Septuagint

When Jesus and the early Christians talked about the scriptures, they were using a version that is different from the manuscript basis of most English translations, including the King James Version that is so often used in Latter-day Saint circles. In a Hellenistic world, they relied on the Septuagint—a Greek translation of the Tanakh (Old Testament). In a recent post at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Philip Jenkins (professor of history at Baylor University) discussed more about the Septuagint. What follows here is a copost (a shorter post with some commentary).

First, what exactly is the Septuagint? Philip Jenkins explained:

The story begins with the Greek conquest of the Middle East under Alexander the Great and his successors. Jews migrated through that larger Hellenistic world and flourished in such great cities as Alexandria. Quite rapidly, they became very comfortable with Greek language and culture, while Hebrew increasingly became literally a foreign language.

During the third and second centuries BC, the Biblical scriptures were translated into Greek, which became the normal means in which they were read and studied, certainly through the era of the New Testament world and beyond.

These translations are collectively known as the Septuagint, which you often see abbreviated as LXX, from the Roman numerals for Seventy. …

What we have then is a version of the Old Testament that is purely and absolutely Jewish, and which reflects the Jewish understanding of the Bible around (say) 200 BC. It was composed by Jews at a time when the Second Temple still flourished, and when there were plenty of Palestine-based scholars available to debate and explain the original meanings of words. It also comes from very much the time when the Qumran settlement was being established, and the first Dead Sea Scrolls were being written.

Just as important for our purposes, this was “the Bible” as it was read by Jesus’s followers, and the early Christian church. The Greek and later Orthodox versions of the Bible were wholly based on that Septuagint. When in the fourth century AD the great Church Father Jerome translated the Bible into Latin, he relied heavily on that tradition. The version he produced, the Vulgate, remained the Bible of the Roman Catholic church until very recent times.

It was a translation that would play an important role in early Christianity.

Why was it called the LXX or Septuagint? 

That name reflects a common story that the mighty Hellenistic Egyptian ruler Ptolemy II Philadelphus (284-246 BC) wanted to know the contents of those scriptures.

Reputedly (and you don’t have to believe this literally) he summoned 72 scholars to his court, drawn from each of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. He set them to work quite separately in the process of translating the Bible, and when they were done, they found that they had produced identical results—obviously a miracle! In reality, there were many stages in the translation process, spread over a long period of time (around 270-120 BC), but we can speak generally of these various efforts as the Septuagint.

The name comes from a myth that has existed for a long time, though it seems to not have a basis in fact.

One interesting aspect of the Septuagint is that despite it not being in the original language, it has some legitimate claims to being as valid as the Hebrew texts that we tend to use as the basis for our Bible translations today:

When we find such a disconnect, we naturally assume that the Hebrew text must be correct, and that the Greek translation is late, flawed, and inferior.

The logic goes like this:

  • The Bible books were written in Hebrew.
  • The Greek versions are translated from the Hebrew.
  • Therefore, the Hebrew text must be earlier, original, and authentic.

But matters are not so simple. That Greek after all preserves the way in which the Bible text was known and read by literate Jews around 200 BC, and it might well reflect a now-lost early Hebrew understanding.

In addition, the Septuagint was created around the same time that many of the earliest extant manuscripts of the Hebrew texts were created (e.g., the Dead Sea Scrolls). 

That being the case, why isn’t the Septuagint used more widely today?

So if the Septuagint is so significant, and contains so many potential treasures, why did it drop from use in some major traditions? It is a lengthy story on which I can only touch here.

After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, Jewish thinkers were determined to define the canon of scripture strictly, to purge anything that derived from the Greek. This shaped their vision of the books composed in the Bible, and of the approved text. At the Reformation, Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformers faithfully followed that principle, leaving the Septuagint maligned and often ignored.

Sometimes the textual choices those Reformers made were wise and justified, but not always. We don’t have to follow them in detail. We can still learn a very great deal by reading the Septuagint.

The Septuagint was left mostly to use by the Christians—especially those in the eastern, Greek-speaking world, but as Rome and western Europe became the center of gravity for a lot of the Christian tradition and Humanism led reformers to look to the Hebrew texts as the basis for translations of the Tanakh, the Septuagint was largely sidelined.

As an aside, the Eastern Orthodox churches tend to still rely on the Septuagint to this day. As Bishop Kallistos Timothy Ware explained about Eastern Orthodoxy:

As its authoritative text for the Old Testament, it uses the ancient Greek translation known as the Septuagint. When this differs from the original Hebrew (which happens quite often), Orthodox believe that the changes in the Septuagint were made under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and are to be accepted as part of God’s continuing revelation.

Kallistos Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity

I have found it interesting that Ware’s defense of differences in the Septuagint compared to the Hebrew texts as being inspired have some echoes in some of the defenses of the King James Version that I’ve heard over the years (though the Septuagint has a more legitimate claim to the idea than the KJV).

For more on the Septuagint, head on over to read the recent post at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk by Philip Jenkins.

1 comment for “Septuagint

  1. “When Jesus and the early Christians talked about the scriptures, they were using a version that is different from the manuscript basis of most English translations. . . . In a Hellenistic world, they relied on the Septuagint.”
    It would more accurate to say that the New Testament WRITERS, writing in Greek, primarily quoted the Septuagint in their writing. When Jesus and his Jewish contemporaries talked about the scriptures, they would have been discussing, quoting, and referencing the Hebrew text, the text that they had heard, read, and been taught in the synagogues since their infancy.

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