Christians who have heard of the Septuagint understand it as the Greek translation of the Hebrew OT. That's an accurate assessment in simplest terms, but the Septuagint as we know it has a lengthy, complex history. Knowing a bit about that history can give us an appreciation for the important role played by the Septuagint in the transmission of the OT Scriptures and how we should look at our own translations.
Origin and Transmission of the Septuagint to Modern Times
This article was first published in the Winter 2010 issue of Bible and Spade.
Most Septuagint specialists believe that the task of translating the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek occurred in stages, beginning with the Torah, the first five books of the OT, in the early third century BC. Other portions followed over the course of the next century. The reasons are coherent. Other Hellenistic Jewish texts from the third century BC cite the Septuagint, and other books within the Septuagint often repeat translation vocabulary found in the Torah.
The circumstances of the translation are largely unknown, though the transparently legendary story behind its production, as found in the Hellenistic Jewish text The Letter of Aristeas, contains some useful information. Scholars accept Aristeas' account that the translation was done in Alexandria, Egypt, by Jewish scholars skilled in Greek, but dismiss his account that 70 translators, working independently, produced identical translations, thus demonstrating the inspired nature of the translation! This legend of the 70 is behind the common abbreviation for the Septuagint: LXX ('70' in Roman numerals; hereafter, LXX is used for 'Septuagint' in this article).
While quotations of the LXX are as old as the third century BC, the oldest manuscript evidence for the LXX as a running text ranges from the second century BC to the first century AD. The material comes from Qumran as part of the Dead Sea Scroll discovery. Comparison of fragments of the LXX found at Qumran with other LXX manuscripts shows that, already at Qumran, alterations were made to either improve Greek style or bring the Greek into more literal conformity with what would become known later as the Hebrew Masoretic text (MT).
Other manuscript evidence in subsequent centuries brings us to the oldest known (originally) complete Bibles, which date from the fourth and fifth centuries AD. These Bibles, written in uncial script (capital letters), contain the OT (i.e., the LXX), the NT, and certain apocryphal books in Greek. The three earliest are Codex Vaticanus (B), Codex Sinaiticus (S, or ?) and Codex Alexandrinus (A). In the wake of these and other uncials, many later copies of the LXX in cursive Greek script were produced in the ensuing centuries.
Like other Greek literature, interest in the LXX was high in the Renaissance and the Reformation. Scholars interested in solving incongruities in the OT often appealed to LXX readings for explications. The invention of the printing press led to the production not just of the first Hebrew and vernacular Bibles, but also of the first great polyglots, such as the Complutensian (1520) and the Sixtine (Rome, 1587), which included texts of the LXX (Dines and Knibb 2004: 8). Modern editions used today are reconstructed by textual critics drawing from various manuscript readings.1 For many years the only available English translation of the LXX was that of Brenton (1851). Recently, however, a team of LXX scholars has produced a new translation based on the most up-to-date Greek texts available (NETS; Oxford, 2007).
The Codex Sinaiticus represents one of the most important witnesses to the Greek text of the Septuagint (LXX) and the New Testament. Written in the middle of the fourth century, it contains the earliest complete copy of the New Testament. The hand-written text is in Greek. The New Testament appears in the original vernacular language (koine Greek) and the Old Testament in the version, known as the Septuagint, that was adopted by early Greek-speaking Christians.
Differences Between the LXX and the Traditional Hebrew Text
The LXX differs in many places from the traditional Hebrew text, the Masoretic Text, known as the MT. There are divergences in words, verses, and passages; the order of verses or whole chapters; and the presence or absence of verses and sections. The question of why these differences exist is a difficult one, and is at the heart of the issue of the transmission of the Scriptures. There are basically two explanations.
First, in a number of differences textual critics can fairly easily discern that the variance is due to divergent manuscripts; that is, the Hebrew text from which the LXX was translated had different words than what is found in the MT. Two of the most well-known examples are Deuteronomy 32:8 and the book of 1 Samuel. The MT has 'sons of Israel' and the LXX has 'sons of God' in Deuteronomy 32:8. Textual critics agree unanimously that the LXX is the correct text due to manuscript evidence (the Dead Sea Scrolls agree with the LXX here and elsewhere in Deuteronomy 32) and logical coherence.2 With respect to 1 Samuel, the Dead Sea Scrolls support the LXX in numerous instances against the MT, but not always.
Dead Sea Scroll Cave at Qumran. Fragments of the Septuagint were discovered at Qumran with other biblical and non-canonical texts. They can be compared to other LXX manuscripts for emendations and variations. Henry B. Smith Jr.
Second, in many instances scholars feel that the most likely answer to a disagreement between the LXX and the MT is that the LXX translator had the text of the MT, or something nearly identical, and simply translated very freely or interpretively. Already in the early Church there was sensitivity to this phenomenon. The great textual scholar Origen (185-254 AD), well versed in Hebrew and Greek, undertook the task of 'adjusting' the text of his LXX to the traditional Hebrew text. While well-meaning, the result of this amazing endeavor was that it made the task of parsing differences between the LXX and the MT even harder for modern scholars.
The Septuagint (and Other Translations) as Scripture
Both explanations for manuscript differences raise important considerations for how we look at our English Bibles today. The NT makes it clear that Jesus, the apostles, and the NT writers frequently used the LXX. Studies have determined that the NT, LXX and MT agree only about 20% of the time. Of the 80% where some disagreement is evident, the NT and MT agree less than 5% of the time. That means that the NT writers use the LXX most of the time when they quote the OT (Jobes and Silva 2000: 189-93).
The point to be drawn from this is not that the LXX is to be preferred over the MT as though it were more sacred or 'original.' If that were the case, one would have to wonder why the NT writers ever followed the MT. The reverse is true as well. The MT deserves no a priori sacred status either. The MT is the direct result of a Jewish effort to create a standardized Hebrew text from existing Hebrew textual traditions, a task that occurred ca. 100 AD, in part in response to Christian apologetic use of the LXX.3 The real lesson that we learn from the transmission and use of the LXX is that the apostles-and Jesus himself-had no qualms about considering that translation the true Word of God. There is no evidence that Jesus or Paul or any other NT writer preferred a personal text over the texts available in synagogues, or that the hand-copied texts in synagogues had no variation. The fact that there were several non-identical Hebrew OT texts and Greek translations of those texts in circulation at the time generated no interest from Jesus and the apostles. What Providence had supplied and preserved was deemed completely sufficient. The early Church had the same attitude. Most Christians in the first four centuries of the Church could read only Greek. The LXX was their complete Bible. Respected Church Fathers such as Irenaeus (Against Heresies 3.21.2-3) and Tertullian (Apology 18) had a very high view of the LXX as being the Word of God. Rather than worry about following the LXX or MT as the only reliable source of the Scriptures, we ought to follow their example.
Michael S. Heiser earned his PhD in Hebrew Bible and Semitic Language at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He does translation work in roughly a dozen ancient languages, among them Biblical Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, Egyptian hieroglyphs, and Ugaritic, cuneiform, and has also studied Akkadian and Sumerian. He is the Academic Editor of Logos Bible Software.
Terminology used in this article:
Uncial-Ancient biblical manuscript written in capital Greek letters.
Polyglot-A book made up of multiple languages.
Masoretic Text-The Hebrew text of the Old Testament is called the Masoretic Text (MT) because in its present form it is based upon the Masora-the Hebrew textual tradition of the Jewish scholars known as the Masoretes. The MT was primarily copied, edited and distributed by the Masoretes between the seventh and tenth centuries AD.
1 The most well known of these are Rahlfs (1935) and the Göttingen Septuagint (see Jobes and Silva 2000: 75, 313-14).
2 See Heiser 2001. Some modern translations have incorporated the LXX (DSS) reading here in the running text (e.g., ESV, NRSV).
3 See Tov 1992A 116-17 and Tov 1992B.
Dines, Jennifer M., and Knibb, Michael A.
2004 The Septuagint. London and New York: T&T Clark.
Heiser, Michael S.
2001 Deuteronomy 32:8 and the Sons of God. Bibliotheca Sacra 158: 629: 52-74.
Against Heresies. 3.21.2-3, in Eusebius HE 5.8.11-15.
Jobes, Karen H., and Silva, Moises
2000 Invitation to the Septuagint. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
Apology 18. Trans. T.R. Glover. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard Press.
1992A Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress.
1992B Textual Criticism (OT). Pp. 395, 407 in Anchor Bible Dictionary 6, ed. David N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday.