Sunday, 13 January 2013

The importance of the Septuagint in Biblical studies

Interest in the Septuagint has grown dramatically during the last few decades. The main reason for this is that Septuagint manuscripts, as well as Hebrew texts of the Bible which correspond with the Septuagint, were discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Since this discovery, the text of the Septuagint, which differs in important ways from the Masoretic (Hebrew) text which has traditionally been used for Bible translations, has gained credibility.  Many Christians do not know that the authors of the New Testament typically use the Septuagint when quoting from the Old Testament or that the early Christian church used the Septuagint as Scripture.  Both scholars and laymen interested in the Biblical text should take note of the importance of the Septuagint in Biblical studies. The Septuagint impacts not only on our understanding of particular verses but also on our understanding of the Biblical text as a whole.

My interest in the Septuagint started during a preaching tour to Holland a few years ago. I was familiar with the Septuagint but did not recognize the importance thereof for Biblical studies until then. During a visit to a local theological seminary, I spend time in the library where I saw the Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Vol 2, eds Lawrence H. Schiffman and James C. Van der Kam, Oxford University, 2000). One of the sections focuses on the relation between these scrolls and the Septuagint. It lists the Septuagint manuscripts found among the scrolls in the Judean desert as well as the readings of the Hebrew scrolls that support the Septuagint. I was amazed to discover that some of the oldest known Hebrew texts of the Bible support the Septuagint and not the Hebrew texts that are used for present day translations of the Bible.

Origin of the Septuagint

What is the Septuagint? Let me quote the encyclopedia just mentioned. "The Septuagint is the collection of ancient Greek translations of the books of the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament, by a number of different Jewish translators over the course of the third, second, and perhaps early first centuries BCE. Some later, systematically revised versions for certain books or sections have been substituted for the originals, making the collection even more diverse" (p 863). The name Septuagint is abbreviated from interpretatio septuaginta virorum which means "the translation by the seventy men". This reflects the legends about the seventy-two Jewish elders who were brought from Palestine to Alexandria in the time of the Egyptian ruler Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-247 BC) to translate the Hebrew Bible into Greek.

The Septuagint is of great importance to the study of the Bible since it represents (ie in translation) the oldest Hebrew text of the Bible known to us - even predating most of the Hebrew texts found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. It takes us back to a version of the Hebrew Bible that existed in the third to second centuries BC.  Not only have copies thereof been discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls, internal evidence also seems to confirm that the Greek of the Septuagint, when compared with other dated Greek papyri from that period, are from that period.  The Pentateuch was translated during the third century BC, followed by the translation of the Prophets during the second century BC.

The reason why the Hebrew source text (called the Vorlage) on which the Septuagint is based is so important, is that it differs in various ways from the Hebrew text that evolved into the later Masoretic text (the standard Hebrew text used in later times, named after the scribes who copied the texts during the seventh to eleventh centuries AD). This implies that the Hebrew source text of the Septuagint differs from the Hebrew text used for modern translations of the Bible.  It differs in two ways, namely in sequence and subject matter. There are a few places where the material is arranged differently, namely Exodus 35-39 where the building of the tabernacle and its ornaments are discussed, 3 Kings 4-11 (our 1 Kings) concerning king Solomon's reign, the last half of Jeremiah and the end of Proverbs. As for subject matter, there are many small and a few more striking differences.

Among the Biblical texts found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, some correspond with the Septuagint while others are proto-Masoretic texts.  It seems that at that stage various forms of the Hebrew text of the Bible existed.  Although we cannot affirm that the Septuagint was the more authoritative of these texts, there are some things to be said in its favor.  If the legend about the Septuagint being produced under the patronage of the Egyptian king Ptolemy II Philadelphus is correct, we would expect that the translators had access to some of the oldest and best manuscripts, and that they took care to do a very precise translation from the originals (this is especially true for the Pentateuch). This is in part confirmed by fragments discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some of the oldest manuscripts found between the Dead Sea Scrolls correspond with the Septuagint and not with the Masoretic text.

In his book The Septuagint as Christian Scripture (2002), Martin Hengel mentions a Hebrew text of 1 and 2 Samuel found in Cave 4 at Qumran, which exists in three manuscripts. He writes: "One, written in paleo-Hebrew script seems, since it dates far into the third century, to be the very oldest biblical text we possess. The author of Chronicles already had this form of text. Since the Masoretic text is significantly inferior here to the LXX [Septuagint] exemplar, the LXX [Septuagint] acquires special significance in relation to some of these fragments from 4Q, especially since the translators worked very precisely" (p 84). The paleo-Hebrew script pre-dates the well-known Hebrew script.

Another important Hebrew text discovered at Qumran is a fragment of the book of Jeremiah. As is mentioned in the Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls, this Hebrew fragment displays the same shorter and rearranged text known from the Septuagint translation of Jeremiah: "The fragment preserves text from Jeremiah 9:22-10:21, but it is not the Hebrew text as found in the Masoretic Text, but the type of Hebrew text from which the Septuagint had been translated. This fragment demonstrates clearly that part of the Septuagint, and presumably, the full Septuagint, text of Jeremiah is faithfully translated from an ancient Hebrew text from which the Masoretic text differs. Further analysis leads to the conclusion that the Jeremiah-Septuagint text is a more original, short edition of the book with an intelligible order, and that the Masoretic text contains a later, longer edition of the book based on that earlier edition, but amplified and rearranged such that the major sections occur in the same order as they do in the Books of Isaiah and Ezekiel".

The Septuagint and the Masoretic text

During the first century AD, the Septuagint became the basic Old Testament text used by the early church.  We can see this from the fact that most quotations in the New Testament (even of Jesus' words) comes from the Septuagint (although I do not believe that Jesus in his interaction with the Jews used the Septuagint). Beginning with Paul, it is the rule to use the Septuagint.  This continued for the first few centuries (until the fourth century) during which time the Septuagint was used as Christian Scripture.

When the Septuagint became established as the Christian Old Testament, the Jews started regarding it with suspicion.  The Christians used the Septuagint readings to support their claim that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah (especially Isaiah 7:14 was of importance in this regard because the Septuagint referred to the "virgin" who shall be with child; a reading later disputed by the Jews).  In reaction to this, the rabbinical school based in Jamnia (where they went after the destruction of Jerusalem), with Rabbi Akiba (95-135 AD) as chief representative, revised the Hebrew text, probably establishing an official text for use in the Jewish communities.  They also established strict rules for textual interpretation as well as a new commentary (Targum).  Aquila used this Hebrew text to produce a Greek translation which became the text used by all Greek-speaking Jews in their synagogues all over the world.  During the early middle ages, the Masoretic scribes copied the Hebrew text accepted at Jamnia, which is used as the ground text for all our Bible translations.

The rabbinical scholars from Jamnia preferred a Hebrew text (the proto-Masoretic text) which differed from the Septuagint to establish some distance between them and the Christians. They also revised this text.  It has been argued (see Dan Gruber's book Rabbi Akiba's Messiah) that some of the Jewish revisions of the text included the removal or rewriting of certain verses found in the Septuagint and used by Christians to argue in support of Jesus as the Messiah. For example, in the Letter to the Hebrews, there are some quotations from the Old Testament that does not appear, or are different, in our Bible. Hebrews 1:6 read: "And again, when God brings his first begotten into the world, He says: 'Let all the angels of God worship him'".  This is a quotation from Deuteronomy 32:43 which does not appear in our Bible. It does, however, appear in the Septuagint as well as in texts found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, where we read: "Rejoice, ye heavens with him, and let all the angels of God worship him; rejoice ye Gentiles, with his people, and let all the sons of God strengthen themselves in him". (See also Heb. 10:5, quotation from Ps. 40:6, which is Ps. 39:6 in the Septuagint).

There were some early scholars like Origin who was of the opinion that the accepted Hebrew text was the text originally used for the translation of the Septuagint.  When he produced his Hexapla ('six-fold'), in which he compared the Hebrew text with the various existent Greek translations (including that of Aquila), he produced his own revision of the Septuagint (using the Hebrew text as basis) in one of the columns. Although such revisions of the Septuagint towards the proto-Masoretic text were common since early times (as is demonstrated by texts found among the Dead Sea Scrolls), Origin's revision resulted in a major contamination of the Septuagint text. Contemporary scholars are still working to reproduce the original Septuagint.

Today the Masoretic text is used for all translations of the Bible.  The substitution of the Septuagint with the Hebrew Bible in the Church occurred in the fourth century when Jerome's Latin translation of the Bible, which used the Hebrew text as the basis (called the Hebraitas), was accepted in the Church.  Jerome believed, as did Origin before him, that one should go back to the original language of the Bible for all translations - especially since significant differences exists between the Septuagint and the Hebrew text. At that time it made sense: why use a translation as the basis if one can use the original? What he did not know, and what only became clear since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, is that the translators of the Septuagint used a very old Hebrew text which in many ways is superior to the Masoretic text.

The use of the Septuagint today

Given this background, one can understand why there is renewed interest in the Septuagint today. When I did the research for my latest book on Abraham and his God (Op soek na Abraham en sy God, 'n studie oor die historisiteit van die Genesis-verhale), I made extensive use of the Septuagint. One of the differences between the Hebrew text and the Septuagint which impacted on my study, concerns numbers. One often find that the numbers in the different texts are not the same.  Already in the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 differences occur.  In the Septuagint, the ages at which the fathers begot their sons are consistently (with a few exceptions) one hundred years later than in the Hebrew text (there are also some differences in the other numbers). Some argue that the Greek translators added this100 years to the genealogies in the Hebrew text, but the occurrence of this same feature in the Hebrew text of Gen. 5:18-31 (three times) could imply that the original text contained this feature throughout.

The overall effect of this difference is that the dates of the flood and Adam differ considerably between the two texts.  There are also differences in the number of years given for the period from Abraham to the exodus (Ex. 12:40) and from the exodus to the building of the temple of Solomon (1 Kings 6:1).  We read in the Septuagint: "Now the sojourning of the Children of Israel, and of their fathers, which they sojourned in the land of Canaan and in the land of Egypt, was 430 years".  The part given in italics does not occur in the Hebrew text. So which text is correct?

Both the Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews, XV:2), as well as Paul (Gal. 3:16, 17), refer to this verse and both use the Septuagint as reference.  I demonstrate in my book on Abraham and his God that the dates for Abraham which are based on the numbers given in the Septuagint are confirmed by historical evidence.  Using archaeological evidence for two important events mentioned in the book of Genesis, namely Abraham's visit to Egypt (Gen. 12) and the Elamitic incursion that took place at that time (Gen. 14), I show not only that these events did happen, but also that the numbers given in the Septuagint are in accordance with the so-called "high chronology" dates for ancient Mesopotamian history as well as the Sothic dates for the twelfth dynasty in Egypt.  The flood date that is given in the Masoretic text (2348 BC) can also not be correct - this period is very well researched archaeologically and there are no signs of any flood. At that time both the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations were at their peak after a long period of uninterrupted development.

Another interesting difference between the Hebrew text and the Septuagint concerns the names of God. Although the translators of the Septuagint used Greek words for the names of God, for example, "God" for "Elohim" and "Lord" for "Yahweh" (a practice also find in modern translations of the Bible), it seems that the occurrence of the names in the Vorlage differed from the Masoretic text.  It is already clear in the first few chapters of the Book of Genesis that the names of God are not always used in the same way.

In the Masoretic text, the name Elohim is used from Genesis 1:1 to 2:3, after which the name Elohim Yahweh is used from Genesis 2:4 to 3:24. This change in the occurrence of the name of God between the two parts of Genesis 1 to 3 has led to the hypothesis that two different creation stories written by two different authors were recorded.  In the Septuagint, the name "Lord God" (Yahweh Elohim) is, however, not consistently used in Genesis 2:4 to 3:24. The name of God is sometimes given as "God" (Elohim). This could have an impact on the mentioned hypothesis.

Of special interest is the use of the word "God" (Elohim) in Genesis 3:23 where we find that God speaks in the "us" form: "And God said, Behold, Adam is become as one of us, to know good and evil".  We find the "us" form also in Genesis 1:26 and 11:7. This could imply that Genesis 1-11 were written by the same author. Furthermore, it is possible that the original author understood the word "Elohim" as referring to some type of plurality in God and that he wanted to distinguish it from the name Yahweh Elohim, who takes a more personal role in his relation with Adam and Eve. The Masoretic text, which uses the name Yahweh Elohim instead of Elohim in Genesis 3:23, do not allow for this possibility.

It is quite interesting that we read in Genesis 2:4 (where the name Yahweh Elohim first occurs in the Bible) that it was Yahweh Elohim who "made the earth and heaven" (the Septuagint gives the more traditional reading: "heaven and earth"). I cannot help but wonder whether John had this passage (among others) in mind when he gave his summary of Genesis 1:1-2:4 in the beginning of his gospel: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made" (Joh. 1:1-3). John refers not only to the plurality in God as we find in Genesis 1-11; he also states that God made the cosmos through Jesus - and later explicitly assigns the name Yahweh (I am) to Him (Joh. 8:58 etc.).

The differences between the Hebrew text and the Septuagint are clearly of great importance for Biblical studies. It not only impacts on the reading of particular verses but also on our understanding of Scripture as a whole. Today many Christians believe that only the Masoretic text represents the inspired Word of God. Christians in the early centuries of this era, however, believed that the Septuagint was the divinely inspired Word of God. The question is: What does inspiration mean? Does it mean "down to the very words in the original"? The problem is that we do not have access to "the original".

Since early times editors worked on the texts and sometimes we have to accept the existence of different source texts. As mentioned before, the Vorlage (source text of the Septuagint) and the proto-Masoretic texts sometimes differ substantially, for example in the case of the short (Vorlage) and long (proto-Masoretic) versions of Jeremiah. It is possible that different versions go back to the time of Jeremiah (see Jer. 36:27, 28, 32). In my opinion, this does not negate the divine inspiration of the Scriptures, but it forces us to acknowledge the complexity of the issue. My own view is that we could, in spite of this, affirm the integrity of the text. The differences do not bring the integrity of the text into question. I give my view on this issue in more detail in the appendix to the book on Abraham and his God [1].


The discovery of Septuagint fragments or Hebrew texts that correspond with the Septuagint among the Dead Sea Scrolls has reignited interest in the Septuagint. It proofed that the Septuagint is not an erroneous version of the Hebrew text of the Bible. No, it represents a very old Hebrew text that differs in many ways from the Hebrew text (the Masoretic text) that is used today for all translations of the Bible. In some ways, it is clearly superior to the Masoretic text. The authors of the New Testament used it in their quotations from the Old Testament. The early church used it as Scripture. It is important that the broader church of today also take an interest in the Septuagint and start using it alongside the Masoretic text. Every scholar and Bible student should have one on their shelves or computer. Let us start reading the Septuagint.

[1] Read Biblical inspiration: in a postmodern world

Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud. Ref.

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