesn’t include translations of the variant texts in Joshua, Judges, Esther, and Daniel, for instance, but rather opts for what is (more or less) the Ecclesiastical text. As I mentioned above, the OSB used the NKJV as a base for its translation, just as the NETS used the NRSV. In this first comparison, therefore, I’ve chosen Sirach 44.1-5, as something not contaminated by boilerplate usage of the NKJV.

OSB Sirach 4.1-5:Let us now praise honored men and our fathers. The Lord established His great glory And majesty from the beginning through them. There were those who ruled in their kingdoms And were men renowned for their power, Giving counsel through their understanding And proclaiming prophecies. There were leaders of the people by their counsels And understanding of learning for the people, Wise in their words of instruction.

NETS Sirach 44.1-5 Let us now praise famous men and our fathers by descent. The Lord created much glory, his majesty from eternity. When they ruled in their kingdoms, men also became noteworthy through power; when they counseled with their intelligence, when they announced through their prophecies, when they led the people by deliberations and with understanding of a people’s scribal art—wise words there are in their instruction.

Notice how the OSB simply does not flow, and only really makes sense after having read the NETS version. This is caused by relying too strictly on a very literal translation method. See how with very little change, the NETS flows so much better. What, for instance, is “understanding of learning for the people” in the OSB supposed to connote? The Greek is και συνεσει γραμματειας λαου, which is much better rendered by NETS as “understanding of a people’s scribal art.” The issue in the OSB appears to lie in the RSV being used as a base text in this instance (”understanding of learning for the people”) rather than the more clear NRSV (”knowledge of the people’s lore”), which is informed not merely by Greek Sirach, but the Hebrew fragments, the key phrase here being חכמי שיח בספרתם. NETS is the best of the set on this front.
Now we’ll go to an old favorite, Psalm 22 (23 in the Masoretic and English numbering tradition), and see what the OSB and NETS have done. I provide the Greek text first, so you can compare for yourselves.

Greek Psalm 22 (23) Κύριος ποιμαίνει με, καὶ οὐδέν με ὑστερήσει.εἰς τόπον χλόης, ἐκεῖ με κατεσκήνωσεν,ἐπὶ ὕδατος ἀναπαύσεωςἐξέθρεψέν με,τὴν ψυχήν μου ἐπέστρεψεν.ὡδήγησέν με ἐπὶ τρίβους δικαιοσύνηςἕνεκεν τοῦ ὀνόματος αὐτοῦ.ἐὰν γὰρ καὶ πορευθῶ ἐν μέσῳ σκιᾶς θανάτου,οὐ φοβηθήσομαι κακά,ὅτι σὺ μετ’ ἐμοῦ εἶ·ἡ ῥάβδος σου καὶ ἡ βακτηρία σου, αὐταί με παρεκάλεσαν.ἡτοίμασας ἐνώπιόν μου τράπεζαν ἐξ ἐναντίας τῶν θλιβόν των με·ἐλίπανας ἐν ἐλαίῳ τὴν κεφαλήν μου,καὶ τὸ ποτήριόν σου μεθύσκον ὡς κράτιστον.καὶ τὸ ἔλεός σου καταδιώξεταί με πάσας τὰς ἡμέρας τῆς ζωῆς μου,καὶ τὸ κατοικεῖν με ἐν οἴκῳ κυρίου εἰς μακρότητα ἡμερῶν.

OSB Psalm 22 (23) The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of deathI will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me All the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the Lord to the end of my days.

NETS Psalm 22 (23) The Lord shepherds me, and I shall lack nothing. In a verdant place, there he made me encamp; by water of rest he reared me; my soul he restored. He led me into paths of righteousnessfor his name’s sake. For even if I walk in the midst of death’s shadow, I will not fear evil, because you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comforted me. You prepared a table before me over against those that afflict me; you anointed my head with oil, and your cup was supremely intoxicating. And your mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life, and my residing in the Lord’s house is for length of days.

First one notices, shockingly, that the OSB does not translate the Greek at all. It is, in fact, the precise text of the New King James Version for Psalm 23, a translation of the Hebrew psalm, of course. The only alteration toward the Septuagint is at the very end, and even there it is quite wrong: “to the end of my days.” εἰς μακρότητα ἡμερῶν does not mean “to the end of my days” but rather, as NETS rightly has it “for length of days,” a circumlocution for “forever.” The intention seems to be “not to rock the boat” by providing a translation that is too different from what people are accustomed to, even when the (supposedly!) underlying text of the Septuagint is quite different than the Hebrew. As some monarch somewhere has sometime undoubtedly said, “We are not pleased.”

So, for me, NETS will remain my English Septuagint of choice, and it will remain the English Septuagint that I recommend to others, without reservation and with whole-hearted, honest enthusiasm. I’m not particularly fond of “study Bibles” in any case. I am particularly not fond of those claiming to be something they aren’t (in this case a complete translation of the Septuagint), and with a supposedly sanctifying veneer of Orthodoxy about them. Don’t get me wrong: I love Orthodoxy, entirely and wholly; it is my life. But slapping the word Orthodox onto a Bible which is insufficiently representative of the richness and beauty of the tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church, even at the level of its own language, does absolutely nothing for me, and in fact makes me rather angry. This Orthodox Study Bible could have been better and should have been better. Why was it not better?

- Kevin P. Edgecomb, posted at

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