The Septuagint

Often, in reading Orthodox literature, people come across Scripture quotes with the Roman numerals "LXX" (meaning "seventy") after them. The symbol "LXX" means that the quotation is citied from the "Septuagint" version of the Old Testament. The Septuagint is the official version of the Old Testament used by the Orthodox Church. It has its roots in the Greek collections of the Old Testament books that were popular with the Jews in the first century B.C. Some of these books were additions to already existing works, such as the additions to the Book of Daniel. Some were Greek translations of Hebrew works that were later lost to general circulation and survived only in Greek, such as the Wisdom of Ben Sirach or the Books of the Maccabees.

Already two centuries before the advent of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Jews living both in Palestine and those scattered throughout the Roman Empire found it necessary to have translations of the Hebrew Old Testament. This was because the Hebrew language, while still used in worship and perhaps in some rural villages, was no longer a widely spoken language.

In the synagogues, the Scriptures were still read in the Hebrew original but a translator would then render the reading into the Aramaic language, spoken in Palestine, or into the Greek language, spoken in places like Alexandria or Athens.

This is illustrated by the words of our Lord on the Cross. He quotes the first verse of Psalm 22, not in Hebrew, "Eli, Eli lema asavtani," but in the Aramaic language He spoke daily, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani."

In time, these translations, produced originally on the spur of the moment, were written down. Among Aramaic speaking Jews such a translation was called a "Targum" and there were several.

Among Greek speaking Jews there were several translations as well, but the most popular was known as the "Septuagint." This translation was the one frequently quoted by New Testament authors such as St. Paul (To cite one example, Romans 12:20 is a direct quote of the Septuagint version of Proverbs 25:21-22.) and retained its popularity with the Greek speaking Fathers of the Church. To this day it is the "official" text of the Orthodox Church.

It is this version of the Old Testament, and not the Hebrew, that the Early Christians used as well as the Church Fathers. The Hebrew version of the Old Testament was unknown to most Christians in the Ancient Church, save for those few scholars like Origen, St. Epiphanios of Salamis and St. Jerome who took an interest in it. 

The Septuagint derives its name from a document called the Letter of Aristeas that purports to relate how the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek. According to Aristeas, King Ptolemy II of Egypt wished to enlarge the famous library of Alexandria with a copy of the Hebrew Scripture, but translated into Greek so that it could be understood. Accordingly, seventy (or in some accounts seventy-two) learned translators were dispatched from Jerusalem to Alexandria circa 280 B.C. Working separately on the island of Pharos, the seventy were later astounded to find that their translations agreed word for word and believed that the Holy Spirit must have inspired them.

From then on the translation was known as the Septuagint from the Greek word for the "seventy" (i.e. the seventy-two translators).  Hence, the Roman numeral LXX for seventy is often used as a modern shorthand way of referring to the Septuagint.

The Letter of Aristeas could perhaps best be described as a Jewish "apology" for the existence of the Septuagint against those Hebrew and Aramaic speaking Palestinian Jews who were critical of it. Most modern scholars hold that the Septuagint was the product of translations that were made in the city of Alexandria over several generations for use among Greek speaking Jews who no longer understood the Hebrew language.

One of the criticisms that was brought against the Septuagint by the Jewish Rabbis during the early centuries of the Christian church was that it was not an accurate translation of the Hebrew text, which later came to be called the "Masoretic Text." Many Christian leaders discovered this as well, much to their chagrin, in debates with the Jews. Since very few Christians had any knowledge of Hebrew, and textual criticism was virtually unknown as a science, the Church was often reduced to trudging out the Letter of Aristeas and proclaiming the Septuagint was divinely inspired as a translation and/or claiming the Jews had falsified the Hebrew text of the Old Testament in their hatred for Christ.

Often, the underlying reason that the Septuagint and the Hebrew text in use by the Jews of the early Christian centuries differed is due to the fact that the Hebrew text of the Alexandrian synagogues, underlying the Septuagint translation, was not the same text as was used by the Jews in Palestine and Babylon. This has been recently born out by the discovery of many Hebrew texts that are the source of the translation of the Septuagint Greek Old Testament among the documents of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

We must remember that much of the Biblical tradition was, at first, oral tradition, and only in later times was it written down through laborious copying and re-copying. Often, there were slight differences between texts because scribes did not use the same "master copy." While much of the Septuagint and the so-called "Masoretic" Hebrew text of the Synagogue stand in agreement, there are some differences that must be noted. 

Perhaps the most controversial of these is the wording of the Septuagint found in Isaiah 7:14: "A virgin shall be with child." The Hebrew text that was used by the Jewish polemicists against the early Church reads in this passage (as the Hebrew text still does today): "A young woman shall be with child." St. Matthew quoted the Septuagint text in his Gospel and not the Hebrew.

(An interesting tradition exists in the Church that St. Simeon, who embraced the forty-day old Christ Child in the Temple (see Luke 2:25-35), was one of the original translators of the Septuagint. Accordingly, he wished to translate the Isaiah 7:14 passage as "young woman" rather than "virgin," disagreeing with all the other translators on the grounds that it was illogical for a virgin to be with child. As a result, the Lord told him that he would live to see the event come about, which inspires his famous prayer, "Now, O Master, let you servant depart in peace..." when he holds the infant Messiah. Seeing the prophecy of Isaiah fulfilled, he "departs in peace" at the age of 276.)

Other differences are less profound. For instance, Psalm 23 begins in the Hebrew text with the familiar words, "The Lord is my shepherd...." But the Septuagint text reads, "The Lord tends me as a shepherd." There are many other small differences between the two, such as the numbering of the Psalms. This is why the familiar Psalm 50 in Orthodox Prayer books, "Have mercy on me, O God....,"is Psalm 51 in our Bibles.

The vast majority of the English translations of the Old Testament have been prepared from the Hebrew "Babylonian" or "Masoretic" text, which is simply the common text of the Hebrew synagogue since the Middle Ages.

Often, however, when reading the services of the Church, the New Testament or the Church Fathers, it would be most helpful to be able to refer to the Septuagint.  There is an English translation of the Septuagint available in a Greek-English edition published currently by Hendricksons. (It is available from our Christ the Saviour Seminary Bookstore.) Its greatest fault, aside from its small print, is that it was translated from only one Greek manuscript.

Several years ago, Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Boston prepared a very well done edition of the Septuagint's Psalter. This is still available.

Oxford University Press is currently preparing a new English edition of the Septuagint. Hopefully, this will be a high-quality work. Perhaps, some day there will be a well-prepared Orthodox edition of the Old Testament for worship, study and prayer.

- Fr. Lawrence Barriger