In Defense of the Septuagint

The Prophet Moses
The Prophet Moses

As is well known historically,  somewhere about 200 years before the time of Christ the Jews translated their Scriptures into the Greek language.  This translation was called the Septuagint  (normally abbreviated as LXX).     It was a well respected document throughout the ancient world including among the Jews themselves, especially among those who commonly used Greek as their language of communication.   In fact the Scriptures were translated into Greek to make them more accessible to the rest of the world which used Greek as the universal language of the educated people.  Many Jewish scholars themselves relied on the Septuagint in their own writings. 

About 100 years or so after the time of Christ, the Jewish rabbis began reconsidering the acceptability of the Septuagint for use by Jews.  This seems in part to have occurred because of the Christian reliance on the Septuagint for their own claims about Jesus being the Messiah and fulfilling Old Testament prophecies.

After the Protestant Reformation, Protestant scholars in an effort to discredit the Roman Catholic Church abandoned reliance on the Septuagint and began using only Jewish versions of their Scriptures for translating the scriptures into modern languages.  The Masoretic Text which became the official version of the Jewish Scriptures was finalized between the 7th-10th Centuries AD, and thus is not an older text than the Septuagint but a more recent text.  The Masoretic text does correspond closely to Hebrew/Aramaic texts from the 2nd Century AD but differs at points from the Septuagint, sometimes significantly.

Modern biblical scholars do consult the Septuagint even when they rely on the Masoretic Text because the Septuagint is more ancient than the Masoretic Text and because the Septuagint was translated from a more ancient Hebrew/Aramaic text and so allows us to know how Jewish scholars 200 years before Christ were interpreting and understanding their own scriptures.  The Septuagint was not translated by Christians as Christianity did not exist at that time, so the Christians had no influence over the translation into Greek of the Jewish scriptures.  It did happen however that the Christians found the Septuagint to be both a solid basis for Christian thinking and rather useful in polemics against the Jews of later Centuries.

Since the time of the Reformation some Protestant biblical readers have distrusted the Septuagint and don’t accept it as a legitimate bible for Christians to read.   Some feel it is too “Roman Catholic.”   Others think it an unreliable translation or interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures, even though it was done by the Jews themselves and honored

Old Testament Patriarchs
Old Testament Patriarchs

by the Jews at the time of Christ.  Additionally, many scholars feel that the New Testament authors were very reliant on the Septuagint as demonstrated by their frequently using the Septuagint when quoting the Old Testament.

As I was reading Robert Charles Hill’s translation of  ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM’S COMMENTARY ON THE PSALMS Vol. 2   (pp 343-344), I came across two footnotes of his that actually lend credence to the importance of the Septuagint (LXX) for our knowledge of the Old Testament.   Both of these footnotes were in regard to Psalm 145.

“…though our (Masoretic) Hebrew text has one verse (13) missing, which the LXX supplies, an inclusion confirmed by the Hebrew manuscripts discovered at the Dead Sea.”

“This is the verse occurring in the LXX and a Hebrew ms found at Qumran; it is not in the Masoretic Hebrew text of this alphabetic psalm at the point where we would expect a verse beginning with the letter nun….”

 I have read various arguments about the reliability of the Septuagint version of the Jewish scriptures and arguments for why Protestant Scholars prefer the Masoretic Text when doing translation of the Old Testament.   But the Septuagint which is used officially by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox has shown itself to be a good window OSBinto the ancient Jewish (Pre-Masoretic) Scriptures.    Some have argued that translators in the ancient world were more likely to eliminate parts of texts (accidentally or purposefully) than to add to them.  At least in the two instances Hill mentions regarding the Psalms, the Septuagint may be relying on a more ancient text of the Hebrew Scriptures than the Masoretic Text does and thus gives us a better glimpse into the sacred writings of ancient Israel.   The Septuagint preserved something the Masoretic text lost.

THE ORTHODOX STUDY BIBLE  itself bases its translation of the Old Testament scriptures on the Septuagint unlike Protestant versions of the Bible.   The OSB thus follows the ancient Christian and traditionally historic version of the Scriptures which was commonly relied on by the first Christians themselves.   This is not to say that common English versions of the bible are wrong, they simply follow Protestant principles in their translations of the Old Testament and thus have a less complete version of the Old Covenant scriptures.

30 thoughts on “In Defense of the Septuagint

  1. Delwyn X. Campbell

    Your article says nothing about the agreement betwen the DSS and the Masoretic text against the LXX in places, nor does it discuss the Apocrypha. Why should we accept a version which adds to the Word of God, as evidenced by the DSS?

    1. Fr. Ted

      Well, for one thing at the time that Jesus Christ was walking on the earth, the Septuagint was considered the Word of God by the Jews themselves. The writers of the New Testament quote most often from the Septuagint – they obviously accepted the Septuagint as God’s Word and quoted it as such.

      1. Paul

        Do you know of any reliable resources that can lend credibility to your statements about the LXX being used by the Jews prior to the time of Christ? I have been researching the LXX history and am much in favor of it, but I’m amazed by the Protestant resistance to this version of the scriptures considering the very CLEAR indications that the Ante-Nicene fathers relied almost exclusively on it. I seek to learn and follow the ways of the early church as closely as possible. Thank you!

      2. Fr. Ted

        Many history of scriptures books will discuss the role of the Septuagint. Just read the first couple lines at http://www.septuagint.net/.

        I’m not sure who or what you would consider reliable, but the Septuagint is well known in history, was a translation of the Jewish scriptures done by Jewish scholars for Jews. There were no Christians around when the Septuagint was translated and so for 200 years before Christ it was read by Jews.

        It’s commonly acknowledged by many Protestant biblical scholars that the New Testament writers when quoting the Old Testament more often than not rely on a Septuagint translation of the scriptures.

    2. John

      Who determines if it adds to the Word of God, a few individuals or the Church? The Church used it for 1500 years before it’s use was severely questioned in an anti-Rome polemic. The Jewish council of Jamna (106?) forbade the use of the Septuagint because the early Christians were using those books (that are referred to by some as the apocrypha (an anti-Rome term meaning false)) to prove Christ to the Jews. So why would Christians accept the decision of this anti-Christian Jewish council against the practice of the Church? To me it’s a classic case of “we (the Jews or ???) don’t like the content, so let’s get rid of it”!

    1. Fr. Ted

      In reality these discussions on Scripture are ongoing so they are never completely dated.

      Thanks for your note and for the link.

  2. Rev. James D. (Danny) Borkowski, D. Min.

    I am an Episcopal (Anglican) priest who greatly supports the Septuagint, mainly because of its use by NT authors. I use the Orthodox Study Bible, among others. However, the Roman Catholic Church has for its “official” Bible the Vulgate of Jerome, a translation from the Hebrew. Jerome even tried to throw out the books in the Septuagint not found in the Hebrew (and Aramaic) texts, but the Roman Catholic Church did not accept this attempt for the most part. Rev. James D. (Danny) Borkowski, D. Min.

    1. Fr. Ted

      Interesting about Jerome. I’ve read that 83% of the OT quotes in the NT come from the Septuagint. I’ve not tried to do the math. The discovery of Septuagint texts among the Dead Sea Scrolls has convinced some scholars that at the time of Christ there was no set “canon” for the Jews since the Septuagint was kept along side the Hebrew versions of scripture. And it shows that even in Palestine Jews were reading the Septuagint – it wasn’t just for the diaspora Jews but was read in and near Jerusalem by the pious.

  3. Paul

    I’ve heard the assertion forwarded that the Septuagint was compiled after the NT and made to conform to its Greek verbiage. I do not believe that for a nanosecond. But I do wish there were more definitive historical proofs of its pre-Christian dating. I’ve listened to Protestant Evangelicals bash the Septuagint as little more than a myth. I find several references to the Septuagint in the Ante-Nicene fathers, but some folks seem to rely heavily on discounting the Septuagint based on the letter of Aristeas. That was one of the main reasons I had hoped to locate some documentation that the Jews actually used this translation prior to the birth of Christ. Are there perhaps any pre-Christian historic writings (other than Aristeas) that speak of or reference the Septuagint that you know of? I feel very certain for my own purposes that the Septuagint very clearly predates Christ by probably 200 years, but it would be nice to have other documentation apart from Aristeas’ letter which many seem to distrust.

    1. Fr. Ted

      I’m not the expert on this, so I don’t have a lot of references to which to direct you. The fact that the Septuagint texts were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls along side Hebrews versions of the OT would tell us that Jews in and around Jerusalem read the Septuagint and they counted it among their sacred writings. Some scholars at least would say it shows that the Septuagint was accepted as Scripture by the Jews at Qumran – these were Jews who felt the more public Judaism in Jerusalem was corrupt. So they followed a purified form of Judaism and counted the Septuagint among their scriptures. I believe Philo, a Jew also mentions the Septuagint. If as some scholars point out 83% of the OT quotes in the NT come from the Septuagint, that may be some evidence of its extensive use by Jews in the 1st Century. The NT writers for the most part are Jews of the 1st Century, they are quoting existing texts. At least among the biblical scholars I have seen there is pretty widespread acceptance of the Septuagint as a pre-Christian document. I would guess that especially for biblical literalists who imagine that somewhere their exists a perfect text for the OT “word of God”, the entire existence of the Septuagint is a threat because it muddies the waters quite a bit showing that there really were various streams of scripture which flowed together and were part of the Jewish thinking of the 1st Century CE – not one absolute text that all relied on but versions of the text with some significant differences but all of which were somehow accept as scripture. Some want the bible to be the mythical Quran, somehow eternally existing in heaven and then which was downloaded to earth. It isn’t the history of the bible or of the people of God.

      1. Rev. James. D. (Danny) Borkowski

        Your comments about Protestant reactions to findings about the Septuagint are very insightful. I believe (as you imply) that even translation can be an inspired activity. There is also the possibility that the Masoretic text has been amplified from the original. In Jeremiah, I’m sure that the Hebrew has been amended in places. However, it seems that the LXX has lacunae from the original in others. None of the texts are in perfect shape, however, and the existence of so many variations of the LXX is difficult to deal with.

      2. Paul

        “However, it seems that the LXX has lacunae from the original in others.”

        Are you saying the LXX fills in gaps that are found in other texts? Or are you saying there are gaps in the LXX where other texts are more complete?

        I agree with your statement about the variations and condition of extant LXX texts. However, I find it disconcerting that we do not seem to have one complete source of scripture manuscripts of any version that are without some flaws or are not held in question to some degree by scholars. Maybe my statement is a bit naive, but I ponder why God has not more directly preserved a more complete, definitive set of MS and has rather allowed the autographs to come down to us in modern times in some state of disrepair and in piecemeal fashion. That’s certainly not an indictment of God’s wisdom in choosing to do so, it’s more of an inquiry as to what His purpose is in allowing it to be that way.

      3. Fr. Ted

        Paul wrote: I ponder why God has not more directly preserved a more complete, definitive set of MS and has rather allowed the autographs to come down to us in modern times in some state of disrepair and in piecemeal fashion.

        Possibly because God chose a people not a book to be the bearers of His revelation. The people then write and choose the books/manuscripts which are the best witnesses to the revelation. Jesus chose disciples to be His witnesses, He didn’t write a book or choose a book for that purpose. The people of God have existed even when they had no manuscript tradition. The manuscripts became an important way to witness to the truth.

        Your comment reflects a literary society’s point of view (and especially a literalist bent which is in our society). It is a good thing to ponder why God didn’t leave a more definitive set of manuscripts – I’m thinking it was intentional to try to prevent us from becoming overly literalist! Scripture is an important witness, but it is a witness to the truth and is not coterminus with the truth. The truth according to Christian Scriptures is Jesus Christ – a person, not a book. The scriptures bear witness to Him (see John 5:39-40).

        It is the same question as to why we have 4 differing gospel accounts instead of one, or why there are 2 creation accounts, why in Qumran both Hebrew and Greek scrolls existed side by side, etc.

        The fundamentalist/literalist in us says the text is absolutely crucial and the only reliable witness. God however chose a people and inspired the people to write the books, edit them and choose or reject them. God relies on synergy with His chosen people, but the people have to do their part.

        Protestantism rejected the idea that the people of God had any authority, but then had nothing to base authority on and so declared the book infallible if properly read. Trouble is even if properly read, you have to decide which texts to read.

      4. Paul said:
        “I ponder why God has not more directly preserved a more complete, definitive set of MS and has rather allowed the autographs to come down to us in modern times in some state of disrepair and in piecemeal fashion. That’s certainly not an indictment of God’s wisdom in choosing to do so, it’s more of an inquiry as to what His purpose is in allowing it to be that way.”

        Perhaps to constrain us to place our faith in a perfect living being instead of a perfect book?

      5. Paul

        I agree, God has chosen a people to bear His revelation, both in the OT and NT ages. But we also cannot deny that in both ages, He also chose, for reasons of apparent significance to Him, to have such revelations of His servants recorded on paper by inspired autograph. I certainly don’t worship a leather-bound paper book, but those texts contain the last written testimonies of the very men who had the privilege of seeing and hearing the long-awaited King of Glory and His kingdom come down to earth. I don’t see error in wanting to understand and defend the history of their preservation and recording more fully, especially when so many naysayers are ready to attack their veracity based on the many inconsistencies in the various extant MS’.

        I am not as wholly given over to literalistic thought as my comments might seem to imply. I understand there is great latitude in the Hebraic literary constructs which, by the way, I feel are probably the greatest stumbling blocks to our yet largely Hellenistic scholars and lay-people. This is particularly true in terms of understanding and interpreting the eschatological prophetic statements in both OT and NT. I feel there has been far too much literalist expectation and demand placed by scholars upon such scriptures that speak of the overtly immanent 1st century Parousia of Christ. This “literalist bent”, to borrow your term, would largely be refuted and discarded (and the scriptures more accurately interpreted) if we as the body of Christ were more fully cognizant of Hebraic thought and literary constructs to our exegesis of prophetic passages.

      6. Fr. Ted

        I didn’t mean to imply you were literalist, I think it is part of our culture since the time of the Enlightenment and the enthronement of empirical knowledge as the only knowledge worth having. Literalism became a predominant mode of thinking – texts must be literally true or they are of no value. That is how we read everything in the modern world and why we struggle with poetry and art.

        Regarding the use of the Septuagint, I just read this quote from J H Charlesworth: “we now have ample evidence that the Septuagint was used in communities that were very conservative and Semitic as proved, for example, by the discovery of fragments from several copies of the Septuagint among the Dead Sea Scrolls.” (THE OLD TESTAMENT PSEUDEPIGRAPHA, p 726, where he cites as his evidence F M Cross’s THE ANCIENT LIBRARY OF QUMRAN AND MODERN BIBLICAL STUDIES, p28)

  4. Paul

    I find this statement from http://orthodoxengland.org.uk/septuag.htm to be a fair statement of the Septuagint’s historical validity.

    “Now Aristeas’ account of the origin of the Septuagint may well be apocryphal. But it is a very early account, and it clearly shows that before the time of Our Lord there existed another textual tradition of the Hebrew Bible which was at least contemporary with, if not earlier than, that represented today by the Masoretic text.”

    I really don’t care whether Aristeas’ account is factually correct or not, although it would be great if it were. The main thing for me is to document the pre-Christian existence and general common acceptance of the LXX within the earlier Helenistic Jewish population. Oh, and thanks for your comments on Philo, I’m researching that a bit more now.

  5. I read that actually, the Septuagint versions were not found ‘along side’ the masoretic in the Dead Sea finds, but in a separate cave which contained what appeared to be sort of the ‘throw away pile’ (scrolls w/ copying errors). The vast majority I think agreed w/ the Masoretic?

    1. Rev. James D. (Danny) Borkowski

      I don’t know about that, but I HAVE read that where the Hebrew of the Dead Sea Scrolls differs from the Masoretic, it tends to AGREE with the LXX.

    2. Fr. Ted

      There were a number of caves in which documents were discovered,not just one.

      I’ve never read your claim that the Septuagint version was found in a trash pile. Can you cite a legitimate source for that information?

      I guess unless I see scholars who have worked on the project agreeing to that claim, I would consider it spurious.

      What I’ve read is that the Masoretic texts found were more complete and in pretty close agreement with Masoretic texts from later periods. But the various texts hidden together in the various caves give some indication that the canon of what was considered scripture was not yet solidified at the point in history of the Qumran community. They were a “conservative” group religiously, yet relied on texts and ideas beyond what later became the canonical Jewish texts. But scholars seems to think that what it all indicates is that you have to speak of “Judaisms” rather than Judaism from this time. Obviously many ideas were accepted within Judaismss different sects in and around Jerusalem.

      Qumran saw itself as more faithful to Jewish tradition than the broader, more public Judaism centered in the Temple. And yet on certain points and practices it shared some ideals with the nascent Christian movement which itself was a variation on Judaism.

      I think the Qumran documents tell me that Christianity was far more mainline Jewish than many 19-20th Century Protestant scholars wanted to admit. Judaism was (probably still is) a broad river fed by many streams of thought. Christianity it turns out was much more mainstream to the Judaism of the 1st Century. That is reflected in the Gospels in the competitive conflict between Jesus and the other rabbis. It is reflected in the early centuries of Christianity in the hostility between the 2 groups. They conflict because they share so many common ideas. Many Christian documents even into the 4th Century reflect warnings against “judaizing” = obviously this was a problem because it was not always clear to some how Christianity actually differed from Judaism on certain issues.

      1. Rev. James D. (Danny) Borkowski

        Byr “Masoretic” texts found, you must mean Hebrew and/or Aramaic texts. The use of the term “Masoretic” would seem to be an anachronism, as that version dates from the early Middle Ages only. Of course, the Dead Sea Scrolls could have been deposited after that time.

      2. Fr. Ted

        Yes, I’m referring to the Hebrew/Aramaic texts which have been compared to the later masoretic text. Some scholars claim the later Masoretic text is fairly faithful to the Hebrew scriptures found in Qumran.

  6. Paul said:
    “Are you saying the LXX fills in gaps that are found in other texts? Or are you saying there are gaps in the LXX where other texts are more complete?”

    Unfortunately, neither the LXX, nor the Masoretic Text (MT), are perfect. One fills in where the other lacks, and vice versa. Each must be evaluated in light of available evidence to discern the truth. Using our mind to discern truth is part of faith.

    For example, it is indisputable that the LXX version of Zechariah 14:5 is correct, and the MT version is corrupted (search Internet for zechariah + azal + yasul for this understanding). Conversely, Genesis 7:11 states that Noah’s flood began on the 17th day in the MT; yet it began on the 27th day in the LXX. In this case, based on the following reasoning, it appears that the MT is correct.

    In the MT, the ark rested on the third day of the 7-day festival of Tabernacles, which is the 7th festival (or appointed time) of the Lord. The number 7 always signifies rest from labor, so this seems very significant. This would not apply in the LXX version.
    The MT states that the the ark rested in the 17th day (שבעה־עשר יום) of the month (Genesis 8:4). However, the LXX states that the ark rested on the 27th (שבעה־עשרים) of the month. The Hebrew word for 17 is spelled שבעה־עשר; and the Hebrew word for 27 is spelled שבעה־עשרים. Notice that the only difference between the Hebrew spelling of 27 and the Hebrew spelling of 17th day is one letter, the letter vav (ו) that is the middle letter of the Hebrew word for day (יום). Also notice that the word day is missing in the LXX. So it appears that the translanslators of the LXX read 17th day as 27, and translated it as such.

    1. James D. (Danny) Borkowski

      Thanks for that! The NT use of the Greek OT and Augustine’s support are enough for me to embrace the doctrinal content of the LXX. Literary appreciation would tend to support the Hebrew text.

  7. Kingdom Christian

    Thanks, Z14:5. Yes, I have come to accept these imperfections in the written record over the last three years of study since making that post. I am still interested in finding documentation on Hebrew/Rabbinic sources that refer to the LXX prior to Christ, if any exist. I have not actively pursued finding them much, as my studies have moved me more into the realm of eschatology.

  8. Since most people don’t read Hebrew, let me add this to hopefully make it easier to understand.
    This is how ’17th day’ and ‘twenty-seven’ are spelled in Hebrew

    שבעה־עשר יום = ‘seventeenth day’; seventeen (שבעה־עשר) day (יום)
    שבעה־עשריום = the same written without a space as it would be in the Hebrew manuscripts
    שבעה־עשרים = ‘twenty-seven’; identical to ‘seventeenth day’ minus the letter vav (ו), the second to last letter (Hebrew reads from right to left, so that means the second letter from the left in ’17th day’)

    The MT says ‘seventeenth day’
    The LXX simply says ‘twenty-seven’; it does not have the word day.
    So it seems likely that either a copy error was made in the Hebrew manuscript that the LXX translator used, or the translator simply misread ’17th day’ as ‘twenty seven’.

  9. Gabriel

    Fr. Ted,

    Beautiful summary of the reliability of the LXX. I have a quick question. I come from a JW background. It was comparing some modern non-JW translations to the OSB which relies on the Septuagint and notice some big changes and omissions to the text. Why are their differences between the LXX and other Jewish texts? Thank you.

    1. Fr. Ted

      Why there are differences is a much discussed topic. One possible reason: The translators of the LXX were translating from Jewish texts that we no longer have. These texts had the differences in them (thus were different from other Jewish texts) and the translators were simply faithful to the texts they had. It is thus possible that the Translators of the LXX were relying on Jewish texts older than anything we have today. Ancient texts have variations in them for many reasons. The ancients didn’t always worry about which version was the “actual” text. These texts may have been unusual versions, or may have been fairly standard versions which fell out of favor or use for various reasons. The Jews themselves were transitioning from the older Hebrew texts (which only a few Jews could still read at the time of Jesus), and were relying more on the translations into Aramaic and even Greek. These linguistic changes and needs represented the reality of what Jews were experiencing as history unfolded and their language needs changed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.