Reflections on the Septuagint

One often hears the refrain that “the Septuagint is the Old Testament of the Orthodox Church”. (For those late to the party: the Septuagint—often abbreviated as “LXX”—is the Greek translation of the Old Testament made in Alexandria around 250 B.C., supposedly by seventy scholars imported for the purpose. Hence the name, which means “of the Seventy”.) The term is usually applied to the entirety of the Hebrew Scriptures, despite the fact that the original Alexandrian project was confined to the Torah/ the first five books of Moses. Later translations of the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures into the Greek were made in the years following, sometimes referred to by scholars as the “Old Greek”. An introduction to the Septuagint can be found in the New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS for short), edited by Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright. An accessible and excellent précis and introduction can be found in Fr. Stephen De Young’s The Whole Counsel Blog, accessed here.

What are we to make of the assertion, “the Septuagint is the Old Testament of the Orthodox Church”? How accurate is the translation when compared with the Masoretic Hebrew? Should the Septuagint always be preferred over the Masoretic? Should it be used as our main text for Bible study? The questions elude easy answers, but I would offer the following.

Sometimes the Septuagint (or Old Greek) preserves the older and more accurate readings. In places where the Hebrew is manifestly corrupt and makes no sense, the Septuagint can help preserve or point to a more accurate reading. Such for example is the Hebrew of Isaiah 9:1f: “You have enlarged the nation and not increased the joy”. One would think that the enlargement of the nation would also result in its increased joy, and that is how almost all the English versions apart from the KJV understand it, omitting the word “not”. Here the Septuagint points to an earlier Hebrew original. (English versions based on the Masoretic do not always sufficiently convey the problem, and cover over their scholarly perplexity with a quick footnote admitting, “The Hebrew of this verse is uncertain”.) In these cases, the Septuagint is a valuable resource in trying to recover the original Hebrew.

Sometimes however the Septuagint has clearly diverged from the Hebrew for theological reasons, because the Septuagint translator found the Hebrew original too embarrassing and perplexing. Thus for example Exodus 3:6: the Hebrew reads, “Moses hid his face for he was afraid to look at God”. The author obviously felt this was theologically problematic, for it taught that one could see the invisible God. He therefore rendered it, “Moses turned his face away, for he was afraid to look down before God”. The same reluctance to transcribe the original undergirds the Septuagint rendering of Exodus 24:9f: the Hebrew text reads, “they [i.e. Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and the seventy elders] saw the God of Israel”. Since the author of the Septuagint felt that no one could see God (compare Exodus 33:20), he rendered the last bit, “they appeared in the place of God”. Thus it was not God who appeared to them, but they who appeared to God. Similarly with Exodus 29:43: in the Hebrew we read that God said, “I will meet with the Israelites there” [i.e. at the Tent of Meeting]. Once again the Septuagint translator felt this compromised the transcendence of the invisible God and so he rendered it, “I will prescribe for the sons of Israel there”.

Other examples abound. Thus Isaiah 6:8: in the Hebrew version of Isaiah’s call to public ministry, God asks, “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?” which use of the plural sounded to the Septuagint author perilously like polytheism, with Yahweh one god among others. So in the Septuagint this question becomes, “Whom shall I send and who will go to this people?”—the plural now referring to the people of Israel, not Yahweh’s divine council. A similar concern to preserve the (to his mind threatened) sovereignty of God underlies the name of the Messianic King found in Isaiah 9:6. In the Hebrew the king’s names are listed as “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”. That sounded a lot like ascribing divinity to a mere man, and so in the Septuagint the list of names is reduced to the single “Messenger of Great Counsel”—i.e. a messenger who brings the great counsel of God, a much more acceptable title.

Sometimes the alterations from the Hebrew are dictated by delicacy, and not theology.  The Hebrew version of Proverbs 5:15f dissuades husbands from marital infidelity with the exhortation to “drink water from your own cistern…Let her [i.e. your wife’s] breasts [Hebrew dad] satisfy you at all times; be intoxicated always with her love”. This was a bit much for the Septuagint author so that it became the much tamer and more sanitized, “Drink water from your vessels…Let her be considered your very own and be with you on every occasion, for while indulging in her love you will be increased immeasurably”. Much better: no offending breasts; instead, an edifying sermon. (One perhaps shouldn’t be too hard on the ancient translator; even the more modern RSV can only manage, “Let her affection fill you at all times with delight”.)  The point of all these comparative citations is that it is clear that the Septuagint at a number of places does not preserve the original reading, but replaces it with readings judged more acceptable for a variety of reasons.

Sometimes the original Hebrew had become so obscured and lost that the Septuagint could only guess, and sometimes therefore simply transliterated the Hebrew original. Thus in Song of Songs 4:4 the Septuagint author was reduced to rendering the text, “Your neck is like David’s tower, built into thalpioth”. Moderns have not done much better: the RSV renders it, “built for an arsenal” while admitting in a footnote “The meaning of the Hebrew word is uncertain”. (The Orthodox Study Bible renders it “built on courses of stone”, while not admitting it also is simply guessing.)

Sometimes the Septuagint diverges from the Hebrew with no loss of contemporary meaning, but at the cost of prophetic significance. Thus where the Hebrew of Hosea 11:1 reads, “When Israel was a child I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son”, the Greek renders it, “For Israel was an infant and I loved him, and out of Egypt I recalled his children”. The prophetic and Christological significance of the verse, attested to by St. Matthew in Matthew 2:13f, has vanished from the Septuagint.

The upshot of all this is that the Septuagint should not be preferred to the Masoretic at every turn. At very least the Septuagint should be used along with the Masoretic.

What then of the assertion, “the Septuagint is the Old Testament of the Orthodox Church”? One must distinguish. The Septuagint was used by the early Church because it needed a Greek version for use among the Gentiles, and the Septuagint was readily available. But this does not mean that the Church’s use of the Septuagint indicated a preference for it over the Masoretic, or that in every instance where the Septuagint diverges from the Masoretic, the Septuagint reading is to be preferred. The choice for the early Church was not “either the Septuagint or the Masoretic” but rather “either the Septuagint or nothing”. The average person in the Mediterranean world could not read Hebrew, and in fact most Christians of that time reading the Septuagint were unaware of the differences between the two. It is not quite clear they would have cared supremely even if they were aware. Scholars like Origen and Jerome knew of the difference, and tried to grapple with it pastorally as best they could. Thus at very least, as Origen knew, if one were to argue with the Jews on the basis on the Old Testament one needed to be aware when their Hebrew version differed from the Christian reading of the Septuagint and not try to base Christian arguments on a text which the Jews did not acknowledge. Also it is significant that when Jerome came to produce his own version, he consulted and worked from the Hebrew, calling it “the Hebrew truth” and did not simply work from the Septuagint. The statement therefore “the Septuagint is the Old Testament of the Orthodox Church” is true historically, but not prescriptively. It accurately tells us what the Church did, but not necessarily what we should do now that we have more resources.

 

20 comments:

  1. Thank you Father Lawrence. It is good to know the history behind the different translations of the OT, regarding their origin, differences, when it was used and why. It is also helpful to know these things as we encounter various authors who refer to either the Masoretic text or the LXX or both. I was many times left wondering what version should I be reading from. So I appreciate this article, which lends guidance in the use of these two versions.

  2. I’ve always wondered about the Church’s view of 2 Ezra (in some versions 3 Ezra). It wasn’t included in The Orthodox Study Bible, but I have seen it in other versions. Any thoughts?

      1. Father Lawrence,
        I am not familiar with “The Common Bible”. I did a search and found this:
        http://www.bombaxo.com/blog/the-eastern-orthodox-and-the-rsv/.
        My first search led me to the Common English Bible, but I didn’t think that was the one you are referring to.
        In link above, in the comment section, he recommends “Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, First Edition”…but I still don’t know if this is the one you are referring to. So Father, what Bible do I look for so I can purchase the Common Bible?

  3. Father, is 3 Ezra the only book in Orthodox Canon not included in the “The Orthodox Study Bible?” And where is a reliable place to see a listing of the Orthodox Canon of Old Testament?

    1. Yes, 3 Ezra (also called “2 Esdras”) is the only one not included in the OSB. It is sometimes included in an Appendix, which perhaps explains its absence from the OSB–and from many lists of the Orthodox OT canon. Its absence is regrettable, for it is a good resource for understanding the apocalyptic genre. In my view no one should write a commentary on Daniel or the Book of Revelation who has not first studied 2 Esdras.

  4. Excellent article. One difference that I’m curious about and have been looking into is the different translations regarding Isaiah 22:22. The Septuagint omits mentioning the keys of the house of David and just says the glory. However, the Masoretic text and the Dead Sea text mention the keys. Do you have a take on why the difference?

    Thank you in advance

    1. My guess regarding the difference is that the LXX is paraphrasing to make clear what the “key of the House of David” is. It seems clear that the Masoretic is the original: one would not change the plainer reading of “glory” to the less clear “key of the House of David”; it is more likely that one would change the less clear into the more clear. Also, the author of Rev. 3:7 obviously refers to the Masoretic reading in applying this text to Christ.

      1. “…the author of Rev. 3:7 obviously refers to the Masoretic reading in applying this text to Christ.”
        Yes, exactly Father. Good point.
        It’s too bad that the text is altered like that. It takes away from the connectedness of the entirety of Scripture.
        Thank you again Father. Very helpful teachings.

  5. Fr. Farley, thank you SO much for the “teaching” aspect of your blogs. Your blogs, as well as your excellent publications , continue to help me LEARN more and more about my faith. A faith which a most merciful God permitted me to discover even in the “twilight” of my life.

  6. Dear father

    Thank you for yet another well balanced article. I have nothing to say against your basic argument – that one can use both the greek OT (although perhaps the ones appearing after AD should be approached with care) and the masoretic OT.

    However it always puzzles me, when someone refers to the masoretic text (MT) as the “original hebrew” or some such, since that particular text dates from around 800-1000 years AD, and in fact no one has any idea of what THE “original hebrew” text might look like … since we don’t have any sich text. What we have are different collections of consonants, that admittedly seem to be pretty consistent from the oldest (Dead Sea scrolls etc.) to the newest such as MT. But consonants do not make a full text.

    You point to several text-critical methods for determining probabilities with regard to text-originality (complex to simple etc.), but that’s all they are – probabilities.

    Isn’t it stretching the facts a bit too far to claim that MT is the original text? One could assume it, but to claim it with any certainty seems a little farfetched. Also the MT is by no means a more perfect text taken as a whole than are any of the greek OT-texts, in certain places it seems rather obscure – as do the greek OT-texts.

    And finally, isn’t it fair to say, that the Church’s theology is primarily based on greek texts, language and thought (with lots of semitic influence for sure, this isn’t a clearcut matter, and Christ was a jew after all) rather than semitic ditto?

    A prosperous fast to you and everyone reading your blog.

    1. Thank you for your comments. You are quite right, of course: the original text is in no one’s hands, and we are left with degrees of probability. That is clear from the corruptions in the Masoretic that I cited in the article, such as the one present in Isaiah 9:3. What I meant was that in the cases I cited the Masoretic can arguably claim to represent the original text in a way that the LXX cannot.
      I think that in some cases the Church’s theology/ exegesis is based on the Hebrew and sometimes on the Greek. Thus St. Matthew bases his prophetic interpretation of Hos. 11:1 in Mat. 2:13f on the Hebrew not the divergent Greek, but the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews bases his Christological interpretation of Psalm 102:25 on the Greek, not the Hebrew. But it is undoubtedly true that most of the eastern Fathers worked from the only version they had–namely the LXX. It is good that you pointed this out.

      1. OK, I see. But while reading your answer I came to think of the following

        Your suggestions regarding reasons for changing the text in the various examples you give sound very reasonable. But as far the Isaiah 6:8 example and the possible polytheistic implications of the hebrew vs. the LXX-text, wouldn’t it be fair to say, that the idea of God being one was very well established in jewish thought around 250 BC? I am thinking of Deut. 6:4 that firmly establishes the oneness of God – in both the MT and LXX-version.

        Which leads me to wonder, whether there might be some truth to the claim made by some, that the LXX was written from another “Vorlage” than the MT altogether? Which would mean, that there could be other reasons for the variations you point out than the ones you suggest. Do you think, there could be some truth to that?

        1. The question of whether the LXX was working from another source is interesting, but of course is also beyond testing. I disagree about Isaiah 6:8, since the invisibility of God was also established in Jewish thought by 250 BC, but they still were embarrassed enough by texts in Exodus to alter them.

  7. Due to the Early Church’s reliance on the LXX over the Hebrew, years ago I began the practice of studying both readings whenever I am teaching on an Old Testament passage. I believe since the time of Jerome that the church at large has neglected the Greek in favor of the Hebrew; however, study of the Greek Old Testament is crucial for understanding what the New Testament (and early church) writers were reading for their Old Testament.

    Which is Canon–Hebrew or Greek? I want to claim both, and the occasional divergences do not bother me.

    1. As I recall, in his OT commentary Jerome offered separate commentary on both the Hebrew version and the LXX readings. Or perhaps I am mis-remembering this?

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