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It is highly unlikely that Jesus used the Septuagint (LXX) extensively in his teachings. More on this at the end of this article. Largely, he referred to the Hebrew Old Testament (OT). However, what the New Testament (NT) authors penned is what Jesus said. First, let us touch on this in one paragraph, then give you some historical background of the Septuagint, after that, we will return to our question at the end. Jesus was likely fluent in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin. He was a perfect human with a perfect mind after all. Aramaic was the common language where he grew up, with Greek being the lingua franca for the Roman empire as a whole. The synagogues used the Hebrew text.

Jesus could have taught in Greek at times if the need arose, which might very well be the case. However, he taught in his native language of Hebrew. A few of the quotations of Jesus from the Old Testament in the NT Gospels, even in the book of Matthew, are strongly Septuagintal. However, Jesus in all likelihood spoke in Hebrew as he quoted the OT as he taught, and the Gospel writers were moved along by Holy Spirit to use the Septuagint that was the preferred reading, which is what Jesus had said but in the Hebrew or Aramaic language. One would be dishonest to be OCD to argue one way or the other alone. Thus, I leave open the possibility that Jesus could have quoted the Septuagint at times.

SOME HISTORY AND IMPORTANT INSIGHTS

It is not true that the Jews began to change over to Aramaic speech during their exile in Babylon. It is common to use Nehemiah 8:8 as a way of saying the Hebrew was not entirely understood because they all spoke Aramaic. However, the text is not dealing with a lack of understanding of the Hebrew language, but rather it is talking about explaining the meaning of the text, the sense of what the author meant.

Nehemiah 8:8 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

They continued reading aloud from the book, from the Law of the God, explaining it and putting meaning into it, so that they could understand the reading. See Matt. 13:14, 51-52; Lu 24:27; Ac 8:30-31.

There is not one verse in the Bible that says the Jews abandoned the Hebrew language. Yes, it is true that Nehemiah found that some Jews had Ashdodite, Ammonite, and Moabite wives “and none of them was able to speak the language of Judah” (Neh. 13:23-27) Nevertheless, the reading of God’s Word was still then mainly in Hebrew. From the days of Malachi to Matthew, there are no biblical books and secular records are limited, with a scant few giving any real evidence of a change from Hebrew to Aramaic. The Apocryphal books, such as Judith, Ecclesiasticus (not Ecclesiastes), Baruch, and First Maccabees, were written in Hebrew the non-Biblical writings among the Dead Sea Scrolls were also in Hebrew, and Hebrew was used in assembling the Jewish Mishnah from the first to fourth-century C.E.

The strongest evidence that Hebrew was still the spoken language of the Jews in the first century is found in the New Testament itself. (John 5:2; 19:13, 17, 20; 20:16; Rev. 9:11; 16:16) There is no denying that Aramaic was widely known throughout Palestine in the first century C.E. But just because the Aramaic Bar instead of the Hebrew Ben is used in some names (Bartholomew and Simon Bar-jonah) means nothing, as some Jews had Greek names as well (Andrew and Philip). There were four languages current in first-century C.E. Palestine, Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, and Greek, with Latin being the least common. The Greek transliteration of some words that are debated at to being originally Hebrew or Aramaic words, as recorded by Matthew and Mark, does not allow for a positive identification of the original language used. Then, we have the fact that Matthew’s was originally written by him in Hebrew.

The evidence actually points to Hebrew declining among the Jews after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. However, it was still used in the synagogues wherever the Jews dispersed. The Jews did view the Greek Septuagint as an inspired translation. However, this soon changed. The Jews actually found a new zeal for the Hebrew language because of the Christians using the Septuagint as an evangelism tool.

The Hebrew Language

Hebrew is the language in which the thirty-nine inspired books of the Old Testament were penned, apart from the Aramaic sections in Ezra 4:8–6:18; 7:12–26; Dan. 2:4b–7:28; Jer. 10:11, as well as a few other words and phrases from Aramaic and other languages. The language is not called “Hebrew” in the Old Testament. At Isaiah 19:18 it is spoken of as “the language [Literally “lip”] of Canaan.” The language that became known as “Hebrew” is first shown in the introduction to Ecclesiasticus, an Apocrypha[1] book. Moses, being raised in the household of Pharaoh, would have been given the wisdom of Egypt, as well as the Hebrew language of his ancestors. This would have made him the perfect person to look through any ancient Hebrew documents that may have been handed down to him, giving him the foundation for the book of Genesis.

Later, in the days of the Jewish kings, Hebrew came to be known as “Judean” (UASV) that is to say, the language of Judah (Neh. 13:24; Isa. 36:11; 2 Ki. 18:26, 28). As we enter the period of Jesus, the Jewish people spoke an expanded form of Hebrew, which would become Rabbinic Hebrew. Nevertheless, in the Greek New Testament, the language is referred to as the “Hebrew” language, not the Aramaic. (John 5:2; 19:13, 17; Acts 22:2; Rev. 9:11) Therefore, for more than 2,000 years, Biblical Hebrew served God’s chosen people, as a means of communication.

However, once God chose to use a new spiritual Israel, made up of Jew and Gentile, there would be a difficulty within the line of communication as not all would be able to understand the Hebrew language. It became evident, 300 years before the rise of Christianity; there was a need for the Hebrew Scriptures to be a translation into the Greek language of the day, because of the Jewish diaspora who lived in Egypt. Down to our day, all or portions of the Bible have been translated into about 2,287 languages.

Even the Bible itself expresses the need of translating it into all languages. Paul, quoting Deuteronomy 32:43, says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles [“people of the nations”], with his people.” And again, ‘Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples extol him.’” (Rom 15:10) Moreover, all Christians are given what is known as the Great Commission, to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” (Matt 28:19-20) In addition, Jesus stated, “this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations.” (Matt 24:14) All of the above could never take place without translating the original language into the languages of the nations. What is more, ancient translations of the Bible that are extant (still in existence) in manuscript form have likewise aided in confirming the high degree of textual faithfulness of the Hebrew manuscripts.

Earliest Translated Versions

Versions are translations of the Bible from Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek into other languages (or Hebrew into Greek). Translation work has made the Word of God accessible to billions of persons, who are incapable of understanding the original Biblical languages. The early versions of the Scriptures were handwritten and were, therefore, in the form of manuscripts. However, since the beginning of the printing press in 1455 C.E., many additional versions, or translations, have appeared, and these have been published in great quantities. Some versions have been prepared directly from Hebrew and Greek Bible texts, whereas others are based on earlier translations.

septuagint

The Septuagint

The Septuagint is the common term for the Old Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. The word means “seventy” and is frequently shortened by using the Roman numeral LXX, which is a reference to the tradition 72 Jewish translators (rounded off), who are alleged to have produced a version in the time of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-246 B.C.E.). The first five books of Moses being done around 280 B.C.E., with the rest being completed by 150 B.C.E.  As a result, the name Septuagint came to denote the complete Hebrew Scriptures translated into Greek.

Acts 8:26-38 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch

26 But an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip saying, “Get up and go south to the road that descends from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a desert road.) 27 And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure; who had come to worship in Jerusalem, 28 and he was returning and sitting in his chariot, and was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” 30 So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this:

“He was led as a sheep to slaughter
and like a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he opens not his mouth.
33 In his humiliation was taken away.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”[2]

34 And the eunuch answered Philip and said, “I beg you, of whom does the prophet say this? Of himself or of someone else?” 35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture he declared to him the good news about Jesus. 36 And as they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?[3] 38 And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him.

The Eunuch court official was an influential man, who was in charge of the treasury of the queen of Ethiopia and to whom Philip preached. He was a proselyte [convert] to the Jewish religion who had come to Jerusalem to worship God. He had been reading aloud from the scroll of Isaiah (53:7-8 as our English Bible has it sectioned), and was puzzled as to who it was referring to; however, Philip explained the text, and the Eunuch was moved to the point of being baptized. The Eunuch was not reading from the Hebrew Old Testament; rather he was reading from the Greek translation, known as the Greek Septuagint. This work was very instrumental to both Jews and Christians in the Greek-speaking world in which they lived.

What contributed to the Hebrew Old Testament being translated into Greek and when and how did it occur? What was the need that brought the Septuagint about? How has it affected the Bible throughout these last 2,200 years? What impact does the Septuagint still have for the translator today?

200px-codex_vaticanus_fragment-of-a-septuagint

The Greek-Speaking Jews and the Septuagint

In 332 B.C.E., Alexander the Great had just finished destroying the Phoenician city of Tyre, and was now entering Egypt, but was received as a great deliverer, not as a conqueror. It was here that he would found the city of Alexandria, bringing mankind one of the great learning centers of all time in the ancient world. The result of Alexander’s conquering much of the then known world was the spread of Greek culture and the Greek language. Alexander himself spoke Attic Greek, which was the dialect that spread throughout the territories that he conquered. As the Attic dialect spread, it interacted with other Greek dialects, as well as the local languages, resulting in what we call Koine Greek or common Greek spreading throughout this vast realm.

By the time of the third century B.C.E., Alexandria had a large population of Jews. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and exiled its people to Babylon centuries before. Many Jews had fled to Egypt at the time of the destruction. The returning Jews in 537, were scattered throughout southern Palestine, migrating to Alexandria after it was founded. The need of a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures arose out of the necessity for the Jews in their worship services and education within the Jewish community of Alexandria.

Many of the Jews in Alexandria could no longer understand the Hebrew language, with others simply letting it grow out of practice. Most could only speak the common Greek of the Mediterranean world. However, they remained Jews in custom and culture and wanted to be able to understand the Scriptures that affected their everyday lives and worship. Therefore, the time was right for the production of the first translation of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Aristobulus of Paneas (c. 160 B.C.E.) wrote that the Hebrew law was translated into Greek, being completed during the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus (285-246 B.C.E.). We cannot be certain as to what Aristobulus meant by the term “Hebrew law.” Some have suggested that it encompassed only the Mosaic Law, the first five books of the Bible while others suggested that it was the entire Hebrew Scriptures.

letter_of_aristeas_vat-_gr-_747_f-_1r

Beginning of the Letter of Aristeas to Philocrates. Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 11th century.

This Greek writing is allegedly a letter written by Aristeas, who was a high official in the court of Ptolemy II in Alexandria. It was sent to Jerusalem in order to secure a copy of the Jewish Law together with a group of seventy-two scholars who would translate the Law from Hebrew to Greek. The recipient is Philocrates, about whom nothing is said except that he was a brother of Aristeas. The alleged purpose of the book is to tell the story of the translation of the Septuagint.

The book contains a delightful story. Demetrius of Phalerum, head of the great library in Alexandria, suggests to the king that a translation be made of the Hebrew Law. The king writes to the high priest Eleazar in Jerusalem requesting him to send seventy-two scribes to perform the work of translation. He sends rich gifts for the temple in Jerusalem. The story includes a description of the Holy City. Eleazar delivers an apologetic for the Law. When the translators come to Alexandria, they are feted in a series of royal banquets. The king plies the scribes with philosophical questions, and they answer with amazing wisdom. Then they are taken to the island of Pharos in the harbor of Alexandria where they set to work. Demetrius compares their work every day and writes down a consensus. They complete the work in seventy-two days. It is then read to the Jews, who laud it. When it is read to the king, he is greatly impressed and expresses wonder as to why it has not been mentioned in earlier Greek literature. Demetrius says that earlier authors were divinely restrained from mentioning it. Finally the translators are sent home bearing rich gifts.

It is obvious that this beautiful story is fictional, although it has a core of reliable information. Aristeas and Philocrates are not known in other historical literature. Furthermore, the Letter of Aristeas itself reflects a knowledge and usage of the LXX. The work also bears obvious unhistorical traits. For example, an Egyptian king would not attribute his throne to the Jewish God (37). The author, however, seems to be thoroughly familiar with the technical and official language of the court and of Alexandrian life and customs.

The purpose of the book is fairly obvious. It is a piece of Hellenistic Jewish apologetic writing designed to commend the Jewish religion and law to the Gentile world. The book emphasizes the honors showered on the seventy by the Greek king. High praise is accorded to Jewish wisdom by heathen philosophers. It explains the failure of Greek historians and poets to mention the Jewish law. The apology of Eleazar on the inner meaning of the law tries to interpret in meaningful categories the Jewish distinction between clean and unclean things. The Jews are said to worship the same god as the Greeks but under a different name. Zeus is really the same as God (16).

The book is really not a true letter but belongs to the genre that may be called belles lettres. It falls in the Greek literary and artistic traditions rather than in the Semitic pattern. This governs its purpose, which is not to impart sound historical information but to produce a general ethical effect. The book is therefore far more important as a reflection of Jewish life and culture in the 2nd cent B.C. than as an account of the formation of the LXX. Thus very little attention is actually given to the work done on the LXX. We know that in the 2nd cent. B.C., before anti-Semitism had raised its head, a large colony of Jews lived in Alexandria, and the work reflects the fact that they were enthusiastically embracing Hellenistic culture, social usages, literary forms, and philosophical beliefs so far as they did not directly oppose their central religious tenets.

The date of the book is an almost insoluble problem. Scholars date it variously from 200 b.c. to 63 b.c. Perhaps an estimate of about 100 b.c. will suffice. While some scholars think that the LXX involved a protracted development, this letter may reflect the fact that at some time an official translation was made.[4]

Useful in the First Century

The Septuagint was put to use at great length by Greek-speaking Jews both prior to and throughout first-century Christianity. Just after Jesus ascension, at Pentecost 33 C.E., almost a million Jews customarily gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover and Festival of Weeks, coming from such places as the districts of Asia, Egypt, Libya, Rome, and Crete, places that spoke Greek. There is little doubt that these were using the Septuagint in their services. (Acts 2:9-11) As a result, the Septuagint played a major role in spreading the Gospel message in the Jewish and proselyte communities. For example, we can look to Stephen.[5]

Acts 6:8-10 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

8 And Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people. But some men from what was called the Synagogue of the Freedmen, both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, and some from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. 10 But they were not able to withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.

In his defense, Stephen gave a long history of the Israelite people, and at one point he said,

Acts 7:12-14 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

12 But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our fathers the first time. 13 On the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and the family of Joseph became known to Pharaoh. 14 And Joseph sent and summoned Jacob his father and all his kindred, seventy-five persons in all.

This account comes from Genesis chapter 46, verse 27, which reads, “All the persons of the house of Jacob who came into Egypt were seventy.” The Hebrew Old Testament reads seventy, but it is the Septuagint that reads seventy-five. Therefore, Stephen was referencing the Septuagint in his defense before the synagogue of the Freedmen.

The Apostle Paul traveled about 10,282 miles on his missionary tours,[6] which brought him into contact with Gentiles, who feared the God of the Bible and the devout Greeks who worshiped God. (Acts 13:16, 26; 17:4) These became worshipers or fearers of God because they had access to the Septuagint. The Apostle Paul used the Septuagint quite often in his ministry, and his letters.–Genesis 22:18; Galatians 3:8

The Greek New Testament contains about 320 direct quotations, as well as a combined 890 quotations and paraphrases from the Hebrew Old Testament. Most of these are from the Septuagint. Therefore, those Septuagint quotes and paraphrases became a part of the inspired Greek New Testament. Jesus had said, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) He had also foretold, “this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world.” (Matt 24:14) For this to take place, it had to be translated into other languages, to reach the people earth wide.

Did Jesus Use the Greek Septuagint

The use of the Septuagint by Jesus is both interesting and complicated. When Jesus quotes from the OT, most often that quote as found in the Gospels, follows the Septuagint reading. However, one cannot be certain whether Jesus used the Septuagint when he was teaching. At times, he may have spoken in Greek but most often he spoke in Hebrew or Aramaic. Even in Matthew, which I believe Matthew first penned in Hebrew then later made a Greek copy, the OT quotations lean toward the Septuagint. Of the 80 times in Matthew, where the OT is quoted from or alluded to, about 30 are from the Septuagint. Most of these are at the times Jesus or John the Baptist is in direct speech. There are times that the Gospel writer has Jesus quoting the OT, which is a Septuagint reading that actually differs from the Hebrew OT. In those, the Septuagint is the preferred reading.

For example, when Jesus quotes the OT, Isaiah 61:1, at Luke 4:18, “recovering of sight to the blind,” is from the Septuagint. The Hebrew at 61:1 says, “opening of the prison to those who are bound.” The preferred reading is the Septuagint.

Now, here is where it gets sticky for us Christians that believed the Bible is the inspired, fully inerrant Word of God. Modern Bible scholarship today use the subjective historical-critical method of interpretation (subjective – opinion) over the historical-grammatical method (objective – evidence, facts). They say things like, ‘Luke could only read Greek, so he was unaware that it actually was the preferred reading.’ Or, they might say, ‘Luke saw that the Greek fit Jesus ministry better, so he chose it over the Hebrew reading, inferring that Jesus used the Hebrew reading.’ They write as though the Bible is a book by men, not the inspired Word of God that was authored by men moved along by Holy Spirit.

Fact, the original Greek New Testament was fully inerrant, as its authors were inspired by God and moved along by Holy Spirit. Fact, the copyist was not inspired, nor moved along by Holy Spirit. Therefore, errors entered into the Hebrew OT. In the making of the Septuagint (250 – 180 B.C.E), they had access to many Hebrew texts that were older than what we have. These translators were not inspired, as was true of the 40+ Bible authors. Fact, Jesus was and is the divine Son of God and was in heaven before he came to earth. When he spoke he knew which reading was most authoritative, the Septuagint at times is the preferred reading, i.e., the original reading that the original author penned. Jesus would have known this. However, likely, some of the Hebrew manuscripts that the Septuagint translators had, actually had the reading, which is in the Septuagint. The later Hebrew text that we are looking at that differs, may be corrupt in that spot. it should be noted that the Hebrew text is the most trusted and reflects the original. There are places where it does not, however.

Therefore, when the New Testament authors quoted Jesus, it was what he actually said, likely in Hebrew or Aramaic, and yes, if a need arose to speak in Greek, Jesus spoke Greek. When Jesus quoted or referred to the OT, he would know if the Hebrew text or the Septuagint text was original reading or not, as he was watching from Heaven when it was penned. Whatever the NT writer penned is what Jesus said. If it is the reading from the Septuagint; then, Jesus used the reading from the Septuagint, which he could have said in Hebrew or Aramaic, or Greek. If it was from the Hebrew text; then, Jesus used the Hebrew text. Jesus largely spoke Hebrew and Aramaic, and possibly Greek, at times, if the occasion called for it. Nevertheless, what the NT author penned is what Jesus said.

Whether Jesus said it in Hebrew or Greek is unanswerable. We can only go on the fact of what language Jesus most likely taught in as an indicator. The synagogues used the Hebrew text. Quoting the article above, “as we enter the period of Jesus, the Jewish people spoke an expanded form of Hebrew, which would become Rabbinic Hebrew. Nevertheless, in the Greek New Testament, the language is referred to as the “Hebrew” language, not the Aramaic. (John 5:2; 19:13, 17; Acts 22:2; Rev. 9:11) Therefore, for more than 2,000 years, Biblical Hebrew served God’s chosen people, as a means of communication.”

 

[1] The Old Testament Apocrypha are unauthentic writings: writings or reports that are not regarded as authentic.

[2] A quotation from Isaiah 53:7–8

[3] P45, 74 א AB C 33 81 614 vg syrp, h copsa, bo eth omit vs 37; E, many minuscules, itgig, h vgmss syrh with * copG67 arm, And Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he replied, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”

[4] G. E. Ladd, “Pseudepigrapha,” ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979–1988), 1041.

[5] “The first Christian martyr; foremost of those chosen to bring peace to the quarreling church (Acts 6:1–7) and so mighty in the Scriptures that his Jewish opponents in debate could not refute him (Acts 6:10) as he argued that Jesus was the Messiah. Saul of Tarsus heard Stephen’s speech to the Jewish Sanhedrin accusing the Jewish leaders of rejecting God’s way as their forefathers had (Acts 6:12–7:53). Saul held the clothes of those who stoned Stephen to death; he saw him die a victorious death.” (Brand, Draper and Archie 2003, p. 1534)

[6] Stanford University recently unveiled ORBIS, a site that lets you calculate the time and cost required to travel by road or ship around the Roman world in A.D. 200. (University 2012)