The Septuagint was the first translation made of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek. It was begun over two hundred years before the birth of Jesus. It was translated from a Hebrew Old Testament text-type that is older than the Masoretic text, from which most Old Testaments are translated today. This is sad, for the apostles had access to both the Septuagint and to the proto-Masoretic text that was in existence in their time. And they chose to quote from the Septuagint—not the proto-Masoretic text.
You have probably noticed that many of the Old Testament passages that are quoted in the New Testament don't read the same in the New as they do in the Old. However, if you were using the Septuagint Old Testament, they would read the same.
For example, notice this passage from the Psalms that is quoted in the Book of Hebrews: "Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says, 'Sacrifice and offering thou hast not desired, but a body thou hast prepared for me'" (Heb. 10:5,6). In that passage, Paul is quoting from Psalm 40:6. If you look up Psalm 40:6 in your Bible, you will find that it reads: "Sacrifice and offering Thou hast not desired; mine ears Thou hast opened." That's not how writer of Hebrews quoted that verse, is it?
Our Old Testaments don't say anything in Psalms about "a body Thou hast prepared for me." Is that not part of Scripture? If it isn't, why did the writer of Hebrews quote it as Scripture? If it is part of Scripture, what justification do we have for using a text that is different from what the apostles were using?
That is not an isolated example. Such variances between the Septuagint and the Masoretic text are fairly numerous. In fact, one of the cardinal teachings of Christianity turns on one of these variances. We have all read Matthew's quotation from Isaiah 7:14: "Now all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, 'Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel'" (Matt. 1:22,23). What I did not realize until recently was that the Hebrew Masoretic text does not say, "the virgin shall be with child." It says, "the young woman shall be with child." No wonder the apostles and their disciples chose the Septuagint over the Masoretic text.
Unless you use the Revised Standard Version, if you look up Isaiah 7:14 in your Old Testament, you will probably find that it reads "virgin" instead of "young woman." That's because translators have fudged on their use of the Masoretic text in order to conform to the cardinal Christian doctrine of the virgin birth. But how honest is that? Can we ignore the Septuagint and treat it as "a translation full of errors," but then when one of those "errors" supports a major Christian doctrine, go over and borrow from it? Are we really seeking truth when we do that?
Is the Septuagint Full of Errors?
During the Middle Ages, and for many centuries thereafter, western Christians mistakenly thought that the Septuagint was merely a careless translation of the Hebrew text. Many Christians today still think that. However, during the 1800s, scholars began to postulate that perhaps the reason for the variance between the Septuagint and the Masoretic text was that the translators of the Septuagint were working from an earlier Hebrew text that varied from the later Masoretic text.
In 1947, when scholars were still speculating about these things, an Arab shepherd accidentally discovered some ancient Jewish scrolls near the settlement of Qumran in Palestine. Those scrolls, along with numerous other scrolls later found in the same vicinity, have come to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, or the Qumran Library. The Old Testament texts found among these scrolls were centuries older than any previously known Old Testament manuscripts. Among the first scrolls examined were two manuscripts of the Book of Isaiah. The initial published reports proclaimed that those manuscripts were virtually identical to the Masoretic text of today. Evangelical Christians were quick to propagate these initial reports.
However, later, a more sober reflection on the Isaiah scrolls, coupled with the discovery of Dead Sea manuscripts for other Old Testament books, revealed that the initial reports were premature. Rather than vindicating the Masoretic text as being the original Hebrew text, the thousands of Qumran text specimens reveal that there was a definite diversity of text types of the Old Testament in use during the centuries before Christ. The Masoretic text reflects only one of those text types. Unfortunately, evangelicals have not been very quick to retract those original premature reports.
More importantly, those manuscripts confirmed that there were early Hebrew manuscripts that largely agree textually with the Septuagint. So the Septuagint was not a sloppy translation of the Masoretic text. Rather, it is apparently a reasonably faithful translation of another text type—a text that may well be older than the prototype of the Masoretic text. Again, let me emphasize that the differences between these text types do not affect any significant spiritual truths. They mainly affect the wording of various Old Testament passages.
The Value of the Septuagint
More and more Bible scholars today are recognizing the immense value of the Septuagint and its unique relationship to the New Testament. For example, Bible scholar George Howard points out:
If the writers of the NT [New Testament] were influenced by secular Greek, they were influenced more by LXX [Septuagint]. Separated from LXX the NT would have been almost unintelligible to the contemporary reader, according to B. Atkinson. ... At any rate, in the past decades there has developed an appreciation for the influence which LXX vocabulary had on NT thought and the contributions in this area of Septuagintal research are still coming. Consequently, the debate over which source is more important for NT lexicography, Greek or Hebrew, will probably be resolved in terms of LXX.
Dr. Sven Soderlund of Regent College writes:
The LXX was the Bible for most writers of the NT. Not only did they take from it most of their express citations of Scripture, but their writings—in particular the Gospels, and among them especially Luke—contain numerous reminiscences of its language. The theological terms of the NT, such as "law," "righteousness," "mercy," "truth," "propitiation," were taken over directly from the LXX and must be understood in the light of their use in that version.
Other Old Testament scholars have expressed similar sentiments.
copyright Scroll Publishing Co. 2004.
On Sale!50% off! The Septuagint was the first translation made of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek. It was begun over two hundred years before the birth of Jesus. It was translated from a Hebrew Old Testament text-type that is older than the Masoretic text, from which most Old Testaments are translated today. This is sad, for the apostles had access to both the Septuagint and to the proto-Masoretic text that was in existence in their time. Yet they chose to quote from the Septuagint---not the proto-Masoretic text.
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