Holy Scripture in the Orthodox Church – the Septuagint


The Old and New Testaments of the Holy Bible are part of God’s revelation to mankind.  The Orthodox Church claims that the author of the Old Testament is truly God Himself, but it recognises that it is equally the work of men in different times and places.  It also believes that God can and does reveal Himself, and that men and women come to know Him in His self-revelation only through a deep personal experience found within the Church.

This paper examines the Orthodox concept of Scripture and the place and authority of the Old Testament within the Orthodox Church. It also discusses the reasons for the Church’s inclusion of the Old Testament in the Biblical canon. It does this through consideration of the Old Greek translation known as the Septuagint, which is the Old Testament of the Orthodox Church.

This is only a very brief introduction to the Septuagint.  It describes the religious and cultural milieu within which the Septuagint was produced, and shows how this Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible came about.  It notes some of the differences between the Septuagint and the Hebrew Bible, and identifies the distinctive characteristics of the Septuagint, its crucial significance to the theology of the New Testament, its use by the early Church and within Orthodoxy.  In conclusion it reviews English translations of the Septuagint.

The Septuagint Translation of the Old Testament

In his book The Orthodox Church[i], Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia very simply sets out the position of the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint: ‘The Orthodox Church has the same New Testament as the rest of Christendom.  As its authoritative text for the Old Testament it uses the ancient Greek translation known as the Septuagint.  Where this differs from the Hebrew text (which happens quite often), Orthodox believe that the changes in the Septuagint were made under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and are to be accepted as part of God’s continuing revelation.’ Metropolitan Kallistos is perhaps taking rather too simplistic a view of the reason for the authority of the Septuagint, but he is absolutely right to insist on its primacy within the Orthodox Church.

The Septuagint was produced in the Helleno-Roman cultural world, that is the period roughly from Alexander the Great’s conquests (c325 B.C.) to the establishment of the Roman Empire.  The lingua franca of that world was theκοινη διαλεκτος, (common) Greek.  Then as now many more Jews lived outside the Holy Land than lived within it, and the great majority of them did not speak Hebrew.  There arose, therefore, a need for a version of the Hebrew Bible in Greek.  The Septuagint was that version.  It was written by Greek-speaking Jews of the Judaeo-Greek Diaspora, employing, not, as has sometimes been said, a separate Semiticform ofGreek, but the common κοινη with a specialised vocabulary, including idioms, and a style that reflected its own distinctive interests.  For an apt comparison one might perhaps think of the legal or journalistic English of our own day.

What is the Septuagint? 

The name itself comes from the Latin word Septuaginta, meaning Seventy. Often you will see it simply written in Roman numerals as LXX.  It originated in Egypt.  The Letter ofAristeas, which was written some time between 150 and 100 B.C., purports to be the work of a man who held a high position at the court of the Egyptian king Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-246 B.C.).  In it he says that the king wished to have a Greek translation of the Jewish Torah (that is, the five books of the Old Testament, Genesis to Deuteronomy).  The Torah was, of course, the major legal document of Judaism and therefore of the king’s Alexandrian Jewish subjects.  King Ptolemy gave orders for a letter to be sent to the High Priest Eleazar in Jerusalem, asking him to dispatch experienced translators to Alexandria in order to undertake this project.  Eleazar responded by sending the king a magnificent edition of the Torah: ‘scrolls on which the Law had been inscribed with the Hebrew letters in gold’ and seventy-two translators, six from each of the tribes of Israel, ‘in order that after examination of the text agreed by the majority, and the achievement of accuracy in the translation, we may produce an outstanding version’.  So the name Septuagint is derived from the alleged number of translators, rounded down from seventy-two to a conventional seventy.  On their arrival the translators were taken to the island of Pharos outside Alexandria, where, we are told, in seventy-two days they produced the Greek translation of the Torah.  This was publicly read to the king’s Jewish subjects, who heard it with enormous enthusiasm.  The king then had copies made for his royal library and for his Jewish subjects. 

It was only the Torah that was translated, so the term Septuagint should be applied to the original translation of the five books of the Law only.  The Greek translations of the remaining books of the Bible were the work of later hands between the third and first centuries B.C.  Properly speaking the Septuagint should be called the Old Greek Bible.  However, the weight of tradition is heavy, and Septuagint it remains.  But whatever the name, this is a most extraordinary piece of work.  The distinguished Septuagint and Syriac scholar Sebastian Brock has stressed the uniqueness of such a project: ‘…the completely unprecedented nature of this undertaking, that is, the translation of an extensive group of religious documents from an oriental language into Greek. There are absolutely no parallels to such a large-scale translation of religious texts of this sort.’

Aristeas’ account of the origin of the Septuagint is almost certainly a later pious fable, but the significance of The Letter, be it true or false, is that it is a powerful early witness (150-100 B.C.) to the existence of an independent textual tradition of the Old Testament earlier than, or at the very least contemporary with, that represented by today’s text of the Hebrew Bible.  The oldest extant witnesses to the Septuagint include 2nd century BC fragments of Leviticus and Deuteronomy (Rahlfs nos. 801, 819, and 957), and 1st century BC fragments of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and the Minor Prophets (Rahlfs nos. 802, 803, 805, 848, 942, and 943). Relatively complete manuscripts of the Septuagint include the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus both of the 4th century AD and the Codex Alexandrinus of the 5th century. These are the oldest surviving nearly-complete manuscripts of the Old Testament in any language.  The oldest extant complete Hebrew texts are much later, from around 1000 AD.

The Septuagint and Hebrew Bibles compared

What value does the Septuagint possess as a translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, and what can be learned from it?  Any translation of the Bible is much more than a mirror copy: think of how English translations, made from the same Hebrew or Greek original, differ from each other. In many places in the Septuagint one is indeed reading word for word the same text found in the Hebrew. In other places, however, the Septuagint translation yields different theological emphases from those that are to be found in the Hebrew Bible.  The translation has created new meanings.

We know now that some books in the Septuagint were translated from Hebrew texts that were radically different from those in modern editions of the Hebrew Bible and in English Bible translations. This has been brought to light through recent study of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is now clear that the Septuagint sometimes reveals a version of the Old Testament books older than those that exist in the Hebrew Bible. The Septuagint gives us glimpses into earlier stages in the Bible’s development before the completion of the Hebrew Bible that is now the basis of modern translations. This fact is problematic for those western Christians who put their entire faith in the pursuit of what they call the “original, i.e Masoretic, text”.

The Septuagint differs from the Hebrew Bible both in respect to the number of books and their arrangement.  Most obviously, the Septuagint has 49 books compared with the Hebrew Bible’s 39.  (Some of the books of the Hebrew Bible are combined, so that the whole is rounded down to 24.)  The Hebrew Bible does not include what the West calls the Deuterocanonical books or Apocrypha.  There are considerable differences between the books and their order as between the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint, and the actual texts of individual books also vary.  In the case of such books as Jeremiah, Job and Proverbs, the divergences between the Masoretic Hebrew text and the Septuagint are so considerable, even with respect to length, that it is clear that the Hebrew text underlying the translation cannot have been identical with the text we know today.

Some of the distinctive characteristics of the Septuagint are as follows:

KYRIOS, LORD, is consistently used throughout the Septuagint proper (i.e. the Pentateuch) without the definite article as a proper noun for the Divine Name Yahweh.  Following its use in the Pentateuch, it was used thus throughout the other books of the Greek Old Testament.  There is still some debate about whether Kyrios was the original Septuagint rendering of the Divine Name.  The two Church Fathers Origen and Blessed Jerome were adamant that it was not, and that the Tetragrammaton (i.e. the four consonants YHWH of the Divine Name) was used in some form or other.  This appears to be proven by the fairly recent discovery among the Dead Sea Scrolls of fragmentary remains of the Septuagint, which clearly have the Tetragrammaton in the ancient Hebrew script.  Photographs of these may be seen on the Internet.   However, other Jewish writings from this period show that Greek-speaking Jews did in fact use Kyrios for Yahweh, and it seems likely that this was how the Septuagint rendered it.  When sayings about Yahweh Kyrios could be transferred to Kyrios Jesus, it was because the Septuagint had originally rendered Yahweh by Kyrios.

In the Septuagint ‘loan translation’ is quite often used.  By this is meant the adoption of a Hebrew phrase by translating its constituent parts rather than by rendering the meaning of the whole phrase. So for example, for the Hebrew expression ‘to lift someone’s face’ meaning ‘to favour’, the Septuagint uses the very literal λαμβανω προσοπον: ‘lambano prosopon’.  In contrast, throughout the Septuagint there is an avoidance of those very characteristic Hebrew anthropomorphic expressions or metaphors that describe God as, for example, a ‘rock’ or ‘stone’.  This may have been out of a desire to avoid any suggestion that the Hebrew God was equivalent to the sacred stones and idols that were worshipped throughout pagan Egypt and the Hellenic world.  Instead, the Septuagint employs such terms as ‘God’, ‘helper’, ‘guardian’ and ‘protector’, which preserve the sense but not the vivid imagery of the Hebrew.

What authority then does the Septuagint possess?  After all, the Jewish people who made it abandoned it quite early.  The Dead Sea Scrolls, which were found in 1947 in a cave in Qumran on the west bank of the river Jordan, date from just before or during the time of our Lord Jesus Christ.  They provide indisputable evidence that at the turn of the era, before the birth of Christianity, the texts of at least some books of the Hebrew Bible were circulating in more than one form.  Many of the scriptural texts found in the Scrolls are very similar to the text of the Septuagint that we have today.  From the first century AD Christians and Jews both used the Greek Bible, but they understood it differently, and as a result tension arose, and much polemical disagreement.  The use made of the Septuagint by Christians was the primary reason that Judaism abandoned the Septuagint to the Church and produced new Greek translations of the then Hebrew text.  In the second century A.D. the Septuagint began to be supplanted among the Jewish people by the successive recensions of the scholars Aquila, Theodotion and Symmachus, all of which were designed to assimilate the Greek text more closely than the older Septuagint to the then-current Hebrew.  Only fragments of these three versions survive.  Of them, Aquila’s version seems to have been so extremely literal that it could hardly have been understood without a very good knowledge of Hebrew.  It remained in use in the synagogue until the sixth century A.D.

While the early relationship between Christians and Jews no doubt played a major role in the history of the Greek versions of the Hebrew Old Testament, there was another factor that should not be overlooked.  Here one find oneself in the complex world of textual criticism.  The task of textual criticism is described as ‘following back the threads of transmission of a text, and trying to restore the text as closely as possible to the form it originally had’. This seems to imply that at one time there were several different Hebrew text forms that could justifiably lay claim to scriptural authority; but by the beginning of the second century A.D. one of these textual forms was emerging as the standard text, apparently supplanting all previous Hebrew texts.  In the following centuries much revision of this text was undertaken, often in a decidedly anti-Christian direction, by the rabbinical scholars and the Masoretic scribes.  Hence the text of the Hebrew Bible is known as the Masoretic Text.  However, in the words of Professor Emanuel Tov of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem: ‘The Masoretic text was not selected in antiquity because of its textual superiority.  In fact, it was probably not selected at all.  From a certain point onwards it was simply used.’  It is a fact that the earliest surviving manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible date only from about ninth century, many centuries later than those of the Septuagint.  The present Hebrew text is essentially a medieval recension of the Old Testament, but this is the text that in the original or in translation is revered and used by the Jewish people and most Western Christians today.

The Septuagint and the Early Church

The Septuagint was the primary theological and literary context within which the writers of the New Testament and most early Christians worked.  The Church first flourished in Jerusalem among Jews who recognised Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ or Messiah, the ‘Anointed One’, and who interpreted the death and resurrection of Jesus in the light of the sacred scriptures of the Judaism of their day.  The Jewish Bible was the Christian Bible also.  Now in the West today it is almost universally assumed that the text of the Hebrew Bible as it is today is the canonical text of the Old Testament at the time of Our Lord.  This is not so: most of the New Testament authors actually quoted from the Septuagint.  A mid-nineteenth century study of 275 New Testament passages by D. M. Turpie[2] (‘The Old Testament in the New’, 1868) concluded that the New Testament, the Septuagint and the Hebrew text all agree in only about 20% of the quotations.  ‘Of the 80% where some disagreement occurs, fewer than 5% agree with the Hebrew against the Septuagint’.  More recently two authors have listed 340 places where the New Testament cites from the Septuagint but only 33 places where it cites from the Masoretic Text rather than the Septuagint 5(G. Archer and G. C. Chirichigno, Old Testament Quotations in the New Testament: A Complete Survey, 25-32).  These figures show just how heavily the New Testament writers used the Greek version of the Old Testament. They also show how significant the Septuagint was for the emerging Christian Church, because the early Church consistently read the Old Testament in the light of the New: ‘Vetus Testamentum in Novo Receptum’ i.e. ‘The Old Testament taken into the New’.  And when Christianity spread outside the borders of Palestine, it was the Septuagint from which the Apostles, especially St Paul, preached Christ.

The Danish Biblical scholar Mogens Muller has noted that: ‘Historically the Septuagint should be endowed with special significance considered as a translation, because, to some circles of Greek-speaking Jewry, it replaced the Hebrew Bible, and thus became their Bible.  Because it was accepted as conclusive evidence of the biblical revelation, it was used by the authors of the New Testament writings, and accordingly came to have a decisive impact on the theology of the New Testament.  In an historical perspective, it became, to an even greater extent than the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament of the New Testament.  This circumstance is fundamental insofar as this translation as a witness of the handing on of traditions represents a reappraisal of the basic content of the Old Testament.’  [3](The Biblical scholar Robert Hanhart even thinks that the Septuagint actually expresses a more profound appreciation of the Old Testament’s testimony of revelation than does the Hebrew.)

Muller goes on to say, ‘It is a fact that, for almost a hundred years of its earliest history, the Christian Church shared its Bible with Judaism.  That Bible was the Septuagint.  Before and during the time of Our Lord Jesus Christ the Septuagint was used by Greek-speaking Jews, who were the great majority of Jews, throughout the Greek and Roman worlds.  Among them the Septuagint possessed great authority, which ceased only after later controversies with Christians who cited its undeniably messianic prophecies in favour of their new faith.  Not until the middle of the second century do we find evidence of original Christian writings – the Gospels, Acts and Epistles – appearing as scripture together with Old Testament Books.  The Jewish Bible was transformed into the Christian Bible when the first Christians and the early Church were able to adopt it as their Old Testament without any outward reservation by reading it and interpreting it in the light of faith in Jesus as the Christ.  (This, of course, is exactly what the Gospels say that our Lord Himself did.)  It is an approach that starts with the New Testament and then goes back to the Old Testament.  In other words, the Old Testament only makes sense when it is read in the light of the New.’

Now the question of what is the ‘true’ Old Testament text cannot be separated from the question of what the early Church regarded as its Bible.  In this context it is quite unreasonable to say that the ‘true’, i.e. Hebrew, text actually differs from what the early Church believed it to be.  The famous text from Isaiah 7.14 cited in Matthew 1.23, ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son’, which is a key proof text of the Virgin Birth, makes this absolutely clear.

It was the Septuagint, and not the Hebrew Bible, which explicitly shaped some early Christian theology.  For example, the Septuagint version of Isaiah shaped Paul’s Letter to the Romans, the most theologically profound book in the history of Christianity.  A few very important examples of this – there are many – are cited by Timothy Michael Law in his book, ‘When God spoke Greek’.  In Romans 2 Paul condemns the Jews, calling them sinners and judging them for having but not obeying the law.  In the final verse of this passage Paul quotes Isaiah 52:5 from the Septuagint.  We find here a great variation from the Hebrew.  The Hebrew says: ‘Their rulers howl, says the Lord, and continually, all day long, My name is despised’.  The Septuagint says, ‘Because of you, My name is continually despised among the nations’.  And Paul follows the Septuagint, saying: ‘For as it is written (i.e. in Isaiah 52) The name of God is continually despised among the gentiles because of you’.  Law goes on to say: ‘The Septuagint had intensified the original condemnation into a pointed accusation against Israel: it was their fault they remained in exile.  Paul’s use of this verse here in 2:24, placed before his exposition of his gospel, reveals how he intended to place himself in the prophetic tradition of Israel.  After this verse in Isaiah, the prophet declares how the return from Israel may happen.  Paul does as well, but for the apostle the people of Israel will remain in exile as long as they continue to reject the Christ.’  

In Romans 9:30-33 Paul cites Isaiah 28:16 in a very important part of his line of argument, which is that a stone will be laid in Sion and will provide salvation in it, and that the stone will also be a stumbling-block that many will trip over.  In the Hebrew this verse from Isaiah simply reads: ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation: one who trusts will not panic’.  In the Septuagint it reads: ‘Behold, I will lay for the foundations of Sion a precious, choice stone, a highly valued cornerstone for its foundations, and the one who believes in Him will not be put to shame.’  Paul says, ‘As it is written, ‘Behold I am laying in Sion a stone that will make people stumble, a rock that will make them fall, and whoever believes in Him will not fall’.’  One final example may serve for all.  In Romans 10: 20-21 Paul uses the Septuagint Isaiah to his advantage.  The Hebrew reads: ‘I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek Me.  I said, ‘Here I am, here I am’, to a nation that did not call on My name.  I held out my hands all day long to a rebellious people who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices.’  The Septuagint reads: ‘I became visible to those who were not seeking Me; I was found by those who were not enquiring about Me.  I said, ‘Here I am, here I am’, to a nation that did not call My name.  I stretched out My hands all day long to a disobedient and contrary people, who did not walk in a true way but after their own sins.’  In the Hebrew version the focus is on Israel.  Even though they are not asking for Him, God is making Himself available to disobedient Israel.  In the Greek Septuagint the tense is changed; God became visible and was found.  Now listen to what St Paul makes of this: ‘Thus Isaiah is so bold as to say, ‘I have been found by those who did not seek Me; I have shown Myself to those who did not ask for Me’.  But of Israel He says, ‘All day long I held out My hands to a disobedient and contrary people.’  For Paul reads Isaiah to prove God’s desire to accept the Gentiles, while the Israelites remained disobedient and contrary people.  Paul’s language comes from the Greek, and his point is damning: the fault lies with Israel.

But the Septuagint is not only crucial to Paul’s theology.  The early Church Fathers attached great significance to what is called typology.  Typology is an approach to the interpretation of the Scriptures found in the New Testament itself – the Gospels, Acts and Epistles – and in the writings of the Church Fathers, which sees certain people and events in the Old Testament (types) as foreshadowing things fulfilled in the New (antitypes).  Typological interpretations of Old Testament events and persons saw them as prefigurations of the events of Christ’s life, or other aspects of the New Testament.  We find this approach expressed by St Paul in Colossians 2: 16-17: “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.  These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”  It also finds expression in the Epistle to the Hebrews and in other Epistles.  Typology is made clear in English translation only when proper nouns are rendered in their Greek form, as they are in the New Testament of the King James, Douay-Rheims and other older versions of Bible, e.g. Elias instead of Elijah and, very importantly, Jesus instead of Joshua.  This latter, when Jesus/Joshua goes up into Mount Sinai with Moses (Ex.24: 12-18), is seen by the Church Fathers as a type of the Holy Transfiguration.  And Jesus/Joshua’s going down into the river Jordan, (Jes.3: 14-4:14), is clearly seen by the Church Fathers as a type of Christ’s baptism.  Typology of this nature runs right through the writings of the Fathers, and it is found throughout the services of the Orthodox Church.  It follows that in order to make this clear, modern translations should employ the Greek rather than Hebrew forms of proper nouns.  Against this there is the weight of Western tradition, which since the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation has generally followed the Hebrew rendering of proper names within the Old Testament. The Hebrew forms are followed in most Orthodox translations such as the Orthodox Study Bible and in the scripture readings in Metropolitan Kallistos and Mother Mary’s translations of The Festal Menaion and The Lenten Triodion.  On the other hand, the late Fr. Ephrem Lash’s translations of the services on his Anastasis website keep the Greek form.

The Septuagint also clearly attests to the developing concept of the expected Messiah in the Hellenistic period.  We should remember that our Saviour quoted from the Psalms and applied them to Himself, e.g. Psalm 90: ‘He will give His angels charge over you to keep You in all Your ways’: and Psalm 109: ‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I make Your enemies Your footstool.’  Here is another example where the Greek gospels present Jesus as quoting the Septuagint.  In Mark 7:6–7, Jesus quotes the Septuagint of Isaiah 29:13 when he says, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men’. ”

We should remember how our Lord expounded to His disciples all the Law and the Prophets, and showed how they were fulfilled in Him (Luke 24: 27).  The following are further examples.  In Amos 4:13 God is described in the Hebrew Masoretic Text as making known to mankind ‘what is His thought’.  The Septuagint reads ‘announcing His Anointed One to men’.  Ezekiel 17:22b-23a (Masoretic Text) reads ‘And I myself will plant a shoot on a high and lofty mountain; on the mountain height of Zion I will plant it.’   In the Greek it is ‘And I myself will plant it upon a high mountain; and I will hang him on the mountain height of Sion’.  Numbers 24:7 and 24:17 are often cited as messianic readings found in the Septuagint but not in the Masoretic Text.  Numbers 24:7 in the Masoretic Text ‘Water will flow from His buckets, and His seed will have abundant water’ becomes in the Septuagint ‘a man will come out of His seed, and he will rule many nations’.  Numbers 24:17 (Masoretic Text) ‘A star will come out of Jacob, and a sceptre out of Zion’ in the Septuagint is ‘A star will come out of Jacob, and a man out of Sion’.  In addition to Psalm 109 there are also key messianic references in Psalms 59 and 107.  Before one assumes too readily that the transmission of these and similar readings is due to a later distinctively Christian reading of a Jewish text, simply because most of the surviving manuscripts of the Septuagint are from Christian sources, in Robert A. Kraft’s words: ‘‘We might appreciate what was possible within the broad framework of what we call ancient Judaism’.  One might also remember that ancient Judaism was not identical with modern Judaism.

Very significantly for Christianity, the theological concept of personal resurrection apparently developed in Judaism in the Hellenistic period, and the Septuagint version of Psalms shows this clearly.  So in regard to the concept of personal resurrection, ‘Therefore the wicked shall not stand in the judgement’ of the Hebrew Psalm 1 becomes ‘Therefore the ungodly shall not rise up in the judgement’, using the Greek word anistemi (ανιστημι), which means specifically ‘to rise up’. New Testament writers use anistemi with reference to resurrection, as does for example 2 Maccabees 7:9, 14, which contains the account of the torture and execution of the seven sons, and their testimony to personal resurrection: ‘…you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the Universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for His laws… ‘to cherish the hope God gives of being raised again by him.  But for you there will be no resurrection to life.’  The Septuagint also makes very explicit reference to prayer for the dead, which is intimately bound up with personal resurrection, in 2 Maccabees 39-45.  The Books of Maccabees are not found in the Hebrew Bible and its English translations, and prayer for the dead is still rejected by most Protestant communions.

The Septuagint within the Orthodox Church Today

The ancient Greek Bible continues to this day to be the authoritative Old Testament text of the Orthodox Christian world. The Slavonic, Arabic, Coptic and other translations were all made from the Septuagint.   Among these, the Church Slavonic Bible, which is the authorised Bible of 75% of Orthodox, has had a very tangled history. Indeed, the very word, Bible, Biblija in Slavonic, is not attested before 1499, when Archbishop Gennadius of Novorogod and Pskov made the first Slavonic Bible.  He and his collaborators brought together a number of pre-existing Slavonic translations of individual books, and where they could not locate an existing Slavonic text they added to these books new-made and rather inaccurate translations from the Latin Vulgate, because there was no Greek scholar among them.  The Church Slavonic Bible reached its final form only as late as 1751.  It is known as the Elizabeth Bible, after the Russian Empress Elizabeth, who demanded that a definitive Slavonic translation be made from the Greek text of the fifth century Codex Alexandrinus.

The Orthodox Church has a definitive printed text of the New Testament in the edition published in 1904 by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, but it still has no definitive printed text of the Greek Septuagint. The best-known semi-critical edition of the Septuagint is that of Alfred Rahlfs[4], first published by the Wurttemburg Bible Society of Stuttgart in 1935.  Then, between 1931 and 2006 the Gottingen Academy of Humanities and Sciences of Lower Saxony in Germany produced a fully critical edition of all the books of the Septuagint.  These two organisations are outside the Orthodox Church and the editions they have produced are ‘eclectic’ texts; that is, they represent an amalgam of textual choices made by their editors from readings as they are embodied in the earliest surviving manuscripts of the Septuagint.  For the Orthodox Church the authoritative readings of the Greek Old Testament texts are those that are to be found in its various service books and in the writings of the Church Fathers.  The Biblical lectionaries in particular preserve a separate textual witness of the Septuagint of great antiquity.  So there will be no definitive Church Septuagint until an eclectic edition is published that is primarily based on the readings from these two sources.  The Church of Greece’s Apostoliki Diakonia and the Zoe Brotherhood have both published identical texts of the Septuagint, which are very similar to that of Rahlf’s edition, but which have been adjusted to a limited extent to accommodate traditional Orthodox readings of the Septuagint.  The Apostoliki Diakonia Greek text may be consulted on that organisation’s website and also on the Myriobiblos and Elpenor websites.

The OldLatin Bible of the West (the Vetus Latina) made in the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. was a direct and literal translation of the Septuagint.  Unfortunately it only exists today in fragmentary form, having gradually been superseded by Blessed Jerome’s new translation made a century or so later, commonly called the Vulgate. The Old Testament of Jerome’s Latin Vulgata differs from the Septuagint because of Jerome’s high regard for what he called the ‘Hebrew verity’ following his move from Rome to Bethlehem in 386.  When Jerome undertook the revision of the Old Latin translations of the Septuagint, he checked the Septuagint against the Hebrew texts that were then available.  Jerome broke with church tradition and translated most of the Old Testament of his Vulgate from Hebrew rather than Greek.  His choice was severely criticized by his contemporary Blessed Augustine, the great Church Father of the West, who forcefully upheld the primacy of the Septuagint for the Christian Church.  A flood of less moderate criticism came from those who regarded Jerome as a forger. While on the one hand Jerome argued for the superiority of the Hebrew texts when correcting the Septuagint on both philological and theological grounds, on the other, in the context of accusations of heresy against him, Jerome would acknowledge the Septuagint texts as well. With the passage of time, acceptance of Jerome’s version gradually increased until it displaced the Old Latin translations of the Septuagint.  Jerome translated only those books of the Old Testament that were accepted by the Jews, and he translated them from the Hebrew.  However, Jerome’s translation of the Psalter from the Hebrew never replaced his earlier version, which he translated from the Septuagint.  Also he did not translate the Deuterocanonical books, so that it is the Old Latin versions of the latter, translated from the Septuagint Greek, that are included in the Latin Vulgate.  The Vulgate is therefore a mixed text, and despite Jerome’s low opinion of the Septuagint as against the Hebrew, the Christian East and West may be said to have shared a common biblical tradition until the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation.  But Jerome’s insistence on the primacy of the Hebrew text was the seed out of which grew the reformers’ reverence for the Hebrew Masoretic text and their rejection of the Septuagint.  They followed Jerome in believing that the medieval text of the Hebrew Bible was the original text of Scripture. There were some, a few, exceptions – the Swiss Reformer Zwingli, no less, argued that the Septuagint version of Isaiah was superior to the Hebrew – but for the most part Jerome and the Reformers between them can be credited with the eclipse of the Septuagint in the West until almost the present day.  The ultimate irony is that as late as 1979 the Roman Catholic Church published its own Nova Vulgata, which, while retaining the style of the old Vulgate, extensively revised it to conform to the Hebrew Masoretic text.  So the current official Latin text of the Roman Catholic Church’s Bible was published at a time when the true significance of the Septuagint as the Christian Old Testament was tardily being recognized by western scholars.

The medieval Hebrew text became the basis of virtually all vernacular Old Testament translation, especially in English, even though it distorted the relationship between the Old Testament and the New.  Before his death in 1536, William Tyndale had translated about half of the Old Testament directly from the Hebrew Masoretic text rather than the Septuagint Greek or the Vulgate Latin of Christendom.  In 1535 Miles Coverdale produced the first complete English Bible, also from the Hebrew.  The books that did not form part of the Hebrew Bible were not at first excluded by the English Reformers from the canon, but they were placed together at the end of the Old Testament as the so-called Apocrypha.  Finally they were dropped altogether, as one can see by inspecting many modern English Bibles that emanate from various Protestant sources.  This development was unfortunate: it gravely weakened the early Church’s attitude of Vetus Testamentum in Novo Receptum, and led to the present anomaly of modern biblical criticism conducted outside of the Church.  Holy Scripture cannot be independent of the Church that canonizes it and says what it is, and Orthodox Christians should read and study Scripture according to the mind and understanding of the Church.  But if there is not very clear correspondence between the text of the Old Testament and those New Testament quotations from it made by our Saviour Himself, St Paul, the Evangelists and Apostles, the vital salvific link between the Old Testament and the New is fundamentally obscured.

The fact that this has in fact happened should make clear to the Orthodox or those who are simply studying Orthodoxy why it is most unsatisfactory to use Old Testament translations made from the Hebrew.  Orthodox should know and use the Septuagint version of the Old Testament in the original Greek or in translation.  The Orthodox Church formularies and services are the most theologically complex and profound of all Christian church services, and they are a virtual mosaic of scripture quotation from the Septuagint or of the Church Fathers paraphrasing and commenting on Septuagint texts.  For an example of this, consider the very first line of the first Book of the Bible, Genesis.  In the Hebrew Bible and the English translations made from it we have ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth’.  In the Septuagint it is ‘In the beginning God made the heaven and the earth’.  The first clause of the Nicene Creed, following the Septuagint, has Maker of heaven and earth, not Creator.  On the other hand, the Apostles’ Creed of the Roman Catholic Church, following St Jerome’s translation from the Hebrew, has Creatorem, Creator.  In the next sentence of Genesis the Septuagint describes the earth at the moment of creation as ‘invisible and unformed’. The Septuagint’s word ‘invisible’ is taken intothe next clause of the Nicene Creed, where we have ‘…and of all things visible and invisible’.  In the Hebrew the passage reads ‘unformed and empty’.  It is a truism that learning the Orthodox Faith comes very largely through attending its services.  It is not learned through books.  Orthodox say to the curious, ‘Come and see’, not ‘Come and read’.  If one cannot recognise these scriptural quotations when they are encountered in the services, then one’s apprehension of the Orthodox faith is handicapped.

For a very long time there were only two English translations of the Septuagint, neither of them from Orthodox sources.  The first was by Charles Thomson, the Secretary of the U.S. Continental Congress, and one of America’s Founding Fathers, who produced his translation in 1808, which he made from J Field’s printed Greek text of 1665.  Thomson omitted the deuterocanonical texts.  Then in 1851 Sir Lancelot C L Brenton published his translation of the Septuagint.  This is generally available and fairly widely known today in bilingual editions in book form or on the Internet.  Both Thomson and Brenton’s are ‘diplomatic’ texts, i.e. they are based on one text – in the case of Brenton it is Codex Vaticanus -, which does not altogether agree with the Greek text of the Orthodox Church.  However there are now several other English translations, and more are in progress. Significant recent publications are the New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS) and The Orthodox Study Bible (OSB).  Others include the Eastern Orthodox Bible (EOB). This latter includes the Septuagint text in a modern English revision of Brenton’s translation, noting also variant texts from the Syriac translation, the Peshitta, the Masoretic and other ancient versions.  And the present author has completed a traditional English version based on the Apostoliki Diakonia text, using the King James Bible as its English template and amending it where it differs from the Greek.

The New English Translation of the Septuagint is a scholarly eclectic text translated from the Gottingen/Rahlfcritical edition of the Septuagint.  The first volume of this translation, Psalms, appeared in 2000 and the Oxford University Press published the complete translation in October 2007.  The text of NETS is deliberately based on the Old Testament of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible in order to make clear the Septuagint’s synoptic potential as a Greek interlinear translation, albeit in English, of a Hebrew text.  Because NETS is based on an eclectic Greek text, it is unsuitable for use in church by English-speaking Orthodox.  There are also some readings that are distinctly odd, indeed even heretical, to Orthodox eyes. For example, Genesis 1:2 reads: ‘Yet the earth was invisible and unformed, and darkness was over the abyss, and a divine wind was being carried along over the water.  This should read: ‘the Spirit of God was moving (or was being borne) over the water’.  The most recent translation is that by the Oxford Jesuit, Fr. Nicholas King, which was published by Kevin Mayhew of Stowmarket, Suffolk, between 2011 and 2013.  It too is based on Rahlf’s edition of the Septuagint.

One of these new translations is of direct significance to Orthodox. The Orthodox Study Bible was published in February 2008.  It has study notes and theological guides.  In this respect the OSB resembles a western Protestant Bible rather than an Orthodox text; indeed, some critics in the USA have said that it is a Septuagint for non-Orthodox.  The OSB was intended to be a ‘word for word’ translation of the Greek by a number of contributors, in a formal modern English but with echoes of the King James Bible.  It uses the New King James Version as its base.  When the project was first undertaken it was stated that the editors would change the New King James Version where it differed from the standard printed text of the Septuagint used in the Greek Orthodox Church; but this is by no means the case.  First of all, the OSB translation of the Septuagint, like Fr. Nicholas King’s, is based on the Rahlfs edition.  This means that the Greek text used is not precisely that of the Orthodox Church.  It does not for instance include the Fourth Book of Maccabees, which is included as an appendix in the Greek Orthodox text of the Septuagint.  Next, the OSB’s dependence on the NKJV Bible is at times a very decided liability.  There seems to be a marked reluctance to deviate from the text of the NKJV (which is a translation from the Hebrew, not the Greek) even when the plain meaning of the Greek demands it.  One egregious example of this occurs in the key Messianic text of Genesis 49:10.  The Greek means, ‘A ruler shall not be lacking from Judah and a leader from his thighs, until the things stored up for him come; and he is the expectation of nations’.  The OSB, following NKJV exactly, has: ‘The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from his loins until Shiloh come: and to him shall be the expectation of the nations’.  However, despite its very obvious shortcomings, the OSB, with a major publisher, Thomas Nelson, behind it, will remain the standard ‘Orthodox’ English translation of the Septuagint for the foreseeable future.

In conclusion then, it is important that Orthodox assert the primacy of the Septuagint; that they recognise how intimately the Septuagint is bound up with the very life, theology and doctrine of the Orthodox Church; and that they recognise how important it is to know the Septuagint, to use it and to understand how it is used in the services of the Church and by the Church Fathers.

[i] Ware, Kallistos (Timothy): The Orthodox Church, p.208; Penguin 1963

[2] Turpie, DH: The Old Testament in the New’;, Williams and Norgate 1868

[3] Muller, M: The First Bible of the Church, pp.115-6; Sheffield Academic Press 1996.

[4] Septuaginta. Id est Vetus Testamentum Graece iuxta LXX Interpretes. Stuttgart: Wurttembergische Bibelanstalt, 1935

Michael Asser


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