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Music to our ears

How can we be confident of translations of key Biblical texts? 

Last week we looked at how punctuation added to Hebrew Scriptures can affect the meaning of a very important prophetic text, Daniel 9:25:

"Know and understand this: From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven 'sevens,' and sixty-two 'sevens.' It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble.

A simple colon, the ‘atnach – or the lack of it - gave us two possible translations, the traditional Jewish one and the Christian one. The Christian one is an important prophecy for the birth of the Messiah, Jesus.

We would be full of doubt and despair if it weren’t for the fact that the Masoretes weren’t the only ones to translate the Book of Daniel from the original Hebrew. Around seven centuries earlier Theodotion, a Jewish scholar living in the Greek world, produced his own version and it is his translation, without colon or ‘atnach, that forms the basis for the text that appears in the majority of Christian Bibles today. So the easy thing to say is that Theodotion got it right and the Masoretes got it wrong. Perhaps the Masoretes had an anti-Christian agenda? This is easy to say, but it is very wrong, because who are we to judge? What right do we have to comment on the work of these dedicated Jewish scholars, without whose work the Old Testament as we know it would never have appeared?

Praise God there is an answer. We can rest in our beds at night, our faith intact. There is a bigger story here. The Masoretes and Theodotion are both right. The ‘atnachs and other accents in that Daniel passage are not there only for grammatical, but also for musical purposes. They are known as cantillation marks and there are more of them than there are letters in the English alphabet. Israel Yeivin, a Hebrew scholar and a leading Masoretic authority, wrote that the main function of the accents "is to represent the musical motifs to which the Biblical text was chanted in the public reading." The Daniel passage is littered with them and, at the very least, should cast severe doubts over our pesky ‘atnach. Is it a punctuation mark or is it a musical notation? The fact that it does not appear in the earlier translation by Theodotion speaks volumes. This provides us with reasonable doubt as to the exact reading of the verse, which is enough to throw out the whole case as unproven through lack of firm evidence. So what I am saying is that, because we can’t say for definite whether the notation was for musical or punctuation purposes, there is sufficient cause just to read the verse without the distraction of the ‘atnach and feel secure in our Christian interpretation. After all this was good enough for the early translations, the Septuagint and the Theodotion translation, without an ‘atnach in sight.

"Know and understand this: From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven 'sevens,' and sixty-two 'sevens.' It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble.

What an interesting story. I hope that I still have your attention. The ‘atnach episode has been included for a purpose. It tells us that the truth will always out, but sometimes we must not give up but keep on digging. We must realize that the Hebrew Scriptures are uniquely precious to orthodox rabbis and they are hurt when they see untrained Christians extracting key verses, often out of context, to justify their belief in Jesus the Messiah. Their scholars have developed rebuttals to every proof text Christians may use, so it is a worthy exercise to enter their world and consider these responses. This is why we need to know the full story behind our ‘atnach episode, so that we can thoroughly counter not just Jewish objections but also, it is sad to say, some Christian ones. 

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Colon!

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