By Bill Warren, NOBTS Professor of New Testament and Greek
Question: When I read my Bible, some of the New Testament quotations of Old Testament books do not match exactly the wording that we have in our Old Testaments. Why is this?
Bill Warren responds: This insightful question obviously comes from a good Bible study practice of looking up the New Testament (NT) quotes in the Old Testament (OT). Keep up that type of study! As a beginning point, let’s remember that the OT was written almost totally in Hebrew and the NT in Greek, so right away we have to think about the impact of translating from Hebrew into Greek when considering the OT quotes in the NT.
Indeed, the vast majority of differences in the quotes are due exactly to these language issues. The NT writers primarily used the existing Greek translation of the OT for their writings instead of making their own translations. This makes sense when we think about it: There was no need to reinvent the wheel by making yet another translation when one was already available and acceptable.
This translation began most likely in Egypt in the 3rd century B.C. The reason for Greek was because of Alexander the Great’s impact, which spread that language throughout the Eastern Mediterranean region. Due to this, Greek was the common language in the first century and therefore was the language of choice for our NT writers. So most of the differences that you see are due to the use of the Greek translation of the OT by the NT writers rather than the Hebrew text that underlies our English OT.
In a very few cases, the differences are due to the NT writers translating a Hebrew text, and with that text being slightly different from our accepted Hebrew OT. For example, sometimes the OT quotes in our NT align more with the wording of the OT books found among the Dead Sea Scrolls than with our Hebrew OT, which is primarily based on the Masoretic text.
So the NT quote may reflect a common rendering of the passage based on a Hebrew text that the writer knew, but with a few minor differences between that text and what we find in our Hebrew OT. This would be like quoting from a different English translation versus the one that someone else is using: The sense is the same even if the exact wording is slightly different.
Lastly, some of the differences in English Bibles are due to the choices of the translators as they wrestle with the best way to translate the Hebrew OT and the Greek NT. In such cases, comparing various English translations often can highlight certain translators’ struggles and where sometimes difficult choices were made as they sought to be faithful in relating the Greek and Hebrew wordings.
Bill Warren, Ph.D., is NOBTS Professor of New Testament and Greek in the Landrum P. Leavell, II, Chair of NT Studies, and Founding Director of the H. Milton Haggard Center of New Testament Textual Studies.