TXAB: The Christ Almighty Blog

27 January 2016

The bible in “the original Greek”: The Septuagint.

Still the authoritative translation of a lot of Christians.

Septuagint /sɛp'tu.ə.dʒɪnt/ n. An ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament.
[Septuagintal /sɛp.tu.ə'dʒɪnt.əl/ adj.]

When you read the New Testament, and one of the apostles quotes the Old Testament, most of the time they’re not translating it from the original Hebrew. They’re quoting a Greek translation.

There wasn’t just one translation. Same as English versions of the bible nowadays, different translators had taken different shots at putting the Hebrew scriptures into Greek. Some Greek-speaking Jew in Jerusalem might put together something like a “King Jonathan’s Version,” or KJV; some Greek-speaking Jew in Egypt might’ve cobbled together an “Egyptian Standard Version,” or ESV; some curious gentile in Laodicea might’ve put together a “New Laodicean Translation,” or NLT… I could come up with more hypothetical reasons for these familiar initials, but you get the gist. But over time, copyists smooshed all these different Greek bibles together into one sorta-kinda-the-standard copy, and we call it the Septuagint.

Why’s it called the Septuagint? Funny story. According to a Pharisee legend, told in the Letter of Aristeas, King Ptolemy Philadelphius of Egypt wanted a copy of the bible for his famous Library of Alexandria. So he asked Jerusalem for translators; they sent him either 70 or 72 scribes, who cleverly answered Ptolemy’s test questions and got the job. Each were given their own room, got to translating, and when done all their translations miraculously matched, word-for-word. Therefore this is an inspired, inerrant translation of the bible. (Oh, and septuaginta is Latin for 70. It’s why people tend to use the abbreviation LXX, the Roman 70, for the Septuagint.)

Yeah, it’s as bogus as the myth KJV-only adherents have for their favorite translation. Because if it really were an infallible version of the bible, the New Testament authors would’ve quoted it, and only it, for their scriptures. Instead some apostles quoted it. And others translated the Hebrew for themselves. Paul went back and forth. Seems sometimes he just didn’t care for the way the Septuagint put it, and decided to phrase the original Hebrew in his own way.

Plus we have copies of the other Greek translations. Round the year 235, Origin of Alexandria put the six most popular Septuagints together in his Hexapla—and tried to smoosh them together into a version we call the Hexaplar recension. Other folks tried to revise the Septuagint, like St. Jerome, Lucian of Antioch, and Hesychius of Jerusalem. And other folks tried to create new Greek translations, like Aquila of Sinope, Symmachus of Samaria, and Theodoton of Ephesus.

But when people refer to the Septuagint, they usually mean the most popular edition nowadays: The Septuaginta Unternehmen, first edited together by Alfred Rahlfs in 1907. It was revised in 2006 by Robert Hanhart. It’s based on the more common Septuagints: The ones found in the Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Vaticanus, Codex Alexandrinus, and hundreds of other manuscripts. Including some copies found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. (The 2006 revision is the version I tend to quote and translate.)

English translations of it do exist. The best-known (and one of the oldest) is that of Lancelot C.L. Brenton, published 1851, based on the Codex Vaticanus. The more recent Eastern/Greek Orthodox Bible is an update of Brenton; the New English Translation of the Septuagint is based on Rahlfs, and the Orthodox Study Bible is based on the New King James, corrected against the Septuagint.

The bible of the first Christians.

As I said, the apostles quote the Septuagint. To them, and to the people they preached to throughout the Roman Empire, the Septuagint was the bible. The apostles quoted it for the same reason people quote the NIV or NLT instead of re-translating every bible quote from the original: People are already reading those translations. Why reinvent the wheel?

(Me, the reason I re-translate everything is so I understand these verses thoroughly, before I quote ’em. I realize not every teacher wants to take the time to do this. And that I’m making them look bad. Oh well; I can live with that.)

Because the apostles quoted it, so did the early church fathers. Extensively. They put really big long Septuagint quotes in their letters. Often because not every church had a copy of the bible, so the fathers were just doing ’em a solid by sending them long quotes. And very few church fathers knew Hebrew—and very few in their congregations knew it either—so they just went with whichever Septuagint was handiest.

Just like the KJV is the bible for many English-speaking Christians, the Septuagint was the bible to most of the fathers. In fact, some of ’em even rejected the Hebrew bible in favor of the Septuagint. St. Justin Martyr, fr’instance. He once got into an apologetic debate with a Jew, and gave a big long speech about how you couldn’t trust the Hebrew Old Testament because the Jews, he claimed, had altered the bible. Dialogue with Trypho 71-73 Y’see, some of Justin’s favorite Septuagint passages were missing.

Yeah, well… this is because the Septuagint has a few problems. Like I keep telling you, there’s no such thing as an infallible translation. There are some pretty big differences between the Greek and Hebrew texts.

  • The books Protestants call apocrypha (and Catholics call deuterocanon) aren’t in the Hebrew scriptures. Likely there were original Hebrew versions of all of them, and the translators simply included them with all the other Hebrew books they translated. But Jews don’t consider them bible, and consequently most Protestants don’t either.
  • Esther in the Septuagint is one-third larger, containing verses which aren’t in the Hebrew. (The Hebrew version doesn’t refer to God at all; the Greek version does, and even includes a few prayers to him.)
  • Daniel has two extra chapters.
  • Jeremiah and Job are shorter in the Septuagint, and their chapters are jumbled up.
  • Extra verses are found here and there throughout the Septuagint. (Which include the verses Justin Martyr thought the Jews removed.)
  • And of course there are minor differences of translation… which sometimes aren’t so minor. They can substantially change the meaning of the text.

Which differences of translation? Well fr’instance: Whenever the Hebrews did something inappropriate, like something which rendered them ritually unclean, the LORD instructed that they be nikhretáh/“cut off” from the others. Ex 12.15 What “cut off” means—whether they’re to be shunned, or just plain executed—is debatable. But the Septuagint didn’t debate it; it simply says they exolethrefthísetai/“will be utterly destroyed.” Ex 12.15 LXX This adds way more death penalties to the Law. In the Septuagint, God’d have you killed for lots of stuff. Like eating leavened bread on Passover, Ex 12.19 being ritually unclean during a sacrifice, Lv 7.20-21, 22.3 eating blood, Lv 7.27, 17.14 or having sex with a woman on her period. Lk 20.18 It’s no wonder many early Christians saw the New Testament as far more gracious than the Old.

Anyway. Early Christians got so insistent on the authority of the Septuagint, the Pharisees gradually decided to ditch it and insist on the authority of the original Hebrew. And when St. Jerome studied Hebrew so he could translate the bible into Latin from Hebrew, many considered that a waste of time: He should just translate the Septuagint. That was the bible. Not that old Jewish book.

The bible of eastern Christians.

The other reason the Septuagint is still so relevant: Greek-speaking Christians, and all the churches which have stemmed from Greek-influenced cultures, still use the Septuagint. Their Old Testaments are still translated from “the original Greek,” not the Hebrew. They still quote it and use it.

Hence there are gonna be some differences between their Old Testaments and ours. All the textual differences I listed above: You’re gonna find them in eastern bibles. Our Old Testaments don’t quite match. If we don’t realize this, we’ll wind up talking past one another.

And of course western Christians use it too: Bible translators use the Septuagint. Yes, even Protestant bible translators like me. No, not because we’re secretly inserting bits of Septuagint into our Old Testaments. It’s because sometimes the ancient Hebrew is difficult to translate (they keep forgetting to use verbs!) and sometimes it helps to see how the Hebrew-fluent Pharisees of 2,200 years ago translated the bible into a more familiar language.

This is why many bibles will point out, in the footnotes, how the Septuagint put it. Fr’instance 2 Samuel 5.25: David struck down the Philistine army from Geva to Gezer. Well, we don’t know where Geva is. But according to the Septuagint (and to 1 Chronicles 14.16), Geva means Gibeon. The NIV and NLT even decided to translate it the way the Septuagint has it.

So when you plan to do any serious bible study, or look at Christian history and the church fathers, or interact with fellow Christians of different churches, sometimes you’re gonna need to take a peek at the Septuagint. Hence this handy introduction.