The Septuagint


(Larry Hurtado):  The “Septuagint” (LXX) commonly designates the Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures, and everyone interested in Christian origins knows of its importance.  But most of the scholarly work on the Greek “Old Testament” has been text-critical and text-historical in nature, and wider questions about the historical and social function and significance of this body of texts have not had the attention that they deserve . . . but things appear to be changing.

In particular, I want to point to Tessa Rajak, Translation and Survival:  The Greek Bible of the Ancient Jewish Diaspora (Oxford University Press, 2009), a stimulating, informative and creative study.  I highlight her argument that the language of the LXX does not reflect unskilled translators but instead “a kind of recalcitrance, a reluctance to accede totally to a Hellenizing project . . .” (153).  The LXX does not represent an attempt to assimilate wholly or to “domesticate” the source text (the Hebrew scriptures) to Greek, but rather is as an example of a “foreignizing” translation that was intended to preserve and convey something of the source language and text.   To quote her:  “The ioudaioi [Jews] of the diaspora were rather good at the arts of social accommodation and of cultural survival, and the Septuagint was their main instrument” (8).

Moreover, in terms of general history, the LXX is hugely significant:  “The Septuagint was the first major tanslation in Western culture” (Rajak, 1).    Peter Fraser described it as “a larger bulk of Alexandrian Greek literature than any other single item” (Ptolemaic Alexandria, 1:687), and Martin Hengel judged it “the most important self-witness to Greek-speaking Judaism” (The Septuagint as Christian Scripture, xii).

Among scholars more concerned directly with Christian origins as well, there has been a small blossoming of interest in the Septuagint.  For example, Mogens Mueller, The First Bible of the Church:  A Plea for the Septuagint (Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), and Martin Hengel, The Septuagint as Christian Scripture:  Its Prehistory and the Problem of its Canon (T&T Clark International, 2002).  There is also a handy recent introduction:  Karen H. Jobes & Moises Silva, Invitation to the Septuagint (Baker Academic/Paternoster, 2000).

The language-choices made by the LXX translators had long-lasting and profound effects, particularly in the language of the New Testament texts.  One of my predecessors here produced a pioneering study of this matter, which probably now deserves to be re-visited thoroughly:  H. A. A. Kennedy, Sources of New Testament Greek, or The Influence of the Septuagint on the Vocabulary of the New Testament (T&T Clark, 1895).  In vocabulary and semantics, and in syntactical phrasings the NT shows the influence of the sort of Koine Greek that derives from the LXX.

The Greek Old Testament was quite simply the Bible of earliest Christianity, and anyone interested in the New Testament and Christian origins should invest some time in becoming more familiar with it.


About larryhurtado

I'm a scholar in New Testament and Christian Origins, currently Professor of New Testament Language, Literature & Theology in the University of Edinburgh (since 1996), and previously Professor in the Department of Relgiion, University of Manitoba.

8 responses »

  1. Pingback: Hurtado Points to Some LXX Resources « Sententiae Nil

  2. Pingback: Week in Review: 09.24.10 | Near Emmaus

  3. I understand that the consensus of opinion is that the New Testament writers used the Septuagint and that it may have been their primary source for the Old Testament. rather than scrolls written in Hebrew. However, I have also read that scrolls in Hebrew might also have been available in the synagogues.

    My question would be whether Jesus read from Hebrew scrolls or from the Septuagint. I have read a variety of opinions on this, and wonder what your opinion is. Did Jesus read the Septuagint, and for that matter how familiar might He have been in Greek period? It seems to me that some of the subtle differences between the Septuagint and the Hebrew scrolls could affect our interpretation of Jesus’ own words. What do you think?

    • We have no direct knowledge of what Jesus may have read. Bear in mind that personal ownership of literary texts involved expense, and so tended to be uncommon among poorer people. In Roman Palestine, it is likely that Hebrew scrolls were used in Jewish synagogues, with the text then also paraphrased in Aramaic (which seems to have been the daily language of most Jews in Palestine). In the Diaspora, however, it’s likely that biblical readings were done in Greek.
      As a trans-local religious movement from almost the outset, Christianity quickly took to the Greek OT, as Greek was the international language of the day.

  4. The LXX was greatly used by New Testament writers.

    The importance of the LXX to early Christianity cannot be underestimated. As Professor Hurtado so rightly points out, it was their Bible.

    For example, in Acts 10, Peter is told in a dream to eat unclean animals. In the Old Testament, Ezekiel 4 also has a story of somebody who is asked to eat unpalatable food.

    The author of Acts had Peter, an Aramaic-speaking Jew managed, in a moment of terror, remember the exact phrase from the Greek translation of Ezekiel 4:14. – ‘Medamos, Kyrie’

    Similarly, Jesus is asleep in a boat just before a storm is calmed, just as Jonah is asleep in a boat just before a storm is calmed.

    In both Mark 4 and Jonah the witnesses after the sea-calming miracle are portrayed as afraid and awe-struck. In Mark 4 ‘feared with great fear (ephobethesan phobon megan)’. In Jonah (LXX) ‘feared the men with great fear’ (ephobethesan hoi andres phobon megan)

    The New Testament was greatly shaped by the LXX, and Professor Hurtado is right to point out the significance of the LXX in understanding early Christianity..

  5. I am not going to object the to the importance of the LXX. I’m Orthodox – we still use the LXX! I understand that the LXX (as well as other “hellenised” Jewish texts e.g. the works of Philo) fell out of favour with the (Palestinian?) Jewish communities due to the Christians’ appropriation of the LXX and possibly the demise of the Alexandrian Jewish community under Trajan. I’ve only been able to browse a few pages of Rajak’s text on Amazon but it doesn’t seem that study goes much past the first century. Would that be correct? (and at that price, I will leave it to scholars I think!) Are there texts you’d recommend on the role and influence of the LXX on Judaism/Christianity in the patristic era?

    I’ve read Jobes&Siva’s book – handy but not well edited I thought, even repetitive. Is it just because I am an amateur?! But thanks for the other recommendations.

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