Last week, I posted on why modern "New Testament Christians" need to read the OT more if we want to see Scripture like the first Christians did. This week, I want to talk about the Septuagint—the Greek OT that most of the early Christians would have read—and why those of us who are able need to be reading it today.
(Note: Even if you don't know Greek, keep reading—you will probably learn a few things, and I do give a nod to English-only readers toward the end.)
First, a little background: In the 300s B.C., Alexander the Great conquered virtually everything and everyone in the ancient Near East, creating an empire that stretched from Greece to Egypt in the south and northwestern India in the east. Alexander's reign exported Greek culture to the areas he had conquered, and one of the results of this was that Greek became the lingua franca of the ancient world. The Jews were not immune to these changes, and as a result Greek became the first language of many Jews. This created a need for a Greek translation of Israel's Scriptures. Around 250 B.C., a group of Jews translated the Pentateuch into Greek, and the rest of the books of the OT were translated over the next century or two. The product(s) became known as the Septuagint ("seventy," abbreviated LXX), because of the tradition that seventy (or seventy-two) Jewish scholars produced the original translation of the Pentateuch.
By the time of the apostles, the Septuagint would have been the version of the OT that most Jews and Christians read, much like the King James Version was the standard Bible for English-speaking Christians for several centuries. For this reason, when the NT authors wrote, they referred to the Greek rather than the Hebrew OT—after all, it was what their audience was reading, and likely what they themselves were familiar with. Some NT authors such as Matthew and Paul may have known and referred to the Hebrew OT on occasion, but many would not have. The LXX continued to be the authoritative OT for the Church for several centuries after the Church's inception, and is still used in Eastern Orthodox churches today.
The reason many of us today are not familiar with the LXX is that the Protestant Reformation emphasized the Hebrew OT in an effort to get away from Greek and Latin translations and back to the Hebrew original (ad fontes!). From my admittedly Protestant perspective, this was probably a good move both textually and canonically (as a translation the LXX can be hairy at points, and includes a number of books that the Hebrew OT does not).
However, we may have swung the pendulum a little too far . . .
In my view, one of the tragedies of Protestant reading of Scripture is that we have almost totally lost the LXX—the OT of the early church. For most OT scholars, the LXX is simply a tool for trying to determine the Hebrew original (i.e., text criticism); for many NT scholars, the LXX is primarily a resource for studying individual words and identifying places where NT authors allude to the OT. However, most of us don't read the LXX as the first Christians did, and we don't teach our students to, either. (Of course, to read the OT in your own language is in a sense to do exactly what the early Christians did as well.)
My own experience: I began studying Greek and Hebrew in high school at Wesley Biblical Seminary (you can do that sort of thing when your father is a faculty member). My first exposure to the LXX was in a voluntary reading group with some seminary students led by Dr. Gary Cockerill, in which we read a good portion of the Joseph narrative in Genesis and perhaps a few other things (memory fails me at the moment). In college, I studied ancient languages at Asbury University with an emphasis in biblical languages. However, in four years of studying biblical languages in college, I do not recall ever having to engage the LXX in a substantive way. In a way this is understandable; undergraduate programs have a hard enough time fitting in the essentials. However, I would have gladly traded one of my semesters of classical Greek for a course in the LXX. When I returned to WBS for seminary, I was fortunate enough to be invited into a LXX seminar led by Dr. Cockerill. It was in this seminar that the LXX really captured my imagination and I began to sense the untapped potential it had for NT studies. During my first year at Wheaton, I had the opportunity to assist Dr. Karen Jobes on some LXX projects, and got to sit in on her LXX course as well. In short, I have been blessed with a number of opportunities to study the LXX. However, my experience is not that of most students, and was only possible by God's grace through two professors who each had a special love for the LXX. We simply need to do a better job of working the LXX into our curricula so that more students have such opportunities.
My study of the LXX and insights I've gained have made me wonder if we are missing out on a lot of connections between the OT and NT. As I mentioned above, we tend to use the LXX primarily for text-critical work or doing a few word searches here and there. However, the NT authors and their readers didn't write and read with concordances at hand; they simply read the LXX and wrote and interpreted out of that knowledge. A couple months ago, I finally got tired of wondering what it would be like to read the LXX as Scripture as the first Christians did instead of merely using it, so I did something about it.
Here's what I did: I divided my daily Bible study time into three parts and spent one-third reading the OT in Hebrew, one-third reading the same passage in the LXX, and one-third reading the NT in Greek. For example, if you were spending one hour on Bible study each day, here's what it might look like:
I've found that by dividing things up this way I can both cover a good bit of text (enough to keep it devotional), but also get the flavor of the original languages. Even though I haven't been as consistent as I would like, in the last couple months I've read 12 chapters of Numbers in Hebrew/LXX, all of Deuteronomy in the LXX, and a good chunk of Acts. I'm sure I'll change it up at some point, but this has worked well for me.
The best part of this is the connections that begin to open up between the OT and the NT. Here are some of the insights I have gained:
Now you're probably thinking, "Sure, but I could have found out all of that using Accordance." True, but would you have? The problem with relying on word searches for our knowledge of the LXX is that you have to know which words to search for, and inevitably you have to pass over some for the sake of time. In addition, through-reading the LXX allows you to read the OT in a way similar to how the first Christians.
If you don't know Greek, engaging with the LXX is obviously going to be a little harder, but there is still hope. Here are a few suggestions:
I conclude with a quote that biblical scholar Ferdinand Hitzig is supposed to have said to some of his students:
"Gentlemen, have you a Septuagint? If not, sell all you have and buy a Septuagint."