The Septuagint: The KJV of the Ancient World

Fifty years ago, practically every pew Bible in North America was the time-honored, Victorian-styled, classic King James Version of the Bible. Literally everyone above a certain age in life grew up with the KJV; were it not for the rise of the NIV(84), the KJV would likely have maintained its frontrunner status among competing English translations. In many Christian circles today, it is still revered as THE English Bible, for generally good reasons, as well: it is very faithful to the original texts, it has a tremendous 400-yr legacy, and its dignified literary style commands reverence for God’s Word. It is not perfect (no translation is), but it is very solid and deserves esteem as a literary and religious landmark.

That, in a nutshell, also describes the Septuagint  – what I call the “KJV of the Ancient World.”

The word “Septuagint” gets thrown around rarely in Sunday School circles, somewhat occasionally in seminaries, and regularly in OT and NT scholarly circles. The term itself conjures up notions of a mysterious past and the popular legend about its origins.[1] I became fascinated with the Septuagint soon after learning Greek, and I will be describing in subsequent posts some of the reasons why I think it is important for today’s Christian.

What is the Septuagint?

LXX cover

At the simplest level, the Septuagint is the old Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (“Old Testament” to Christians), which was produced in the time between the writing of the last OT book and the writing of the first NT book. This seems relatively innocuous on the surface until one recognizes that (a) the Septuagint was the first major translation of ANY work of antiquity from its source language into another language, making it one of the foremost literary achievements of all time, and (b) the Septuagint was the translation of Scripture used by both Jews and Christians in the first and second centuries, many of whom had lost access to the original Hebrew texts as that language fell into disuse among the laity. In other words, much like the KJV was the landmark, readable, widely available English Bible from 1611 to the 20th century, so also was the Septuagint the “pew Bible” (anachronistically speaking) for the Judeo-Christian world. Its importance cannot be understated.

How did it come about?

The Legend. As with many things ascribed significant cultural importance, a popular legend about the origins of the Septuagint took root fairly early. The Greek “Epistle of Aristeas,” written in the 2nd century BC, describes the history of the Septuagint as follows (summary form). The Egyptian king Ptolemy Philadelphus (285-247 BC) requested that 70 (or 72) Jewish scribes be sent from Jerusalem to Alexandria, a chief center of scholarship in antiquity, to produce a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. These scribes were isolated on the island of Pharos and worked for 72 days, and when they compared their work, it was discovered with much amazement that they had produced identical copies.[2] Based largely on this miraculous backstory, (a) the Septuagint is often referred to as the “LXX” (Roman numerals for 70) and (b) the Septuagint was invested with a sense of direct inspiration and inerrancy much like the Hebrew original.

The Likely Reality. Subsequent scholarship has revealed that some elements of the above account are true, and some are not. The modern reconstruction of the history runs as follows. Ptolemy Philadelphus likely did commission the translation, which was prompted by the simultaneous rise of Hellenistic / Greek culture in the wake of the global conquest of Alexander the Great and the decline in widespread use of Hebrew among Jews in the 3rd through 1st centuries BC. In other words, the Jews (and those interested in the Jewish Scriptures) needed a translation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis to Deuteronomy; the Torah or Pentateuch) were the first ones translated and represent arguably the best translation quality. In some respects, “the” Septuagint refers to this original work. The remaining books from Joshua through Malachi, and including many of the books now known as the Apocrypha in Orthodox and Roman Catholic Bibles, were translated from the 200s to late 100s BC by multiple authors located most likely in multiple locations, not just Alexandria. The accuracy and quality of translation varies for each book (e.g., Torah good, Psalms and Isaiah not so good), and in subsequent periods, some books (e.g., Daniel) were revised or replaced with better translations.[3]  As a result, in one sense it is inaccurate to say “THE Septuagint,” apart from the Pentateuch, but rather “Septuagint(s).”[4] However, for all practical purposes it is fine to refer to the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible as “the Septuagint,” or “LXX,” as I will from here onward.

How was it passed down and used over time?

Sinaiticus small
Page of Codex Sinaiticus

The LXX was disseminated throughout the Ancient Near East and quickly became popular among Greek-speaking Jews leading up to the time of Christ. The LXX was so widely used that we have in possession approximately 2,000 fragments and full manuscripts, ranging from early papyri to later full codices such as Sinaiticus and Alexandrinus, which provide us with some of the most accurate manuscripts of the Greek NT (and the Greek OT / LXX as well).

It is widely recognized that the majority of NT authors were very familiar with the LXX and used it for the vast preponderance of their quotations and allusions. Not unlike what the KJV was for a whole era of the modern Christian church, so also the LXX: it was the air that the Christians (and Jews, for a long while) were breathing, the text they were memorizing and quoting. Just like the KJV shapes how many Christians pray or speak about Jesus, so also the LXX shaped how the writers of the NT thought and spoke. While most were familiar with the Hebrew text and made use of it directly on occasion, in general the source of choice for NT writers and the early church was the LXX.[5] In several cases, the way in which the NT authors use textual quotations of the OT drawn from the LXX (rather than directly from the Hebrew) becomes pivotal to their arguments, indicating the high regard and “special status” conferred upon the Septuagint.

The widespread use of the LXX produced a complex issue: the first century Jews were initially using the same version as the early Christians and often interpreting them quite differently on key translational points.[6] As a result, need arose within the Jewish community for their own non-Septuagint Greek translation post-AD 70 (after the destruction of the temple and the final great rift between Judaism and Christianity). At least three new translations or revisions were made in the first and second centuries AD:  the translations of Aquila (the most literal and widely accepted by Jews), Symmachus, and Theodotian. Subsequently, Origen produced a revised version called the Hexapla, followed by two other possible versions by Lucian and Hesychius, though the latter are subject to debate. The transmission history is, in fact, far more complicated than this. The point: the LXX was popular and widely copied and, in some cases, revised over time – not unlike how we have multiple English translations of the Bible, from KJV to ESV and everyone in between, that seek to achieve certain goals while reflecting the integrity of the original.

The KJV of the Ancient World

To summarize, we can draw a helpful high-level analogy (that should not be pressed, of course) between the LXX and the KJV:

  1. Both are translations of the originals aimed at providing the Scriptures in the common language (Greek or Victorian English, respectively), to reach a wide audience
  2. Both reached “Pew Bible” status for a long time, resulting in a tremendous impact in how their readers thought, spoke, and wrote
  3. Both were landmark literary masterpieces, but not without flaws
  4. Both are still viewed as somewhat sacred or even inspired in some circles (e.g., Greek Orthodox use of LXX; the KJV-only contingent)
  5. Both use some variant manuscript traditions relative to others, introducing the opportunity for scholars to argue about a lot of things

So what? Connecting to the pew

The LXX is of vital importance to the church today, for at least 4 reasons.

  • The various manuscripts of the LXX help us understand more accurately the Old Testament that we have today. Surprisingly, prior to the 1950s, the oldest known complete (or mostly complete) copies of the Hebrew Bible we had in our possession were the Aleppo Codex (900s AD) and the Leningrad Codex (1008 AD). The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (about which I will post more in the future) revealed Bible manuscripts, such as the great Isaiah Scroll, that were dated as far back as the 200s BC and provided strong evidence that (a)  Aleppo and Leningrad were excellent representatives of the Hebrew Bible from over a millennium earlier and, thus, (b) retained the Hebrew text in a very pristine quality. The LXX helps round out our knowledge of the earlier forms of the Hebrew manuscripts that have been passed down, as it provides us with at least indirect access to the underlying Hebrew at a stage that often precedes the Dead Sea Scrolls. Much like the KJV is translating a different manuscript tradition at some points than, say, the NIV or ESV (causing much consternation), the LXX is based on some different Hebrew readings than have been passed down to today’s standard Hebrew version; the vast preponderance of them are minor in both cases (KJV and LXX). This sounds all very technical, and it is. In lay-speak, the LXX adds to our confidence that what we use to produce our modern-day Old Testament translations is rock solid and worthy of our trust. That is huge in an era in which this fundamental tenant (“Do we even have accurate Scriptures?”) is increasingly under fire.[7]
  • The LXX helps us understand more accurately the New Testament that we have today (and vice versa). The LXX as a translation of the OT is self-evidently useful for OT studies, as mentioned above. But the LXX stands at a unique place in history, as it is a “bridge-man” from the OT to the NT, from the old covenant era to the new covenant era, from Israel to the Church. The LXX is quoted or alluded to hundreds of times in the NT and, thus, forms the very warp and woof of how the NT authors thought and wrote. To use a modern analogy: if you want to understand how, say, Mick Jagger or Eddie Vedder or Lady Gaga (yes, I went there) think when they write music, you must understand what they are listening who, what they are reading, and what other artists influenced them.[8] The same holds true here: the NT authors were swimming in the pool of the Septuagint, and how they quote it or interpret it shines brilliant light on their points.[9]
  • The LXX shows the importance of vernacular translations. One of the motivating factors of the Reformation, from Hus and Wycliffe to Luther, was a desire to provide the Scriptures to the people in their own language and overturn the Roman Catholic church’s insistence on the Latin Vulgate. The origin and use of the LXX gives us a massive data point to show that the Reformers were not innovating: they were simply doing what the church has always done, which is provide God’s Word in translations that the people can actually read. The LXX gave Greek-speaking Jews and Christians access to the Hebrew Bible that was increasingly becoming distanced from them due to the language barrier, and it directly influenced numerous other translations (“versions”) of the Scriptures in the church era (Syriac, Ethiopic, Coptic, etc.).
  • The history of the LXX gives us greater confidence in the Bible we possess today. This point is perhaps most important to the average Christian. When I have studied the LXX, I have come away amazed at how much work has been done on the Bible and for how long. It’s stunning, really. We have had advanced scholars from antiquity to the present day studying the texts for centuries upon centuries with a desire to know what the original text said (e.g., the Hebrew/Aramaic of the OT and the Greek of the NT) as well as how to appropriate and apply that text to the community of the day (which is, in effect, what the LXX and any other translation seeks to accomplish). The Bible, both OT and NT, has stood the test of time.[10] We can trust that what we have today is very very very close to the inspired originals, and the witness of the LXX contributes this confidence.

In future posts, I will illustrate some examples of how the LXX enhances our study of the OT and NT and provides some “wow, that’s really neat” kinds of moments.

__________________________

Footnotes:

Sources:  One of the most accessible modern introductions to the LXX is Karen H. Jobes and Moises Silva, Invitation to the Septuagint. It is fantastic and accessible even to non-Greek readers. The historical classic work (which is far longer and more technical) is Swete’s Introduction to the Greek Old Testament.

[1] The pronunciation of “Septuagint” is itself subject to debate! Sept-oooo-a-jent….Sept-wa-gint….etc.

[2] Similar accounts, likely influenced on Aristeas, can be found in Philo of Alexandria, Josephus, and Tractate Megillah of the Babylonian Talmud.

[3] On this point some folks may chafe if they have held a very high view of what exactly the LXX is and how it came about. For those who hold it to be inspired much like the original Hebrew, the historical circumstances raise all sorts of problems. However, that is not the best way to view the LXX. It is clearly a translation, not an inspired original. It is generally very good, but like any translation (KJV, NIV, ESV, NASB, whatever), translation is not perfect. I would also briefly note here that the so-called Apocrypha, which are books that are not in the Hebrew Bible (= Protestant Old Testament) but which appear in the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Old Testament (dubbed “Deuterocanonical”; Apocrypha is the Protestant term) appear at the end of the Septuagint. It is not entirely clear whether the community using the LXX viewed them as of equal authority with the books of the standard Hebrew Bible. On the Orthodox side, the Apocrypha were eventually received as canonical by virtue of the fact that the LXX was accepted as THE standard Bible. It is more complicated on the Roman Catholic side. Jerome, who produced the Latin Vulgate (382-384 AD) that became the standard Roman Catholic version for centuries, made it clear that he drew a distinction between the canonical OT books (which he saw as 1:1 with the Hebrew Bible) and two other tiers he called “Edifying” (including, say, the Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache) and “Apocryphal” (from the LXX): “the Church also reads [the apocryphal works] … but does not receive them among the the canonical Scriptures, so also one may read these two scrolls for the strengthening of the people, (but) not for confirming the authority of ecclesiastical dogmas” (Jerome, Prologue to the Books of Solomon). It was only at the Council of Trent (1545) that the Roman Church officially established the standard OT as including the Hebrew Bible + Apocrypha (though the Apocrypha were in use in the interim).

[4] For this reason, some scholars refer to it as “LXX/Old Greek” or some other nomenclature to indicate that there is no single copy that is “THE” LXX. Furthermore, there is substantial debate about the precise nature of the origins of the LXX. One camp (Lagarde, et. al.) argues that there was in fact only one initial translation done essentially all at once (similar to the account of Aristeas et. al.); the other camp holds that the translation work occurred in stages.

[5] The question of “which version of the Bible did Jesus himself use” is fairly complex. He almost certainly used Hebrew and Aramaic, and most scholars today argue that he may have taught at least sometimes in Greek as well. He had all three versions available as well: the Hebrew text, the early versions of the Aramaic translations (likely orally but perhaps written down as an early form of what later became the Targumim), and the Greek LXX. Given that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were writing down Jesus’ words in Greek (regardless if Jesus was speaking Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek), it is exceedingly difficult to answer the question precisely.

[6] For example, the LXX Isaiah 7 translates the Hebrew “betulah” as “parthenos,” which Matthew 2:23 quotes as proof of the virgin birth. Jews rejected this interpretation of the Hebrew (and Greek) noun.

[7] Though he focuses on NT Canon and not OT Canon, Dr. Mike Kruger’s post on canon (http://michaeljkruger.com/the-complete-series-ten-basic-facts-about-the-nt-canon-that-every-christian-should-memorize/) is very helpful on the broad topic of canon and textual criticism.

[8] And the answer is always, no matter whom you ask, “The Beatles.” So I suppose that makes the LXX like the Beatles as well as the KJV?

[9]  Moreover, the NT quotations of the LXX help us understand what version of the LXX the NT authors were using at the time and how it related to the underlying Hebrew. But that is probably not as interesting to the layperson!

[10] I by no means am ignoring the host of complexities introduced by the study of the LXX, particularly when one compares the readings of the various Septuagint manuscripts with the Hebrew (Masoretic Text), the biblical manuscripts of the Dead Sea Scrolls, other versions (Samaritan Pentateuch, Peshitta, Ethiopic, Vulgate), and quotations in the Greek NT. I will address some of those in the future.

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