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Reading the Bible Through the Septuagint

The resulting picture is often startling.

Here is a question. If you are trying to do any kind of serious research into ancient documents, why would you ever prefer to use a translation, rather than the original texts themselves? In the case of the Bible, however, there is one translation that it really pays to know. Often, when we read Scriptures, we might debate exactly how they were read and understood in very early times. In the case of the Septuagint, we have a reliable snapshot of just how Jewish people did just that at a particular moment in time, and the resulting picture is often startling.


Table of Contents


The Myth of the Seventy-Two (or Seventy)

The story begins with the Greek conquest of the Middle East under Alexander the Great and his successors. Jews migrated through that larger Hellenistic world and flourished in such great cities as Alexandria. Quite rapidly, they became very comfortable with Greek language and culture, while Hebrew increasingly became literally a foreign language.

During the third and second centuries BC, the Biblical scriptures were translated into Greek, which became the normal means in which they were read and studied, certainly through the era of the New Testament world and beyond.

These translations are collectively known as the Septuagint, which you often see abbreviated as LXX, from the Roman numerals for Seventy. That name reflects a common story that the mighty Hellenistic Egyptian ruler Ptolemy II Philadelphus (284-246 BC) wanted to know the contents of those scriptures.

You may not think you know much about the Septuagint, but you assuredly do.

Reputedly (and you don’t have to believe this literally) he summoned 72 scholars to his court, drawn from each of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. He set them to work quite separately in the process of translating the Bible, and when they were done, they found that they had produced identical results—obviously a miracle! In reality, there were many stages in the translation process, spread over a long period of time (around 270-120 BC), but we can speak generally of these various efforts as the Septuagint.

What we have then is a version of the Old Testament that is purely and absolutely Jewish, and which reflects the Jewish understanding of the Bible around (say) 200 BC. It was composed by Jews at a time when the Second Temple still flourished, and when there were plenty of Palestine-based scholars available to debate and explain the original meanings of words. It also comes from very much the time when the Qumran settlement was being established, and the first Dead Sea Scrolls were being written.

Just as important for our purposes, this was “the Bible” as it was read by Jesus’s followers, and the early Christian church. The Greek and later Orthodox versions of the Bible were wholly based on that Septuagint. When in the fourth century AD the great Church Father Jerome translated the Bible into Latin, he relied heavily on that tradition. The version he produced, the Vulgate, remained the Bible of the Roman Catholic church until very recent times.

Learn more about the history of the Septuagint in this short tutorial by the Bible Project.

The Vocabulary of Faith

You may not think you know much about the Septuagint, but you assuredly do, because those Greek translators gave us words that dominate our religious culture. Several books of the Bible composed long before this era bear Greek names that reflect their translation during these years: we think of Genesis, Exodus, and Deuteronomy.

And we acquired many individual words. Although the Jewish world had its notion of sub-divine spiritual beings, it borrowed from Greek the terminology of “angels” and “demons.” Although the concept of the Lord’s Anointed, the “messiah,” dated back at least to the sixth century BC, people now spoke of Christos—the Christ.

Those Greek Bible translations gave us “blasphemy,” “diaspora,” “psalm,” “idol,” “paradise,” “holocaust,” and “proselyte.” The Septuagint Greek word diabolos gave us “devil.” Read the Septuagint and you find other words we know well from the New Testament, such as kurios for lord, or euangelion for good news. We give “glory” to God in a doxology, using the Greek word doxa.

In Western religious cultures, we speak Septuagint Greek on a daily basis.


The Limits of “Bible”

More broadly, the Septuagint tells us how Jews in that era debated the limits of Scripture, and how the global majority of Christians followed their definitions for centuries afterward.

This is a controversial area. As the Septuagint was known in the early Christian church, it included several books that were not part of the Hebrew Bible, such as Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), Tobit, Baruch, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, and the Wisdom of Solomon. In addition, there were more extended versions of Daniel and Esther. From the point of view of later Rabbinic Judaism, these were simply extraneous and irrelevant additions to the legitimate Biblical canon, and they were written at a relatively late period, from the third century BC onward.

But matters are not so simple.

But we can make an excellent case that many Jews at the time viewed these texts as part of the organic growth of the Biblical canon, and they were neither later nor less authoritative than other works that did achieve fully canonical status, such as most of the Book of Daniel. Confirming that point of view, the stringent and exclusive Qumran community studied Hebrew texts of both Tobit and Sirach, and must have viewed them as Biblical. Ironically, the earliest guide we have to the Hebrew Bible canon is found in Sirach itself (chs. 44-50).

In fact, the Septuagint preserves precious memories of a time when the Jewish canon was far more open and flexible than it later became. Nor did Christians regard these works as “apocryphal” in the sense of a B Team: they were fully scriptural and authoritative. For convenience, we refer to them today as part of a Second Canon, Deuterocanonical. The great early Bible codices such as Sinaiticus and Alexandrinus naturally included the works of this Second Canon, and overwhelmingly, this was the Bible text known to the Church Fathers. St. Augustine of Hippo noted that

two books, one called Wisdom and the other Ecclesiasticus, are ascribed to Solomon from a certain resemblance of style, but the most likely opinion is that they were written by Jesus the son of Sirach. Still they are to be reckoned among the prophetical books, since they have attained recognition as being authoritative.

St. Augustine of Hippo

Augustine was a particular fan of Wisdom, in which “the Passion of Christ is most openly prophesied.”

In the second century, the canonical listing known as the Muratorian Fragment suggests that the Roman church not only regarded Wisdom as canonical, but that they included it in the New Testament, rather than the Old. Wisdom and Sirach can indeed be read as rich Christological texts.


The Oldest Readings

Throughout the New Testament, you will often find quotes from “Scripture”, and translators duly note the Old Testament passages from which they are presumed to come, which might be from Psalms or one of the Prophets.

But if you follow those references up in a regular English translation, you will soon become puzzled and frustrated, because the supposed Old Testament originals just do not correspond with the way they are being used by Paul or one of the Gospel writers. The reason for this mismatch is simple. The Early Christians knew and cited the Septuagint Greek, which said something different from the Hebrew text that our Bible translators later privileged. Often, the variations were quite substantial.

It is as if a cinematic vampire were brandishing a crucifix.

When we find such a disconnect, we naturally assume that the Hebrew text must be correct, and that the Greek translation is late, flawed, and inferior.

The logic goes like this:

  • The Bible books were written in Hebrew.
  • The Greek versions are translated from the Hebrew.
  • Therefore, the Hebrew text must be earlier, original, and authentic.

But matters are not so simple. That Greek after all preserves the way in which the Bible text was known and read by literate Jews around 200 BC, and it might well reflect a now-lost early Hebrew understanding.


Counting Psalms

Let me offer an example of this. Protestants are often surprised to find that other Christian traditions number the Psalms differently, so that what they call the 23rd, “The Lord is my shepherd”, is known and cherished by Catholics and Orthodox believers as the 22nd. That difference originates in a blunder in the Hebrew text, which notably is not found in the Greek Septuagint.

It all goes back to what Protestants call Psalms 9 and 10, which they list separately as two compositions. It is virtually certain that when the originals were composed, these were one single united text, which can be read to form an elaborate Hebrew acrostic poem. Over time, this reading was lost in the Hebrew tradition, so the Psalm broke into two separate entities. But those early Greek translators knew and remembered that original structure, and preserved it, so that they just called the combined work Psalm 9. As a result, all other subsequent psalms were numbered accordingly.

In this particular case, the Greeks were dead right. In terms of accuracy and authenticity, the translation trumps the supposed “original.” And that is by no means the only instance of its kind.


How Understandings Differ

Sometimes, the Greek version preserves an authentic original, while on other occasions, it just reflects a stage in the history of interpretation. But that “stage” is critically important because it tells us so much about the thought world of Jesus’s followers and the earliest Christians.

I will illustrate this from one specific text, namely Psalm 91, one of the most widely used and influential of all the psalms throughout Jewish and Christian history. (This is also the subject of my recent book He Will Save You from the Deadly Pestilence: The Many Lives of Psalm 91.)

This text is quoted in a famous incident in the Gospels when Jesus is tempted in the wilderness:

And [the Devil] brought him to Jerusalem, and set him on a pinnacle of the Temple, and said unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down from hence: For it is written, He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee: And in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone. And Jesus answering said unto him, It is said, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.

Few modern readers will grasp the multiple ironies here. The Devil is quoting Psalm 91, vv. 11–12, which he properly cites as scripture with the appropriate phrase “it is written,” gegraptai. In Jesus’s time, this psalm was one of the most powerful weapons in the arsenal of Jewish exorcists, because its words were so effective in driving away demons, yet on this occasion, Satan himself utters them. In modern terms, it is as if a cinematic vampire were brandishing a crucifix.

That passage only makes sense if we understand that in Jesus’s time, the Psalm was thought to be centrally concerned with demons, exorcism, and demon fighting. But that was not the intent of the original Hebrew version of 91, which was probably composed around 400 BC, when it was assuredly intended as a defense against plague or pestilence, and related words occur inescapably throughout the text.

But when the Greeks translated it two centuries later, they read it quite differently, as protection against the demons who so obviously permeated the world.

The world view had shifted, and that shaped the process of translation.


Demonizing the Psalm

Reading the Septuagint version of 91 makes the Psalm a very different thing indeed from the Hebrew. Here for instance is part of the King James version, which closely follows the Hebrew:

3 Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence.

5 Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day;
6 Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.

10 There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.

The plague emphasis here is or should be self-evident, but even so, the Greek translators systematically “de-plagued” the text. In v. 6, for instance, “the destruction that wastes at noonday” almost certainly refers to disease and parallels the previous phrase about the pestilence that walks in darkness.

But Greek translators decided that the “destruction that wasteth” was in fact a demon, who operated at midday and who therefore became the midday demon, daimonion. That concept survived in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles into the last century, and a great many books have been written in modern times about the psychological interpretation of that “Noonday Demon”.

In a standard modern English translation of Psalm 91, we have a deadly pestilence (v. 3) as well as a pestilence and a plague (v. 6), and these verses provide a context into which other menaces (arrows and terrors) can easily be fitted as metaphors. In the Septuagint, the “noisome pestilence” of verse 3 becomes a harmful or troublesome “word,” logos, giving rise to centuries of commentary about the devastating effects of ill-considered speech or slander. At v.6, a plague word becomes a generic “thing.” “The pestilence that walketh in darkness” now becomes “a deed [or, rather, thing, pragmatos] that travels in darkness.” The word pragmatos is almost comically nonspecific, and we might be tempted to translate it as “thingamajig.”

It was not, obviously, that Septuagint translators did not think that plague was a deadly menace, but they lived in a world that was still more obsessed with demonic menaces – and this was also the world we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the New Testament. Yet again, to read the Septuagint is to be transported intellectually and spiritually into that unsettling historic context.

New Testament writers very often cited the Psalms. If you want to know what they actually meant by such citations, it is virtually always more valuable to read the Septuagint versions of those texts rather than the Hebrew-derived versions that you find in any standard English Bible translation.


Losing the Septuagint

So if the Septuagint is so significant, and contains so many potential treasures, why did it drop from use in some major traditions? It is a lengthy story on which I can only touch here.

After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, Jewish thinkers were determined to define the canon of scripture strictly, to purge anything that derived from the Greek. This shaped their vision of the books composed in the Bible, and of the approved text. At the Reformation, Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformers faithfully followed that principle, leaving the Septuagint maligned and often ignored.

Sometimes the textual choices those Reformers made were wise and justified, but not always. We don’t have to follow them in detail. We can still learn a very great deal by reading the Septuagint.


About the author

Philip Jenkins is a professor of history at Baylor University. He holds a PhD from Cambridge University and is the author of dozens of books and articles about religious history, including Kingdoms of this World: How Empires Have Made and Remade Religions, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How It Died, and The Many Faces of Jesus Christ: Intercultural Christology. Jenkins also blogs at Anxious Bench.


Further reading

Reading the Bible through the Septuagint resources

English translations of the Septuagint

There are two main recent English translations of the Septuagint, namely:

Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright, editors, A New English Translation Of The Septuagint: And The Other Greek Translations Traditionally Included Under That Title (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007). Also known as: NETS. (Link)

Ken M. Penner, Rick Brannan, Israel Loken, et al, eds., The Lexham English Septuagint 2nd edition (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020). (Link)

    See here for a nice comparison between these two versions.

    Roughly, the NETS is more literal and closer to the Greek, which can make it sound clunky, while the Lexham is smoother and more readable. Precisely for that reason, I have a strong preference for the NETS, because it draws attention to the Greek differences and quirks. Do note that you can find a full online version of the original NETS translations.

    Here, you can find Greek texts of any individual book or passage, with parallel English texts.

    You can also find Greek texts without translations. Enter the Bible reference you want and specify that the version you need is LXX.

    Or, go here (again, without translations).

    Useful books

    A couple of very useful books on the topic include:

    Siegfried Kreuzer, The Bible In Greek: Translation, Transmission, And Theology Of The Septuagint (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2015). (Link)

    Siegfried Kreuzer, ed., Introduction to the Septuagint (Baylor University Press, 2019). (Link)

    Timothy Michael Law, When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint And The Making Of The Christian Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013). (Link)

    Tessa Rajak, Translation and Survival: The Greek Bible and the Ancient Jewish Diaspora (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). (Link)

    2 replies on “Reading the Bible Through the Septuagint”

    There are two main recent English translations of the Septuagint, namely:

    Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright, editors, A New English Translation Of The Septuagint: And The Other Greek Translations Traditionally Included Under That Title (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007). Also known as NETS

    Ken M. Penner, Rick Brannan, Israel Loken, et al, eds., The Lexham English Septuagint 2nd edition (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020).

    Roughly, the NETS is more literal and closer to the Greek, which can make it sound clunky, while the Lexham is smoother and more readable. Precisely for that reason, I have a strong preference for the NETS, because it draws attention to the Greek differences and quirks. Do note that you can find a full online version of the original NETS translations at
    https://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/nets/edition/

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