Patristic biblical theory is complex, and reductionism is difficult to avoid. For reasons I do not understand, folks still frame the complex situation in terms of “the church fathers read the Greek Septuagint” or the church “created its own Septuagint Canon” as if the Hebrew canon and text had only minimal impact on the Christian Bible. As I cited in Part 1 of this series (Parts 1, 2.1, 2.2, 3.1, 3.2, 3.3), Albert Sundberg said that Epiphanius “argued that the Greek translation was actually better than the Hebrew text.” But Sundberg has missed the role of the Hebrew in Epiphanius’s description of the matter and what role it has in his overall theory. As long as these comments and thoughts persist, the complexity of the matter of patristic biblical theory will continue to be reduced to rather simplistic forms. We have looked at Epiphanius’s biblical theory over the last several posts, which is only a very small part of the much larger picture of patristic biblical theory. In what follows, I offer a few summary comments.
The Take Away
- Canon. Epiphanius affirmed the Jewish canon of twenty-two books after the analogy of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. He would have probably been confused by the terminology of “Septuagint Canon.” He thought the Seventy-Two translated far more books than the twenty-two canonical books. He would not have conceived of the canonical books as the books contained in the magisterial codices that have come down to us. In retrospect, we can say that Epiphanius probably affirmed the Hebrew canon in Greek dress; that is, he still would have thought the following were part of the Hebrew canon: Daniel 13–14 as part of Daniel, the additions to Esther, Esdras A, and Baruch and the Epistle as parts of Jeremiah. Books like Wisdom of Solomon and Ben Sira, though not canonical, would have been considered useful and beneficial Scripture.
- The Hebrew Version. Epiphanius grants a significant place to the Hebrew Text in his biblical theory. The translators were trained from infancy in both Hebrew and Greek languages. Moses and the Seventy elders in Exodus 24 are the chief examples. The Hebrew books are described as divine books of prophets. In Mens. 9, the Seventy-Two are credited with translating the same divine Scripture from the Hebrew language into Greek. The Hebrew is the reference point with which the Greek is compared. Epiphanius argues that the Greek is equal to the Hebrew with some insignificant differences due to translation technique.
- Greek Translation of the Seventy-Two. Clearly, Epiphanius’s burden is to argue for the truth contained in the Seventy-Two against the Three revisions of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion. He conveys an expanded form of the legend of Aristeas in order to show the miraculous result and method of translation used by them. The translators are “prophets in part;” that is, they passed over and augmented the Hebrew text because they had the gift of the Holy Spirit. He does not seem to argue that they were full prophets on the level of Moses himself. Furthermore, he explains the omissions and additions in their translation according to their technique. Regarding the former, they produce a smooth rendering by passing over superfluous repetitions. Regarding the latter, they augment the Hebrew text where it is ambiguous or defective in terms of meaning. In each case, they acted in harmony with the Holy Spirit to publish a translation for the benefit of the nations about to inherit life.
In the course of writing these posts, I was delighted to rediscover the conclusion of Ed Gallagher on this exact matter in his book:
[Epiphanius] does not as a rule trust the Three to reflect accurately the current Hebrew text. Rather, the Three have often distorted the text to serve their own agendas. Neither does Epiphanius give serious consideration to textual corruption in the Hebrew as an explanation for divergences from the LXX. On the whole, he seems to assume, with Justin and Irenaeus, that the extant LXX corresponds to the extant Hebrew text, with due allowance being made for the nature of translation, which cannot achieve one-to one correspondence, not even an inspired translation…. Epiphanius saw that the majority of differences were inconsequential, and this realization shaped the way he discussed the matter (p. 194).
I think this wraps up my thoughts on Epiphanius’s biblical theory for now. I have more to say about his views of Origen and the Jewish revisers but need to shift focus to this matter of the so-called “Septuagint Canon” in the days to come. I hope to post some thoughts along the way.