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An Introduction to the Septuagint, the Old Testament in Greek

[N.B. This blog has many kinds of readers, some of whom are interested in the academic side of patristics, others of whom are not. Occasionally we’ll make forays into Greek and Latin or other technical topics, but these are a sidelight to our main purpose.]

In our readings from Justin in the past and coming weeks, Justin makes a spirited case for Christianity on the basis of the Old Testament. Though Justin had access to the “memoirs of the apostles,” which likely included the Gospel of John, the Scriptures that became the New Testament had not yet been canonized and collected, so it is not surprising that Justin relies on the Old Testament. Since he was writing in Greek, Justin did not read the Old Testament in Hebrew, but in Greek. In two notable passages, which we’ll take up in a moment, Justin describes how the Old Testament was translated into Greek and the difference that made for Christian theology.

In all our reading so far, you might have noticed that when the fathers quote from the Old Testament, the wording does not quite match the text of your English Bible. Sometimes the father is only alluding to a passage, as you might in a conversation, or sometimes the father seems to be quoting from memory. But often the quotation differs because the fathers were using a Greek Old Testament, but your English Bible is a translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. Of course you need not look to the fathers to find these differences, because the New Testament writers also often quoted from a Greek rather than a Hebrew text. Both the apostles and the fathers were using a version of the Old Testament called the Septuagint.

In his First Apology (ch. 31), Justin describes how the Hebrew Scriptures came to be translated into Greek at Alexandria, a story given at greater length in the Letter of Aristeas. The legend of the Septuagint is that the Ptolemy II Philadelphus, the Hellenistic king of Egypt from 283 to 246 BC, requested a translation of the Pentateuch into Greek for the library at Alexandria. On the island of Pharos in the harbor of Alexandria, which was the site of a lighthouse that was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, seventy-two Jewish elders from Jerusalem met and translated the Pentateuch into Greek in seventy-two days.

This story is just a legend, of course, but sometime in the third-century BC the Pentateuch and later the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek at Alexandria. These collection of Greek texts came to be known as the Septuagint (meaning “seventy” and abbreviated LXX). The Septuagint was only the oldest of several Greek versions of the Scriptures in the two or three centuries before Christ. The church father Origen (184–254), whom we’ll read starting next September, was famous for his Hexapla, a six-column collection of a Hebrew and several Greek versions of the Old Testament, and Jerome also identified other Greek translations. But the Septuagint bears the distinction of having been the version used most often by the apostles and the fathers.

Most modern English versions of the Old Testament are translated from the Masoretic Text, a text type of the Hebrew Bible passed down with great precision by Jewish scribes. The oldest extant manuscripts of the Masoretic Text date to the ninth century A.D., though the text preserved is older. The Septuagint is not a translation of the Masoretic Text; rather, it is a translation of Hebrew manuscripts that predate the Masoretic Text. Thus the Hebrew Masoretic Text and Greek Septuagint are independent witnesses to the original Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament.1

The differences between the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint are not always easy to spot. Many English translations, especially older translations like the Authorized Version, attempt to reconcile the Hebrew Old Testament with the New Testament’s quotations in Greek, and thus with the Septuagint. Even modern English translations, like the NRSV or ESV, which are translated from the Masoretic Text rather than from the Septuagint, are translated in light of a Christological interpretation originally based on the LXX.

Comparison of the Septuagint and Masoretic Text

The most obvious difference between the Septuagint and the Hebrew Bible is the list of books that comprises each. The Septuagint contains all the books that are part of the Hebrew Bible, albeit in a different combination and order, but the Septuagint also includes other books, such as Judith, Tobit, the books of the Maccabees, the Wisdom of Sirach (also called Ecclesiasticus). In addition, some of the books included in the Hebrew canon have longer versions in the Septuagint, including Daniel and Esther.

The various churches of Christendom disagree about the authority of these additional books. In the most general of terms: All Christians accept all of what comprises the Hebrew canon. The Eastern Orthodox churches accept all of the books in the Hebrew canon as translated in the Septuagint, and they accept all of the books in the Septuagint. The Roman Catholic church accepts most of the books in the Apocrypha (the so-called deuterocanon). Since Luther, Protestants accept only the Hebrew canon. (Luther not only denied the authority of the Apocrypha, he also doubted the canonicity of several New Testament books, most famously James, and some Old Testament books, such as Esther.) But many Protestant churches make use of the Apocrypha in liturgical readings (in the words of the Thirty-Nine Articles, “the Church doth read [those books] for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine”), and Protestant versions of the Bible such as the King James Version and the Revised Standard Version routinely included the Apocrypha.2

The other important difference between the Septuagint and the Hebrew Bible is the wording of specific passages. Two examples will suffice:

  • Hebrews 10:5–7 is a quotation from Psalm 40:6–8. The phrase in Hebrews “a body you have prepared for me” is a quotation from the LXX version of Psalm 40:6, where the Masoretic text reads, “ears you fashioned for me.”
  • Matthew 1:23 (“the virgin shall conceive”) is a quotation from the LXX version of Isaiah 7:14. The word for “virgin” in both the Septuagint and the gospel is παρθένος, and Christian apologetics both ancient and modern have had to demonstrate that the Greek word is an accurate translation of the underlying Hebrew word.

One related textual variation that is important for understanding the fathers concerns Psalm 96:10 (=95:10 LXX). The Hebrew Bible, modern critical editions of the Septuagint, and all modern English translations render part of that verse as “The Lord reigns.” But some of the fathers had a Greek or Latin version that added the words, “ἀπο του ξύλου”—”The Lord reigns from the tree,” with obvious Christological implications. In his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin goes so far as to accuse Jews of removing those words from the text (ch. 73), though these words were certainly added by Christians  and not removed by Jews.3 Augustine interpreted the Psalm including those words, though Jerome disagreed that they were part of the text.4

Significance of the Septuagint

I’m not going to try to resolve the theological and apologetic questions that the differences between the Hebrew and Greek Old Testaments pose. Those large questions can only be answered by detailed investigation into the particulars of New Testament and patristic use of the Old Testament. But I do want to suggest several reasons to consult the Septuagint.

First, if you want to understand the theology and biblical interpretation of the fathers, then it can be helpful to have the same Old Testament text in front of you that was in front of them. This includes the books outside the Hebrew canon, which are occasionally cited by the fathers and in a few cases alluded to in the New Testament. I’m not asking anyone to reconsider his or her canon, but it’s worth at least being acquainted with all the books that have been accounted Scripture.

Second, the Septuagint was the first edition of the Old Testament in use in churches, both in the east and in the west. This heritage deserves honor. (I realize that this argument, taken to an extreme could be a fallacy—”It was good for the church fathers [3x] … and it’s good enough for me.”)

Third, using the Septuagint forces us to confront the Scriptures as they are, rather than as we assume they ought to be. In my (narrow) experience, a common error in thinking about the Scriptures is to make some a deductive claim about how the Scriptures ought to function, then to demonstrate that they do in fact function in that way, when instead we ought to first see how how God has used the Scriptures and the church has read them, then learn how we can describe them. The Septuagint makes things messier, but that’s how things really are. If the Scriptures are the Word of God in a way that is parallel to Christ being the incarnated Word of God, then we have to give full weight to the way the Scriptures take human form, without veering into whatever the equivalent of the docetist or gnostic heresies would be, even if that makes the Scriptures sometimes seem like “an untidy and leaky vehicle.”

Fourth, Christians have always interpreted the Septuagint Christologically. We must of course avoid Justin’s mistake in insisting on versions of the text that are absolutely indefensible. But it was reading the Septuagint which persuaded Christians that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ, the Logos of God. It’s essential to learn how to read the Old Testament Christologically as the fathers did, and this can be done from the Septuagint.

The Septuagint in English

If you want an English translation of the Septuagint, there is a recent edition titled A New English Translation of the SeptuagintNETS is available for free in its entirety online in PDF proofs of the book. NETS is based on the NRSV, meaning that it amends the NRSV translation of the Hebrew Bible where the Septuagint Greek differs from the Hebrew. The reasoning is well explained in the translators’ preface “To the Readers” (PDF), which I recommend for further information on the Septuagint. The real advantage of NETS is the ability to look up Old Testament passages and have a translation of the edition that the fathers were using.

The Septuagint in Greek

Cover of Rahlfs SeptuagintaSome of our readers may know Greek, and wish to consult a Greek edition. The best complete critical edition of the Greek text of the Septuagint is Rahlfs and Hanhart’s Septuaginta, published by Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft as are the critical editions of the Greek New Testament.5 This edition includes all of the books that comprise the Septuagint. An older edition of the Greek text of the Septuagint is Lancelot C. Brenton’s The Septuagint with Apocrypha, first published in an English translation in 1844, then in a Greek-English diglot in 1870, and still in print by Hendrickson. Brenton’s edition is the cheapest, and to my knowledge it is the only diglot on the market.6 But Brenton’s text is bizarre and unreliable. Besides the progress made in Septuagint scholarship since the nineteenth century, Brenton’s translation is not really a Septuagint at all. The books are listed in the order of the Hebrew Bible rather than the Septuagint, with the additional books of the Septuagint in the back as apocrypha. More troubling, Brenton seems to have included only the verses of the Hebrew Bible, rather than preserving the readings of the Septuagint. Since Brenton’s version is just the Hebrew Bible arranged in Greek, I can’t imagine what useful scholarly purpose it could serve.7

Further Reading

If you’d like a fuller introduction to the Septuagint, I highly recommend Karen H. Jobes and Moiesés Silva’s Invitation to the Septuagint, which discusses the history of the Septuagint, an introduction to current editions, and an explanation of some passages in the Septuagint. If you want help learning to read the Septuagint in Greek, Rodney Decker’s Koine Greek Reader: Selections from the New Testament, Septuagint, and Early Christian Writers is an introductory text, similar in format to the patristic Greek reader I recommended earlier.

  1. There is something similar in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament. Critical editions of the New Testament routinely cite as witnesses translations of the Greek text into other ancient languages, such as the Peshitta or the Old Latin versions. By the way, many of the important uncial manuscripts of the New Testament, Codices Siniaticus (א), Alexandrinus (A), Vaticanus (B), and Ephraemi Rescriptus (C), also contain books of the Old Testament in Greek, though these versions may represent other ancient Greek versions besides the Septuagint.
  2. The details are far more complicated, so for the specifics about which churches accept which books, you can consult this chart.
  3. The words “from the tree” may originally have been a gloss, that is, a note in the margin to explain the text. Sometimes such notes were copied by scribes into the body of the text itself. It must be fully and fairly acknowledged that many of the fathers, in opposing Judaism or judaizing, far overstepped the boundary between legitimate debate between religions and antisemitism, so that Christians, who had been victims of a blood libel in pagan Rome, in turn perpetrated a blood libel on Jews in the middle ages. We will have to reckon with this difficulty more fully as we continue to read the fathers. For now, I’ll only say that both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds teach that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate (“passus sub Pontio Pilato”; “σταυρωθεντα τε υπερ ημων επι Ποντιου Πιλατου”).
  4. Augustine and Jerome disagreed? Shocking!
  5. The Göttingen Septuagint is the editio critica maior, but it is of use only to scholars of the Septuagint. There is an online version of an older edition of Rahlfs’s Septuaginta here.
  6. There are some Greek-English interlinear versions, but I’m confident that the next ecumenical council with anathematize interlinears.
  7. Scans of Brenton’s edition are available from CCEL, and the text from this website.

5 Comments

  1. A very helpful post. The issue of biblical translation raises a question about translation more generally – can there be ‘gains’ as well as ‘losses’ in translation? Are LXX elaborations of the Hebrew texts on which they are based more comprehensive renditions of Scripture’s ‘sensus plenior’ – whatever we take that to mean – or defections from the putative ‘purity’ of authorial intention – perhaps a meaningless concept in view of the literary history of the Hebrew Scriptures.

  2. Good concise comments, with appropriate application to your main focus on the study of the Fathers. Consider also Martin Hengel, The Septuagint as Christian Scripture, as a resource.

  3. Another translation out there is that contained in the Orthodox Study Bible (whose NT is NKJV), but that’s neither free nor inexpensive. But its footnotes reference the Fathers continually!

    • The Orthodox Study Bible is indeed a good resource for study of the OT of the fathers. But by no means consult it as an introduction to Orthodoxy proper! The notes vary in how well they represent the Orthodox tradition, but the translation of the Septuagint – while not perfect – is about as good as it gets, especially for those like myself how find the NRSV unpalatable. The NKJV companion NT is unfortunate but it is what we use liturgically for the time being, with adjustments wherever necessary.

  4. While it excludes the Apocrypha, the Apostolic Study Bible by Charles VanDePool is a treasure for being a polyglot bible with Greek, English, Strongs numbering, etc. all in parallel. For students it is a Godsend! On Facebook at The-Septuagint-LXX-and-the-Apostolic-Polyglot-Bible

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