The Greek Septuagint and Other Versions

The Reading Culture of Early Christianity From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts 400,000 Textual Variants 02

Ancient Versions

Edward D. Andrews
EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored ninety-two books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

A version is a translation of the Bible from Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek into another language. Actually, the entire Bible has been translated into over 700 languages, although sections of the Bible have been translated into more than 2,000 languages.

Bible translation in part or whole from the original languages into another language has been going on for some 2,200 years and has allowed literally millions of people, who might otherwise have been deprived of God’s Word, to have access to it. The early versions of the Bible were no different from the original language copies in their production; they too had to be written by hand on papyrus or animal skin. However, since the invention of the printing press in 1455, the number of versions has grown astronomically, in much greater quantities in comparison to their ancient counterparts. Not all versions have been prepared directly from the Hebrew or Greek Bible texts; some are based on earlier translations.

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The Septuagint

The Septuagint is the customary term for the Old Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. I mention it here in a book about NT textual criticism because it was usually the source of quotations found in the New Testament. The word “Septuagint” means “seventy” and is frequently shortened by using the Roman numeral LXX, which is a reference to the tradition that 72 Jewish translators (rounded off to 70) produced the version in the time of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-246 B.C.E.). The first five books of Moses were 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.

In Acts 8:26-38 (NASB) we read,

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 So he got up and went; and there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure; and he had come to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and he was returning and sitting in his chariot, and was reading the prophet Isaiah.29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go up and join this chariot.” 30 Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?”31 And he said, “Well, how could I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 Now the passage of Scripture which he was reading was this:

   “He was led as a sheep to slaughter;

And as a lamb before its shearer is silent,

So He does not open His mouth.

33 “In humiliation His judgment was taken away;

Who will relate His generation?

For His life is removed from the earth.”

34 The eunuch answered Philip and said, “Please tell me, 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 preached Jesus to him. 36 As they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch *said, “Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?” 37 [And Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”] 38 And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch, and he baptized him.

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The Eunuch court official to whom Philip preached was an influential man in charge of the treasury of the queen of Ethiopia. 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 whom it was referring; however, Philip explained the text, and the official was moved to the point of being baptized. The Eunuch was not reading from the Hebrew Old Testament; he was reading from the Greek translation, i.e. the Greek Septuagint. This work was very instrumental to both Jews and Christians in the Greek-speaking world in which they lived.

John 21.1b-25 from Codex Sinaiticus (fourth century) – British Library

John 21:1b-25 from Codex Sinaiticus (fourth century) – British Library

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

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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 then 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 humankind 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 for a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures arose among the Jews in their worship services and education within the Jewish community of Alexandria.

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Many of the Jews in Alexandria could no longer understand the Hebrew language, with others simply letting it g0 out of use. 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.

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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., countless numbers of Jews 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 where Greek was spoken. There is little doubt that they 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. To see an example, we can look at the account of Stephen.

Acts 6:8-10 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

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, including both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, and some from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and argued with Stephen. 10 But they were unable to cope with 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 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

12 But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our fathers there the first time. 13 On the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family was disclosed to Pharaoh. 14 Then Joseph sent word and invited Jacob his father and all his relatives to come to him, seventy-five persons in all.

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This account comes from Genesis 46:27, 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 more than 20,000 miles on his missionary tours, which brought him into contact with devout Greeks (Gentiles) who worshiped God. (Acts 13:16, 26; 17:4). They became worshipers 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 quotations 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) In order for this to take place, it had to be translated into other languages.

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Still Beneficial Today

The Septuagint’s great purpose today is the light that it sheds on textual variants that crept into the Hebrew Old Testament text, as it was being copied throughout the centuries. An example of this can be found in Genesis 4:8, which reads:

Genesis 4:8 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

 8 Cain told Abel his brother. [Let us go out to the field][93] And it came about when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.

The portion in the brackets “let us go out to the field” is not in the tenth century C.E. Hebrew manuscripts. However, it is found in the earlier Septuagint manuscripts (4th cent C.E.), as well as the Samaritan Pentateuch,[94] the Peshitta,[95] and the Vulgate.[96] First, the Hebrew that is used to introduce speech [wayyomer, “and he said”] is in the Hebrew text, “Cain Spoke.” However, there is no speech that follows in the Hebrew text. Many scholars argue that these words were in the original Hebrew text, but were omitted accidentally very early. Second, a few others, on the other hand, argue that the Hebrew construction found here is used in three other passages with nothing being said, so the more difficult and shorter reading is original, which would mean that the Greek translators added the words to complete the meaning. This author prefers the first textual argument, along with the majority of scholars.[97] Herein, we see how the Septuagint can help in identifying textual errors that may have crept into the Hebrew text over centuries of copying.

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However, the Hebrew text is the foundation and most trustworthy text. Thus, it is used to correct the Septuagint text as well. It is by the comparison of the Hebrew manuscripts, and the many early versions, that we discover textual errors and establish the original reading. This can give us confidence that we are reading the Word of God. As Paul D. Wegner writes,

The job of the textual critic is very similar to that of a detective searching for clues as to the original reading of the text. It is reminiscent of the master detective Sherlock Holmes who could determine a number of characteristics of the suspect from the slightest of clues left at the crime scene. In our case, the “crime scene” is the biblical text, and often we have far fewer clues to work from than we would like. Yet the job of the textual critic is extremely important, for we are trying to determine the exact reading of a text in order to know what God has said and expects from us.[98]

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[93] This phrase is not present in the Hebrew, nor is it in the NASB; it is supplied in other versions Samaritan, Septuagint, Syriac, and the Vulgate

[94] This version only encompasses the first five books, and is really a transliteration of the Hebrew text into Samaritan script, developed from the ancient Hebrew script.

[95] The Syriac version of the Bible, written around the 4th century.

[96] A Latin version of the Bible, produced by Saint Jerome in the 4th century.

[97] (Wilkins) I must disagree with my coauthor in that I do not consider the evidence sufficient to include the statement from the versions. I do not rule out the possibility, and in fact I agree with Mr. Edwards that the Septuagint can be helpful in identifying textual errors in the Hebrew. I also appreciate his going on to say that the reverse is also true, as is indeed the case. We both regret that we are unable to cover OT textual criticism in this book, but it is a topic deserving of its own separate treatment, and it displays significant differences from NT criticism. My coauthor has already alluded to one of these differences, i.e. that the earliest copy of the Hebrew Masoretic text of the OT is quite late in comparison to what we have of the LXX. Yet, it was the product of more meticulous copying processes than were the NT manuscripts, and internal evidence tends to favor its readings.

[98] Paul D. Wegner, A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible : Its History, Methods & Results (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 22-23.

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