Quoting the Old Testament in the New – Psalm 40:6

Note: I will be using the English verse numbering throughout. Hebrew verse numbers are one greater in this chapter, thus this is Psalm 40:7 in Hebrew.

In reading Psalm 40 several times, since it’s the lectionary passage for this week, I noticed a few things that I would have missed in just one pass. One of these is Psalm 40:6-8, which is quoted in Hebrews 10:5-7. There is a difference in the Hebrew of Psalm 40:6 and the quoted text of Hebres 10:5, however, which illustrates an interesting translation issue. The question is whether New Testament quotations of the Old Testament should be accommodated to the Old Testament translation in the same version.

The book of Hebrews provides a good laboratory for discussing this issue. I’ve used the illustration of Hebrews 2:7 quoting Psalm 8:5 before. The NIV accommodates the translation by using “a little lower” in Hebrews 2:7, rather than “for a little while” which is a better translation of the Greek there. (I discussed this a bit more here.)

It’s interesting, however, that while the NIV provides notes in all cases, they do not accommodate the translation in Hebrews 10:5. There we read in part:

but a body you prepared for me;

The text in Psalm 40:6 reads:

but my ears you have pierced;

I’m not sure why one was accommodated, but not the other, but the issues involved would likely highlight the difficulty one has in deciding this sort of issue. It’s not that I want to criticize them for their choice, though my choice would be to translate the text in front of me. It is always possible that they felt that there was more possibility for the alternative meaning in Hebrews 2:7 (where it is indeed possible, though not best, in my view), but did not see the same possibility in Hebrews 10:5.

This raises some issues of inspiration. In certain views of inspiration, one would prefer to have a single text which was entirely consistent. The idea of New Testament writers using varying texts can be disconcerting to someone who would prefer a very rigid standard.

I find this kind of thing very enlightening. The New Testament writers lived with differing manuscripts just like we do, even though they had not developed textual criticism in the same way. Extracting theology from scripture is much more an art than a science.

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