by Luke Wayne
A common argument against the New Testament is the claim that it "misquotes" or even "deceitfully alters" the Old Testament. One of the most common examples used is the citation of Jeremiah 31:32 found in Hebrews 8:9 where there indeed appears to be an important difference between the two. The fact of the matter is, however, that there is no deception going on here, nor is this a misquotation. Rather, it is merely a minor variant in the underlying Hebrew text. The issue is instructive and worth looking at.
The key passages involved here, with the relevant phrases in bold, read as follows:
"'not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,' declares the Lord," (Jeremiah 31:32).
"Not like the covenant which I made with their fathers On the day when I took them by the hand To lead them out of the land of Egypt; For they did not continue in My covenant, And I did not care for them, says the Lord," (Hebrews 8:9).
As you can see, the clauses are quite different. One is not merely a paraphrase of the other. So what happened here? Why such a noteworthy difference between the two? It might surprise you to know that this actually comes down to a single letter!
The Source of the Problem
The Old Testament in our English Bibles today is primarily translated from the Hebrew manuscripts that were preserved, copied, and passed on by the Rabbinic Jewish community from ancient times on through the middle ages known as the "Masoretic Text." At the time of the Reformation, when Protestant scholars set out to produce Bible translations from the original languages, these were the only Hebrew manuscripts available. The Jewish scribes were quite careful and meticulous in their process, so the Christians were quite right to trust in their work. There was certainly no sloppiness in the copying nor any conspiracy to willfully alter the text here. The Masoretic text is an impressively accurate preservation of a very ancient text!
Yet, the Old Testament was preserved in other copying traditions as well, most often in the form of ancient translations. The oldest of these is the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures that was carried out by Jewish scholars before the time of the New Testament. Indeed, the New Testament authors themselves often (though not always) quoted directly from the Septuagint translation. And here is where we run into the source of our difference in Jeremiah 31:32. The Masoretic Text, from which our Old Testament is translated, reads "I was a husband to them," and so this is exactly what English translators put in Jeremiah. Yet, the Septuagint reads, "I did not care for them." The author of the Book of Hebrews quotes from the Septuagint here, and thus Hebrews contains that version of the verse. This is the only reason for the difference. The book of Hebrews accurately cites the Septuagint versions, and so our English New Testament accurately renders exactly what the book of Hebrews says. No one is being deceitful here nor misquoting anything. Everyone is being faithful to the text in front of them.
But why did the Jewish translators of the Septuagint say "I did not care for them" while the Jewish scribes preserving the Masoretic text wrote, "I was a husband to them"? This is where we find that the whole thing comes down to a single Hebrew letter. You see, the English phrases "I did not care for them" and "I was a husband to them" are actually each translating one Hebrew word. Here is what it looks like:
- Masoretic - בעלתי - "I was a husband to them"
- Septuagint - געלתי - "I did not care for them"
Notice that the only difference is the first letter (Hebrew reads from right to left, so the first letter is the letter on the right side of the word). The letters themselves look quite similar, and remember that these would have been hand-written manuscripts. It is not hard at all to see how a scribe could have accidentally mistaken one for the other. Thus, some ancient Hebrew copies had בעלתי while others contained געלתי. The "I did not care for them" version of the Hebrew text was used not only by the Septuagint translators but also by those who produced the ancient Syriac translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. The "I was a husband to them" version was carried on by the rabbinic tradition and thus was preserved not only in the Masoretic text but also the Aramaic Targum of Jeremiah and even Jerome's Latin Vulgate. Unfortunately, the Dead Sea Scrolls of Jeremiah are all damaged at this passage, but even if they were complete, they might not help. Some of those scrolls closely match the Masoretic text of Jeremiah while others line up very much with the Septuagint, so it would not be surprising if both versions of Jeremiah 31:32 were actually present in the Dead Sea Scrolls! At any rate, clearly both are very ancient. Whichever form is original, the simple scribal mistake that produced the other happened quite early.
Does it affect the meaning?
Clearly this little change affects the meaning of the individual clause. If you think "I was a husband to them" means the same thing as "I did not care for them," you probably need to go read a bit more of what the Bible says about marriage. But does this difference actually affect the meaning of the passage at large? Does it change Jeremiah's point? Not at all! The whole point is that Israel broke the covenant, God rejected them and cast them out in punishment, but that God will ultimately have mercy on them and restore them to fellowship with Him. Does it fit to say that Israel broke God's covenant even though He had been a faithful husband to them? It certainly does! Does it equally fit to say that, when Israel broke the covenant, God rejected them and cast them out? That, because of their unfaithfulness, at that time He "did not care for them"? Yes! This, too, fits well. Jeremiah has already said things like:
"...I have wounded you with the wound of an enemy, With the punishment of a cruel one, Because your iniquity is great And your sins are numerous. Why do you cry out over your injury? Your pain is incurable. Because your iniquity is great And your sins are numerous, I have done these things to you," (Jeremiah 30:14b-15).
God, for a time, took the position of Israel's enemy. Because of their iniquity, for a time he "did not care for them." Yet, He now promises, in contrast to this, that He will again care for them and restore them. The meaning of the text is kept fully intact whichever Hebrew letter one uses here. It may seem at first to be a significant issue, but it actually is quite small. The fact that this is the best that critics can come up with is actually a testimony to just how amazingly well preserved the Bible really is! And the fact that scribes and translators through the ages and even today have not tried to "fix" the problem by changing Hebrews to match the Masoretic text or vice versa is just further demonstration that there is no Christian conspiracy here. All we have is a minor ancient variant of a single Hebrew letter that has no impact on the meaning of the overall passage. The author of Hebrews was not being deceptive in using the version most familiar to his readers and the Rabbis were not being deceptive in preserving the version most familiar to theirs. There is no challenge to the integrity of the Bible here.