By Gabe Martini
For many Orthodox Christians throughout the centuries, the Septuagint (LXX) has been received as a preferred edition of the Old Testament scriptures.
There are many reasons for this.
The bulk of OT citations from the early Church fathers are aligned with the Septuagint (and other Greek translations), and the New Testament authors seemed to prefer it nearly nine times out of ten (where there are significant differences between Greek and Hebrew). Greek was the lingua franca of the post-apostolic Roman Empire. Hebrew was largely limited to the liturgical rituals of Palestine and some of the Jewish diaspora, with Aramaic and even Greek or Latin supplanting it in most places.
For these—and numerous other—reasons, the Septuagint came to be the Old Testament of Byzantine churches.
And while this article will largely focus on the LXX, it should be noted that there is nothing inherently wrong with the various other editions of the OT available to us today. Hebrew, Samaritan, Syriac, or Latin, there is a long traditional and ecclesiastical pedigree of other editions of the scriptures in the context of our worshipping Church. Even in cases of textual discrepancies, there is an allowance within our tradition for this diversity.
Lacking a doctrine of inerrancy or infallible autographs as one might find in other branches of Christianity, Orthodox Christians have no trouble reconciling seemingly contradictory concepts such as an “inspired” translation and the realities of textual criticism.
The Protestant Approach
Many Protestant Christians have adopted a doctrine called plenary verbal inspiration, that:
[T]he Bible is the word of God … that its very words are God’s own words, and that it must be accurate because God cannot err.1
As a former Protestant, I find it interesting that such convictions have not led Protestant Christians to adopt the Septuagint as their preferred OT, since the authors of the NT use it so frequently. If the NT writings are without “error,” then their use of the LXX should be seen aspart of this verbal inspiration, should it not?
However, with the exception of some in the scholarly community, there is a relative ignorance or even apathy regarding the Septuagint.
Since we do not have the “original autographs” of the scriptures themselves, textual criticism has led to a doctrine of inspiration with no practical evidence. In other words, while the Scriptures might be infallible and inerrant in their original iterations, we have no example of these original iterations. All texts of Scripture today are therefore subject to error if one is being consistent with this approach.
One can’t help but wonder if realizations such as this—alongside a traditional adherence to Sola scriptura—can be seen as at least partially at fault in the decline of mainstream Protestant Christianity throughout the world today?
But for Orthodox Christians, an adherence to apostolic tradition and the Spirit-filled life of the Church alleviates necessity for doctrines such as Sola scriptura (or inerrancy in original autographs).
Inspiration and Translation
In the Orthodox tradition, the inspiration of Scripture is not limited to either specific words or original autographs. A translation of Scripture can be just as “infallible” and “inspired” within the Christian community as theoretical, original autographs.
And from that perspective, the Septuagint is a perfect example of how this works.
Orthodox Christians generally believe that the Septuagint is a divinely-inspired translation of the Hebrew scriptures. We acknowledge the fact that there were multiple, differing textual families of these scriptures in the days of Christ, along with differing beliefs regarding its canon (the “table of contents”). The Septuagint has a long history of redaction, editing work, and compilation.
Despite these complexities, the writings of the Septuagint are all validly called scripture. We can still believe that the Holy Spirit was at work in the long history of its formation, compilation, and revision. While discoveries such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and comparisons with Samaritan texts show the LXX has an ancient and significant pedigree, there are also other texts with a similarly admirable footing. (In other words, being earliest isn’t everything.)
And as already noted, the early Church fathers demonstrate a fondness for the Septuagint—along with other Greek editions such as Theodotion, Symmachus, and Aquila, not to mention the Hebrew texts by Jerome’s day—despite the fact it was a translation project centuries in the making.
On that note, let’s take a brief look at four early Church fathers that wrote about the importance of the LXX in the life of the Church, along with the history of its translation and redaction.
Near the middle of the second century, Justin Martyr “the Philosopher” wrote about the origins of the Septuagint in his Oratory Address to the Greeks (13):
But if any one says that the writings of Moses and of the rest of the prophets were also written in the Greek character, let him read profane histories, and know that Ptolemy, king of Egypt, when he had built the library in Alexandria, and by gathering books from every quarter had filled it, then learnt that very ancient histories written in Hebrew happened to be carefully preserved; and wishing to know their contents, he sent for seventy wise men from Jerusalem, who were acquainted with both the Greek and Hebrew language, and appointed them to translate the books; and that in freedom from all disturbance they might the more speedily complete the translation, he ordered that there should be constructed, not in the city itself, but seven stadia off (where the Pharos was built), as many little cots as there were translators, so that each by himself might complete his own translation; and enjoined upon those officers who were appointed to this duty, to afford them all attendance, but to prevent communication with one another, in order that the accuracy of the translation might be discernible even by their agreement.
And when he ascertained that the seventy men had not only given the same meaning, but had employed the same words, and had failed in agreement with one another not even to the extent of one word, but had written the same things, and concerning the same things, he was struck with amazement, and believed that the translation had been written by divine power, and perceived that the men were worthy of all honor, as beloved of God; and with many gifts ordered them to return to their own country. And having, as was natural, marveled at the books, and concluded them to be divine, he consecrated them in that library.
These things, ye men of Greece, are no fable, nor do we narrate fictions; but we ourselves having been in Alexandria, saw the remains of the little cots at the Pharos still preserved, and having heard these things from the inhabitants, who had received them as part of their country’s tradition, we now tell to you what you can also learn from others, and specially from those wise and esteemed men who have written of these things, Philo and Josephus, and many others.
St. Justin notes how the seemingly miraculous events surrounding the translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek led Ptolemy II Philadelphius to view the translation as having been done “by divine power,” concluding that they were themselves “divine” writings. In other words, the first person to acknowledge the divine nature of this project was not a Christian, but rather a pagan ruler.
Secondly, it’s important to note the texts being translated by these “seventy” elders of Judea were not the entirety of the Old Testament canon, but rather the first five books of Moses or Torah. So if we acknowledge and receive as reliable this story about its translation, we must keep in mind that it refers solely to these books (the rest of the project would continue for years to come, as noted already).
Finally, he assures the reader that this story—repeated by other fathers, along with Philo and Josephus; cf. Epistle of Aristeas—is “no fable,” providing physical evidence in Alexandria he had seen with his own eyes. However one might feel about the finer points of textual criticism, Justin Martyr positions this text within a context of both miracles and faith.
Irenaeus of Lyons
The second early Church father to comment on these events is St. Irenaeus of Lyons, writing near the end of the second century A.D. (Against Heresies 3.21.2):
For before the Romans possessed their kingdom, while as yet the Macedonians held Asia, Ptolemy the son of Lagus, being anxious to adorn the library which he had founded in Alexandria, with a collection of the writings of all men, which were [works] of merit, made request to the people of Jerusalem, that they should have their Scriptures translated into the Greek language. And they —for at that time they were still subject to the Macedonians — sent to Ptolemy seventy of their elders, who were thoroughly skilled in the Scriptures and in both the languages, to carry out what he had desired. But he, wishing to test them individually, and fearing lest they might perchance, by taking counsel together, conceal the truth in the Scriptures, by their interpretation, separated them from each other, and commanded them all to write the same translation. He did this with respect to all the books.
But when they came together in the same place before Ptolemy, and each of them compared his own interpretation with that of every other, God was indeed glorified, and the Scriptures were acknowledged as truly divine. For all of them read out the common translation [which they had prepared] in the very same words and the very same names, from beginning to end, so that even the Gentiles present perceived that the Scriptures had been interpreted by the inspiration of God.
And there was nothing astonishing in God having done this — He who, when, during the captivity of the people under Nebuchadnezzar, the Scriptures had been corrupted, and when, after seventy years, the Jews had returned to their own land, then, in the times of Artaxerxes king of the Persians, inspired Esdras the priest, of the tribe of Levi, to recast all the words of the former prophets, and to re-establish with the people the Mosaic legislation.
Irenaeus compares the translation of the Septuagint in Egypt with Esdras’ preservation of the Mosaic law and prophets following a great exile. This serves as an interesting parallel. He also draws a comparison between the Lord’s preservation of scripture in Egypt with his preservation of Israel during the Egyptian yoke.
Of this translation done by “the seventy,” he writes: “God was indeed glorified, and the Scriptures were acknowledged as truly divine.”
Cyril of Jerusalem
The great catechist Cyril of Jerusalem writes about the Septuagint in his fourth lecture on the scriptures (Catechetical Lectures 4.34):
Read the Divine Scriptures, the twenty-two books of the Old Testament, these that have been translated by the Seventy-two Interpreters.
For after the death of Alexander, the king of the Macedonians, and the division of his kingdom into four principalities, into Babylonia, and Macedonia, and Asia, and Egypt, one of those who reigned over Egypt, Ptolemy Philadelphus, being a king very fond of learning, while collecting the books that were in every place, heard from Demetrius Phalereus, the curator of his library, of the Divine Scriptures of the Law and the Prophets, and judged it much nobler, not to get the books from the possessors by force against their will, but rather to propitiate them by gifts and friendship; and knowing that what is extorted is often adulterated, being given unwillingly, while that which is willingly supplied is freely given with all sincerity, he sent to Eleazar, who was then High Priest, a great many gifts for the Temple here at Jerusalem, and caused him to send him six interpreters from each of the twelve tribes of Israel for the translation.
Then, further, to make experiment whether the books were Divine or not, he took precaution that those who had been sent should not combine among themselves, by assigning to each of the interpreters who had come his separate chamber in the island called Pharos, which lies over against Alexandria, and committed to each the whole Scriptures to translate.
And when they had fulfilled the task in seventy-two days, he brought together all their translations, which they had made in different chambers without sending them one to another, and found that they agreed not only in the sense but even in words. For the process was no word-craft, nor contrivance of human devices: but the translation of the Divine Scriptures, spoken by the Holy Spirit, was of the Holy Spirit accomplished.
Cyril connects the translation of the Torah into Greek with the work of the Holy Spirit. He too relates the common belief that each of the scribes’ versions were identical—and this without any collusion between them—seeing this as proof of divine involvement.
So while later texts of the Septuagint were perhaps corrupted or in need of corrections and edits by the days of the early Christian Church—such as the work done by Lucian of Antioch (ca. A.D. 240–312)—the consensus of most early Christian teachers was the original translation was without fault.
Augustine of Hippo
Finally, Augustine of Hippo shows an affinity for the Septuagint, and this in spite of the work done in his own day by Jerome (in fact, the two would be at odds over this very issue).
As to the discrepancies in some places between Hebrew and Greek, Augustine ascribes divine inspiration to both, describing some of the careful, comparative textual work being done in his lifetime (City of God 18.43.1):
For while there were other interpreters who translated these sacred oracles out of the Hebrew tongue into Greek, as Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion, and also that translation which, as the name of the author is unknown, is quoted as the fifth edition, yet the Church has received this Septuagint translation just as if it were the only one; and it has been used by the Greek Christian people, most of whom are not aware that there is any other.
From this translation there has also been made a translation in the Latin tongue, which the Latin churches use. Our times, however, have enjoyed the advantage of the presbyter Jerome, a man most learned, and skilled in all three languages, who translated these same Scriptures into the Latin speech, not from the Greek, but from the Hebrew. But although the Jews acknowledge this very learned labor of his to be faithful, while they contend that the Septuagint translators have erred in many places, still the churches of Christ judge that no one should be preferred to the authority of so many men, chosen for this very great work by Eleazar, who was then high priest; for even if there had not appeared in them one spirit, without doubt divine, and the seventy learned men had, after the manner of men, compared together the words of their translation, that what pleased them all might stand, no single translator ought to be preferred to them; but since so great a sign of divinity has appeared in them, certainly, if any other translator, of their Scriptures from the Hebrew into any other tongue is faithful, in that case he agrees with these seventy translators, and if he is not found to agree with them, then we ought to believe that the prophetic gift is with them.
For the same Spirit who was in the prophets when they spoke these things was also in the seventy men when they translated them, so that assuredly they could also say something else, just as if the prophet himself had said both, because it would be the same Spirit who said both; and could say the same thing differently, so that, although the words were not the same, yet the same meaning should shine forth to those of good understanding; and could omit or add something, so that even by this it might be shown that there was in that work not human bondage, which the translator owed to the words, but rather divine power, which filled and ruled the mind of the translator.
Some, however, have thought that the Greek copies of the Septuagint version should be emended from the Hebrew copies; yet they did not dare to take away what the Hebrew lacked and the Septuagint had, but only added what was found in the Hebrew copies and was lacking in the Septuagint, and noted them by placing at the beginning of the verses certain marks in the form of stars which they call asterisks. And those things which the Hebrew copies have not, but the Septuagint have, they have in like manner marked at the beginning of the verses by horizontal spit-shaped marks like those by which we denote ounces; and many copies having these marks are circulated even in Latin. But we cannot, without inspecting both kinds of copies, find out those things which are neither omitted nor added, but expressed differently, whether they yield another meaning not in itself unsuitable, or can be shown to explain the same meaning in another way.
If, then, as it behoves us, we behold nothing else in these Scriptures than what the Spirit of God has spoken through men, if anything is in the Hebrew copies and is not in the version of the Seventy, the Spirit of God did not choose to say it through them, but only through the prophets. But whatever is in the Septuagint and not in the Hebrew copies, the same Spirit chose rather to say through the latter, thus showing that both were prophets. For in that manner He spoke as He chose, some things through Isaiah, some through Jeremiah, some through several prophets, or else the same thing through this prophet and through that. Further, whatever is found in both editions, that one and the same Spirit willed to say through both, but so as that the former preceded in prophesying, and the latter followed in prophetically interpreting them; because, as the one Spirit of peace was in the former when they spoke true and concordant words, so the selfsame one Spirit hath appeared in the latter, when, without mutual conference they yet interpreted all things as if with one mouth.
And while one should not make such claims without proper qualifications or explanations, it is without controversy to say the consensus of the early Church fathers was in favor of the Septuagint (at least in the Torah) as a divine translation of the Hebrew scriptures.
The textual critics of St. Augustine’s day wouldn’t dare remove words in the Septuagint that are lacking in the Hebrew (or vice versa). Instead, one might find both versions in parallel, as with the work done by Jerome for the Latin or the Hexapla by Origen.
In all of this, a more open-minded approach when it comes to the “original autographs” of the scriptures is made apparent—a point of departure from the way this is all understood by most Protestant scholars and textual critics of our day. Early Church fathers like Augustine were apparently fine with the fact that the Holy Spirit had inspired different versions of the same passages.
For Orthodox Christians, a translation of scripture does not negate or invalidate itsinspiration.
Just as Christ is the true “icon” of God the Father (Heb. 1:3), without a difference in essence (ὁμοούσιος), so too are icons an authentic window to their prototypes. Similarly, a translation can be inspired and bring across the same essential message as its prototype, regardless of the difference in language. By the work of the Holy Spirit, we may be assured nothing is “lost” between the original and its translation.
The people of God hearing scripture declared in their own language, whatever that language may be, are not at a significant disadvantage or somehow denied the preaching of the Gospel through translation—no more than venerating an icon of Christ is a somehow “deficient” form of paying homage to Christ.
Note 1: Hart, The Dictionary of Historical Theology, p. 198