By Fr. Andrew Phillips
This paper is a revised version of a talk that was originally given to the Midlands Orthodox Study Centre in November 2007. It is only a brief introduction to the Septuagint and owes much to the scholarship of others. It outlines the religious and cultural milieu within which the Septuagint was produced; describes how this translation of the Hebrew Bible came about; touches on the differences between the Septuagint and the Hebrew Bible; highlights some of the distinctive characteristics of the Septuagint, and its significance and use in the early Church; and concludes by considering existing and impending English translations.
In his book The Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia very simply and clearly sets out the position of the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint1: ‘The Orthodox Church has the same New Testament as the rest of Christendom. As its authoritative text for the Old Testament it uses the ancient Greek translation known as the Septuagint. Where this differs from the Hebrew text (which happens quite often), Orthodox believe that the changes in the Septuagint were made under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and are to be accepted as part of God’s continuing revelation.’
The Septuagint was produced in the Helleno-Roman cultural world, that is, roughly the period from Alexander the Great’s conquests (c325 B.C.) to the establishment of the Roman Empire. The lingua franca of that world was the koine dialektos (common) Greek. Then as now many more Jews lived outside the Holy Land than lived within it, and the great majority of them did not speak Hebrew. There was, then, a very clear need for a version of the Hebrew Bible in Greek. The Septuagint was written by Greek-speaking Jews of the Judaeo-Greek Diaspora, employing, not, as some scholars have imagined, a separate Semitic form of Greek, but the common koine with a specialised vocabulary (including idioms) and style that reflected its own distinctive interests. For an apt comparison one might think of the legal, or journalistic English of our own day.
What is the Septuagint? (The name itself comes from the Latin word septuaginta, meaning seventy). It originated in Egypt. The origin of the translation is set out in the Letter of Aristeas, which was written some time between 150 and 100 B.C. The Letter is supposed to have been the work of an official at the court of the Egyptian king Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-246 B.C.). Aristeas says that King Ptolemy, at his (i.e. Aristeas’) urging, wished to have a Greek translation of the Jewish Torah (that is, the Law, i.e. Genesis to Deuteronomy). The Torah was, of course, the major legal document of Judaism and therefore of the king’s Alexandrian Jewish subjects. So King Ptolemy gave orders for a letter to be sent to the High Priest Eleazar in Jerusalem, asking him to send experienced translators to Alexandria in order to undertake this project. Eleazar responded by sending the king a magnificent edition of the Torah, ‘scrolls on which the Law had been inscribed with the Hebrew letters in gold’ as well as seventy two translators (not seventy), six from each of the tribes of Israel, ‘in order that after examination of the text agreed by the majority, and the achievement of accuracy in the translation, we may produce an outstanding version’. On their arrival, the translators were carried off to the island of Pharos outside Alexandria, where in seventy two days they produced the Greek translation of the Torah. This was publicly read to the king’s Jewish subjects, who heard it with enormous enthusiasm. The king then had copies made for his royal library and for his Jewish subjects. It was only the Torah that was translated. Strictly speaking, the term Septuagint should be applied to the original translation of the five books of the Law only. The Greek translations of the remaining books of the Bible were the work of later hands between the third and first centuries B.C.
Now Aristeas’ account of the origin of the Septuagint may well be apocryphal. But it is a very early account, and it clearly shows that before the time of Our Lord there existed another textual tradition of the Hebrew Bible which was at least contemporary with, if not earlier than, that represented today by the Masoretic text.
The Christian Church arose in Jerusalem among Jews who recognised Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, the ‘Anointed One’ and who found in the sacred scriptures of the Judaism of their day the meaning of His death and resurrection. The Jewish Bible was their Bible too. But if we assume, as do so many in the west, that the proto-Masoretic Hebrew Bible was ‘the’ canonical text of the Old Testament at the time of Our Lord, then most New Testament authors failed to quote the Old Testament correctly, because usually they quoted from the Septuagint. A nineteenth century study of 275 New Testament passages by D. M. Turpie2 concluded that the New Testament, the Septuagint and the Hebrew text all agree in only about 20% of the quotations. Of the 80% where some disagreement occurs, fewer than 5% agree with the Hebrew against the Septuagint.These figures show just how heavily the New Testament writers used the Greek version of the Old Testament and how significant the Septuagint was for the emerging Christian Church. And when Christianity spread outside the borders of Palestine, it was apparently the Septuagint from which the Apostles, especially St Paul, preached Christ. For nearly a century both Christians and Jews used the Greek Bible, but they understood it differently; and this is the main reason why the Septuagint fell out of use in Judaism and why the Jews embarked on new translations of the Hebrew text. Among the Jews the Septuagint began to be supplanted in the second century A.D. by the successive recensions of Aquila, Theodotion and Symmachus, all of which were designed to assimilate the Greek text to the then-current Hebrew. Only fragments of these versions survive. Aquila’s translation indeed seems to have been so extremely literal a version of the Hebrew that it could hardly have been understood without some understanding of the Hebrew itself. It remained in use in the Synagogue until the sixth century A.D.
While the early relationship between Christians and Jews no doubt played a major role in the history of the Greek versions of the Old Testament, there was another factor that should not be overlooked. Here we find ourselves in the complex world of textual criticism. The task of textual criticism is classically described as ‘following back the threads of transmission of a text and trying to restore the text as closely as possible to the form it originally had’. But in the case of the Old Testament the problem is about what actually constitutes the original text and whether it is possible to get back to it if there is more than one textual tradition. The evidence of the Dead Sea Scrolls clearly shows that at the turn of the era, just before the birth of Christianity, there was no one fixed text of the Hebrew Bible and that some books of the Hebrew Bible were circulating in markedly different versions. One of these textual forms, the proto-Masoretic text, emerged as the standard text by the beginning of the second century A.D. Much work of recension of this text was later undertaken by the Rabbinical scholars and the Masoretic scribes, as well as by members of the semi-heretical Karaite sect. The earliest surviving manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible date only from about 1000 A.D., many centuries later than those of the Septuagint. The Masoretic text is the Hebrew version that is behind virtually all modern translations of the Old Testament. However, it has been noted by the Danish Biblical scholar Mogens Muller3 that: ‘Historically the Septuagint should be endowed with special significance considered as a translation, because, to some circles of Greek-speaking Jewry, it replaced the Biblia Hebraica, and thus became their Bible. Because it was accepted as conclusive evidence of the biblical revelation, it was used by the authors of the New Testament writings, and accordingly came to have a decisive impact on the theology of the New Testament. In an historical perspective, it became, to an even greater extent than the Biblia Hebraica, the Old Testament of the New Testament. This circumstance is fundamental insofar as this translation as a witness of the handing on of traditions represents a reappraisal of the basic content of the Old Testament. According to Robert Hanhart, it even expresses a more profound appreciation of the Old Testament’s testimony of revelation (i.e. than the Hebrew)’.
The Septuagint displays several very significant characteristics.Kyrios – Lord, is consistently used throughout the Septuagint without the definite article for the Divine Name Yahweh. Following its use in the Septuagint proper, it was used thus throughout the other books of the Greek Old Testament. There is still some debate about whether Kyrios was the original Septuagint rendering of the Divine Name. Origen and Blessed Jerome are insistent that it was not and that theTetragrammaton (i.e. the four consonants YHWH of the Divine Name) was used in some form or other. (As a matter of interest, there are on Internet photographs of fragmentary papyri of the Septuagint which have the Tetragrammaton.) But other Jewish writings of the time provide evidence that Kyrios was used by Greek-speaking Jews for Yahweh, and it may have been so with the Septuagint.
Proper names are given their Greek form, as they are in the King James, Douay-Rheims and other older versions of the New Testament, e.g. Elias (or Eliou) instead of Elijah and, very importantly, Jesus instead of Joshua. This latter, when Jesus/Joshua goes up into Mount Sinai with Moses (Ex.24:12-18), is seen by the Church Fathers as a type of the Holy Transfiguration. And Jesus/Joshua act of going down into the river Jordan (Jes.3:14-4:14) is clearly seen as a type of Our Lord Jesus Christ’s baptism.
In the Septuagint ‘loan translation’ is quite often used: i.e. the adoption of a Hebrew phrase by translating its constituent parts rather than by rendering the meaning of the whole phrase. For example, for the Hebrew expression ‘to lift someone’s face’ meaning ‘to favour’ the Septuagint uses the very literal ‘lambano prosopon’. In contrast, throughout the Septuagint there is a marked avoidance of those very characteristic Hebrew anthropomorphic expressions or metaphors which are used to describe God, such as, ‘rock’ or ‘stone,’ perhaps out of a desire to avoid any possible suggestion that the Hebrew God was in some way equivalent to the sacred stones and idols that were so prevalent in pagan Egypt and the Hellenic world. So the Septuagint uses such terms as God, helper, guardian, protector, which preserve the sense but not the vivid imagery of the Hebrew.
But what are the more significant variations between the Septuagint and the Hebrew Bible? First, the Septuagint differs from the Hebrew Bible both in respect to the number of books and their arrangement, as also do the Vulgate and those translations that are officially approved by the Roman Catholic Church such as the Jerusalem Bible. Most obviously, the Septuagint has 49 books compared with the Hebrew Bible’s 39 (although by counting some books together Judaism reduces this to 24 books). The Hebrew Bible does not include what the Protestant West calls the Apocrypha. There are considerable differences between the books and their actual order as between the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint and the Vulgate. Finally, the texts of some individual books are very different. The Masoretic and Septuagint texts of Jeremiah, Job and Proverbs, differ so much that one is forced to conclude that the Hebrew text behind the latter cannot have been the text we know today.
The Septuagint very clearly attests to the developing concept of the expected Messiah in the Hellenistic period. Our Saviour Jesus Christ quoted from the Psalms and applied them to Himself. (e.g. Psalm 90: ‘He shall give His angels charge over Thee to keep Thee in all Thy ways’: and Psalm 109: ‘The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit Thou at my right hand, until I make Thine enemies Thy footstool.’) There are also key messianic references in Psalms 59 and 107. In Luke 24:27 He is shown expounding to His disciples all the Law and the Prophets and saying that they were fulfilled in Him. There are other examples of the messianism of the Septuagint. In Amos 4:13 God is described in the Masoretic text (MT) as making known to mankind ‘what is His thought’. The Septuagint reads ‘announcing His Anointed One to men’. Ezekiel 17:22b-23a in the MT reads ‘And I myself will plant a shoot on a high and lofty mountain; on the mountain height of Sion I will plant it.’ In the Greek it is ‘And I myself will plant it upon a high mountain; and I will hang him on the mountain height of Sion’. Numbers 24:7 and 24:17 are often cited as messianic readings found in the Septuagint but not in the MT. 24:7 in the MT ‘Water will flow from His buckets, and His seed will have abundant water’ becomes in Septuagint ‘a man will come out of His seed, and he will rule many nations’. 24:17 in the MT has ‘A star will come out of Jacob, and a sceptre out of Sion’ is in Septuagint ‘A star will come out of Jacob, and a man out of Sion’. Before we assume too readily that the transmission of these and similar readings is simply due to a later distinctively Christian reading of a Jewish text, because most of the surviving mss of the Septuagint are from Christian sources, we should perhaps remember that ancient Judaism was by no means identical with modern Judaism.
The theological concept of personal resurrection apparently developed in Judaism in the Hellenistic period. The Septuagint version of Psalms shows this clearly. So with regard to the concept of personal resurrection, ‘Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgement’ of the Hebrew Ps.1 becomes ‘Therefore the ungodly will not rise up in the judgement’, using the Greek word anistemi, which means specifically to rise up. And New Testament writers use anistemi with reference to resurrection, as does for example 2 Maccabees 7:9, 14, which contains the account of the torture and execution of the seven sons, and their testimony to personal resurrection: ‘…you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the Universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for His laws…‘to cherish the hope God gives of being raised again by him. But for you there will be no resurrection to life.’ The Septuagint also makes very explicit reference to prayer for the dead, which is intimately bound up with personal resurrection, in 2 Maccabees 39-45. The Books of Maccabees are not found in the Hebrew Bible, and prayer for the dead is rejected by most Protestant communions.
It is a fact that, for almost a hundred years of its earliest history, the Christian Church shared its Bible with Judaism. That Bible was the Septuagint. The Septuagint was the first Bible of the Christian Church. Before and during the time of Our Lord Jesus Christ the Septuagint was used by Greek-speaking Jews (the great majority of Jews) throughout the Greek and Roman worlds. Among them the Septuagint possessed great authority, which ceased only after later controversies with Christians who cited its undeniably messianic prophecies in favour of their new faith. Not until the middle of the second century do we find evidence of original Christian writings – the Gospels, Acts and Epistles – appearing as scripture together with Old Testament Books. The Jewish Bible was transformed into the Christian Bible when the first Christians and the early Church were able to adopt it as their Old Testament without any outward reservation by reading it and interpreting it in the light of faith in Jesus as the Christ. (This is of course exactly what the Gospels say that our Lord Himself did.) This is an approach that starts with the New Testament and then goes back to the Old Testament. In other words, the Old Testament only makes sense when it is read in the light of the New Testament: Vetus Testamentum in Novo Receptum, that is, The Old Testament taken into the New.
The ancient Greek Bible continues to this day to be the authoritative Old Testament text used in the Orthodox Christian East, and the Slavonic, Arabic, Coptic and other translations were all made from the Septuagint. The case of the Latin Vulgate is somewhat different, because of Blessed Jerome’s growing regard for what he called the ‘Hebrew verity’ after he moved to Bethlehem in 386 A.D. (The Vulgate’s resemblance to the Septuagint is still quite striking however, very largely because Jerome’s Psalter from the Hebrew did not replace the earlier Gallicanum, which was translated from the Septuagint, and also because Jerome did not translate the Deuterocanonical books, so that the Old Latin versions of the latter included in the Vulgate are translations from the Septuagint.) But Jerome’s insistence on the primacy of the Hebrew text and the consequent displacement of the Septuagint that this occasioned in the West paradoxically can be seen as the seed from which grew the sixteenth century Western Reformers’ veneration for the Hebrew Masoretic text. This became the basis of virtually all vernacular Old Testament translation, especially in English, even though it distorted the relationship of the Old Testament with the New. William Tyndale, before his death at the stake in 1536, translated about half of the Old Testament directly from the Hebrew Masoretic text rather than the Septuagint Greek or Vulgate Latin of Christendom. The books that did not form part of the Hebrew Bible were not at first excluded by the English Reformers from the canon, but they were placed together at the end of the Old Testament as the so-called Apocrypha. Finally they were dropped altogether, as can be seen by inspecting most modern English Bibles that emanate from the various Protestant sources. This development was most unfortunate: it gravely weakened the early Church’s attitude of Vetus Testamentum in Novo Receptum, and led to the present anomaly of biblical criticism conducted outside of the Church. Holy Scripture cannot, repeat cannot, be independent of the Church that canonizes it and says what it is. The idea is absurd. And if there is not exact correspondence between the text of the Old Testament and those New Testament quotations from it made by the Saviour Himself, the Evangelists and Apostles, especially St Paul, the vital salvific link between the Old Testament and the New is fundamentally obscured. Muller4goes to the heart of the matter: ‘…the question of what is the ‘true’ Old Testament text cannot be separated from the question of what the early Church regarded as its Bible…it is quite unreasonable to say that the ‘true’ (i.e. Hebrew) text actually differs from what the early Church believed it to be…the quotation from Isaiah 7.14 cited in Matthew 1.23, (which is a proof text of the virgin birth), makes this absolutely clear. Matthew says ‘virgin’ in accordance with the Septuagint Greek translation parthenos, whereas the Hebrew text uses the word for ‘young woman,’ alma, (which in Greek would be neanias). It would be pointless to rebuke the Evangelist for using the ‘wrong’ text. On the contrary, the so-called ‘wrong’ text gains a significance of its own by being used.’
The foregoing will have shown why it is most unsatisfactory when Orthodox Christians have to use Old Testament translations that are made from the Hebrew. It is very important that we Orthodox know and use the Septuagint version of the Old Testament either in the original Greek or in translation. Our church formularies and services (certainly the most theologically complex and profound of all Christian church services) are a virtual mosaic of scripture quotation from the Septuagint or of the Church Fathers paraphrasing and commenting on Septuagint texts. For an example of this take the very first line of the very first Book of the Bible, Genesis. In the Hebrew Bible and the English translations made from it we have ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’. In the Septuagint it is ‘In the beginning God made the heaven and the earth’. The first clause of the Nicene Creed, following the Septuagint, has Maker of heaven and earth, not Creator. (The Apostles’ Creed of the Roman Catholic Church, following St Jerome’s translation from the Hebrew, has Creatorem, Creator.) In the next sentence of Genesis the Septuagint describes the earth at the moment of creation as ‘invisible and without form’. The Septuagint’s word‘invisible’ is taken into the next clause of the Nicene Creed, where we have ‘…and of all things visible and invisible’. In the Hebrew the passage reads ‘without form and void (or empty)’. It is a truism that learning the Orthodox Faith comes very largely through attending its services. If we cannot recognise these scriptural quotations when we encounter them in the services, our apprehension of our faith is handicapped.
English-speaking Orthodox have long been so handicapped. It is true that for a long time there have been two English translations of the Septuagint. At the end of the eighteenth century Charles Thomson, one of America’s Founding fathers, recognising the vital connection of the Septuagint with the New Testament, produced the first English translation of the Septuagint, made from J Field’s printed Greek text of 1665. Then in 1851 Sir Lancelot C L Brenton published his translation of the Septuagint. It is this latter that is generally available and fairly widely known today in bilingual editions in book form or on the internet. However it is a diplomatic text (i.e. one that is based on one codex, in this case Vaticanus), which does not entirely agree with the Greek text of the Orthodox Church. Now several other English translations are completed or are in progress. The most significant of these are the New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS) and The Orthodox Study Bible (OSB). Others include Peter Papoutsis’ translation of the official Greek Orthodox Greek text (in progress), and the Eastern Orthodox Bible (EOB), a project which is intended eventually to include the Septuagint text in a modern English revision of Brenton’s translation, noting also variant texts from the Syriac Peshitta, the Masoretic and other ancient versions. And the present writer has produced an unpublished version based on the text of the Church of Greece’s Apostoliki Diakonia, with the King James Bible as its English template but changing it where it differs from the Greek, which it does very often.
The New English Translation of the Septuagint is a scholarly eclectic text translated from the Gottingen/Rahlf5 critical edition of the Septuagint. The first volume of this translation,Psalms, appeared in 2000. Oxford University Press published the complete translation in October 2007. The text of NETS is based on the Old Testament of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Because it is based on an eclectic Greek text, this version of the Septuagint is unsuitable for use by English-speaking Orthodox.
The second of these translations is of more direct significance to Orthodoxy. The Orthodox Study Bible, New Testament and Psalms (OSB) was originally published in 1993. The New Testament text of the OSB is the New King James Version (NKJV), which is itself based on the Byzantine Received Text, the traditional text of the Greek-speaking churches, indeed of all Christendom until the nineteenth century. In the absence at that time of a suitable English translation of the Septuagint, the Psalms were taken directly from the New King James Version’s translation of the Masoretic Hebrew. This first OSB received much adverse critical comment. Now, under the direction of Fr Jack Sparks, a new Septuagint translation has been published in the USA as part of The Orthodox Study Bible: Septuagint and New Testament.
The new Orthodox Study Bible was published in February 2008. It has study notes and theological guides. It is a ‘word for word’ translation of the Greek by a number of contributors in a formal modern English but with echoes of the King James Bible. Like its 1993 predecessor the new OSB uses the New King James Version as its base, but claims to have changed it where it differs from the text of the Septuagint. However, this is by no means always the case. The OSB’s dependence on the NKJV Bible is at times a decided liability: there seems to be a marked reluctance to deviate from the text of the NKJV even when the plain meaning of the Greek demands it. One egregious example of this occurs in the key Messianic text of Genesis 49:10. The Greek means, ‘A ruler shall not be wanting from Juda and a leader from his thighs, until the things stored up for him come, and he is the expectation of nations’. The OSB, following NKJV exactly, has: ‘The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from his loins until Shiloh come: and to him shall be the expectation of the nations’. However, despite its very obvious shortcomings, it seems that the OSB, with a major publisher (Thomas Nelson) behind it, will remain the standard Orthodox translation of the Septuagint for the immediate future.
1 Ware, Kallistos (Timothy): The Orthodox Church, p.208; Penguin 1963,
2 Turpie, DH: The Old Testament in the New’;, Williams and Norgate 1868
3 Muller, M: The First Bible of the Church, pp.115-6; Sheffield Academic Press 1996.
4 Muller, M: op.cit, p.23
5Septuaginta. Id est Vetus Testamentum Graece iuxta LXX Interpretes. Stuttgart: Wurttembergische Bibelanstalt, 1935