How Did We Get the Bible? Part III

A significant key to understanding the creation of the Bible is the Septuagint. The Septuagint (LXX) is the Greek translation of texts included in the Hebrew Bible, as well as other Jewish writings.[1]The importance of this work for Christians should not be underestimated. It was the “Bible” of the New Testament writers. Of course, there was no book called the “Old Testament” at that time, only numerous scrolls. But these Greek biblical scrolls were used widely by Greek-speaking Christians and Jews in the 1st century. The translation was considered inspired and authoritative by Philo, Josephus, the writers of the New Testament, and the early church fathers. Most citations of Old Testament texts in the New Testament—as many as 300— are from the Septuagint. The Jewish authors of the New Testament paved the way for non-Jews to learn the Scriptures by writing in Greek. Rather than retranslate Hebrew texts, they readily turned to the Septuagint for quotations and paraphrasing. Similarly, most of the early church fathers could not read Hebrew. Theological discourse in the early church was based upon the Septuagint, including creedal debates. Unfortunately, many Christians are not aware of the existence of the Septuagint and its historical importance.

The word Septuagint is from the Latin septuaginta, meaning 70. It refers to the 72 Jewish scribes that legend purports translated the Pentateuch into Greek. The Roman numerals for 70, LXX, are often used as an abbreviation. Technically, “Septuagint” refers to the translation of the first five books of the Bible. This took place as a single project in Alexandria, Egypt during the 3rd century B.C.E. The translation was based on a Hebrew text  called the “parent text” or Vorlage (predecessor). The other biblical books were translated later over the next century or so by anonymous scribes in various unknown locations. These are known as the “Old Greek” (OG). However, many scholars tend to use “Septuagint” or “LXX” to refer to the Greek Old Testament as a whole.

The origin of the Septuagint’s Vorlage is uncertain. The Letter of Aristeas suggests official scrolls were brought from Judea, but some of the historical veracity of this letter has been questioned as a result of its propagandist purpose (to validate the Septuagint).  Possibly, scrolls already in Alexandria might have been used as well. There was a large Jewish community there. Some Israelites fled to Egypt during the destruction of Judah in the 6th century (2 Kgs 25:22-24; Jer 40:6-8). Similarly, the Elephantine papyri indicate Jews had settled in Egypt by 495 B.C.E. Josephus recounts that Ptolemy I took more than 100,000 Jews captive during his conquest of Jerusalem (c 320-301 B.C.E.). In fact, by the 3rd century when Greek translation began, there were many Jews living in diaspora beyond Egypt, including those displaced during the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions. These communities would have had Hebrew copies of various biblical scrolls. What these collections included is uncertain. But what we do know is the Hebrew Vorlage employed for the Septuagint appears to be different from the Vorlage of the Masoretic Text (the Hebrew text most modern Jewish and Christians Bibles are based upon). This is why, among other differences, the Septuagint contains a shorter version of Jeremiah than the Masoretic Text.

The existence of the Septuagint is the reason we have different biblical canons in Jewish and Christian traditions. Jews and Protestants base their canon on the Masoretic tradition, while Roman Catholic and Orthodox communities continue to use variations of the Septuagint. Sometime in the 2nd century C.E. the Jewish community closed their canon. This became the Masoretic canon that Jews and Protestants use. In the first century the canon was still open. All texts were on separate scrolls. Various writings in both Hebrew and Greek were highly valued by Jews and Christians. During this period of openness Christians adopted a variety of Jewish texts as authoritative. Many Jews also esteemed these same books. But, ultimately, Christians retained certain texts that the Jewish community later opted to exclude from their canon. I will discuss canon formation in greater detail in a later post, but suffice it to say that while Jews gravitated increasingly toward the Masoretic tradition, the early Church embraced the Septuagint.

In the 2nd and 3rd centuries Jews and Christians alike produced new translations and revisions, some from Greek biblical texts and some from Hebrew. In the fourth century (382 C.E.), Jerome was commissioned by Pope Damascus I to update the Old Latin Bible, a translation of the Septuagint from the 2nd century C.E. Jerome’s work, known as the Vulgate, replaced the Old Latin. Significantly, his Latin translation drew from the Hebrew text whereas the Old Latin was a translation from the Greek. He believed Christians should only accept the Hebrew canon adopted by the Jewish community. However, Church leadership did not agree. Thus, the additional books that were included in the Septuagint and utilized by the Church were retained in the Vulgate. However, Jerome’s choice to translate the Old Testament from Hebrew created a slight difference between the Bibles of the Western and Eastern churches. The Eastern Church continued to use the Old Latin tradition based on the Greek.

It was not until the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century that Christians for the first time adopted the Jewish canon (“officially,” that is. There were always some Christians like Jerome and the Victorines who held to the Jewish canon). The Renaissance spurred an interest in classical literature and languages. Martin Luther, along with others, worked on translating the Old Testament from Hebrew into German. Significantly, the extra books of the Septuagint not included in the Masoretic Text canon, were deemed non-canonical and labeled “apocrypha”—a term Jerome had wanted to apply. Nevertheless, Luther’s Bible (1534) included the apocryphal books, placed in-between the Old and New Testaments, as religious literature “useful and good to read.” These books included (as he lists them): Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Tobit, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), Baruch (including Letter of Jeremiah), Maccabees (1 & 2), Additions to Esther, Additions to Daniel (Song of the Three Young Men, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon).[2]He also included a translation of Prayer of Manasseh, but did not list it in the index. Apparently 1 & 2 Esdras and 3 Maccabees were added to later editions after 1570.[3] Not until the Westminster Confession of 1647 were the apocryphal texts eliminated entirely and declared to be no more profitable than any other human writing.

The Westminster Confession in particular is a point of departure from the first 1600 years of the universal Church’s existence. The impact of this creed and the Reformation in general has been so thorough most Protestants have no idea the Septuagint or apocryphal texts exist. Nor do most Protestants realize their New Testament is replete with citations from the Greek Old Testament. While in the large scheme of things the differences between the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint are minor, modern Bibles based on the Masoretic Text are not identical to the Old Testament texts frequently used by the New Testament writers or the early church. An astute reader might pick up on this. Look at Luke 4:18, Jesus’ citation of Isaiah 61:1, then, flip to Isaiah 61:1. You will likely find your Masoretic version of Isaiah is slightly different from the Greek text Luke used for Jesus’ quotation:

Luke 4:18 (NASB): “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed . . .”

Isaiah 61:1 (Masoretic/NASB): The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, and freedom to prisoners . . .”

Isaiah 61:1 (Septuagint/NETS): “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind . . .”

Both Luke and the Septuagint include the statement “recovery of sight to the blind.” This line is not in the Masoretic Text. Luke’s text also does not mention healing the brokenhearted, yet the Septuagint agrees with the Masoretic Text here. Thus, Luke may have been using a slightly different Greek copy of Isaiah than the Septuagint that has been passed down to us. Or he may have been citing from memory or purposely blending texts. In any case, Luke was aware of the Septuagint and included a phrase not found in the Hebrew. Luke also drew from the Greek for the speeches of the apostles in the book of Acts. Similarly, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ quotations are normally from the Septuagint even though Matthew himself uses the Hebrew for his own citations.

Since the New Testament writers often rely on the Septuagint, the New Testament itself is influenced by the translators. Translation is a form of interpretation. The scribes had to make decisions about what words and phrases would best render the Hebrew in the target language. The translators were also drawing from a Hebrew text that, in some cases, might have provided an older reading than the Masoretic Text. Thus, Christians today can profit from reading the Septuagint in order to better understand the New Testament, as well as theological discourse in the early church. In fact, whether we know it or not all of us are influenced by the Septuagint. Most modern Bibles are critical editions that rely on a variety of manuscript traditions including Septuagintal readings.

In my next post I will continue to discuss the Septuagint and what it teaches us about how the Bible developed.


[1] This post draws from Karen H. Jobes and Moises Silva, Invitation to the Septuagint (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000). This is an excellent and accessible introduction to the Septuagint.

[2]To see an actual image of Luther’s 1534 apocryphal list click here and scroll down. This apocryphal list varies from some of the lists in other Christian traditions. To see  a canon chart for different traditions click here and scroll down to the end of the article. See also this helpful Wikipedia article with chart.

[3] F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1988) 102.


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