Can Jewish Writers Accurately Quote Their Own Texts?

One category of Bible question that often arises is whether the Bible is accurate in what it claims. If the Bible can be trusted in what we can corroborate, we have a strong reason to trust it in the things we cannot corroborate.

In one example, Hebrews 10:5-7 quotes an Old Testament passage. The passage in Hebrews says:

5 Therefore, when He came into the world, He said:
“Sacrifice and offering You did not desire,
But a body You have prepared for Me.
6      In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin
You had no pleasure.
7      Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come—
In the volume of the book it is written of Me—
To do Your will, O God.’ ” (NKJV)

This is quoting a passage in Psalm 40:6-8, which says:

Sacrifice and offering You did not desire;
My ears You have opened.
Burnt offering and sin offering You did not require.
7      Then I said, “Behold, I come;
In the scroll of the book it is written of me.
8      I delight to do Your will, O my God,
And Your law is within my heart.” (NKJV)

The issue that arises is that the Hebrews passage says “But a body you have prepared for me” while the Psalm says “My ears You have opened.” The text is not exactly the same. Of this, one critic claimed it says something completely different and accused the writer of Hebrews as intentionally changing it. Further, the critic implies the Psalm has nothing to do with the Messiah, and Hebrews must have been intentionally fishing for a proof text that was shoe-horned into the point he was trying to make in Hebrews.

Careful examination shows otherwise. First, the New Testament writers were most often quoting the translation of the Old Testament which was most popular with the most people of the first century. This was the Septuagint, which was a Greek translation of the original Old Testament Hebrew. The New Testament, including Hebrews, was written in Koine Greek, so a close comparison can be made. The last half of Hebrews 10:5 reads as follows:

σῶμα   δέ   καταρτίζω   ἐγώ
body but you put in order to me
(Nestle-Aland 27, 1993)

The Septuagint of this same phrase in the Psalms reads as follows:

ὠτία δὲ κατηρτίσω μοι
ears 8 But 6 You restored 7 to me.
(The Lexham Greek-English Interlinear Septuagint, 2009), Ps 39:7 (the number system is different in the LXX)

So the Hebrews quote reads soma de katartiso ego while the Septuagint of the Psalm reads otia de katartiso moi. The term katartiso is defined by the best lexicons (BDAG) as “to cause to be in a condition to function well, put in order, restore” and “prepare for a purpose.”

The key term between the two passages is that one says otia (ear) and the other says soma (body). Two points to note of this distinction. First, as you can see in the Greek, there is only two letters difference in these two words. In fact, the entire phrase is only different by these two letters (with moi and ego being equivalents between classical and koine greek). So it is entirely possible that a scribe made a mistake and confused  σῶμα with ὠτία. The modern doctrine of Biblical inerrancy takes into account scribal errors, which are mostly well-known, identified, and accounted for. If this is the case, then the confusion of two letters in one word hardly make for an intentional change of entire meaning trying to create a sloppy quote.

Which brings up another key point: the book of Hebrews, in context, is clearly written by and for, Hebrews. The writer and the intended audience clearly were thoroughly familiar with the details of the Old Testament. If someone were to do a sloppy job of quoting something they knew well, and passed it off as an out-of-context new idea, it would have been dismissed out-of-hand, summarily rejected, and the book of Hebrews would have never seen the light of day.

Second, a bit of simple homework reveals another logical explanation for the passage, and holds to no scribal error at all. The Bible Knowledge Commentary says this of the Hebrews passage:

The phrase a body You prepared for Me is one Septuagint rendering of the Hebrew expression “You have dug ears for Me.” The Greek translator whose version the author of Hebrews used (obviously translating with the help of the Holy Spirit), construed the Hebrew text as a kind of figure of speech (technically called synecdoche) in which a part is put for the whole. If God is to “dig out ears” He must “prepare a body.”

Bible Exposition Commentary says ““Opened ears” indicates a body ready for service.”

Keener’s IVP Background Commentary states:

 Where the extant Hebrew text says “you have opened my ears,” most Greek versions read “you have prepared me a body” (to do God’s will). Jewish interpreters generally chose whichever reading they needed to make their point (some interpreters even changed readings slightly to make their point); both the writer of Hebrews and his readers are using the Greek version here. Consequently he expounds: “Not sacrifices, but rather a body to do God’s will”—the ultimate sacrifice of Christ’s body. Such argumentation fit ancient Jewish exegetical standards and is carried out quite skillfully.

Regarding the general comment of whether Psalm 40 speaks of the Messiah, the Psalm speaks of many savior-oriented themes: God lifting us out of slimy pits and setting our feet on a rock (v.2), an allusion Jesus used in the New Testament. It speaks of putting a new song in our mouth (v.3), putting faith in God (v.4), and someone coming to fulfill prophesy that has the law of God in their heart (v.7). While it does not use the word Messiah, the themes in Psalm 40 strongly parallel many New Testament themes about Jesus. The writer of Hebrews uses but one.


I have no illusions that the skeptics will take the word of commentators to explain their criticism. These were given merely to show that adequate explanations exist, ones that have nuanced meaning in the history of Judaism. The passage can also be explained via scribal error. Even if all that I have shown is not accepted in whole, at the very least all this decidedly refutes any claim that Hebrews sloppily quotes a passage and force-fits it into the passage. To suggest that a Jewish writer, penning a letter to a Jewish audience, would change a text at will and expect it to be accepted is not a credible claim.

One additional point can be made that relates to the nature of such claims. It takes very little time or space to throw out a criticism that there is a problem in the Bible. By contrast, it has taken me quite a bit of space to explain the background information. Most likely, many people have given up reading before they got to this point.  I have found that many people today simply do not want to think through the issues and do the work necessary to find the truth. If the popular critics were willing to dig through the issues and treat them with some degree of academic neutrality, they would be taken more seriously.

While some Bible critics do their homework and approach these things with respectful discussion, it seems the majority do not. In general, do they check the translations? No. Do they check the scholars to see if there may have been some Jewish quotation customs? No. Do they check the languages or the lexicons to see if there may be some other explanation? No. Are their criticisms passed around on the internet without question? Unfortunately, yes.

About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
This entry was posted in Apologetics, Bible, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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