Does the NT Misread the OT?
Posted by John Meade on December 7, 2010
Daniel O. McCellan and I are having a bit of an exchange on his blog regarding the whole issue of the NT’s use of the OT here. Daniel posits that Hebrews 2:5ff has misread Psalm 8 via the mistranslation of the LXX. In Daniel’s view, this example shows that one cannot read the Bible “univocally,” since the NT is reading into the OT text and using it for its purposes. I disagree with Daniel for two reasons: 1) I’m not convinced that the LXX has misread the Hebrew text when it translates אלהים with αγγελοι. On his thread I said:
The Greek Psalter uses αγγελος 13 times to render three Hebrew words: אביר אלוהים, and מלאך. Of these 13 times, it uses αγγελοι to render “gods” 3 times (8:5, 96(97):7, and 137(138):1). In 96:7, αγγελοι is a very fitting translation of אלוהים since it clearly has “gods” or “divine beings” in view and not the God of Israel, YHWH, while the other two references are debatable. There is clearly not a different Vorlage underlying the LXX, since it is an established equivalent in the Psalter (see also Job 1:6 et al.). So there is no textual fluidity here, but rather indication that the translator is attempting a somewhat close rendering of a text similar to M. When the Hebrew Psalter refers to false gods/judges(?) or elohim in 81(82):1 and 85(86):8, the translator uses θεοι. Thus it would seem that the LXX has detected three meanings of elohim: God, angels or divine beings, and false gods/judges, and it has a different equivalent for each, clearly distinguishing the true God of Israel from the false gods by employing the singular and plural of θεος respectively. All of this seems like good translating on the part of the LXX, not a different Vorlage.
Therefore, in my view, LXX Psalms is actually a faithful translation of the Hebrew text (Peshitta and Targum also have “angels” here). Daniel thinks the translator made a translational (?; I don’t think he means an unintentional error of hearing or sight) mistake here, but I think he needs to show that αγγελοι is an insufficient Greek equivalent in those instances where elohim means something other than false gods or the God of Israel. It may be a novel translation equivalent in the LXX (though I’m not certain of this point), but does that mean the translator misread the Hebrew text?
2) I’m also not convinced that Hebrews has misinterpreted Psalm 8 by applying it to Christ. There is some debate over whether this text is Christocentric or anthropocentric, but let’s assume the former for the sake of discussion. I understand Psalm 8 to be written by David on the basis of the superscription attested in both MT and LXX, and therefore it is quite early. If it is Davidic, then one should read it in light of the covenant God made with David (2 Sam. 7:13ff) and in the light of the original creation of Adam, since it is a commentary on creation. I understand humanity and, therefore Adam as the first human, to be a kingly figure, since he is identified as the image and likeness of God. Genesis 5:3 also links Son with image, and therefore Adam is considered the Son of God, which is a title of kings in the ancient world. David also realizes that the covenant God made with him and his genealogy places him as King over all of the peoples, since there is one God over the entire world in the Israelite worldview (Deut. 6:4; 2 Sam. 7:19; cp. Isaiah 2:1-3).
Hebrews 2:5ff, then, continues the Christological argument of the author, begun in 1:4ff. The word οικουμενη links 1:6 to 2:5ff, showing that the argument in chapters 1-2 is actually the same one. The author effectively shows in the categories of the OT that Jesus is the great Davidic King, the Son of God, who is at the same time fulfilling the covenant made with creation.
Daniel has set up the argument that there are some who understand the relationship between NT and OT as “univocal.” I’m not sure to whom he is responding, since most Evangelical scholars I know and read, affirm the relationship between the Testaments to be something like “unity in diversity.” This means that the Bible has essential unity but that it also has contours and development, similar to a well-woven tapestry, which has individual patterns and colors, but of course these all create a unified pattern. The question is then, does the evidence reveal that Hebrews diverged from the essential message and theology (-ies) of the OT in a way that the OT would not approve or affirm? Or does the evidence indicate that the exegesis of Hebrews develops the OT theologies (creation and Davidic covenant et al.) in light of the first advent of Jesus Christ in a way that the OT would stand and say, “Amen.”
These are big questions, but each one needs to wrestle with this issue. Thanks Daniel for raising this important question, even if we do disagree on the answer.