Which Old Testament?

On the central importance of the Septuagint

Timothy’s scriptures

from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God 2 Timothy 3:15-16 KJV

Paul commends the spiritual heritage of Timothy, noting his childhood education provided him a solid grounding in Scripture. Occasionally we might be prompted to ask – what Scripture? It is self-evidence to most Protestants today that Paul is referring to the Hebrew bible, or Old Testament (OT) reflected in the Protestant canon. However, this is making assumptions, quite a few assumptions but we will explore only one – which text was scripture?

Timothy had a gentile father and was uncircumcised until Paul wanted to take him on missionary work (Acts 16:1-3). Timothy’s religious training therefore would not have included the synagogue with the possibility (though not certainty) of Hebrew manuscripts. Timothy’s scripture was almost certainly the corpus today referred to – somewhat misleadingly – as the Septuagint (LXX), rather than the Hebrew text assumed to be the ancestor of today’s Hebrew bible.

The LXX was the pre-eminent “scripture” for early Christians like Luke, Stephen, Paul, the writer of Hebrews and John and then for the next 300 years. The LXX today is at best used as a secondary reference – and even then, far too rarely. It deserves greater prominence in the toolkit of those interested in exploring the bible as a critical tool in understanding the ‘bible’ of the early Christians. It should at a minimum be the go-to tool whenever the NT cites the OT.

What is the LXX?

The LXX is (today) a Greek translation of the OT, based on translations made from Hebrew scrolls around the 3rd century BC and in the centuries following. The work was seemingly done in Alexandria, Egypt.

The term LXX is a fraction misleading as it implies a unified and uniform single work. In reality, the LXX is more a corpus of works which probably arose over a period of time with different translators and revisers making contributions to what we moderns simplistically refer to as a book. The Revised International Standard Bible Encyclopedia notes there are complexities in unravelling the precise history of the corpus.1

The origins of the LXX have their own popular myth – that about 72 (sometimes 70) hand-picked scholars did the translation work independently and amazingly came up with the exact same Greek translation. This myth was started apparently by Aristeas, although the letter bearing his name is now considered to be a century after the events described based on inconsistencies and historical errors in the letter2. Nevertheless, the story with additions (initially the work was the Pentateuch only, but later commentators expanded the scope) was repeated in varying forms by Josephus3, Philo4 and various early Christian writers.

What is the Masoretic Text?

The Masoretic Text of the Hebrew bible is usually taken as authoritative by Christians. It forms the base text for most ancient and modern English translations – particularly the King James Version. The text was the product of a group of scribes who operated between the 6th and 10th century AD to standardise and promulgate an authoritative Jewish text. Notably they added vowel points to the Hebrew, which traditionally had consonants only. Tales of the Masoretic scribes’ practices to ensure complete accuracy of their work are almost mythical in quality – and brush over the impossibility of perfect human transmission. Furthermore, the unquestioning exaltation of the MT ignores the reality of their base texts already being imperfect by the 6th century AD. This reality is made plain in the fact that initially there were two forms of the Masoretic Text promoted by two competing traditions which contained some 875 differences.5

The physical evidence for the MT is nowhere near as complete as for the New Testament. With the NT we have a wealth of fragments dating to within a generation (or less) of the original texts. The MT by contrast has few ancient witnesses. As Penner notes:

The oldest Hebrew Masoretic Text is represented in the Cairo Codex of the Prophets (827 CE) and the Aleppo Codex (c. 930 CE). The Samaritan Pentateuch (recension c. 100 BCE) survives in manuscripts as old as the twelfth century CE.6

While the MT has an ancient and impressive pedigree, it is not perfect.

Variations in the text

The Samaritan Pentateuch and the LXX have older archeological witnesses of their text than the MT. Until recent time though, variation between the MT and these other sources was assumed to reflect bias and/or error in these translated texts. The MT was implicitly and explicitly viewed as superior. This changed with the discovery and translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls with some of its manuscripts dating back to the third century BC – a full 900 years earlier than the oldest MT relics. As Emanuel Tov notes, suddenly there was hard evidence to support the accuracy and integrity of the LXX:

before 1947 there was little if any external evidence in support of the assumption that a given deviation from MT in the LXX should be reconstructed into Hebrew rather than explained away as the translator’s exegesis7

This all changed with the Dead Sea Scrolls, as in these caves

…around the Dead Sea, Hebrew biblical manuscripts were brought into the light. One of the first things researchers recognized was that many of these manuscripts were different from the received Hebrew Bible, and in some cases they even agreed with those divergent Septuagint passages. Perhaps the Septuagint translators were not responsible for the differences in the biblical text; maybe they were translating other Hebrew texts after all. For many who had insisted on the authority of the Hebrew Bible, the most uncomfortable realization was that these Hebrew manuscripts appeared to reflect earlier stages of the biblical books8

As Tov stated:

The MT is often considered the major textual source for the study of Hebrew Scripture, but actually the LXX is equally important, the only problem being that its Hebrew parent text cannot be reconstructed easily9

Tov notes the translation of the various books in the LXX betray details about the translation philosophy of the individual. Some were very literal, including Hebraisms and even inventing new Greek words to try and be close to their Hebrew text. Others took a more liberal approach. Hence in books which are quite literally translated, we can be certain that differences to the MT reflect at least one of the following possibilities:

  • The LXX translators worked from a Hebrew text which was different to that which ultimately led to the MT
  • Changes to the Hebrew text after the LXX was translated
  • Errors in the MT transmission
  • Errors in the LXX transmission
  • Errors in the LXX translation

Attributing any differences to the LXX and claiming the MT is without fault (or vice versa!) is a demonstrably incorrect assumption which may reflect theological bias rather than the facts. Law makes similar observations, while assuring the concerned reader about the import of the differences, saying

the Septuagint often transmits an alternative tradition that is neither earlier nor later but one that could have coexisted with the sources that made up the Hebrew Bible. Some of the differences in the Septuagint are related to the translators’ use of divergent Hebrew texts but others are the translators’ intentional changes and others still are their errors. An example of the latter is found in Numbers 16:15, where the translator read “desire” instead of “donkey” because the two words look almost identical in Hebrew script. We can usually detect that the translator had a different Hebrew base text if he utilizes a literal method of translation. Yet even as we observe how the Septuagint is a different form of scripture, we should refrain from exaggeration because much of the Septuagint is indeed very similar to the Hebrew Bible and thus to our English versions. So on one hand, nothing in the Septuagint will grab headlines for proving Solomon was celibate, that Elijah lived on a tract of land that would become Colorado, or that Adam and Eve were duped by a clever monkey instead of a serpent. On the other, the divergences are important enough and occur in enough places to demonstrate that before the second century CE the biblical text was characterized by variety and that the forms of scripture used by the New Testament authors and early Christians in the church’s formative stages (to be discussed later) undermine the impression of stability gained from reading modern Bibles10

Tov similarly makes the point that the vast majority of the MT text is confirmed by the Dead Sea Scrolls discovery, and even more so by other finds in the Judean desert which are more overtly proto MT texts.11 Furthermore the extent of differences varies by book, some like Psalms, Ruth and Isaiah are quite consistent whereas others – most notably 1 Samuel – have a marked level of variance.12 Even so, the differences that do exist are interesting and sometimes important, but none of them shake the fundamentals of faith.

These discoveries validated the LXX reading in many instances. What once seemed like mistakes or deliberate changes can now be understood in many instances as reflective of the Hebrew text being translated. At times this witness can correct errors in the MT. Lest this all seem too challenging, remember again that we are dealing with Timothy’s scriptures and work regularly used by NT writers.

Some examples of the LXX in the NT

There are some well-known instances where the NT writers clearly used a text from the LXX rather than the proto MT. Given that the differences between the two texts are often not consequential, this might not always be obvious – especially to non-scholars with limited/no command of Koine Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. However, there are some instances which are obvious even in English where the NT writers clearly use the LXX, in instances where it diverges from the MT.

A miracle birth or not? Matt 1:23

A classic example is Matt 1:23 where Matthew cites Isa 7:14 that “a virgin will conceive”. Except Isaiah doesn’t say that in the MT. The Hebrew is

ʿalmāh: A feminine noun meaning a maiden, a young woman, a girl, and a virgin13

This particular word is supported by the Dead Sea Scrolls14. However, there is a Hebrew word which unquestionably means a virgin female and is used as such:

beṯûliym: A feminine noun meaning virginity, virgin, or maiden. It is primarily used to describe the sexual purity or chastity of a young woman. Variations on this theme show it is used in contrast to a defiled or impure woman (Deut. 22:14); to signify the virginal state of a woman to be married (Lev. 21:13); or to signify the virginal state of young women in general (Judg. 11:37).15

In the context of Isaiah, there was a woman (not a virgin) who would have a child on a timeline relevant to King Ahaz. The miracle is in no way connected to the conception of the child but rather the judgement on the nation which would attend the child’s coming of age.

Matthew declares the miraculous conception of Jesus fulfilled prophecy. He can’t go to the MT for this. Instead he is quoting the LXX which renders Isa 7:14 with “parthenos” – a virgin16. Matthew expected his readers to be familiar with the LXX – not the MT. This is not a question of better translating the text – the LXX as used by Matthew is different to the MT and Dead Sea Scrolls in important ways. Should a student give attention to the LXX? Yes – ignoring it would lead us to question how Matthew could misquote the MT as evidence for Jesus. Instead we see the LXX witnessing to potentially an alternative and better textual tradition.

Numerical discrepancies resolved in Acts 7

Stephen says that Jacob went down to Egypt with a family of 75. However, Gen 46:27 clearly says there were 70. Now various people propose different counting methods to try and resolve the discrepancy. The answer is however quite simple (although the implications might challenge some). The LXX says there were 75 people. The Dead Sea Scrolls are incomplete in this section.

Stephen – a Grecian Jew (i.e. from the diaspora) quotes from his bible – the LXX. Interestingly the learned experts of the Jewish council don’t challenge his maths.

Different words and a different sense Acts 15:17

For the most part the LXX, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Samaritan Pentateuch and the MT are in cheerful agreement. When they vary things become interesting. One instance is James’ speech at the Jerusalem Conference. James follows the LXX’s rendering of Amos 9:11-12 in saying:

“After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up, so that all other peoples may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called“ Acts 15:16-17 NRSV

By contrast the MT has:

“On that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen, and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in the days of old; in order that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by my name, says the Lord who does this”

This reading is quite different. It is not just that Edom has been changed to be all the Gentiles. The sense of the passage has changed. Rather than the Gentiles coming to seek the Lord and being named God’s people, the MT has the people of Israel dominating and taking the land of Edom.

James uses the LXX passage rendering to show God always intended to include the Gentiles as part of his dominion. This is not in keeping with the MT’s wording or meaning. What are we to make of this? Rather than be perturbed, we should take James’ lead and place a little more reliance on the LXX.

A pierced ear or a whole body – Hebrews 10:5

Another discrepancy between the MT and the LXX is in Psa 40:7 (once again there is no evidence available from the Dead Sea Scrolls). The New Testament in Hebrews 10:5 comes down on the side of the LXX, reading:

Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me

In the LXX this is actually numbered as Psa 3917. By contrast the MT, as translated in most English translations reads something like:

Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear

The Hebrew expression literally is “you have dug my ear” which is presumed by commentators to be idiomatic and clearly distinguished from the Greek on which Hebrews 10:5 depends.18 The wording may well be drawing on an allusion to the willing servant of Exod 21:5-6. Regardless of the source of the idiom in the MT, it is different from the LXX and the writer of Hebrews supports this.

Shepherding or destroying the nations? Revelation 2:27

In Psalm 2:9 the MT reads:

You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel

The passage is picked up in Revelation 2:7 with a difference as John writes:

and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces

The Greek for rule in Revelation is “to shepherd”. The NET notes state that:

The LXX reads “you will shepherd them.” This reading, quoted in the Greek text of the NT in Rev 2:27; 12:5; 19:15, assumes a different vocalization of the consonantal Hebrew text and understands the verb as רָעָה (ra’ah, “to shepherd”) rather than רָעָע (ra’a’, “to break”).19

As Law explains, John is using the LXX text where the possible explanations are an alternative base text to the MT or an error by the LXX translators. Either way John uses these words – meaning conservatives will lean towards the first possibility. Later versions of the LXX were modified by known editors/revisers to ‘iron out’ this discrepancy.20

The myth of Apostolic Interpretation

To claim as some Christians do that any apparent use of the LXX is mere accident (as an extension to their hypothesis of inspiration) is to ignore the evidence and set up believers for a potential fall. Such a dangerous position was expressed as per below:

the apostles…taught from the Old Testament by translating it into the languages of their hearers.…Nor may it be sufficient to argue that the apostles routinely used existing translations of the Hebrew Scriptures when quoting from them. The fact that an apostle’s Greek quotation of an Old Testament passage is identical to the Septuagint (for instance) may or may not be an indication that he is actually quoting from the Septuagint. Inspiration is still at work in the New Testament record of what he said and did.21

As per the selection of quotes provided, this hypothesis doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The examples provided are only a few and more are available through a variety of other New Testament books. However just the few explored should be sufficient to demonstrate the differences are more substantial than just being a question of translation.

Conclusions

While the differences do not undermine the fundamentals of faith, there are meaningful differences between the LXX and proto MT. The witness of the New Testament shows that inspiration often used the LXX in preference to the proto MT text. The LXX was of more value to the early believers being in the language of the people and it was used in their preaching and teaching.

A bible student should give serious weight to the LXX as reflective of the holy scriptures learnt by Timothy and used by Paul and his apostolic peers to further the gospel. In conjunction with other ancient texts, it clearly provides insight as to the meaning of God’s message.

Footnotes

  1. Soderlund, S. K. (1979–1988). Septuagint. In G. W. Bromiley (Ed.), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Vol. 4, p. 402). Wm. B. Eerdmans.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Josephus, F., & Whiston, W. (1987). The works of Josephus: complete and unabridged (p. 309). Peabody: Hendrickson.
  4. Yonge, C. D. with Philo of Alexandria. (1995). The works of Philo: complete and unabridged (p. 494). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masoretes
  6. Penner, K. M. (2016). The Lexham Dead Sea Scrolls Hebrew-English Interlinear Bible. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
  7. Tov, E. (1999). The Greek and Hebrew Bible: Collected Essays on the Septuagint. (Page 285) Brill
  8. Law, T. M. (2013). When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible (pp. 2–3). New York: Oxford University Press.
  9. Tov, E. (2008). The Septuagint as a Source for the Literary Analysis of Hebrew Scripture. In C. A. Evans (Ed.), Exploring the Origins of the Bible: Canon Formation in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective (p. 54). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
  10. Law, T. M. (2013). When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible (pp. 44–45). New York: Oxford University Press.
  11. Tov, E. (2014). Understanding the Text of the Bible 65 Years after the Discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
  12. Tov, E. (2017). The Textual Base of the Biblical Quotations in Second Temple Compositions.
  13. Baker, W., & Carpenter, E. E. (2003). The complete word study dictionary: Old Testament (p. 840). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.
  14. Penner, K. M. (2016). The Lexham Dead Sea Scrolls Hebrew-English Interlinear Bible. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
  15. Baker, W., & Carpenter, E. E. (2003). The complete word study dictionary: Old Testament (p. 172). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.
  16. Zodhiates, S. (2000). The complete word study dictionary: New Testament (electronic ed.). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.
  17. Brannan, R., Penner, K. M., Loken, I., Aubrey, M., & Hoogendyk, I. (Eds.). (2012). The Lexham English Septuagint (Ps 39:7). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
  18. Craigie, P. C. (2004). Psalms 1–50 (2nd ed., Vol. 19, p. 313). Nashville, TN: Nelson Reference & Electronic.
  19. Biblical Studies Press. (2005). The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press.
  20. Law, T. M. (2013). When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible (p. 115). New York: Oxford University Press.
  21. Ed. Thomas, Jeremy. (2017). “The missing verse of Romans 16” Testimony Magazine Vol 87 (2017).

Author: Daniel Edgecombe

Daniel is a lifelong Christadelphian and married to Sarah. They have a poodle and three teenagers. He is interested in apologetics (partly to answer his children’s questions) but suffers from an addiction to all books but particularly history and science.