Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Septuagint Question

Do you ever notice how once you begin thinking about a particular topic it seems to pop up almost everywhere you look? I was reading a book this evening and came across a passage that touches on a topic that keeps popping up for me recently. I suppose that I am like many other people in that I will be drawn to study a particular topic or subject for a few years and then once I feel comfortable with it I will move on to something else. Over the past year or so I have been increasingly curious about the New Testament use of the Old Testament and I keep experiencing little prods to delve into this more deeply.

Awhile ago I spent a few years studying various philosophies and processes of biblical interpretation (hermeneutics) and I also majored in history and literature for my undergraduate work at a secular school so I have spent a lot of time thinking about written texts and how people interact with them. The one area, however, that I always felt like I neglected was a thorough study of the use of Old Testament quotations in the New Testament. I know what other many other people have said and written on the topic but I haven’t put in the time to solidify my position based upon my own work. That brings us back to the book I was reading.

The book is John Owen’s Biblical Theology: The History of Theology from Adam to Christ. Owen includes in this book a very brief section on the Septuagint (LXX). The Septuagint is an ancient Jewish translation of the Old Testament into the Greek language. It was completed at least 130 years before Christ was born and was the primary bible for many of the Greek speaking Jews living outside of Palestine from its completion well into the Christian age and it was the version of the Old Testament that was most commonly used in the early post-apostolic church. Owen sees the Septuagint as less reliable than the Hebrew versions and without much argument suggests that little weight should be assigned to it. It seems to me that it deserves a little more attention than Owen gives to it (though admittedly this isn’t the main point of the book). There is a significant question here and it ties in with my burgeoning interest in the way the New Testament writers use the Old Testament text.

Virtually every English translation of the bible uses a form of the Hebrew Masoretic text (MT), completed around 1,000 A.D., as the source text to translate the Old Testament. I don’t question the accuracy of the MT but there are a number of slight differences in wording between the MT and the older Greek LXX. It isn’t surprising that there would be some differences when we consider the fact that different languages are used but what is interesting is that quite often the New Testament writers quote from the LXX rather than the Hebrew. I have seen some estimates that claim that as many as 2/3rds of the Old Testament quotations in the New Testament are from the LXX rather than the Hebrew. Many of the quotes are very short so it is difficult for me to always determine which is being quoted from but I have noticed some instances where I found that the N.T. quote did not match the O.T. reference in my bible only to find that it did match the LXX rendering.

Most translators prefer the Hebrew text because the LXX is itself a translation from Hebrew so the thought process is that rather than translate a translation they should go back to the original donor language even though the LXX is older than the MT manuscripts (although I understand that the Greek Orthodox Church does use the LXX). Another reason why the LXX is often not used, especially in Protestant circles, is that it contains some of the apocryphal books that are not accepted as Scripture by Protestants. There are many complicated issues related to which texts to select for translation and I am certainly not suggesting that the LXX should be used in preference to the MT or that any apocryphal book should be accepted simply because other books from the LXX are quoted by the apostles.

I am simply pointing out that it is interesting that so much of the N.T. is quoted from the LXX and yet I know few people, even among teachers, who have spent much time with it. My interest in the N.T. use of the O.T. has much more to do with the way that the passages are interpreted than with these kinds of textual issues but it is interesting to me that the Holy Spirit chose to have the N.T. writers quote from the Hebrew O.T. on some occasions and the Greek O.T. on others. It is also interesting, given that fact, that English translations of the LXX are so scarce.

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