The Septuagint in the Oriental Orthodox Tradition

Some years ago I had reason to swear an affidavit before a commissioner of oaths and the solicitor, after fumbling about on his bookshelves, pulled down an impressive tome and proffered it to me for me to swear my oath. Curious to know which version of the Holy Bible it was, I glanced at its spine only to discover that it was in fact a dictionary and not a Bible. When I drew his attention to this, he merely shrugged his shoulders and said, “But its got all the same words in it!”  Needless to say, I insisted that he produce a Bible before I would take my oath.

However, I relate this anecdote to illustrate a serious point because not all Bibles are the same and, as Christians, it is of vital importance that we have a text which is authentic and complete. The Jehovah Witnesses frequently offer Bibles to those they visit, but their “New World Translation” is entirely their own version with text translated or omitted so that it accords with the peculiar doctrines of the Jehovah Witness sect. In considering its scholarly credentials it might be worth noting that of the five “translators” who created this version, only one had studied Greek for two years and he was self taught in Hebrew, whilst the other four only had a high school education. ((Raymond Franz, Crisis of Conscience, Commentary Press,Atlanta: 1983), p. 50, n. 15.))

Once we start looking at Bibles we discover such a profusion of translations that it can be bewildering and we need to inform ourselves if we are to make wise choices. Let us start from the simple basis of a New Testament passage where it quotes from the Old Testament, such as the opening of St. Mark’s Gospel where it quotes from the Book of Isaiah as a prophecy concerning the ministry of St. John the Baptist. Until the Gospels and Epistles were written the only Bible known to our Lord and the apostles was the Old Testament. We might expect, therefore that the best translations of the Old Testament would be from the oldest Hebrew manuscripts but unfortunately things aren’t as simple as that, as I will try to explain. If you should happen to read biblical commentaries you will soon encounter references to the Latin numerals for seventy: LXX. This represents the version of the Bible, known as the Septuagint and I am going to briefly introduce you to it today.

Its name is derived from the Latin word for “seventy” because it refers to the tradition that this is a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures made in Alexandriaby seventy scholars in the third century BC. We know of it from surviving fragments of the writings of a Jew called Aristobulos, sometime around the middle of the second century BC, but the fullest account is to be found in the Letter of Aristeas, a writer purporting to be a courtier at the court of the Pharoah Ptolomy ‘Philadelphus’ II (285-247 BC), who tells how the royal librarian, Demetrius of Phalerum, wanting to add to the great library at Alexandria, commissioned a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. A special embassy, of which Aristeas was a member, was sent to Eleazar, the High Priest in Jerusalem, to obtain the texts as well as the services of expert translators. By tradition there were seventy-two translators (six from each of the twelve tribes) who were locked away in separate rooms, but when they came together were found to be in complete agreement with each other, not something often found among scholars, ancient or modern !  Another version suggests that they made their translation in seventy-two days. Unfortunately Aristeas was almost certainly writing at a later date and his ‘eye-witness’ account followed a contemporary literary convention. There are many pious traditions associated with the origin of the Septuagint and the evidence as to whether the original translation only included the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, called the Torah) or all the Old Testament books is inconclusive. Textual evidence suggests, however, that the LXX was probably not all compiled as one. Some scholars suggest that the Greek translation of Ecclesiastes is very literal, almost wooden; whilst Proverbs is more rounded.

The biblical scholar, H.B. Swete, notes, “

 “Strictly speaking the Alexandrian Bible is not a single version, but a series of versions produced at various times and by translators whose ideals were not altogether alike. Internal evidence of this fact may be found in the varying standards of excellence which appear in different books or groups of books. The Pentateuch is on the whole a close and serviceable translation; the Psalms and more especially the Book of Isaiah shew obvious signs of incompetence. The translator of Job was perhaps more familiar with Greek pagan literature than with Semitic poetry; the translator of Daniel indulges at times in a Midrashic paraphrase….. When we come to details, the evidence in favour of a plurality of translators is no less decisive. A comparison of certain passages which occur in separate contexts distinctly reveals the presence of different hands.”1

What we do know, however, is that by the later Ptolomaic period, at least a century before our Lord, the Hebrew scriptures had all been translated into Greek. It was regarded as an authoritative text by the Hellenistic Jews and was the most widely used among the Jewish diaspora.2  Two early Jewish writers, Philo (20 BC-50 AD) and Josephus (37-100 AD), both expressed the widely held opinion that this was a divinely inspired translation. By emphasising the supernatural character of the translation, Philo “underlines the importance of the Greek version and its authenticity over the Hebrew Bible.”3

It is, moreover, a pioneering work. There was probably no precedent in the world’s history for a series of translations from one language into another on so extensive a scale.

 “It was the first attempt to reproduce the Hebrew Scriptures in another tongue. It is one of the outstanding results of the breaking-down of international barriers by the conquests of Alexander the Great and the dissemination of the Greek language, which were fraught with such vital consequences for the history of religion. The cosmopolitan city which he founded in the Delta witnessed the first attempt to bridge the gulf between Jewish and Greek thought. The Jewish commercial settlers at Alexandria, forced by circumstances to abandon their language, clung tenaciously to their faith; and the translation of the Scriptures into their adopted language, produced to meet their own needs, had the further result of introducing the outside world to a knowledge of their history and religion.”4

The foundation of the Christian Church has rightly been described as the most momentous event in the Septuagint’s history and the starting-point of a new life because the Church saw herself as the rightful guardian of the ancient scriptures. We not only find the Septuagint cited in the Gospels but it is widely quoted by the apostles and apostolic fathers. Its words now become household words to them and laid the foundations of a new religious terminology.

We are reminded of this by Frederick Conybeare, the British orientalist,

 “This work has had more bearing upon ourselves than we are perhaps inclined to think. For it was the first step towards that fusion of the Hebraic with the Hellenic strain, which has issued in the mind and heart of modern Christendom. Like the opening of the Suez Canal, it let the waters of the East mingle with those of the West, bearing with them many a freight of precious merchandise. Without the Septuagint there could have been, humanly speaking, no New Testament: for the former provided to the latter not only its vehicle of language, but to a great extent also its moulds of thought. These last were of course ultimately Semitic, but when religious ideas had to be expressed in Greek, it was difficult for them to escape change in the process.”5

One of the earliest biblical scholars, the third century Alexandrian Christian, Origen (184-254 AD) gathered together Greek and Hebrew texts available at that time and placed them side by side in six columns in his Hexapla (six-fold). Although only fragments of this have survived, Origen’s work demonstrated the great importance of the Septuagint. His six columns contained 1) the Hebrew text, 2) a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew, 3) the Greek translation of Aquila, a Jew fromPontus, probably dating from about 126 AD, 4) a Greek translation by Symmachus, an Ebionite or Judaising Christian – 5) another Greek text of Theodotion, a Hellenist Jew, from about 150 AD and 6) the Septuagint.

The Septuagint was also to play a significant role in the spread of Christianity to other lands as it was the principal source text for translations into other languages. so that the later Arabic, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopic, Georgia, Old Latin and Old Church Slavonic all derive from a common source.

In the late 4th century St. Jerome produced his Latin translation of the Bible, known as the Vulgate, from it being the versio vulgate, or commonly used translation. To produce this he depended on his own translation of old Hebrew texts available at that time as well as the Septuagint, an Aramaic version, Theodotion’s Greek and various older Latin texts. These earlier old Latin versions had been made from the Septuagint, so it still played a significant role even in the Vulgate.

Surprisingly, the chief value of the Septuagint lies in the fact that it is a version of a Hebrew text earlier by about a millennium than the earliest dated Hebrew manuscript extant (916 AD).  Jews today use the Masoretic text, named from the Masoretes, who copied and distributed it. The Hebrew word mesorah originally meant “fetter” or a restriction on its interpretation, but later came to mean the transmission of a tradition.  This text is not only very precise but also defines what comprises the canon, or the books to be included. However, the oldest extant manuscripts of this text date from the ninth century AD.

As a number of Jews began to convert to Christianity the Jewish elders became concerned about the use of their scriptures to support the new faith. Following the destruction of the Templeat Jerusalemand the loss of the High Priesthood in 70 AD, the prestigious rabbinical school at Jamnia, near Jaffa, constituted a new Sanhedrin to review the condition of Judaism. From this school6 , around 90 AD the Jewish canon of scripture became fixed prior to the formal rabbinical revision of the Hebrew which took place early in the 2nd century AD.  It would appear that they believed, erroneously as it has since turned out, that some of the books in the Septuagint, known as Deutero-canonical, were never written in Hebrew and therefore lacked true authority. When Christians began to cite the Septuagint as proof of their doctrines, the Jews began to question its accuracy.

Justin Martyr, an early Christian apologist, in his Dialogue with Trypho complains that the Jews had removed passages from their scriptures in order to disguise the prophecies concerning our Lord, “But I am far from putting reliance in your teachers, who refuse to admit that the interpretation made by the seventy elders who were with Ptolemy [king] of the Egyptians is a correct one; and they attempt to frame another. And I wish you to observe, that they have altogether taken away many Scriptures from the translations effected by those seventy elders who were with Ptolemy, and by which this very man who was crucified is proved to have been set forth expressly as God, and man, and as being crucified, and as dying.”7

He cites Psalm XCV, a prophecy of the crucifixion, “Tell ye among the nations that the Lord hath reigned from the wood”, which the Masoretic text renders, ““Tell ye among the nations that the Lord hath reigned.” A crucial instance cited by the Jews was the rendering “virgin” in Isaiah VII:14, where they claimed that “young woman” would be more accurate. Justin retaliates by charging the Jews with deliberate deletion of passages favourable to Christianity,

 “and since this passage from the sayings of Jeremiah is still written in some copies [of the Scriptures] in the synagogues of the Jews (for it is only a short time since they were cut out), and since from these words it is demonstrated that the Jews deliberated about the Christ Himself, to crucify and put Him to death ….. but being in a difficulty about them, they give themselves over to blasphemy.” 

After Justin has cited numerous texts, Trypho replies,

“Whether [or not] the rulers of the people have erased any portion of the Scriptures, as you affirm, God knows; but it seems incredible.”

Whether Justin’s suggestion that the Jewish revision of the Septuagint was a deliberate apologetic reaction to the growth of the Christian Church or more simply an inner, pre-Christian development is not the key issue, as the evidence shows that a revision took place among the Jews and that the Septuagint is an earlier text.

Because the Septuagint became the Bible of the early Church Fathers, it helped to shape dogma not just of the Church but of its heretics too, as it furnished proof-texts to both parties in the Arian and other controversies.

 “Uncouth and unclassical as much of it appears, we now know that this is not wholly due to the hampering effects of translation. “Biblical Greek,” once considered a distinct species, is now a rather discredited term. The hundreds of contemporary papyrus records (letters, business and legal documents, etc.) recently discovered in Egypt illustrate much of the vocabulary and grammar and go to show that many so-called “Hebraisms” were in truth integral parts of the koine, or “common language,” i.e. the international form of Greek which, since the time of Alexander, replaced the old dialects, and of which the spoken Greek of today is the lineal descendant. The version was made for the populace and written in large measure in the language of their everyday life.”8

In other words. the language of the Septuagint, so far as it is Greek at all, is the colloquial Greek of Alexandria, but it is Biblical Greek, because it contains so large an element which is not Hellenic, but Semitic.

It has been said that of particular significance of the concept of God implied by the consistent translation of the divine name as Kyrios, “The Bible whose God is Yahweh is a national Bible; the Bible whose God is Kyrios (the Lord) is a universal Bible.9

An example of this is given by Ernst Würthwein, who notes that the translators eliminated possible theological misunderstandings by avoiding literal translations. He instances the common Old Testament image of God as “the Rock” and substituting other expressions. As the ancient Greeks saw rocks and stones as symbols, abodes and representations of divinity, it might have appeared that the rocks and stones were themselves divine. As the Septuagint, by contrast to the Hebrew text, was directed to missionary, propaganda and apologetic purposes, the image was sacrificed to the meaning. “The LXX gives a new form to the text of the Old Testament, and in so doing preserves the spirit of the Old Testament revelation of God.10

Originally the Protestant churches drew heavily on the Masoretic text because Martin Luther assumed that the oldest and most reliable source would be the Hebrew. The Authorised Version of the Bible (known as King James) depends principally on the Masoretic text.11 Luther and the reformers also wanted to exclude scriptural passages which upheld doctrines with which he disagreed, like prayers for the departed. I was amused by one Protestant writer who rather put the cart before the horse when he wrote, “The Apocrypha includes doctrines in variance with the Bible, such as prayers for the dead”

The Apocrypha, so called from the Greek words signifying something “hidden away” was an integral part of the canon included in the Septuagint but not in the later Hebrew Bible. For this reason the Orthodox church has 49 books in its Old Testament canon, the Catholics have 47 (they omit I Esdras, though use that name for what we called II Esdras and the leave out the III & IV Book of Maccabees) and the Protestants, only 39. If we wish to distinguish between the Apocrypha and the other Old Testament books, a better term is to refer to them as Deutero-canonical (from deutero, second) as opposed to the Proto-canonical (Proto, first).

So, what are the most significant differences between the LXX and other translations of the Bible apart from the omission by some of the Deutero-canonical books ?  The LXX Books of Jeremiah and Job are considerably shorter than the Masoretic text, which suggests that portions were later added. Conversely, almost half the verses in the LXX version of Esther are not in the Masoretic text, which equally suggests that other things were left out. Another, obvious difference, is the psalms. Versions based on the Masoretic text have only 150 psalms whereas the LXX has 151 which are divided and numbered differently.

The Samaritans, as you may recall, divided from the Jews before the Babylonian captivity. They have their own Pentateuch or Samaritan Bible and although their oldest manuscript, the Abisha Scroll, which is used in the Samaritan synagogue of Nablus, is thought to date from as late as the twelfth century, its text, however, derives from much earlier manuscripts common to both before their separation from Judaism, probably in the fourth century BC. It is claimed that there are significant differences between the Hebrew and the Samaritan versions in the readings of many sentences but in about two thousand out of the six thousand instances in which the Samaritan and the Masoretic text differ, the LXX agrees with the Samaritan.

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the middle of the twentieth century has provided further evidence of close agreement between the LXX and the pre-Masoretic text and once again shows that the LXX translations are really quite reliable.

The first English translation of the LXX was in 1808 by Charles Thomson, described as an “American businessmen-scholar”. Unfortunately Thomson omitted the Deutero-canonical books, but did include Psalm 151. The second English version was made by Sir Launcelot Charles Lee Brenton, an English baronet, who was ordained by the Church of England in 1830 but soon left the established church to found an independent chapel in Bath, which became part of the early Brethren movement. Hios translation was first released in 1844 and has since gone through several reprints. The font is small (about 8 points), the books are out of order, the language is archaic, and there are a few errors but the translation is literal and includes the Greek text alongside the English. In 2007 OxfordUniversitypublished a new English translation (called NETS) carried out under the ægis of The International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies (IOSCS) and a new edition is expected soon.

The Orthodox Study Bible, first published by Thomas Nelson in 1993 only included the New Testament and the Psalms. Unfortunately the Psalter was not based on the Septuagint but on the Authorised Version of the Bible, which drew principally from the Masoretic text. This brought many criticisms so that the 2008 edition, which included the Old Testament was translated from the Greek text of the LXX of Alfred Rahlf (1865-1935), a German biblical scholar and linguist, but based on Brenton’s translation and the New King James Bible.12  An online review by R. G. Jones observes, “this translation abounds with errors, at least in Genesis and Exodus …. When I began to compare the OSB Old Testament with the Greek, I suspected I would quibble about a few passages on the grounds that the patristic understanding had not been taken into account, but end up recommending the work.  I didn’t consider the possibility that the editors would permit so many plain mistakes to be published ….

I am puzzled why anyone should want to use the New King James text. Begun in 1975 by Thomas Nelson as a “completely new, modern translation of Scripture” it is based on the Masoretic text rather than the Septuagint, which was only “consulted”13) The claim that it retains the purity and stylistic beauty of the original King James” version is untenable. For people of my generation who grew up with the incomparable language of classical English the Authorised version (which the American called King James) resonates of English culture and spiritual identity, in spite of its shortcomings. Substitute modern English, however, and it is nothing more than a translation of a translation and a not very attractive one at that !  Yet Orthodox Christians – often from backgrounds where English is not their first language – appear to have shown a preference for the NKJV in just the same way as they often prefer the Bible commentaries of Matthew Henry (1662-1714), worthy and devotional though they may be. One might hope, however, that the expositions of our Orthodox fathers and contemporary spiritual writers would be more valuable than an evangelical Protestant minister.

I would like to commend a translation of the The Agpeya. The Coptic Book of Hours by Father Matthias Farid Whaba which uniquely uses the ancient Coptic version of the Psalms (which are an early translation from the Septuagint). The editor notes that the work “reflects the same understanding and meaning of the Psalms and prayers, as used by our Coptic fathers” and “bears the particular flavour of the Coptic language”. A good example of the quality of his translation is Psalm XXIII:

The Lord is He who shepherds me; I shall need nothing.

In a place of green pasture; there He has made me dwell; by the water of rest.

He has tended me. He has restored my soul; He has guided me into the paths of righteousness, for His name’s sake.

Even if I walk in the midst of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for You are with me, Your rod and Your staff, these comfort me.

You have prepared a table before me in the presence of those who afflict me.

You have anointed my head with oil, and Your cup makes me drunk like power.

Your mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and my dwelling shall be in the house of the Lord unto length of days.

In 1966 the late Father Lazarus Moore (1902-1992), an English convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, published his Psalter in India and whilst it was a scholarly rendering from the Septuagint it suffered from poor proof-reading and a linguistic style more suited to personal use rather than liturgical. In 1997 Holy Transfiguration Monastery,Boston,Massachusetts published a beautifully produced volume, on very high quality art paper, two colour printing, bound in light blue cloth with gold lettering followed in 2007 by a small, almost pocket size edition of the same text, beautifully printed on high quality paper, and superbly bound. It has also retained classical English liturgical language, which contributes to its solemnity and beauty.

The Septuagint is an integral part of our spiritual inheritance and we must not only reclaim, but treasure it as a vital part of our Judaeo-Christian heritage which the Orthodox Church has preserved for us throughout many generations.


Abba Seraphim

  1. H.B. Swete, An Introduction to the Old Testament in Greek. Additional Notes (1914). []
  2. Vide Albert C. Sundberg, Jnr, “The Septuagint: The Bible of Hellenistic Judaism” in Lee Martin McDonald & James A. Sanders, The Canon Debate (Hendrickson: 2002) and Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “The Language of Palestine in the First Century AD” in Catholic Biblical Quarterly 32 (1970): 507, 18. []
  3. J.M. Dines, The Septuagint (2005). []
  4. H. St. John Thackeray, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915). []
  5. F.C. Conybeare and St. George Stock, Grammar of Septuagint Greek (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1905), pp. 20-24. []
  6. Vide Jack P. Lewis, “Jamnia Revisited” in McDonald & Sanders, op.cit. []
  7. Dialogue with Trypho, 71-73. []
  8. H. St. John Thackeray, op.cit. []
  9. A. Deissmann 1903, p. 174 []
  10. Ernst Würthwein, The text of the Old Testament: an introduction to the Biblia Hebraica, p. 69. []
  11. The translatorsd ofv the Authorised Version (1611) had some ten printed editions of the Hebrew Old Testament as well as Cardinal Ximenes’ Complutension Polyglot (1517) which contained the Vulgate and the LXX, but they also drew heavily on Wycliff’s 1384 translation and the 1557 Geneva Bible, neither of which had used the LXX. However, whilst the Apocrypha was largely translated from the LXX (although 2 Esdras was translated from the Vulgate) it was placed in its own section between the Old and New Testament. After 1825 the British and Foreign Bible Society published it as a separate volume.  []
  12. “The English style is that of the New King James Version (NKJV), which was used as a template. The Old Testament was prepared under the auspices of the academic community of St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology, using clergy and lay scholars. The overview committee included fourteen archbishops, metropolitans, and bishops from various Orthodox jurisdictions, as well as eight priests and seven lay scholars. The Old Testament includes a new translation of the Psalms by Donald Sheehan of Dartmouth College.” []
  13. “The New King James Version is a conservative revision of the King James version that does not make any alterations on the basis of a revised Greek or Hebrew text, but adheres to the readings presumed to underlie the King James version…..For the New King James Version the text used was the 1967/1977 Stuttgart edition of the Biblia Hebraica, with frequent comparisons being made with the Bomberg edition of 1524-25. The Septuagint (Greek) Version of the Old Testament and the Latin Vulgate also were consulted.” (Publicity statement by Thomas Nelson []
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