What is the Septuagint?

Since we just mentioned Everett Ferguson’s new book on baptism in the early church (the first 5 centuries), it may be helpful to mention his other work on the early historical context of the church: Backgrounds of Early Christianity. This is an awesome resource for NT studies – a 650 page treasure full of great info on the Roman, Greek, Christian, and Jewish government, society, religions, and traditions.  In the second section, Ferguson talks about (among tons of other things Jewish) Jewish literature, including the Septuagint.  Here’s a summary of his discussion of it.

The Septuagint is the Greek translation of the OT Hebrew.  The name Septuagint is Latin for “seventy;” hence the abbreviation of the roman numeral 70: LXX.   Ferguson talks about the legend that 70 (or 72) Jewish scholars translated the OT into Greek, resulting in the LXX.  However, he notes, there are some reasonable arguments against this legend.  Ferguson also discusses the different editions and recensions of the LXX, which the early Christian church used.  In fact, it was used so much, that “the number of manuscripts of the Septuagint, complete and fragmentary, reaches nearly 2,000, a total greater than for any other Greek work except the New Testament” (p. 434).

There are differences between the LXX and the Hebrew OT for the same reasons that there are differences between the NIV or ESV and the Hebrew OT, for example.  Some translation requires interpretation, some translation is a result of the socio-political concerns of the translators, some translation is nearly impossible because of the difficulty of the Hebrew.  Also, different translators of the LXX had different techniques of translation – literal, moderately literal, and also free rendition.  In other words, the LXX was translated by real people – brilliant scholars – but real people who were working in the context of their culture, scholarship, and personalities, which is why the LXX looks like it does.  It is a brilliant translation, but is not without its flaws and blemishes.

Here’s Ferguson’s take on the importance of the LXX (he advises that NT students get one!).

“The putting of Hebrew religious ideas into the Greek language was an important transitional step that prepared the way for Christian preaching.  Moreover, most of the NT citations of the OT follow the Septuagint.  The Bible of the early church, except for some Jewish believers and a few scholars, was the Greek OT.  The Septuagint was the most important literary event, perhaps the most important single development of any kind in the Hellenistic period, for the background of early Christianity” (p. 436).

For a great and in-depth study of the LXX, you need to get Invitation to the Septuagint by Karen Jobes and Moises Silva.  Enjoy!

shane lems

sunnyside wa

1 thought on “What is the Septuagint?”

  1. Nice. I didn’t realize that Ferguson talked about LXX much. I’ll have to go back through that when I have a chance.

    The portion you’ve quoted is very fascinating. I’ve been doing a lot of work in Ben Sira lately and am struck by how Hebrew traditions and Hellenistic categories are brought together in this late 3rd century book. Ben Sira has me really interested in the relationship between Hebrew and Hellenistic ideals and how the two responses of assimilation and acculturation come into play in the final few centuries BC. (Ben Sira seems to stand somewhere in between.)

    One additional note, I read an interesting article last quarter proposing that the LXX is very much like a targum. (I’ll try to remember who it’s by.) Some of the targumim are very expansive and others are very conservative. While the different Septuagints that we have (Aquila, Lucian, Symachus, etc.) don’t exhibit the degree of translational/interpretative diversity that the targumim do, the individual translators of the OT sure do. Much more needs to be done here, I think!

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