What Is the Septuagint?

And Why Should You Read It?

You’ve probably seen footnotes in your Bibles that contain various notes like “this word in Greek is literally [insert word],” or “Some ancient manuscripts contain this word instead of that word,” and so on. And often when reading the Old Testament (OT), you’ll see the word “Septuagint” (LXX) in some of these footnotes (as well as some other strange names like Vulgate, Syriac, Dead Sea Scrolls, and so on). This post hopes to give you a bite-sized understanding of this “Septuagint” and why you should read it.

The history of the Septuagint is complex, and there’s a lot about it that we don’t know. So, for the sake of simplicity, I’ll speak broadly. If you know anything at all about the Septuagint, or if you have any questions, please leave comments!

The Greek Translation of the Old Testament

When Alexander the Great (356 —326 B.C.E.) conquered the Near East, he brought Hellenistic (i.e., Greek) culture with him. And as a natural result, people adopted the Greek language. Because Alexander the Great’s conquest was so expansive and influential, Ancient Greek became the lingua franca of the day. And eventually, Hebrew-speaking Jews began to speak more Greek than Hebrew.

As a result, perhaps to put it too simply, the Jews acclimated to this Hellenistic influence and translated their Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. We call this translation the “Septuagint.”[1] Most scholars believe Jewish scribes first translated the Pentateuch in Alexandria around 300–250 B.C.E., while unknown scribes translated the rest at unknown times and locations.[2] Most of what we know about the remaining portions of the Old Testament is that they wereprobably translated no later than 180 B.C.E.[3] The most important source for our understanding of the origins of the Septuagint comes from an ancient document called The Letter of Aristeas. I will explore this letter more in depth in a post next Wednesday (2/13). But for now, it’s helpful to know that the Letter asserts that around 283–246 B.C.E.,[4] Jewish Scribes travelled from Jerusalem to Alexandria to translate the Pentateuch. The Letter has an incredibly complex reception in its subsequent history, and because of this it’s been the subject of violent scrutiny. (One particular reason is because in subsequent history—in both Jewish and Christian traditions—some scholars argue that Jews added an element of divine inspiration to the translation process, which resulted in Christians first coining the name “Septuagint.” More about all of this next week.)

Pick Up and Read the Septuagint

Now, instead of rambling on about the multiplicity of uses the Septuagint has (and it has many),[5] I want to tell you why you should “sell all you have and buy a Septuagint!”[6] I’ll give you what I think are the top four reasons why Christians should regularly read the Septuagint.

First, the Septuagint was the first Bible of the ChurchOur NT authors quote almost exclusively from the Septuagint in their citations of the OT.[7]  Therefore, if we want to understand, for example, Paul’s understanding of his Bible, we must consult his Greek OT. “Moreover, it was the Greek OT, not the Hebrew, together with the Greek NT that was the Bible for much of the Christian church for fifteen hundred years.”[8] Corollary to this last comment are the second and third reasons why you should pick up and read the Septuagint.

Second, the Septuagint enhances biblical theology where NT authors cite OT LXX passages that differ significantly from the HebrewSometimes when doing biblical theology, you run across an OT citation in the NT where the NT citation doesn’t match the Hebrew in significant ways. When this happens, “it is methodologically flawed to use the Hebrew OT alone for biblical-theological concerns developed in the NT if, in fact, the NT writers used the Greek OT.”[9]

Third, if we want to understand how the Patristics understood their OT, we must consult the Septuagint; most of the Church Fathers staunchly supported the Greek Scriptures.[10] In fact, the Septuagint played a crucial role in the apologies against the Jews, corroborating NT doctrines on the ground of septuagintal readings that are absent in the Hebrew Bible.

And finally, the Septuagint gives us the earliest “commentary” on the Hebrew OT. Though by no means is the Septuagint merely a “commentary” on the OT, it does provide for us the earliest interpretation of the Hebrew text. So, sometimes when difficult Hebrew grammar seems to obscure one’s interpretation, opening your Septuagint can clear the obscurity.

Conclusion

Septuagint scholarship has been a burgeoning field in the last century. There are numerous avenues for scholars and churchman to grow in their understanding and use of the Septuagint, not the least of which relates the way our NT authors read and understood their Scriptures. It’s my hope and prayer that this brief post has encouraged you to pick up and read the Septuagint, as the late Ferdidnand Hitzig said: “Gentlemen, have you a Septuagint? If not, sell all you have and buy a Septuagint!”[11]



[1] Christians first coined the name “Septuagint,” and we’ll see why next week in a post entitled “The Letter of Aristeas.”

[2] See Karen Jobes and Moisés Silva, Invitation to the Septuagint, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015), 14.; Timothy Michael Law, When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 33–40.

[3] Cf. Jobes and Silva, Invitation to the Septuagint, 20, n. 18. Abraham Wasserstein and David J. Wasserstein, The Legend of the Septuagint: From Classical Antiquity to Today (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 19–26.

[4] Jobes and Silva, Invitation to the Septuagint, 18. See Wasserstein and Wasserstein, The Legend of the Septuagint, 19–26 for a great summary of the Letter

[5] Though not exhaustive, three other important uses are the text-critical, canonical, and philological uses of the Septuagint. For the former, see Emanuel Tov, The Text-Critical Use of the Septuagint in Biblical Research, 3rd ed. (Winon Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2015). For the second, see “Albert C. Sundberg Jr., “The Septuagint: The Bible of Hellenistic Judaism,” in Lee martin McDonald and James A. Sanders, eds., The Canon Debate (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002), 68–90. For the third, see John A. Lee, The Greek of the Pentateuch: Grinfield Lectures on the Septuagint 2011–2012 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018) and Eberhard Bons, Ralph Bruckner, and Jan Joosten, eds. The Reception of Septuagint Words in Jewish-Hellenistic and Christian Literature (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014). 

[6] J. J. Kneucker, “Zur Erinnerung an Ferdinand Hitzig: Eine Lebens- und Charakterkizze,” in Dr. Ferdinand Hitzig’s Vorlesungen über Biblische Theologie und Messanische Weissagungen des Alten Testaments, ed. J. J. Kneucker (Karlsruhe: H. Reuther, 1880), 19n2 in Jobes and Silva, Invitation to the Septuagint, 9.

[7] There are certainly exceptions to this where one can argue for a Hebrew source. Some even argue that NT authors like the Gospel of John don’t even quote from explicit sources, but rather paraphrase all their citations! 

[8] Jobes, “When God Spoke Greek: The Place of the Greek Bible in Evangelical Scholarship,” BBR 16 (2006), 221.

[9] Jobes, “When God Spoke Greek,” 234. For an article-length treatment of the Septuagint and biblical theology, see W. Edward Glenny, “The Septuagint and Biblical Theology,” Them 41 (2016): 263–78. It’s my privilege to take a directed study under Dr. Glenny’s supervision this semester.

[10] For example, the following early church leaders held to a divinely inspired Greek OT: Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Hilary of Poitiers, Cyril of Jerusalem, John Chrysostom, Epiphanius of Salamis, and Saint Augustine. See Møgens Müller, The First Bible of the Church: A Plea for the Septuagint, J (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), 68–78, 89–94. However, the Latin Church Father, Jerome maintained that the Hebrew text is superior to the LXX. For this, see Adam Kamesar, Jerome, Greek Scholarship, and the Hebrew Bible: A Study of the Quaestiones Hebraicae in Genesim (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993).

[11] Quoted in Jobes and Silva, Invitation to the Septuagint, 9.