The Necessity of the LXX for NT Studies

In his latest post, Larry Hurtado encourages New Testament scholars to more seriously engage the Septuagint when trying to explain OT allusions or citations of the NT. Here is a little provocation intended to move you quickly toward reading the whole thing:

The first/primary question about any OT text thought to have been used in the NT is what the Greek form of the text was.  Indeed, at the risk of being provocative, I would say that you need to justify consulting or at least making much of the Hebrew text.

Should you find yourself convicted of neglect and eager to repent, he points to a few helpful introductory resources. I have also posted reviews of three introductions to the Septuagint–including Jobes and Silva, which he mentions–on the book reviews page.

Though Jennifer Dines’ introduction is shorter, Jobes and Silva is certainly the place to start. One way of framing the difference between those two reader friendly introductions: Dines answers the question “What is the Septuagint?” Jobes and Silva answer that question plus “What is Septuagint studies?”

UPDATE 5/2/12:

Larry Hurtado posted a follow-up, noting another helpful resource, Hengel’s The Septuagint as Christian Scripture.

John Meade over at the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog noted Hurado’s original post. Be sure to check out John’s post because he links to a PDF of the Cambridge (Brooke-McLean) LXX! If you click the link to download it, note that the third “PDF” link on the left side of the page combines all eight volumes into one.

Book Reviews: 3 Introductions to the LXX

I added a new Book Reviews page to this blog. There you’ll find my review of three introductions to the Septuagint.

  1. Karen H. Jobes and Moisés Silva, Invitation to the Septuagint (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000).
  2. Jennifer Mary Dines, The Septuagint (T&T Clark, 2004).
  3. Natalio Fernández Marcos, The Septuagint in Context: Introduction to the Greek Version of the Bible (Society of Biblical Literature, 2009).

“All Roads of LXX Studies Lead Back to Origen”

What does it mean that all roads of Septuagint studies lead back to Origen?

Dines states it nicely,

Origen had not intended his work to be used indiscriminately; it was to help users of the Bible who needed a clearer picture of the text in order to gain access to the Hebrew, whether for debate or for pastoral and homiletic purposes. However methodologically unacceptable by modern standards, his was a work of meticulous scholarship, undertaken, one guesses, largely from love of the textual enterprise itself.

But it was not long before things got out of hand: copies of the hexaplaric edition were made in which the critical marks were inaccurately copied, or not copied at all, probably because scribes did not understand their significance. The end result was that the clear distinctions between original LXX and versions in the Hexapla itself, not to mention Origen’s own rearrangements, became blurred so that what now passed for ‘the LXX’ was in fact a badly corrupted text.

Jennifer Mary Dines, The Septuagint (T&T Clark, 2004), 102.

Why not Greek “Targums”?

There is a general consensus among scholars that the first first few books of the Septuagint were translated in the early- to mid-third century B.C.E in Alexandria.

In her concise little Introduction to the Septuagint, Jennifer Dines ponders,

Why were written Scriptures needed, or permitted, in Greek at a time when they were not, apparently, in Aramaic? Why could there not have been oral Greek paraphrases of the Hebrew Scriptures in Egypt which might eventually have resulted in written Greek ‘Targums’?

Her conclusion is intriguing:

Alexandria (assuming the whole enterprise to have started there) provided a literate, cosmopolitan culture, where ‘everyone who was anyone’ came to study, and where debating and writing were second nature. Alexandrian Judaism may have almost accidentally pioneered a new stage in the history of the Bible in response to the excitement of living in a educated milieu which expressed iteself in written words . . . This was a moment of creative genius from which the LXX emerged as something generically new: not quite like a legislative document, not quite like a metaphrase of Homer, not quite an exegetical rewriting, but exhibiting features of all these genres. The first translators made serious use of all of them as appropriate ways of rendering the holy books in use within their communities, and in doing so perhaps attracted the interest of the wider world as well.

Jennifer Mary Dines, The Septuagint (T&T Clark, 2004), 6061.

What Does “70” Have to Do with the Greek Old Testament?

The Greek Old Testament is commonly referred to as the Septuagint (from the Latin word for 70) or as the LXX. But why 70?

The answer to this question lies in the legendary account of the circumstances surrounding the first Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible.

The story begins with the Letter of Aristeas. Most scholars believe this letter was written not in the third century B.C.E as a firsthand account of the translation process, but rather as a second century B.C.E. defense of the translation.

Is it acceptable to read Holy Scripture in a language other than Hebrew? This was the question of the day. Aristeas says, “Yes,” and he grounds his answer in the extraordinary circumstances that occasioned the translation. Aristeas’ story forms the substance of our understanding of the origin of the Septuagint, but the legend, according to Jobes and Silva, grew over time. The following summarizes their telling of how the legend developed.

2nd Century B.C.E.

Aristeas explains that the translation process was initiated by the Egyptian king Ptolemy. He wanted to add a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible to the great library in Alexandria. Ptolemy had his librarian request that translators and manuscripts be sent from Jerusalem. The high priest in Jerusalem agreed and sent 6 men from each of the 12 tribes of Israel to Alexandria. So, according to Aristeas, there were 72 translators who worked on the first Greek translation, which encompassed just the first 5 books of the Hebrew Bible. The 72 translators worked for 72 days, and their work was such a success that the Jews asked the librarian to provide them a copy for use in their communities. A curse was pronounced upon anyone who tampered with their perfect translation.

The number which arises from Aristeas’ story, then, is 72. So, why 70?

1st Century C.E.

Jobes and Silva comment, “Writers subsequent to the Letter of Aristeas add little information of substance” (36). With respect to the circumstances surrounding the original translation, Aristeas is our man. But our question is why LXX (70)? The answer to that question comes later, as the legend develops.

Philo was a prominent Jewish philosopher who lived in the first century. According to him, the translators worked independently of each other, yet produced the exact same translation. This is quite a leap forward. Not even two people working independently of each other would produce exactly the same translation, much less 72. Therefore, as the logic goes, God must have intervened. Philo taught that the LXX was divinely inspired just like the Hebrew original.

2nd Century C.E.

In Sefer Tora 1.8, a rabbinic writing found in the Babylonian Talmud, the number 70 first appears. Jobes and Silva consider Sefer Tora‘s 70 yet another attempt to justify the translation. There were 70 elders who went up Mt. Sinai with Moses (Exodus 24:1-2, 9-11), and God appointed 70 elders to receive a share of the Holy Spirit along with Moses, in order that they might faithfully govern the people (Numbers 11:10-25). So, the detail that there were 70 translators of the 5 books of Moses ties the Greek Old Testament into this tradition of divine inspiration.

The Greek Old Testament is referred to as the Septuagint or LXX in light of this tradition. 70 refers to the supposed number of translators involved in the original translation of the Pentateuch. According to Jobes and Silva, by the middle of the second century, “the seventy” (οι εβδομηκοντα) can be found in the writings of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Eusebius, and Chrysostom, who used the term to refer to the entire Greek Old Testament.

Re: “Septuagint”

The word “Septuagint” is quite slippery. In their first chapter Jobes and Silva note a few different ways the word is used and provide a little etymology:


  • “Septuagint” came into English from the Latin word Septuaginta (“seventy”), a shortened form of the title Interpretatio septuaginta virorum (“The Translation of the Seventy Men”).
  • The Latin title arose from the Greek phrase οἱ ἑβδομηκοντα (“the seventy”)
  • Therefore we refer to the Septuagint with the roman numerals LXX as shorthand.
  • In its most general sense “Septuagint” refers to any or all Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible. Something like the way we use “English Bible” without reference to a particular translation. E.g. > When doing Old Testament exegesis the Septuagint is relevant.
  • More narrowly it can refer to a particular printed edition of the Greek Old Testament. E.g. > “Get your NA27, your BHS and your Septuagint and meet me at Starbucks.” With this sentence  I would be referring either to the edition edited by Rahlf and Hanhard or one of the Göttingen volumes.
  • Even more narrowly it can be used by scholars to distinguish the oldest translation of the Pentateuch from (1) other later translations of biblical books or (2) revisions of the Greek text. — A little explanation — The Pentateuch was translated into Greek sometime during the middle of the third century B.C.E. This is where it all started. Throughout the next couple centuries the rest of the books of the Hebrew Bible were translated and all these translations were revised. Some reserve “Septuagint” for the the original translation of the Pentateuch and refer to the original translation of the other books as “Old Greek,” referring the the whole Greek Old Testament  with the abbreviation “LXX/OG.” The revisions of all these translations are called “recensions.” E.g. > “In your paper you should compare and contrast the translation techniques evident in the text of the Septuagint with the translation techniques evident in the Greek text of Proverbs.”
Therefore when you see the word “Septuagint,” you have to pay attention to the context in which it is being used. On this site it is safe to assume, unless explicitly stated otherwise, that “Septuagint” is being used in the general sense (the first bullet under “usage” above).