Many Bible students have heard of the Septuagint but aren’t quite sure what it is. In simplest terms, the Septuagint is the name that tradition has given to the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). The name derives from a tradition about seventy translators, and so the abbreviation for the Septuagint used by scholars is LXX, the Roman numerals for “seventy” As you might expect, though, there’s more to it than all this, and just knowing what the term means doesn’t begin to tell us why the Septuagint is important.
What is the Septuagint? How was the Septuagint Created?
As noted above, the Septuagint is the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. So it’s natural to first ask when and how the translation was produced.
Most Septuagint scholars believe the translation of the Hebrew Bible that would become what is known to us as the Septuagint (LXX) occurred in stages, beginning with the Torah, or Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament. Based on manuscript evidence of ancient texts that quote portions of the LXX, the translation had to exist at some point in the 3rd century B.C. Most of the manuscript evidence for the LXX dates from the second century B.C. to the first century A.D. Fragments of the LXX were found at Qumran among the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The translation process and the identity of the translators are basically a mystery. The primary ancient source that purports to give us an account of the translation is the Letter or Aristeas.Scholars consider the contents of the letter pertaining to the LXX largely legendary. While it makes sense to accept the letter’s placement of the translation process in Alexandria, Egypt, the major center of Greek learning at the time, the letter’s tale about how seventy translators, working independently, produced seventy identical translations, thereby proving the translators were producing the word of God in Greek speaks for itself as an unhistorical tale.
What is the Septuagint? The Importance of the Septuagint Translation
The LXX is important for biblical studies and interpreting Scripture for several reasons.
First, the LXX tells us a lot about the development and the transmission of the Hebrewtext of the Old Testament. Since LXX is a Greek translation, that may sound odd.
The LXX was created by translators using a Hebrew text—and there are places in the LXX where the text used by the translators cannot have been a Hebrew text that matched what we now consider the traditional Hebrew text of the Old Testament (called the Masoretic Text; MT). Many of these differences, however, do matchthe Hebrew found in Hebrewmanuscripts among the Dead Sea Scrolls. A famous instance of this is Deut 32:8, where the LXX reads “angels of God” (Dead Sea Scrolls: “sons of God”) instead of MT’s “sons of Israel.”
The manuscript data tell us that the Hebrew text used by the LXX translators and the traditional Hebrew text that became dominant in the rabbinic community in late antiquity and the Middle Ages wasn’t the same in a number of instances—and the Hebrew text aligning with the LXX against MT is older. For this reason, many scholars and modern translators will defer to the contents of LXX when interpreting a biblical passage or producing a translation. Study Bible often note important differences in footnotes. The implication of this is that we ought not consider MT sacrosanct as “the” Hebrew Bible.
Second, since LXX was produced in Greek, Gentiles (non-Jews) across the ancient world could read the Jewish Bible for themselves for the first time. This circumstance is one reason why the LXX became the Old Testament of the early Christian Church. Few Gentile converts to Christianity could read Hebrew, so the LXX, along with the content of the New Testament, also written in Greek, became the Bible of the early Church.
The New Testament itself makes this reality clear. When New Testament writers quote the Old Testament, their citations match the LXX closely or precisely much more frequently than if they were translating the Hebrew Bible themselves for the purpose of their quotations.
What is the Septuagint? Should the Septuagint Influence our Interpretation of the Bible?
The short answer to the question of influence is that the LXX already hasinfluenced how the Bible is read so we can’t do anything about that. How? The New Testament writers at time opt for LXX when making a point versus the Hebrew MT. That the LXX played an important role in how New Testament writers interpreted the Old Testament is a demonstrable fact. The real question is whether modern scholars and interpreters should allow LXX to influence current interpretation, particularly in places where the New Testament writer doesn’t specifically use LXX.
The question is a complicated one. The best recent resource to introduce readers to the issues and options is that of Glenny (below). For our part here, we need to acknowledge the high view of the LXX held in early Christianity and early church fathers and devote study to LXX accordingly. For many years, this was impossible for anyone but specialists. Today, however a team of scholars has produced a fresh translation of LXX available for free (online PDF; see below) or in hard copy.
Listen to Dr. Heiser’s Naked Bible Podcast.