This article gives an introduction to the Septuagint, its history and use in the New Testament.

Source: Witness, 2012. 2 pages.

A Brief Introduction to the Septuagint

The Septuagint is the name given to the earliest and most popular Greek translation (there were at least two others done around 150 BC) of the Hebrew Scriptures (including the Apocrypha – uninspired books written in the inter-testamental period). It was a translation produced around 250 BC in Egypt and was desirable by the many Jews of the dispersion whose first language in the years following 330 BC was no longer Hebrew but Greek, the legacy of Alexander the Great’s conquests. Greek was the language of the Empire. This version was called the ‘Septuagint’ (from the Latin word for ‘seventy’) because of the legend that seventy men were involved in the translation. It is thought to have been produced in Alexandria, Egypt. The Septuagint is often represented by the abbreviation LXX. Some fragments of the LXX were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran. Early Christians used this Greek translation of the Old Testament in NT times.

The accuracy of this translation varies from book to book. For example, the translations of Deuteronomy and Psalms are nearer the Hebrew original than those of Exodus and Chronicles. This suggests that different translators were assigned to translating different books of the Bible.

The Greek of the LXX was koine (or common) Greek and similar to that used when the New Testament was written. This was the type of Greek which predominated after Alexander conquered the Mediterranean world. J M Dines states: ‘The Greek translations (of the OT) were intended to be subservient to their Hebrew parent, a means to an end ... The translators’ aim was to make the Hebrew text intelligible (to Greek-speaking Jews). The LXX was widely used by these Greek-speaking Jews (e.g. Philo) for theological discussions, but the Hebrew Scriptures continued to be read in the synagogue wherever the reader could, which was not universally practised outside Palestine. For many of the early Christians, not being Jewish, it was their only way of accessing the Old Testament Scriptures. D W Gording writes, ‘It served as “Bible” to generations of Greek-speaking Jews in many countries, and it is often quoted in the New Testament ... Moreover it was taken everywhere by Christian missionaries’. It is still used today by the Greek Orthodox Church.

The Reformers emphasised (with Jerome, the translator of the Latin Vulgate in the early 5th century AD) that only the Hebrew Scriptures of the Canon were inspired. They also rejected the Apocrypha. The Papacy however disagreed, needing the Apocrypha to support their inventions, e.g. purgatory, and the 16th century Council of Trent solidified this position to the present day, including it in their versions of the Bible.

The syntax of the LXX abounds with Hebrew constructions and the LXX also established the theological meaning of several Greek words which are significant in the NT, e.g. reckoned, glory, covenant, Gospel. R T McLay states, ‘What is remarkable is that there are many scholars and students who expound a great deal of energy in their study of the NT who have so little regard for the LXX as a means for helping to interpret the NT text’. While we may not agree with the strength of this assertion, it does remind us that the word-meanings of the NT have a history behind them. As H B Swete comments, ‘The careful student of the Gospels and of St Paul is met at every turn by words and phrases which cannot be fully understood without reference to their earlier use in the Greek Old Testament’. Bauer, Arndt & Gingrich in the Preface to their excellent Greek Lexicon comment, ‘As for the influence of the LXX, every page of this Lexicon shows that it outweighs all other influences on our literature’.

Finally, what about the quotations in the NT from the Septuagint? Students of the NT will find the following quote from Gleason L Archer helpful:

For the most part, the LXX translation is quite faithful to the Hebrew wording in the Old Testament, but in a small number of instances there are noticeable deviations in the mode of expressing the thought, even though there may be no essential difference in the thought itself ... The New Testament use of the LXX implies nothing against verbal inspiration or Scriptural inerrancy.

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