Septuagint, how useful? (HAW)
Nobody knows just when the Old Testament Scriptures were first
turned into Greek, but there is, apparently, an allusion to that translation in
Ecclesiasticus, a book of the Apocrypha dating from about BC 180.
There is a highly artificial story, repeated with much gusto
by the learned fathers (sic!) of the early church, that Ptolemy Philadelphus,
one of the Greek kings of Egypt, was at the back of it. Himself a well-read man,
he sought to encourage the study of all forms of learning by bringing together
in Alexandria the finest library that could be assembled. In pursuance of this
object he sent to Jerusalem for a team of learned men who would turn the Hebrew
Scriptures into Greek for him. Already Greek had become the international
language of a large part of the civilised world. The high priest obliged with
the loan of no less than seventy-two of his best scholars. Each pair were given
their own cell, and, the guidance of God having been invoked on their
undertaking, they set to work, and in due time produced thirty-six translations
of the Old Testament, all of them word for word the same! It may have happened
that way. Or, it may not. Septuagint is a shortened form of "seventy". One
legend even says that two of the men died on the way to Alexandria, hence
"seventy". Certainly in later days the copies of the Septuagint (LXX) became
very corrupted. Several recensions are available today. There are some
indications that Paul took his quotations from what is known today as the
Alexandrine, as distinct from the more popular Sinaitic, text.
"Buy a Septuagint"
The LXX shall be recognized for what it certainly is -- one of
the finest helps in Bible study available today, especially to those who have a
modicum of Greek. The story is told that a certain professor of Old Testament
studies at Heidelberg University used to begin his lectures by saying:
"Gentlemen, have you a Septuagint? If not, sell whatever you have and buy a
Septuagint." That was one way of making a very valuable point.
Working Man's Bible
It is true that the LXX is very variable in quality of
translation as well as of basic underlying Hebrew text. It is true that it
includes here and there various materials which do not appear in the Masoretic
text. It is true also that it omits bits of the text which are there in Hebrew.
It is true that it not infrequently dislocates the sequence of the Hebrew text.
It is true that its translation frequently presupposes either a different
pointing or a different reading in the original. And yet in spite of these
disconcerting features -- sometimes because of them -- the LXX can be a
wonderful help to a better appreciation of the Book. This is primarily because
Jesus and his apostles were all at home in the LXX. A big proportion of their
Scripture quotations are directly from or are based on, this working man's Bible
(eg, all Stephen's Old Testament quotes and allusions in Acts 7 are straight
LXX). It has to be remembered that, in the first century, whereas only a limited
few were familiar enough with classical Hebrew to be able to handle the original
text purposefully, practically everybody was familiar enough with the common
Greek to be able to appreciate the message of the LXX. Estimates as to its
authority have varied considerably. The "early fathers", and some scholars of
the past century deemed the LXX to be fully inspired by God. Perhaps for this
reason orthodox Rabbinic scholars have adopted an opposite opinion. The day
which was supposed to celebrate the making of the LXX they called "the fast of
darkness... like the day on which the golden calf was made." Without coming to
any hard and fast opinion on this question, on which little valuable guidance is
available, it is necessary for any Bible student worth his salt to build up a
certain familiarity with the Bible of Jesus and Paul.
Where the LXX follows a markedly different text it is usually
possible to judge just how authoritative or useful the alternative is. In the
Ten Commandments, the LXX order is: "Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt
not steal. Thou shalt not kill." Which order is right? In any case, is it very
important? But when the chronology of the first half of Genesis appears with
wholesale alterations the problem is more serious. When the LXX picks up
Jeremiah chapters 46-51 -- the long sequence of judgments against the nations --
and tucks them in next to Jer 25, before and behind, this seems right, for those
chapters are an obvious expansion of that dire and comprehensive
There are certain chapters in Proverbs which in the LXX
display unexpected additions as well as distinctly different readings. Indeed
many rather mystifying aphorisms from this book of wisdom take on an altogether
different flavour. A few examples of this, all from Pro 15, may not be amiss
Verse 1: "A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words
stir up strife." The LXX prefaces this with the trenchant addition: "Anger slays
even wise men; but..." The rest of the verse shows how this is
Verse 4 reads: "The healing tongue is a tree of life, and
(LXX) he that guards it -- or, possibly, watches his opportunity -- shall be
filled with the Spirit."
Verse 5 has this addition which no one would wish to discard:
"In abounding righteousness is great strength (another tree of life), but the
ungodly shall perish, his roots entirely out of the ground." The mind goes
instinctively to: "Every plant which my heavenly Father hath not planted shall
be rooted up" (Mat 15:13): and to this: "Ye shall say unto this sycamine tree,
Be thou plucked up by the root, and be thou planted in the sea; and it shall
obey you" (Luke 17:6).
The majority of the parables of Jesus are traceable to the
Book of Proverbs.
Verse 18 (King James' Bible) has this: "A wrathful man
stirreth up strife; but he that is slow to anger appeaseth strife" -- which is
near to being a platitude. Much more colourful is the LXX reading: "A passionate
man prepares strife; but the patient man will pacify even that which he had
Verse 27 has an addition to which no counterpart exists in the
Hebrew text. "By alms and faithful dealing sins are purged away." A palpable
forgery, for in the Bible, from beginning to end, there is only one road to
forgiveness of sins, and this is not it.
Improvements in Isaiah
There are times when the LXX is immediately seen to be right,
and valuable as a correction of the received text. Consider that intriguing
passage in Isa 16:4: "Let mine outcasts dwell with thee, Moab". This has often
been interpreted as a divine fiat that in the last days "Moab" (whoever that
might mean) should grant a place of refuge for people of Israel fleeing for
their lives. In the LXX: "Let the outcasts of Moab dwell with thee (Israel)."
This is palpably right, for the same passage prophesies Messiah: "And in mercy
shall the throne be established: and he shall sit upon it in truth in the
tabernacle of David, judging and seeking judgement, and hasting righteousness."
At such a time there will be no outcasts of Israel needing sanctuary. But then
those who have cherished hostility to God's People over many years will need to
"kiss the Son, lest he be angry."
Still in Isaiah: "where is the house that ye build unto me:
and where is the place of my rest? For all those things hath mine hand made, and
all those things have been, saith the Lord" (Isa 66:1,2). That last rather
meaningless phrase reads thus in the LXX: "and all these things are mine." This
reading is so obviously sensible in its meaning, and so necessary to complete
the parallelism, that few will be disposed to question it.
Omissions made good?
There are a number of places where the LXX appears to have
preserved a reading, perhaps only a phrase or a mere word, which has somehow
dropped out of the Hebrew text. A fairly well-known example is in Gen 4:8 where
LXX adds: "And Cain said to Abel his brother, Let us go out into the plain." The
words are important as indicating Cain's deliberate intention to murder his
More problematical is the way in which the LXX fills up what
is an obvious gap in Psa 145. This is an acrostic psalm, with the middle verse,
beginning with Hebrew N (nun) omitted. Was it omitted originally by design, to
draw attention to a rather dramatic change in tone? Or has it dropped out of the
Hebrew text, but been preserved in LXX as the second part of v 13: "The Lord is
faithful in his words, and holy in all his works"? The second explanation is
made less likely when one observes that this LXX reading is only a tame
reproduction of what the psalm already says in v 17.
1 Samuel (LXX)
Many believe that LXX has the answer to a problem often raised
regarding the story of David and Goliath. How explain the strange inability of
Saul to recognize David (1Sa 17:55), when apparently the boy had already spent a
good deal of time in service at the king's court both as harpist and
armour-bearer? The LXX solves this difficulty by omitting altogether 1Sa
17:12-31 and 1Sa 17:55-18:5. Strangely enough, the story of David and Goliath
suffers comparatively little by this omission, but the story of David and
Jonathan suffers a lot. Perhaps, then, it is the section 1Sa 16:14-23 which is
out of place. If this were transferred to 1Sa 18:5, would there be any
The LXX text of 1 Samuel is remarkably good and usually
preferable to the Hebrew. In that book users of the RSV or RV should look with
favour on any marginal readings labelled "Gk" or "Sept". But this rule cannot be
carried over with safety to other parts of the Old Testament. In 2Sa 17:2,3 LXX
the counsel and promise of Ahithophel to Absalom reads much more intelligibly
and convincingly than the common text: "And I will smite the king only. And I
will bring all the people to thee, as a bride turns to her husband. For thou
seekest the life of one man (only), and (then) for all the people there shall be
peace." Textual alternatives such as these are valuable.
Another example: Solomon's prayer at the dedication of the
temple has this LXX addition: "The Lord created the sun, but he hath determined
to dwell in darkness (the Holy of Holies). Build thou my house, a beautiful
house for Thyself to dwell in newness (a new order?). Behold, is not this
written in the Book of Jasher?" (1Ki 8:53). Probably this is a quotation from
the lost Book of Jasher belonging originally to the occasion when a house of
"newness" was fashioned for God in the wilderness. Solomon quoted the words
because they enshrined a principle that still held good -- God's choice of the
Holy of Holies as His dwelling place in the midst of His people.
Help with Old Testament allusions
Examples such as these are interesting and often informative.
But of much greater value are the instances when the LXX helps appreciably with
the understanding of obscure passages. "Beware of dogs, beware of the
concision," wrote Paul in curt contempt (Phi 3:2). It was obviously a slighting
reference to Judaists with their confidence in circumcision (see v 3). But the
point of it comes out so much more when the same Greek word is traced to the
ordeal of Elijah on mount Carmel. Then the priests of Baal sought to commend
themselves to the attention of their god by the way they "cut themselves... with
knives and lancets" (1Ki 18:28). To liken dedicated Judaists to such men was an
act of temerity. Yet what fundamental difference was there? For these zealots
for the Law also sought the favour of Jehovah by "cutting themselves with knives
and lancets." Paul rubbed the point well in by his other jibe: "Beware of dogs."
Let a man be never so zealous for Moses, he makes himself into a mere dog of a
Gentile if he relies on his own observance of forms and rites to earn his
salvation. Or were those priests of Baal "dogs" of a different sort? (Deu
In Isa 65:22-25, the LXX rescues a delightful allusion which
is otherwise liable to get lost. In the prophet's entrancing picture of the
kingdom, "as the days of a tree shall be the days of my people." This is
impressive indeed when you think of the age of Californian redwoods. But the LXX
says: "As the days of the Tree of Life"! -- and this is transparently correct,
for the prophecy continues: "mine elect shall long enjoy the work of their
hands" -- contrast the curse of unremitting toil put on Adam. LXX: "My chosen
shall not toil in vain, nor beget children for the curse (the curse in Eden),
for they are the seed of the Blessed of the Lord (belonging to the Seed of the
Woman)... and dust shall be the serpent's meat." It is the LXX whch supplies the
Exact word meaning
The question sometimes arises as to whether Mat 24:34 is
correctly translated in the AV: "This generation shall not pass away, till all
these things be fulfilled." But all the things spoken of by Jesus were not
fulfilled in that generation. And, it is argued, the normal meaning of the Greek
word "genea" is not generation but race; so surely the allusion is to the
imperishable character of Israel. This argument would be correct if the gospels
were written in classical Greek. But the LXX comes to the rescue with its clear
evidence of copious use of "genea" with reference to a generation in the normal
sense of the term. And the New Testament adds yet further support on this
More subtle allusions
Above all else, the LXX helps in the tracing of Old Testament
allusions which otherwise it would be almost impossible to detect. It is
possible, for example, to establish that Paul wrote the first few verses of
Romans 5 just after he had pondered Psalms 25,26 in the course of his daily
readings. At no point is there any direct quote from these Psalms, but one key
word after another is traceable in the Greek of the LXX text: "rejoice...
hope... stand... glory... tribulation patience... ashamed... without strength...
ungodly... truth." Similarly, in Eph 3 it is possible with the help of the LXX
to trace a series of allusions to Job 28 and its description of the search for
Wisdom. It is as though the apostles' profound appreciation of the fulness of
God's wondrous work in Christ was flood-lit by the sharp contrast of Job's
groping for higher truth.
There is lovely allusiveness of this kind also in Christ's
warning to Peter on the night of his betrayal: "I have prayed for thee, that thy
faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren." [Luk
22:32] In the LXX this is very close to the word of David to lttai the Gittite
at the time of Absalom's rebellion: "return thou, and take back thy brethren"
(2Sa 15:20). Peter made answer: "With thee I am ready to go both to prison and
to death," which seems very much like an echo (in the LXX) of Ittai's reply to
David: "Surely in what place my lord the king shall be, whether in life or in
death, even there also will thy servant be." And Peter promptly went back into
the city, even as Ittai had done. It would seem that both Jesus and Peter
appreciated at this time the close parallel between the betrayal of the Lord and
the rebellion of Absalom. Since Peter's rejoinder came so readily and so aptly
out of that Scripture, one is led to wonder if he and his Master were discussing
it as they went to Gethsemane (note Joh 18:1; 2Sa 15:23).
The New Testament is shot through with this kind of
allusiveness, but much of it is extremely difficult to detect, especially since
in many instances the allusion comprises a single word or one brief phrase
which, as often as not, appears differently translated in the English version of
the Old Testament. The identity has to be established between the Greek of the
New Testament and the Greek of the LXX. For example, "betrayed" (Mar 14:21) =
"made intercession" (lsa 53:12 LXX); "gall of bitterness" (Act 8:23) = "gall of
wormwood" (Deu 29:18; Jer 23:15?); "he hath done all things well" (Mar 7:37) is
very close to Gen 1:31 LXX: "everything that he had made... very good"; "The
Holy Spirit shall... overshadow thee" (Luk 1:35) = "The Spirit of God moved
(Gen 1:2 LXX). There are so many of these that their occurrences cannot be
written off as coincidence.
The Concordance to the Septuagint, by Hatch and Redpath, a
superb piece of scholarship, is the best tool available for work of this sort.
But it is very expensive, and even for those with a ready facility in Greek the
using of it is a tedious labour, since all the passages are quoted in Greek. For
most readers of this book, reading in English the LXX of Genesis, Psalms and
Prophets with an ear tuned to catch any familiar cadence is probably the most
fruitful approach. If this is done in the Bagster edition (Greek and English)
there is additional help also from the footnotes. But whatever the method the
use of the Septuagint is only for the enthusiast.