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.