If you have ever used Bible reference works, you may well have come across these somewhat mysterious letters: LXX. (Hint: they have nothing to do with XXL.) If you have done a fair bit of Bible teaching, chances are that you have made reference to the Septuagint, the word behind LXX, in your lectures. I know I have multiple times.
One situation in which the Septuagint is likely to come up is teaching the book of Matthew or discussing the virgin birth of Jesus. When it comes to the latter, Matthew quotes the book of Isaiah. Depending on your translation, there is a marked difference between the quote and the original:
Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel. (Mt. 1:23 NRSV)
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. (Is. 7:14 NRSV)
Matthew uses a Greek word that unequivocally means virgin and therefore this birth is miraculous. The Hebrew word used in Isaiah (almah) is more ambiguous. It refers to a young and most likely unmarried woman. But is she a virgin? We may want to argue that this birth is positive, not immoral, and that it is a sign and therefore something out of the ordinary. All true, but this is nowhere near as obvious as the Greek word translated virgin. So why the difference?
LXX = 70
To answer this question, we need the Septuagint. The Septuagint is a translation of the Hebrew Old Testament and several other Jewish writings dating back to the third and second century BC. The added writings, not part of the Hebrew Bible, are known as the Apocrypha or the deuterocanonical books and include books like Maccabees, the Wisdom of Solomon, and additions to Daniel and Esther. Opinions are divided as to which parts of the Apocrypha are indeed translations and which were originally written in Greek (and are therefore not translations). Fact is, we only have the Greek versions of these books.
The name Septuagint derives from the Latin word for 70. Hence the abbreviation LXX, 70 in Roman numerals, is often used. Why 70? Several Jewish sources report that in the third century BC 70 or 72 scribes were asked to produce a translation of the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, by the ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy II Philadelphus (308-246 BC). They reportedly did this in 72 days. Later versions of the story exaggerated the miraculous element in the translation, to the point of claiming that all 72 scribes independently from each other produced the exact same translation of the Torah. The early accounts may not be too far from the historical truth. An important factor leading to the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures may also have been that many Jews did not understand Hebrew anymore.
At any rate, when we come to the first century A.D., a complete translation of the Old Testament into Greek with several added works was in circulation. It became the Bible of the early church, since the large majority of believers would understand Greek but not Hebrew.
And this helps us to understand Matthew’s quotation. Close to 200 years before Jesus was born, Jewish translators had translated the somewhat ambiguous Hebrew word almah with the unambiguous Greek word for virgin. Apparently, in their understanding, the birth Isaiah announces had to be a miraculous birth. Matthew is quoting, not from the Hebrew original, but from the Greek translation known to him.
The Importance of the Septuagint for Bible Interpretation
This is one reason we refer to the Septuagint: it helps us to understand a number of Old Testament quotations in the New Testament (in other cases, the author may quote freely or there are other explanations for why the quote departs from the original, not always known to us).
There are other reasons. Most important is that the Septuagint can help us in reconstructing the original text and in translation. Modern translations lean heavily on the so-called Masoretic text. It is based on the manuscripts copied and passed down by Jewish scribes called the Masoretes from the 6th to the 10th century A.D. This text is generally considered the most reliable.
However, there are places where it doesn’t make sense, is unintelligible, or conflicts with other ancient manuscripts. Sometimes this is because an error has entered the text: the text has been “corrupted” at this point. It is not an easy decision to make, but there are cases where the Septuagint appears to be closer to the original. This is especially the case if for instance both the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls agree against the Masoretic text. This is still not full proof that they are correct, but it is an option that needs to be considered. At times, such “variant readings” are discussed in footnotes in our Bibles. For serious Bible study, it is helpful to be aware of such issues.
Another way in which the Septuagint may be helpful is in word studies. It provides background for many terms used in the New Testament. Especially when they have theological significance, they may go back to Hebrew words and their translation in the Septuagint. A good example of this is the Greek word ecclesia (usually translated church). In the Septuagint, it is used to translate the Hebrew word qahal, the assembly or congregation of Israel, both in the desert and later. This context and background make it a far more significant term than if it would merely refer to an assembly or a getting together of like-minded people.
Benefits of the Septuagint that are unlikely to matter to most Bible readers but are of interest to scholars include:
- It gives us insight in ancient translation techniques.
- At times, it may reflect the theological bias or interpretation of its translators and therefore gives insight into the beliefs of early Judaism. This can be hard to judge, however. Often, the translators may simply have had to work with a different Hebrew version than the one leading to our Masoretic text.
- This leads to a third benefit: the Septuagint provides some insight into the status of the Hebrew text in the centuries before Christ (as do the Dead Sea Scrolls). Obviously, there were different versions of the same books in circulation. There was not yet one canonical text as there would be later, through the work of the Masoretes and other scribes. For most books, the differences are minor. For some books, however, the differences are significant. The clearest example is the Greek version of Jeremiah. It is about 12 % shorter than its Masoretic counterpart and some of the material is in a different place.
Exploring the Septuagint
For all the references I have made to the Septuagint over the years, I have to confess that I have never read any of it (apart from the occasional quotation reproduced in commentaries).
Last month, I reported on reading the Greek New Testament, something I have now completed. I am toying with the idea of reading at least part of the Septuagint, something I may start later this year, as I have too much lecture preparation going on during the spring. Because I am considering this, I decided to spend some time learning about the Septuagint – which led to this issue. At least now I know better what I am talking about when I refer to the Septuagint again!
Next issue (May): Luther and the Psalms of Lament
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989)