Why Use the Septuagint?

Today’s guest blogger is Dr. Michael Heiser, Academic Editor at Logos.
Logos recently announced the creation of the Lexham Greek-English Interlinear Septuagint on the Pre-Pub page. Many pastors, seminary students, and lay people devoted to Bible study might wonder about the value of the Septuagint for Bible study. The Septuagint, of course, is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. The Septuagint was the Old Testament of the early Greek-speaking church, and it is by far the version of the Old Testament most frequently quoted by Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament. Rather than try to persuade you of the value of the Septuagint by means of these kinds of arguments, I thought it might be helpful to provide a practical example where the Septuagint explains what seems to be a New Testament theological blunder. I’m betting most of us are interested in that sort of thing!
Below is Deuteronomy 33:1-2 side-by-side in two translations. On the left is my literal rendering of the traditional Hebrew text of the Old Testament, the Masoretic text. On the right is an English translation of the Septuagint at this passage. I have boldfaced significant differences for some discussion.


Traditional Masoretic Hebrew Text
Septuagint
1 This is the blessing with which Moses, the man of God, blessed the Israelites before his death.
2 He said: Yahweh came from Sinai, and He shone upon them from Seir. He appeared in radiance from Mount Paran, and approached from Ribeboth-Kodesh, from his right lightning flashed at them.
3 Indeed, he loved the people, all his holy ones at your hand. And they followed at your feet; he bears your words,
4 the law which Moses commanded us, an inheritance for the assembly of Jacob.
1 This is the blessing with which Moses, the man of God, blessed the Israelites before his death.
2 He said: The LORD came from Sinai, and He shone to us from Seir; He made haste from Mount Paran with ten thousands of Kadesh, his angels with him.
3 And He had pity on his people, and all the holy ones were under your hands; and they were under you; and he received his words,
4 the law which Moses charged us, an inheritance to the assemblies of Jacob.


What Are We Looking At?
Some English translations (ESV, NIV, NASB) are close to the Septuagint or sound like a mixture of the two choices. As the traditional Hebrew text goes, the Hebrew phrase in verse 2 underlying “Ribeboth-Kodesh” is the same (except for spelling) as what occurs at Deut. 32:51 (“Meribath Kadesh”). This is why most scholars today consider the phrase to be a geographical place name, and I agree. The Septuagint, however, obviously has something else going on! While it is possible to get “ten thousands of Kadesh” from the Hebrew consonants of the traditional Masoretic text, the very common Hebrew word for angels (mal’akim) does not appear in the traditional Masoretic text. The Septuagint translation (aggeloi) came from a different Hebrew text.
One more observation: In verse 3 the Masoretic Text seems to equate “the people” with “all his holy ones.” Yahweh’s people, his holy people, are under his authority (“under your hand”). They follow at the LORD’s feet and receive the Law. Note that the singular pronoun “he” in “he bears your words” likely refers to Israel collectively (i.e., ISRAEL bears your words). Israel is often referred to as a singular entity in the Bible (“my son,” Exod. 4:21-23; “my servant,” Isa. 44:1). The Septuagint, however, gives the reader the feel that “his people” and “all the holy ones” are different groups. In the Septuagint, God pities his people and his holy ones–the angels referred to in the previous verse–are under his authority. Israel, of course, receives the law.
So What?
So who cares? Well, the Septuagint here helps us understand an oddity mentioned in several places in the New Testament-the idea that the Mosaic Law, given at Sinai, was actually given by angels. Check out these New Testament passages:

Acts 7:52-53
52 Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, 53 you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”
Hebrews 2:1-2a
1 Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. 2 For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, 3 how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?
Galatians 3:19
19 Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary.

Simply put, if you stick to the traditional Masoretic Hebrew text for your Old Testament, there is no place that the New Testament writers could have drawn such an idea. The closest you come to that is in Psalm 68:17. While that verse has a multitude of angelic beings at Sinai, it says zilch about the Law.
The point is that the New Testament references have provided fodder for biblical critics who want the New Testament to be guilty of either an outright error in thought, or just contriving a doctrinal point out of thin air. The Septuagint shows us that those perspectives are just simply incorrect. The New Testament writers weren’t nitwits or dishonest. They were using the Septuagint.

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10 Responses to “Why Use the Septuagint?”

  1. Paul V. Dolan December 20, 2007 at 1:49 pm #

    This is an excellent reason and defense for the us of the Septuagint (LXX)as the official Old Testament version of the Holy Bible. Martin Luther went astray by choosing the Masoretic Text as the standard for the Old Testament, as he went astray on many other things. His serious errors were only copied and/or compounded for the successive “reformers” viz. Calvin, Zwingli, Knox etc.
    More contemporary Christians are once again re-acquainting themselves with the LXX of the Old Testament.

  2. John Altizer December 21, 2007 at 7:54 am #

    While the LXX can be useful, one must guard against making is superior to the Masoretic Text. I was amazed to discover how much the translators of the LXX were influenced by Greek philosophy. This is evident in their deliberate attempts explain away the anthropomorphisms of God:
    •Hebrew of Ex 15:3 “The Lord is a man of war” is rendered “The Lord is crushing wars.”
    •Hebrew Num 12:8 “The form of the Lord” is translated “The glory of the Lord”
    •Hebrew Ex 32:14 “The Lord repented of the evil” is translated “and the Lord was moved with compassion.”
    When tempted to make the LXX superior we should consider the words of Waltke:
    “Where the Hebrew MSS and ancient version offer good an sensible readings and a superior reading cannot be demonstated on the basis of the above two rules, one should, as a matter of first principle, allow the MT to stand. Where Hebrew MSS and ancient versions differ and none offers a passable sense, one may attempt a conjecture concerning a true reading–a conjecture that must be validated by demonstrating the process of the textual corruption from the original to the existing text forms. Such conjectures, however, can never be used to validate the interpretation of the whole passage in that they will have been made on the basis of an expectation derived from the whole.”
    Good post.

  3. philsumpter@hotmail.com December 23, 2007 at 7:20 am #

    When making dogmatic statements about which translation to use (MT or LXX) we should look at why the NT used that LXX (predominantly, though not exclusively) rather than simply that it used it. The main criteria may have simply been what ever translation was being used by the Jewish community in that location. Given that logic, it makes sense to honour the MT again.

    • Chris D. March 25, 2013 at 12:35 pm #

      Except that there’s a clear political situation here: the Septuagint is a translation of older version of the Tanakh (by the great priests and scholars of the time before Jesus) than the Masoretic texts.

      This is quite a simple examination: why would we be more willing to trust the a text that was produced several CENTURIES AFTER Jesus’ death, when we have a text that has history before he was even born? Is it not so hard to think that Jewish scholars of the 8th century (and beyond) would have an agenda to remove references that pointed toward the Christian Messiah (who they believe was a False Prophet)? This was religious politics, in full display, no more no less. Jews of the 8th century (and many today) do not believe Jesus was the Messiah and thus it’s fair to speculate that their texts produced after the death of Jesus Christ would reflect that. Thus, it is far wiser to put our trust into the texts that has the longest historical foundations: documents that have purposeful mistranslations (particularly by those religious individuals with a specific anti-christian agenda) should be tossed aside. Sadly, this has not be the case for most Protestant and Catholic bibles, which reflect the history of the Vulgate (and the Biblical illiteracy that was practically enforced by the Catholic Church)

  4. Dale Durnell December 26, 2007 at 5:48 am #

    Thank you for an excellent article. The variances you point out should also help us understand why it is so difficult for the Christian community to witness to the Jewish community. The first thing we Christians want to say is that our Old Testament and their Holy Scriptures are the same, and we cannot understand why the Jewish faith cannot see what we are seeing.
    The problem is, as you point out — they (the OT and the Holy Scriptures) are not the same. Since much of the NT writings (and references) were based on the LXX, the issue is exacerbated when we argue that Jesus’ birth, life, teachings, death, burial, and resurrection are in fulfillment of prophecy. The Jewish community will pull out the MT and ask us to show them where it says thus and so.
    Again, thanks for an excellent article.

  5. Art Walker July 27, 2009 at 6:56 pm #

    What do you do with a verse that disagrees drastically from the KJV or NIV and the Septuagint such as Isaiah 9:6?

  6. Randy October 26, 2009 at 11:58 am #

    The main criteria may have simply been what ever translation was being used by the Jewish community in that location
    How do you know why the New Testament did something? All we know is it quoted the LXX as scripture. It never tries to explain which is better. The LXX was not considered a mere human translation of the Hebrew word of God. It was said to be a supernatural translation. The New Testament never denies that or implies one book is more correct than the other.

  7. Jack February 14, 2010 at 8:24 pm #

    The most amazing thing to me is the shockingly academic attitude taken by many as they make their determination of MT versus LXX. My goodness, if you’re a Christian, then you must believe that God does not lie. If he does not lie, then the New Testament is the truth. If the New Testament is the truth, then the MT is flawed. If the MT is flawed, then it should not be given ascendancy over the LXX. And, apparently the Essenes seem to agree since they preserved, with equal care, both the MT and the LXX as well as other text traditions.
    As for me, I put my faith in Jesus and the apostles. If they quoted the LXX, then the LXX is true. And, if the MT disagrees with the LXX, then the MT is false.

    • Chris D. March 26, 2013 at 11:25 am #

      What I find disturbing is that the LXX has landed on the wrong side of this debate: should it not be the oldest text (that is free from Jewish influence) that is most respected? It shouldn’t be too troublesome to speculate that the Masoretes would wish to maintain a text that pointed away from Jesus as the Messiah, rather than toward. Hellenistic Jews had already been integrated into Christianity by the time they were copying over their version of the OT and thus there were no longer any significant number of Jews who held the theology of Christianity to be “true”. I’m very curious as to how Biblical scholars (of which I am not one, merely an avid student of the Word and it’s long, tortured history) can continue to maintain that that MT is by default preferable to the LXX. I do not see the history (i.e. “warfare”) between Jews and Christians as a good indicator that the former has any interest in “catering” to the later: it’s very much the opposite.

  8. gregory mcdanels February 20, 2010 at 9:55 pm #

    i served in the us navy with a rev. paul v dolan.
    i am looking to say hello, and catch up on old times.
    if you are the correct person respond and say hi.
    thank you.