The Septuagint still speaks!

This ancient translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek was the Bible of early Christianity. It offers today's pastors a greater understanding of both the Old and the New Testaments.

Bernard A. Taylor is a doctoral student at Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, Ohio, and his dissertation deals with the Septuagint of I Samuel.

 

The firstborn child has held preeminence in the family and hence in society from time immemorial. Likewise, as the firstborn among many translations of the Old Testament, the Septuagint holds a special place. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, of Jewish parents, it was like the child of an aged couple giving birth for the first time so that the family name may continue in an alien and hostile country. The problem was that the Hebrew mother tongue was no longer used by the majority of the Alexandrian Jews, surrounded as they were by the powerful Hellenistic influences. They now spoke the popular Greek language imported by Alexander the Great when he founded the colony that quickly blossomed into a mighty center of learning. The Septuagint's exact birthdate is unknown, although it must have been about the middle of the third century B.C.

The factors that shaped the newborn included not merely its parentage but also the cultural environment. The Septuagint translated ideas as well as words. Thus it had prime importance as an interpretation in addition to being a translation. No language has ever had the luxury of one word for one idea, so any given phrase, sentence, or idea has several shades of meaning. The word(s) chosen by the translator depend(s) on such things as his background, presuppositions, perceptions, culture, and biases.

Beyond the fact of its Jewish parent age, we know little more about the Septuagint's origins. Traditionally our source of information has been the Letter of Aristeas, dated from 200 B.C. to A.D. 33 and purporting to be a letter written by Aristeas to his friend Philocrates about the time of the Septuagint translation. Aristeas recounts the miraculous events that, for him, signal divine blessing. He tells of seventy-two elders (six from each tribe) who, though kept in isolation while they worked, all came up with an identically worded translation in seventy-two days! Understand ably, the letter is afforded little credibility beyond the fact that the early work on the Septuagint was done in Egypt as a translation of the Pentateuch. However, the legend has lent the name Septuagint, or Seventy (the number usually being rounded and abbreviated to LXX), not only to the Pentateuch but to the entire Greek Old Testament translated from the Hebrew over the next century or so.

To many, the connotations of an Egyptian origin have been sufficient to keep them from seeing any use for the LXX, especially as it was born during the intertestamental "dark ages" when the voice of prophecy was silent. But this unnecessarily harsh view overlooks some positive values of the LXX. First, it is the earliest written commentary on the Old Testament. True, it does not conform to the pattern of modern commentaries that spell out in many words the possible nuances of the text. But the careful student can glean from this Greek translation insights into the original Hebrew. Second, the LXX was the Bible of the Christian church. Although Jesus was able to stand in the synagogue and read the Scripture lesson from the Hebrew, and Paul underwent rabbinic training in Hebrew, for many of the people in Palestine Aramaic was their mother tongue and Greek their second language. In the Diaspora Greek (and later Latin) predominated. If there was a need in third century B.C. Alexandria for the Old Testament in Greek, how much more was this the case in the early centuries A.D. Thus the LXX had a profound effect in a number of ways.

Its most obvious use today is for the study of the history of the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. Unfortunately, in the past an overenthusiastic scholarship made unreasonable demands of the LXX and used it to suggest emendations of the Hebrew text at almost every turn (although such suggestions were relegated to the footnotes of the Hebrew Bibles and were never used to alter the text of the Bible itself). Today's more sober scholar, whether Jew or Christian, approaches the Hebrew Scriptures in the light of the Qumran and Dead Sea scrolls. He has a high regard for their amazingly successful preservation. This does not obviate the need for the Greek text, which plays a quiet but helpful role in restoring a lost or damaged word or passage here and there as in the portion of the story of Saul and Jonathan recorded in 1 Samuel 14:41. The following is the R.S.V. translation (the portion derived from the LXX is in brackets): "Therefore Saul said, 'O Lord God of Israel, [why hast thou not answered thy servant this day? If this guilt is in me or in Jonathan my son, O Lord, God of Israel, give Urim; but if this guilt is in thy people Israel,] give Thummim.

'"Because the theological vocabulary of the New Testament was drawn from the LXX, it is helpful and even necessary to view the New Testament usage in the light of the LXX background. However, this is not an end in itself. The LXX must in turn be seen in the light of the Hebrew Scriptures. When classical Greek words were chosen to express the ideas of the Old Testament they were of necessity given a meaning as different from their original as the lofty concepts of the Old Testament were beyond the pagan ideas. One example is the sometimes-heated discussion of hihsterion in Romans 3:25. Does it mean propitiate or expiate? Is the New Testament meaning colored by the pagan concept of "appeasing the wrath of an angry god"?

Sometimes the meanings of the Greek words were radically different from their Hebrew counterparts. Just how different can be seen from the fact that it was not until Martin Luther studied the Hebrew Scriptures themselves that he came to understand righteousness by faith. In classical Greek dikaiosune (NT: "righteousness") is one of the four cardinal virtues that an individual is free to develop in himself. Because this word was used in the LXX to translate the Hebrew, it was difficult for the native Greek reader to understand such a concept as "the righteousness of God" apart from the idea of infused virtue. When Luther understood the original Hebrew term in the light of the Old Testament covenant relation as some thing outside of himself, he was led to the foot of the cross in penitence.

It can also be instructive to determine when New Testament quotes have been taken from the LXX. In many instances they quote the LXX word for word, and in others they parallel the Greek more closely than the Hebrew. The whole discussion of virgin versus young woman in Isaiah 7:14 centers upon the LXX translation of the Hebrew word as virgin. Also, consider the quotation by Peter on the day of Pentecost from Joel 2:28-32 as literally translated by the K.J.V., "I will pour out. . . of my Spirit" (Acts 2:18). As a boy, I grew up with the interpretation that this experience was partitive "of my Spirit" meant "a portion of my Spirit" and hence not the full experience as wonderful as it was. Recently out of curiosity I looked it up in the LXX, and found that the New Testament quotes the Greek Bible of the day. Hence, on the basis of the LXX usage, I am no longer convinced that Pentecost was only partial. Further, all the Old Testament quotations in the book of Hebrews are from the Greek—to the extent that the proof text of Christ's divinity quoted in Hebrews 1:6 is not in the Hebrew Bible as we have it (although I understand that a Hebrew fragment containing it was found at Qumran), but it is from the LXX. It seems reasonable then that when the young Timothy, Greek speaker that he was, read the statement from the apostle that "all scripture is given by inspiration of God" (2 Tim. 3:16), bethought of his Greek Bible. Certainly later church fathers such as Origen so regarded Paul's words.

For many years the LXX fell into neglect as an aid to Bible study because it was felt that the original Hebrew was more than adequate. A resurgence of interest in the LXX has followed in the wake of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947. While the picture is still being clarified, it is correct to say that some of the manuscripts found there bear a striking relation to a differing Hebrew text, one that underlies the LXX translation. In other words, the translators of the LXX may not have just added words; they may have been following a some what different Hebrew text from the Masoretic Text now available to us. An example that never ceases to fascinate me is the small Hebrew fragment (about the size of the palm of the hand) found in Cave Four that contains parts of the first few verses of Exodus 1. Among other things, the number of souls that went down to Egypt with Jacob is said to be 75 in contrast to the seventy of the Hebrew text (Ex. 1:5). After so many centuries the LXX, which also has 75, now has some company! But the interest does not stop there. When the gentile Stephen, in his defense as quoted in Acts 7, speaks of the descent of Jacob and his kindred into Egypt he also gives the number as 75 (Acts 7:14).

To put things in perspective, I must admit that you can have a very effective ministry without ever having had recourse to the LXX. If, on the other hand, you are in control of New Testament Greek, then you will find much of the material to be refreshing reading while at the same time helping you further understand the Scriptures. Only once have I preached directly from the LXX (a baptismal sermon from the story of Naaman who "baptized" himself in the Jordan). Though I rarely mention the Septuagint to the congregation in divine service (in contradistinction to study groups, where I consider it appropriate if done judiciously), I constantly go to it for background in my sermon preparation. I have found that an effective preacher needs to know much more of his subject than he hopes to share (ideally by a factor of ten or more) or he will not have an adequate perspective. The Septuagint can be an additional resource. But there is one caveat. You should read the Greek text for yourself. Even the best available English translation falls victim in places to what might be called the "K.J.V. syndrome," a tendency to conform to the accepted translation of the Hebrew. You need to be adventuresome and make your own translations. If you feed your own soul with fresh insights from the Bible of the Greek world, then in turn you will bless others in your ministry.


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Bernard A. Taylor is a doctoral student at Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, Ohio, and his dissertation deals with the Septuagint of I Samuel.

October 1984

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