Published: 16 May 2022

What Is The Septuagint And Why Should I Care?

Septuagint

Have you ever taken the time to locate an Old Testament passage which was quoted by a New Testament author? If so, you probably noticed that, frequently, the wording is not exactly the same. What is going on? Why did the New Testament authors not quite get the quote right? It’s not because they were being sloppy, nor was it because they quoted from memory and got it a little wrong. It was because they were quoting from the Septuagint. 

What is the Septuagint?

The Septuagint is a translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into the Greek language. In the time of Jesus and the first century Christians, the Greek language version (Septuagint) of the Old Testament was the Bible used by Greek speaking Jews. 

The word “Septuagint” comes from the Latin word septuaginta which means “seventy.” Ancient tradition said there were seventy translators of the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible; hence its name.[1]Melvin K. H. Peters, Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, s.v. “SEPTUAGINT,” 5:1,093. The Septuagint is commonly abbreviated using the Roman numerals LXX (seventy). The LXX was the Bible of the early church and was quoted extensively by the authors of the New Testament.[2]Ibid., 102.[3]S. K. SODERLUND, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Revised), s.v. “S,” 4:400.

Why was the Hebrew Bible translated into Greek?

The Jews were living all over the ancient world by the time the Greek language became predominant. In time, those not living in Judea began to forget the Hebrew language and were more familiar with Greek. In the 3rd century BC, Jews living in the Egyptian city of Alexandria translated their Old Testament Scriptures into the Greek language. 

“The Jewish settlers in the cosmopolitan city of Alexandria, forced by circumstances to abandon their language, nonetheless clung tenaciously to their faith. For them the translation of their sacred law into Greek was of utmost significance in safeguarding their religion as well as in satisfying their liturgical and educational needs.”[4]Ibid.

The Septuagint was a matter of practicality. Most of the Jews of the diaspora knew Greek better than Hebrew (if they spoke Hebrew at all) and they needed to be able to read the Scriptures in what had become their native tongue. This is no different than people today reading a translation of the Bible in their own language. Let’s face it, most Christians will never learn Hebrew. So, like the ancient diaspora Jews, we need a translation that we can read.

Why should I care about the Septuagint?

Christians should care because the New Testament authors quoted from the Septuagint very frequently. It has been claimed that there are more Old Testament quotes in the New Testament that sourced from the Septuagint than from the Hebrew text. 

The Jewish rabbis of Jesus’s day used a technique, which is today called “remez” (hint), in which they quoted a small part of a Scripture passage. They assumed their audience’s knowledge of the Old Testament would allow them to deduce the fuller meaning. This way they didn’t have to quote a lengthy passage. In other words, it was a shorthand way of calling a certain context to mind.

The New Testament writers used this technique as well. When the New Testament quotes from the Old Testament, the author expects the reader to know the fuller passage being quoted from. You see, the Jews and early Christians did what many Christians today fail to do; they kept their studies in context. They did not intend for their readers to lift a verse from its context. 

If we aren’t familiar with the context of the passage a New Testament writer quotes from, it is our duty as good Bible students to locate the passage and read it. If we do, this is when we’ll start to see differences.

An example 

Consider the passage which was being read by the Ethiopian in Acts 8:32-33. If we compare the wording in Acts with the wording in Isaiah 53:7-8, then we’ll notice some differences.

In the image above, the passage on the left is what we read in our English New Testament. The New Testament was originally written in Greek so we are reading a Greek to English translation of what Luke wrote. The column on the right is an English translation from the Hebrew text of Isaiah 53. You can see that while we derive the same meaning from the shaded portions, the wording is a little different.

Now let’s add in a third column which shows how the Septuagint renders the verses from Isaiah 53.

The right hand column is an English translation of the LXX. The thing to notice is that the left column and the right column now read very similarly. What this tells us is that the Ethiopian was reading the Isaiah passage from the Septuagint!

Was the Septuagint legit?

The LXX was just as much “the Bible” as our modern English language translations are the real word of God. While the wording may differ slightly from our English translations of the Old Testament, it is no less the same message. Minor variations in wording is simply the nature of translation. The important thing is that the thoughts being expressed in the original language are the same.

When you notice minor wording variations where the New Testament quotes the Old Testament, it is probably because the authors were quoting from the Septuagint. If you notice the difference, then congratulations. You are actually looking up the Old Testament context and doing your job as a good Bible student.

References

References
1 Melvin K. H. Peters, Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, s.v. “SEPTUAGINT,” 5:1,093.
2 Ibid., 102.
3 S. K. SODERLUND, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Revised), s.v. “S,” 4:400.
4 Ibid.