The Septuagint – Doug Post

Doug Post

The enemies of God have always tried to prove Him wrong. It is believed that if God can be proved wrong, then His credibility will be diminished, which in turn will strip Him of any perceived authority over mankind. In proving Him wrong, the enemies of God believe they can prove He does not actually exist.

One such enemy has decided to attack God by trying to diminish or destroy the veracity of manuscript evidence–the Scriptures. He recently wrote: “There are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in our New Testament” (Ehrman, 7, 90) Therefore, the reliability and credibility of the manuscript evidence we have is at stake.

If one can undermine the reliability of the manuscript evidence, then one can establish doubt as to the preservation of Scripture. The rational is as follows; if there are manuscript errors, then the Scriptures are unreliable; and if the Scriptures are unreliable, then God is not omnipotent, being unable to preserve His Word, which buttresses the claim that an omnipotent God – the God of the Bible – does not exist. However, the God of the Bible declared that His Word be preserved, establishing the following proposition:

having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever, because, All flesh is as grass, And all the glory of man as the flower of the grass. The grass withers, And its flower falls away, But the word of the Lord endures forever …” (1 Pet. 1:23-25, emphasis DP).

Historical Background of the Septuagint

God, indeed, preserved His word. While God revealed His Will through the agency of man (Supernaturally inspiring men to both speak and record His Will), He also preserved His Will through the agency of man, using the human abilities of reading, writing, copying, and interpreting. However, if there is one word, which captures the entire idea of God preserving His Word or Will, it is the word “Greek.” Seemingly, God preserved His Word in both Hebrew and Greek. A large number of Jews, scattered around the Mediterranean, had lost touch with the Hebrew language over the years while living among a more Greek speaking populace. Therefore, in order to know what the Hebrew Scriptures, and to know their history, the Hebrew Scriptures began to be translated into Koine Greek, which was becoming the “common language.”

During the first century, and at the time of Christ, the Greek language happened to be the predominant language around the Mediterranean. It was the very language used by the apostles and inspired writers for recording New Testament Scripture. Much like the way English is the universal language today, Greek was the “common” or “universal” language of the day around the Mediterranean region.

Historically, there is one person responsible for this – Alexander the Great. This begins what Historians call the “Hellenistic period.” The word “Hellenistic” comes from the word Hellazein, which means “to speak Greek or identify with the Greeks.” It lasted from the death of Alexander in 323 B.C. until 31 B.C., when Rome took control over the last territories in possession of Greece. (History.com). The concept of Hellenization began when Alexander the Great forced Greek language and culture upon all the peoples and lands he would conquer.

Following the death of his father, Philip of Macedon (336 B.C.E), Alexander the Great came to power at the age of twenty. His conquests over Persian strongholds led him eastward, capturing Asia Minor. Progressing further east, Alexander defeated Darius III around 333 B.C.E. The defeat of Syria also gave Alexander the land of the Jews–Israel.

Wegner summarizes “Alexander’s impact: The Greeks, led by Alexander the Great, conquered vast areas to their and commanded an empire larger than any up to that time. They immediately set to work to unify each part of the empire by imposing upon it the Greek language and culture.” (Wegner, 51-52) He proceeded south toward Egypt, which brought him through Palestine.

Josephus states that Jaddua, the High Priest, led a procession from Jerusalem to meet him, which greatly impressed Alexander (Dean, 244). The New Analytical Bible reports: “His favorable treatment of the Jews has been accounted for on the supposition that his attention was called to the predictions of Daniel that two hundred years before set forth his brilliant conquests” (NAB, 1079).

In 331, while in Egypt, he founded the city of Alexandria. Alexander would eventually die in 323 B.C.E. at the former palace of Nebuchadnezzar II in Babylon.

Hellenization, as begun by Alexander the Great, imposed a rather refined culture of a common language, great literature and philosophy, and wonderful advancements in math and science. This impacted the world greatly, especially the Mediterranean world. In the final analysis, Alexander has been called “the apostle of Hellenism.” McClish well summarizes the period of Hellenization as begun by Alexander:

As Alexander swept across the areas of his conquest an impact greater than the sword alone can produce was eventually to obtain. This potent force was “…a body of ideas” that was in fact a culture unparalleled in history. This refined Grecian culture, best known as Hellenism, came to be the chief contribution of Alexander’s meteoric career. Its impress upon the world through language, literature, philosophy, science, and art has practically determined the course of subsequent history, especially in the West, but to a degree even in the East. The Jews were not immune (McClish, 2).

After Alexander died (323 B.C.E.) no provisions for a successor had been made. This created an environment for a power struggle for control of the empire. According to Hester, the “twenty-five years after Alexander’s death Jerusalem changed hands seven times” (Hester, 321). However, two successor emerged, Ptolemy I controlled Egypt and southern Syria, while Seleucus, controlled Babylon and northern Syria. The Jews in Palestine found themselves sandwiched between the two.

The Ptolemy’s and the Seleucids (respective dynasties) were frequently at odds with each other. Each side desired the land of the Jews, Palestine. The Ptolemy’s, however, maintained control, and the Jews paid tribute to Egypt. Ptolemy I sent thousands of Jews from Palestine to Egypt. Many became part of the Egyptian military while the rest were used accordingly for Egypt’s purposes. Most of these Jews would settle in the city of Alexandria.

The city of Alexandria became home to many scholars and a city known for its education and philosophy. Alexandria rivaled Rome in many respects, but it was not quite as wealthy. Alexandria maintained the largest Jewish population outside of Palestine. It was during this period that the Jews of Alexandria (and other locations around the Mediterranean) gradually lost connection with their Hebrew tongue as they had become a predominantly Greek speaking people. McClish astutely notes:

This circumstance led to the famous and valuable translation of the Old Testament into the Greek language—the Septuagint (LXX, the Roman numeral 70, for the traditional number of translators)—during the reign of Ptolemy II, who ruled from 285–246 B.C. (Bellview, 231).

Hester then summarizes the significance of this translation:

This was a most significant event, since with this translation available every person who spoke Greek could read the scriptures. It made the Old Testament with all its predictions of a Messiah available to hundreds of thousands of people who otherwise might never have had the opportunity of reading the Jewish scriptures (Hester, 320).

The Greek Translation of the Hebrew Bible—The Septuagint

The Septuagint (LXX) has been referred to as the first translation of any part of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament Scriptures. As stated previously, this Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures was made for the purpose of serving the Greek speaking Jews in the city of Alexandria, which became like a little Jerusalem due to its large Jewish population. According to Jensen:

The Pentateuch was translated around 280 B.C. Before the coming of Christ, the entire Testament was translated, and it became the Scriptures of many people throughout the Mediterranean world. Such timing was according to the divine schedule. Greek was the universal language at that time, and because the New Testament was soon to be written in Greek, God was using this Greek Old Testament version to prepare the way for the New Testament. It must have been a very dependable translation, for out of thirty-seven Old Testament quotations credited to Jesus in the gospels, thirty-three are from this Septuagint version (Jensen, 25).

However, when speaking of the LXX it must be considered as whether it was one translation done at one time, or did it involve various attempts over a period of time?

the LXX is not a uniform translation that can be judged by modern criteria but the result of much trial and error…Rather than a single translation, in the LXX one should speak of a collection of translations depending on the book; even within a single book, different literary units reflect different translation techniques. …we find reflected in the LXX a whole gamut of translation techniques which run from literal translation (including transliteration) to paraphrase, especially in the later writings (Marcos, 22-23).

The evidence seems to suggest the latter, that it was not one production done at one time, but involved various translations at different times. For instance, it seems that the first portion of the Hebrew Bible to be translated into Greek was the Pentateuch or Torah. Perhaps this occurred between 280 B.C.E – 250 B.C.E. One scholar discusses this very idea concerning the development of the LXX:

The Chester Beatty and other papyri show textual divergences, as indeed do all the manuscripts of the Septuagint; throughout its history free transmission was always one of its characteristic features, and, despite attempts to fix a standard form, there appears to have been no recension for which the claim was made that it was an authoritative text. In other words, if there was at any time a recognized Septuagint text-form it was at the beginning, and the divergences were introduced during the transmission over the centuries (Lampe, 18).

In his paper, What Scholars Should Know About the Septuagint, Claude Cox puts forth the same thought—the LXX ought to be seen as a collection of Greek Translations of the Hebrew Scriptures over a period of time. He writes:

The translation of the “Pentateuch”—a Greek word—in the early third century B.C.E. was followed by that of the Prophets and Writings. There seems to have been no hurry to translate toe books outside the Torah, and the last books to be rendered into Greek, such as fob, may have had to wait until the end of the second century B.C.E., more than one hundred fifty years later. During that period of time, many other Jewish religious writings were either translated into Greek, such as Sirach, or composed in Greek, such as Judith and the Wisdom of Solomon. Some translated works, such as Esther and Daniel, found their Greek translations fleshed out with prayers, in the case of Esther, and more stories, such as Susannah and Bel and the Dragon in the case of Daniel (Cox. 4).

Cox continues discussing the need to see the LXX as being a body of literature or translations that reflects more of a work in progress rather than a “received text”:

The general term “the Old Greek (translation)” can be used for the collection of translations that stand in the corpus that includes what is more precisely “the Septuagint,” that is, the Pentateuch. We can, therefore, speak of “Old Greek Job.” It is not part of the Septuagint in the narrower sense. However, traditionally the term “Septuagint” is extended to those translations and writings that are part of the Greek corpus that began with the translation of the Torah and is attached to the (Greek) NT in mss such as Vaticanus (4th cent.), Sinaiticus (4th cent.), and Alexandrinus (5th cent.).10 In that case “the Old Greek” and “Septuagint” are used co-terminously (6).

Cox then summarizes our point: “When we use the LXX corpus, it is necessary to ask, “What translation or revision am I working with here?” Examples of the failure to make the proper distinctions are not difficult to find … (7).

What we tend to see is that there was a more literal attempt when dealing with the translation of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Torah/Pentateuch), but more flexibility was given when it came to the Prophets and the Writings, which are termed “divergences.” Perhaps this involved a shift of thought over a period of time whereby there was a trend among the Hellenists to have more “Dynamic Equivalent” or “thought for thought” approach to the Hebrew text after the translation completion of the Torah? Marcos tells us that within this body of Greek writings, referred to as the Septuagint, there were “translation techniques which run from literal translation (including transliteration) to paraphrase, especially in the later writings” (22-23).

Bruce agrees that there seems to have been a more exacting focus with regards to translating the Pentateuch than with the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures. He goes on to make the following the point; “As a translation it is very unequal; the Pentateuch has been done much more carefully than the rest of the Old Testament. The translation of some parts of the Old Testament shows very indifferent workmanship indeed” (Bruce, 147). Historian, Emil Schürer, makes the following observation:

The basis of all Jewish-Hellenistic culture is the old, anonymous Greek Bible translation known as the Septuagint or LXX (septuaginta interpretes) and preserved for us mainly by Christian tradition. Without it the religion of the Greek-speaking Jews was as unthinkable as the Church of England without the Authorized Version [KJV]. The uniform name should not lead to the idea that this is the work of a single hand. What was brought together under this name at a later time is not only the work of different translators, it also came about at different times. The oldest part is the translation of the Pentateuch (Schürer, 474).

Whatever the reason or reasons, the translation fundamentals changed, and it seemed to have done so over a period of time. The LXX, therefore, ought to be viewed as body of literature comprised of by a collection of translations of various parts of the Hebrew Scriptures over a period of time. It contains various translational differences and/or styles, from literal to free.

Additionally, it seems reasonable to conclude that Greek translations of the Hebrew text were probably being made all around the Mediterranean at this time, not just in Alexandria. Perhaps among the more educated and wealthy circles of Greek speaking Jews this would have been the case. However, to summarize the above thoughts, Brenton writes:

The Septuagint (from the Latin septuaginta, meaning `seventy’, and frequently referred to by the roman numerals LXX) is the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The name derives from the tradition that it was made by seventy (or seventy-two) Jewish scholars at Alexandria, Egypt during the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus (285-247 B.C.). Although it is not completely understood either when or why the translation was originally done, it is clear that it in large measure reflects the common language of the period and became the `Bible’ of Greek-speaking Jews and then later of the Christians. It is worth noting that the Septuagint differs from the Hebrew Old Testament in certain ways: 1) the Greek text varies at many points from the corresponding Hebrew text; 2) the order of the Biblical Books is not the same–the threefold division of the Hebrew canon into the Law, Prophets, and Writings is not followed in the LXX; and 3) several books not found in the Hebrew are included in the LXX—these books are known as the Apocrypha in the English Bible. While the majority of the Old Testament quotations rendered by the New Testament authors are borrowed directly from the Septuagint, a number of times they provide their own translation which follows the Hebrew text against the Septuagint (Brenton, Preface).

The Influence of Greek and the Septuagint

It has been said that the LXX has been called the “step child” to the Hebrew Bible. In other words, it has been viewed less than the Hebrew manuscripts, considered less reliable. However, with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) in 1947, we learned that there was more than one copy of the Old Testament, more so than just the Hebrew text. Upon the discovery of the DSS, one of the first realizations was that there were many manuscripts which happened to be different than the Hebrew Scriptures (Hebrew Bible), yet in many places they agreed with the LXX passages, previously deemed “divergent.” Seemingly, there were other manuscripts which not only the LXX translators used, but it appears that there were other Hebrew texts which, perhaps, the Jewish copyists relied upon, and that is why there were differences? The discovery of the DSS was certainly significant to say the least, as Law points out:

It is apparent how revolutionary the discovery of the of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the new appreciation for the Septuagint has been for scholars and students of the Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament, but even the study of the New Testament and early Christian theology (Law, 3).

This great discovery demonstrates the influence of the Greek language, even among the Jews. The focus is then put back on the LXX because of its use in the development of Jewish thought at that time, particularly Hellenists. The significance of the LXX, therefore, sheds valuable light upon the development of New Testament Scripture.

The LXX is not the ugly “step child” it was once thought of. It seems a bit odd that the body Greek writings we refer to as the LXX would be relegated to second class status, especially when we find that both the Jesus and the apostles quoted from it. Again Marcos points out this unique fact:

The LXX comprises the main source for quotations from the Old Testament in the New Testament writings.

Each part of the New Testament gives sufficient proof of knowing the LXX. These quotations diverge from the Masoretic text in 212 cases, whereas they differ from the Septuagintal text in only 185 cases. It can therefore be concluded that the LXX is the main source for quotations by the New Testament writers.

As for why a number of OT quotes in NT match neither the MT nor LXX, The many explanations such as resorting to free quotations or quotation from memory, adaptation to fulfillment of prophecy, conflation of texts through collections of testimonia, or the influence of parallel passages, may explain some cases. Some could also be attributed to “textual pluralism”—more than one Greek or Hebrew version.

Paul cites the Old Testament 93 times: the Pentateuch 33 times, Isaiah 25, and the Psalms 19. Of these quotations, 51 agree completely or virtually with the LXX, 22 even against the Masoretic text; 4 follow the Hebrew text against the LXX, and 38 differ from both the Hebrew text and the LXX (Marcos, 323-329).

We see that the New Testament attests to the credibility of the Septuagint using it often. For instance, when Matthew writes about the virgin birth of Christ, the Incarnation, he was quoting from the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew Bible. In his book on grace and faith, the book of Romans, we find Paul quoting from Isaiah, as translated in the Septuagint, not the Hebrew Bible.

There is overwhelming evidence of the New Testament’s use of the Septuagint. In fact, we can say that God used the Septuagint, since it was the Holy Spirit who inspired the New Testament writers, and who used the Septuagint. Whatever scholars may say about the Septuagint, God used it! Moreover, what we can glean from the New Testament’s use of the Septuagint is that God is not afraid of inaccurate or imprecise translations. After all, man, is the one responsible for making the copies using the language he speaks, which is all part of God’s plan in preserving the inspired text. While the entire copied document, may not get every word just so, the writers still capture the thought of the inspired words, and when is accomplished, God’s word has been preserved. This is the essence of the Septuagint.

Citations

1 Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus—The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, first paperback edition (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007), 7, 90.

2 http://www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/hellenistic-greece.

3 Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1991-Paperback 2004), 51-52.

4 Dean, B.S. An Outline of Bible History. Cincinnati, OH: Standard Pub. Co., 1912 rev. ed. 244.

5 The New Analytical Bible and Dictionary of the Bible. “From Malachi to Christ.” Iowa Falls, IA: World Bible Publishers, 1973. 1079.

6 Pfeiffer, Charles F. Between the Testaments. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker book House, 1959. 67.

7 McClish, H.W. (Dub), Jr. The Maccabean Revolt. Unpublished MS for Abilene Christian College graduate course, 1967.2.

8 Hester, H.I. The Heart of Hebrew History. Nashville, TN: Broadman Press,1962 rev.321.

9 Hatcher, Michael; Editor: 2104 Bellview Church of Christ Lectureship. Pensacola, Fl. 231.

10 Hester, H.I. The Heart of Hebrew History. Nashville, TN: Broadman Press,1962 rev.320.

11 Jensen, Irving L. Jensen’s Survey of the Old Testament: Search and Discover. Chicago: Moody Press, 1978. 25.

12 Marcos, Natalio Fernandez. The Septuagint in Context: Introduction to the Greek Versions of the Bible. Wilfred G. E. Watson, trans. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, Inc. 2001. 22-23.

13 Lampe, G. W. H. ed. The Cambridge History of the Bible, Volume 2: The West from the Fathers to the Reformation. New York, NY: 1969, reprint 1989. 18.

14 Cox, Claude: Some Things Biblical Scholars Should Know About the Septuagint: McMaster Divinity College

15 IBID

16 IBID

17 Marcos, Natalio Fernandez. The Septuagint in Context: Introduction to the Greek Versions of the Bible. Wilfred G. E. Watson, trans. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, Inc. 2001. 22-23.

18 Bruce, F. F. The Books and the Parchments: How We Got Our English Bible. Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1984. 288pp.147.

19 Schürer, Emil. The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 B.C.-A.D. 135). Vol. III, part 1. A New English Version Revised and Edited by Geza Vermes, Fergus Millar, Martin Goodman. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1986. 474.

20 Brenton, Sir Lancelot C. L., trans. The Septuagint with Apocrypha: Greek and English. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1851, 1997. Preface.

21 Law, Timothy Michael: When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible. Oxford University Press. 2013.3.

22 Marcos, Natalio Fernandez. The Septuagint in Context: Introduction to the Greek Versions of the Bible. Wilfred G. E. Watson, trans. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, Inc. 2001. 323-324, 328-329.

Works Cited

  1. Brenton, Sir Lancelot C. L., trans. The Septuagint with Apocrypha: Greek and English. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1851, 1997.

  2. Bruce, F. F. The Books and the Parchments: How We Got Our English Bible. Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1984.

  3. Cox, Claude: Some Things Biblical Scholars Should Know About the Septuagint: McMaster Divinity College.

  4. Dean, B.S. An Outline of Bible History. Cincinnati, OH: Standard Pub. Co., 1912 rev. ed.

  5. Ehrman, Bart: Misquoting Jesus—The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, first paperback edition (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007), 7, 90.

  6. Hatcher, Michael; Editor: 2104 Bellview Church of Christ Lectureship: Understanding the Will of the Lord. Pensacola, Fl.

  7. Hester, H.I. The Heart of Hebrew History. Nashville, TN: Broadman Press,1962 rev.

  8. Jensen, Irving L. Jensen’s Survey of the Old Testament: Search and Discover. Chicago: Moody Press, 1978.

  9. Lampe, G. W. H. ed. The Cambridge History of the Bible, Volume 2: The West from the Fathers to the Reformation. New York, NY: 1969, reprint 1989.

  10. Law, Timothy Michael: When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible. Oxford University Press. 2013.

  11. Marcos, Natalio Fernandez. The Septuagint in Context: Introduction to the Greek Versions of the Bible. Wilfred G. E. Watson, trans. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, Inc. 2001.

  12. McClish, H.W. (Dub), Jr. The Maccabean Revolt. Unpublished MS for Abilene Christian College graduate course, 1967.

  13. Pfeiffer, Charles F. Between the Testaments. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker book House, 1959.

  14. Schürer, Emil. The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 B.C.-A.D. 135). Vol. III, part 1. A New English Version Revised and Edited by Geza Vermes, Fergus Millar, Martin Goodman. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1986.

  15. The New Analytical Bible and Dictionary of the Bible. “From Malachi to Christ.” Iowa Falls, IA: World Bible Publishers, 1973.

  16. Wegner, Paul D. The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1991-Paperback 2004). www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/hellenistic-greece

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