by Luke Wayne
Critics often charge the New Testament with manipulating, misquoting, or even outright changing the Old Testament passages it cites. A common example used is the citation of Psalm 40:6 found in Hebrews 10:5. When one reads the two side by side, there does appear to be a significant difference between the Psalm in our Old Testament and the quote in the New Testament. In actuality, however, there is no mistake or deception going on here at all! The author of Hebrews is quoting from a popular pre-New-Testament translation that would be quite familiar to His audience, and while it is certainly a bit periphrastic here, it is not inaccurate.
The verses read (with the relevant clauses in bold):
"Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says, 'Sacrifice and offering You have not desired, But a body You have prepared for Me,'" (Hebrews 10:5).
"Sacrifice and meal offering You have not desired; My ears You have opened..." (Psalm 40:6a).
Of most interest here is that the author of Hebrews translates the phrase "my ears You have opened" with the very different phrase "a body you have prepared for me." These seem irreconcilably different, but there is, in fact, a clear explanation for it.
The Reason for the Difference
The author of Hebrews is quoting here (as He does elsewhere) from the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures known as the Septuagint (or LXX). The Septuagint translates the verse as:
"Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not; but a body hast thou prepared me: whole-burnt-offering and sacrifice for sin thou didst not require," (Psalm 40:6, LXX).
Thus, the author of Hebrews didn't change anything. He simply quoted from the translation his readers were already familiar with, a translation which had been produced by Jewish scholars long before the time of the New Testament. But how, then, did the Septuagint translators come to this seemingly odd rendering? To understand that, we have to understand that the Hebrew itself here is somewhat unclear.
Translated literally, the Hebrew words mean "you have dug out ears for me." This literal rendering is indicated in the footnotes of translations like the NASB, ESV, and even the original 1611 KJV. Such a literal translation, however, is not very clear. What exactly does it mean that God "dug out ears" for the Psalmist? If we are to translate the meaning rather than just the words, some interpretation must be done. Thus, in addition to translations like the NASB which read (as we have already seen) "my ears You have opened'" other options have been proposed. For example:
"...thou madest perfectly ears to me..." (Wycliffe Bible).
"...my ears you have pierced..." (1984 NIV).
"...you gave me to understand..." (Jewish NJPS Translation).
"...You make that quite clear to me..." (NET).
Each of these versions is doing its best to translate what the original author meant by this difficult phrase. As you can see, some felt the need to paraphrase quite freely. The ancient translators of the LXX were no different, and their solution was actually quite creative. Much like the Wycliffe reading of "thou madest perfectly ears to me," the Septuagint translators seem to have understood "you have dug out ears for me" to be a reference to God's creation of the Psalmists ears (and, by extension, of his body). God "dug out" ears when he made or formed the ears. Thus, the LXX translators tried to clarify the point for non-Hebrew readers by generalizing it. Rather than praising God only for the creation of ears, they go from the parts to the whole and write "a body You have prepared for me." This, they believed, was a paraphrase of the Psalmist's essential point. It may not be a strictly literal translation, but it is by no means an "alteration" or "manipulation" of the text. Willingness to use popular translations, even somewhat free and periphrastic ones, to quickly reference a familiar verse is not an error. It is a perfectly reasonable practice. Thus, there is no argument against the New Testament to be found here.