Why do New Testament quotes of Old Testament verses sometimes say different things?
For example, the author of Heb 1:7 quoted Ps 104:4, writing, “He makes his angels spirits, and his servants flames of fire.”
However, that verse in the Old Testament says, “He makes winds his messengers, flames of fire his servants.”
Why are these translations different from each other?
Just as in English, Greek and Hebrew words often have more than one meaning. The Hebrew word ruach can mean “wind,” “spirit,” or “[Holy] Spirit.” The Greek word angelos can mean “messenger” or “angel.”
When the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into other languages, sometimes the translators chose different meanings for the same words.
Even while the Old Testament was being written, Jewish people began using other languages more than Hebrew.
During the seventy years of exile which they spent in Babylon, Jewish people began speaking Aramaic, the language of their captors (2 Kgs 18:17–18, 26).
Many of their children could no longer speak Hebrew, the language of most of the Old Testament, including the psalms.
Daniel, one of the exiled prophets who served in the court of the king, did much of his writing in Aramaic (Dan 2:4–7:28).
After some of the people returned to Israel in 538 BC, the priests’ assistants needed to translate the Hebrew Bible for them so they would be able to understand it (Neh 8:1–3, 8).
Later, in the 4th century BC, the army of the Greek king Alexander the Great introduced Koine Greek into Israel.
However, Jewish people continued to speak Aramaic within their own communities. Mark 5:41 quotes Jesus speaking Aramaic.
Since many people no longer understood Hebrew, a group of scholars created a Greek translation of the five books in the law of Moses during the third century BC.
People believed that seventy men in Egypt did the translation. So, the title given to this work was the Septuagint, which means “seventy” (LXX, for the Roman numeral seventy).
Scholars translated the rest of the Old Testament by the first century BC.
In Ps 104:4 the translators of the Septuagint used different meanings of the Hebrew words and wrote, “The one making his angels winds, and his ministers of fire a flame,” instead of “He makes winds his messengers, flames of fire his servants.”
New Testament authors and their readers understood Greek well, so they often quoted this translation.
Image via Wikimedia Commons This photo shows a part of a Greek translation of the Old Testament which was made between 50 BC and 50 AD. The arrow points to the name of God.
Return to Chapter 3: Ancient Cultures and the Bible