Two weeks ago my esteemed colleague Dr. Heiser wrote an insightful post about the importance of the Septuagint (LXX) for New Testament (NT) students and scholars. He used an example from Deuteronomy 33:2, showing how in three different verses, New Testament authors alluded to angels being present at the giving of the Law. In the Masoretic Text (MT) of the Hebrew Bible that we have today, there is no use of the word mal’akhim, or angels, but the Septuagint does mention angeloi in Deuteronomy 33:2. Dr. Heiser’s conclusion is that the NT authors must have used the Septuagint. But is this the only possible conclusion?
The phrase in question in the Hebrew Bible is ‘merivvoth qodesh’. Dr. Heiser reads this as a place name, but allows that it could mean “Ten thousands of Kadesh” with Kadesh also being a place name. (This is how the LXX translates this phrase, transliterating qodesh as Kades as if it is a place name.) But the MT points the word qodesh, not qadesh. So it could also be better rendered “Ten thousands of holiness” or “Ten thousands of holy ones”. Now this still isn’t using the word ‘angels’ and so doesn’t completely explain the Septuagint translation. After all, ‘holy ones’ could refer to righteous men or priests (like it does in certain Ugaritic tablets – maybe we need a follow up post on “Why use Ugaritic?”) rather than angels. Indeed, in Dr. Tov’s alignment of the LXX and the MT, angeloi is aligned to a different phrase than merivvoth qodesh altogether – being tentatively aligned with a very difficult portion of the MT which is often translated as fire or lightening flashing down from Yahweh’s right hand, or the law being brought forth from fire. But this ought to show that it is possible for ‘merivvoth qodesh’ to be interpreted as a large assembly of angels from the MT alone.
But is there any evidence outside of the Septuagint that this interpretation of the passage was widely held? Turn with me in your Targums to Targum Onqelos (TO) on Deuteronomy 33:2. It reads:
And he (Moses) said, “The Lord was revealed from Sinai, and the brightness of His glory appeared to us from Seir. He was revealed in His power upon the mountain of Pharan, and with Him were ten thousand holy ones; He gave us, written with His own right hand, the law from the midst of the fire.”
The Targums were an oral tradition long before they were written down. The basic practice was to read the scriptures in Hebrew and then translate them into Aramaic for those who couldn’t understand Hebrew. The translations are sometimes quite literal, and sometimes expanded with interpretive comments. Over time, some Targums came to be written down and achieved some authority in the communities that used them. Targum Onqelos is a fairly literal rendering of the MT in this verse, and it is obvious that the interpretation in the synagogues that produced TO that ‘merivvoth qodesh’ is referring to a myriad of holy ones instead of a place name. But still no mention of the specific word mal’akhim, or angels.
Now turn to Targum Pseudo-Jonathan (TgPsJ) on Deuteronomy 33:2. It contains a much-expanded reading compared to MT, LXX and TO:
The Lord was revealed at Sinai to give the law unto His people of Beth Israel, and the splendor of the glory of His Shekinah arose from Gebal to give itself to the sons of Esau: but they received it not. It shined forth in majesty and glory from mount Pharan, to give itself to the sons of Ishmael; but they received it not. It returned and revealed itself in holiness unto His people of Beth Israel, and with Him ten thousand times ten thousand holy angels. He wrote with His own right hand, and gave them His law and His commandments, out of the flaming fire.
Now we see that qodesh has become an adjective describing mal’akhim (actually, mal’akhin in Aramaic, with n replacing m as the plural suffix – but the word is the same). We’ve gone from ten thousands of his holy ones to ten thousand ten thousands of his holy angels! And all without losing the difficult section of the MT that is here translated as giving the Law from the midst of the fire.
To finish our tour of the Targums on Deuteronomy 33:2, you can turn to either Targum Neofiti or the Palestinian Fragment Targums to the Pentateuch – they both read about the same thing here, and the verse seems to be expanded even a little further than TgPsJ:
And he said: The Lord was revealed from Sinai to give the law unto His people of Beth Israel. He arose in His glory upon the mountain of Seir to give the law to the sons of Esau; but after they found that it was written therein, Thou shalt do no murder, they would not receive it. He revealed Himself in His glory on the mountain of Gebala, to give the law to the sons of Ishmael; but when they found that it was written therein, Ye shall not be thieves, they would not receive it. Again did He reveal Himself upon Mount Sinai, and with Him ten thousands of holy angels; and the children of Israel said, All that the Word of the Lord hath spoken will we perform and obey. And He stretched forth His hand from the midst of the flaming fire, and gave the Law to His people.
None of this proves whether the NT authors used the LXX or not. TO clearly translates MT. The other Targums may translate the MT but reflect an interpretive tradition that is similar to the one which produced the LXX, or both the LXX and the other Targums might be translations of a Hebrew text that is somewhat different from MT. But it does go to show that the interpretation of Deuteronomy 33:2 that is found in the New Testament might have also been found in the local, Aramaic speaking synagogue without any reference to Greek translations. And figuring out which text the NT writers are quoting or alluding to isn’t as simple as just reading the LXX and the MT and picking between the two. How many other places have theologians turned to Greek sources like the LXX or Philo when a trip to the local synagogue would have hit closer to home? Let’s not forget the Targums!