The Septuagint and the Original Old Testament?

The first part of the Book of Genesis, from the Septuagint, the early Old Testament Greek translation used by the early Christian church.

The first part of the Book of Genesis, from the Septuagint, an early  Greek translation of the Old Testament, which served as the “Bible” of the early Christian church before the completion of the New Testament.  Is this translation the closest thing we have to the “original” Old Testament?

I noticed sometimes the quotes of the Old Testament passages in [the Book of] Hebrews do not exactly match the wording when I go back and look up the verses in the Old Testament. I am just wondering what is going on.” This was a question sent to our pastors for our summer Bible study series on the Book of Hebrews. I do not know who asked the question in our congregation, but I want that person in my small group. What an awesome question!

The problem is that when you read a number of Old Testament citations in the New Testament, the New Testament writers are actually quoting from the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint. Most of the Old Testament was written originally in Hebrew, so it comes as a shock to people to learn that this ancient Greek version of the Old Testament is referenced quite a bit in the New. Critics of Biblical faith will ask if the New Testament writers are at best sloppy when quoting from the original Old Testament, or are they downright fraudulent and terribly mistranslate the Old Testament by relying so much on the Septuagint instead of the original Hebrew?

Get your thinking caps on. This is really a good question.

Hebrews 1:6 and Its Mysterious Quotation from the Old Testament:

Consider Hebrews 1:6, where the writer is trying to demonstrate from the Old Testament that Jesus Christ, as the Son of God (the “firstborn”), is not merely a human being, or some angelic person, but rather Jesus is to be worshipped, since He is divine:

And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says,
Let all God’s angels worship him.” (ESV)

Some Bibles will note that the last part is a quotation from Psalm 97:7:

All worshipers of images are put to shame,
who make their boast in worthless idols;
worship him, all you gods! (ESV)

Mmmm. That does not look quite right. The ESV has the original reference as “gods”, not “angels”, who worship “him”.

Various modern Bibles, including also the ESV, note that the quotation in Hebrews 1:6  is actually from Deuteronomy 32:43:

Rejoice, you nations, with his people,
for he will avenge the blood of his servants;
he will take vengeance on his enemies
and make atonement for his land and people. (NIV)

Whoops. Do you notice that something is missing?  There ain’t nothin’ in here about anybody being worshipped, much less any talk about angels or gods. Are the critics right? What is the deal here?

Let us now look at the same passages above as found in the Septuagint:

Let all that worship graven images be ashamed, who boast of their idols; worship him, all ye his angels (Psalm 97:7)

and:

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; for he will avenge the blood of his sons, and he will render vengeance, and recompense justice to his enemies, and will reward them that hate him; and the Lord shall purge the land of his people. (Deuteronomy 32:43)

Though close to Psalm 97:7, it looks like the quotation in Hebrew 1:6 is a nearly verbatim quote from the Septuagint’s reading of Deuteronomy 32:43. So, were the New Testament writers too wrongly attached to their Septuagint readings of the Old Testament?

Masoretic vs. Septuagint:

Most modern translations today rely on the Masoretic Text, which is the authoritative Hebrew text of the original New Testament. The Masoretic Text was standardized by Jewish communities, notably the Masoretes, between the 7th and 10th centuries AD. But while the oldest Masoretic extant copy we have goes back to the 9th century AD, the Masoretic Hebrew tradition goes back into the period before Jesus.

Contrast this to the story of the Septuagint: As the Greek language was taking over the eastern Mediterranean in the 4th to 3rd centuries before Christ, a group of Jews in Alexandria worked to translate the original Hebrew text of the Old Testament into the Greek vernacular. The Septuagint, or literally “seventy”, is nicknamed the “LXX”, the Roman numeral representation for “seventy”. The classic legend is that some seventy (or seventy-two, in most versions of the story) scholars were all placed in different rooms to work on the translation. When they completed their work seventy-two days later, it was discovered that all of the translators had agreed word for word on everything that they wrote. A miracle!

Well, most Bible scholars today tend to roll their eyes on that one. The Septuagint is not simply one text, but a compilation of translated texts into Greek done over a few hundred years. But it does emphasize the esteem that was held by the Jewish community for this translation. The early Christians, many of whom were unfamiliar with Hebrew, followed the Greek-speaking Jewish communities and adopted the Septuagint as their Bible. Many Jews in Jesus’ day and subsequently Christians believed that the Septuagint itself was a work of divine inspiration. The challenge is that the Septuagint, in addition to having some variations with the known ancient Hebrew writings, also added a number of a new texts to the Old Testament. These writings, including 1st and 2nd Maccabees, Tobit, etc., became known as the Apocrypha. Most Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles keep the Apocrypha as part of the authoritative Scriptures.

During the Protestant Reformation, Protestant scholars tended to frown on the Greek versions of the Old Testament, including the Apocrypha, and insisted on going back to the original sources, meaning the original Hebrew of the Old Testament. The Greek stuff, including the Apocrypha, was still helpful, but the original sources were considered to be more authoritative. Modern scholarship for the past several hundreds of years has therefore tended to favor the Hebrew Masoretic text over and against any variations that are found in the Septuagint.

The Dead Sea Scrolls and a Possible Answer to the Mystery:

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls is important here in perhaps helping to resolve the controversy. For example, consider this reading from 4QDeut, a scroll containing the book of Deuteronomy from the 4th Qumran cave, an ancient Hebrew text:

Rejoice, O heavens, together with him; and bow down to him all you gods, for he will avenge the blood of his sons…

Ah, here you see the reference to worship in Deuteronomy just as it is found in Psalm 97:7. So while this is not as close at the Septuagint reading (“gods” vs. “angels”), we are getting a lot closer, thanks to the discovery in the Qumran caves. Remember that the Dead Sea Scrolls contain some of the oldest known copies of the ancient Old Testament, in many cases going back perhaps a few hundred years before Christ.  Granted, the Dead Sea Scrolls agree with the Masoretic text most of the time, which is remarkable in and of itself.  But in a few cases, such as where the readings of Deuteronomy 32:43 do vary in ancient copies of the Hebrew text, it is not fair to say that the Septuagint translators were simply making things up as they were doing their work. Some scholars are even suggesting that perhaps the Septuagint translators were relying on Hebrew texts that predate what we currently have in the standard Masoretic text!

If this is the case, it is quite possible that the New Testament writers were perhaps more accurate in quoting the “original” Old Testament texts than what we typically find today in most modern Bible translations of the Old Testament . Therefore, to charge that the New Testament writers were sloppy or fraudulent simply lacks the evidence.

But what it does suggest is that there are a lot of questions that remain as to what the original text said. This does not mean that God is unclear in the Bible. However, it does mean that our contemporary understanding and interpretation of the original text is not 100% clear. There is a big difference.

Thankfully, even with the relatively small differences between the Septuagint and Masoretic readings, the differences are close enough for the general purposes of reading the Bible.  A good study Bible should bring out the more substantial issues in the footnotes in that small percentage of text where there are disputes.  As with any translation of the Scriptures, there is always an element of interpretation involved in our contemporary English Bibles. It was true for the translators of the Septuagint, too, as well as the New Testament writers who used the Septuagint.  Some may bristle at this suggestion, but I would hope that any evangelical theory of Scriptural inspiration should be robust enough to account for it.   The writer of the Book of Hebrews apparently thought that the idea of the “angels” worshipping Jesus according to the Septuagint tradition is a more faithful way of understanding the original text than simply saying along with the Masoretic tradition that the “gods” would do the worshipping. In doing so, the New Testament writer is making his point: Jesus Christ is worthy of worship, and He is greater than the angels!

As with anything in the world of Biblical scholarship and the handling of ancient texts, the more we approach the Bible with humble hearts and humble minds, the more we realize just how much there is to learn!

Additional Resources:

Q&A from Williamsburg Community Chapel, by Rich Sylvester, which prompted this blog posting (the question begins at the 1:12 mark in the recording, and the discussion ends at the 3:22 mark):

 

For some of you advanced Bible geeks who like something a little edgy, Peter Enns interviews Timothy Michael Law, author of When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible. Professor Law notes several other places where the New Testament quotes the Septuagint in ways that do not exactly line up with what we currently know to be the original Hebrew text. The following video introduces some of the basic ideas surrounding what is the Septuagint.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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