The Agora
Bible Articles and Lessons: S

Previous Index Next

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.

Re-arranged text

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 prophecy.


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 here.

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 possible.

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 determined."

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 brother.

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 problem?

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 23:18).

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 clue here.

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 point.

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.

(WBS 10.16)

Previous Index Next