Was There an Old Testament Before the New Testament? A Guest Post from Jason Parry

There is an ongoing debate about when the books of the Old Testament were recognized as Scripture and when, or whether, there was a closed circle of books that were recognized to be inspired by the Holy Spirit prior to the time of Jesus. Related questions include where the additional material found in the Greek translations of books such as Daniel and Esther came from, why it was added, and what this material might indicate about the status of these books.

Jason Parry is doing his dissertation here at SBTS under Peter Gentry on “The Character of the Greek Version of Daniel Attributed to Theodotion.” As we corresponded on his prospectus, I asked his thoughts on the deuterocanonical material in Daniel. His reply was so good I asked him if he would reformat it for a blog post, which he graciously did.

Here’s Jason Parry’s take on the evidence:

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The arguments for textual pluralism and literary development of biblical texts in Hellenistic Judaism, and for standardization of the text and formation of the Hebrew canon in the second century AD, often seem impressive because much evidence can be cited to demonstrate that the Jews were developing various versions of biblical texts in the period prior to the second century AD.

The Old Greek version of Daniel, for example, not only departs significantly from the MT in several chapters, but even inserts an apocryphal side-story right into the middle of the plot in chapter 3. The Greek version of Daniel attributed to Theodotion is much closer to the MT than the Old Greek version, but nevertheless retains this apocryphal story found in the Old Greek.

The fact that the translators felt free to deviate from the Hebrew-Aramaic text and to insert apocryphal material could be considered evidence that textual pluralism was in the air and that no canonical boundaries were known to these translators.

However, this same evidence could be interpreted differently.  It is possible that the translators were well aware of a standard, authoritative version of the text and of canonical boundaries, but felt free to deviate from that canonical text on account of its official preservation at the Temple. The goal of the Temple scribes was to preserve the authoritative textual tradition of the canonical text in its original language, while the scribes and translators outside of Temple circles were free to develop popular alternative versions of the texts which potentially deviated from the original in language, narrative style, and even in some content, with the goal of appealing to the Jewish and Gentile masses. The distinction between the standard canonical text and the popular deviating versions was not subject to confusion in the period prior to the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, since the standard text was in all probability stored at the Temple.

The latter explanation of the textual plurality of the Hellenistic period is more probable than the claim of a late date for the standardization and canonization of the text, because it accounts not only for the evidence of multiple versions of texts, but also for the evidence of a canonical consciousness prior to the second century AD.

Thus the fact of textual plurality does not necessarily imply a philosophy of textual pluralism among Hellenistic Jews, since they could simultaneously preserve a canonical textual tradition at the Temple while producing accessible and appealing popular texts for the masses. After the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, however, the Jews had to become more intentional about articulating their canonical boundaries and guarding their textual tradition in order to avoid confusion between the two types of texts.

My understanding of the period, then, could be summarized as follows:

2nd/1st century BC – Diverse Jewish groups, some of whom (like OG-Dan) are interested in popularizing the stories and texts and creating new literature which was loosely connected to the canonical material.  Perhaps this reflects a “seeker-friendly” approach to promoting Judaism. Other Jews are more interested in preserving the textual tradition and sticking close to the proto-MT. The official canonical texts are guarded in the Temple so there’s no confusion as to what’s what in any case.

Late 1st century BC and early 1st century AD – At least some Jews are editing their Greek texts towards the proto-MT, the prime example of which is the oft-cited Greek Minor Prophet Scroll from Nahal Hever which Barthélemy published and analyzed in Les Devanciers d’Aquila. The scroll can be dated to the 50 BC to AD 50 range.  However, there’s probably still a willingness to retain apocryphal (or deuterocanonical) material during this period, which has become popular in the preceding two centuries, and there’s still no confusion as to the official text since the Temple is standing. Theodotion, or at least the Greek version attributed to him, probably belongs to this period.

Late 1st century AD and 2nd century AD – Jews as a whole become more intentional about declaring their canonical boundaries and textual tradition since the Temple is lost and the Christians are gaining ground using Jewish writings and Scripture. The Jews discuss their canonical boundaries by asking themselves which books have always been in their canon; these discussions were previously unnecessary because the canonical text had been stored at the Temple.  The Temple text presumably is preserved from destruction in AD 70 and is handed down to become what we now call the MT.

It is thus possible to account for diversity and even literary development in biblical texts of Hellenistic Judaism without abandoning the long-held belief that our MT for the most part preserves a reliable tradition from before the Hellenistic period.