Why the Septuagint?

The series of postings about Genesis on this site has led some people to ask why it refers so much to the Septuagint, the translation of the Old Testament into Greek made in the Hellenistic period, rather than the original text. After all, the original text was written in Hebrew, except for small portions in Aramaic, the Septuagint being translated from this in about the third century BCE. Why not follow the original?

One reason is that, in terms of manuscript evidence, the Septuagint is very old. The Codex Vaticanus of the fourth century and the Codex Alexandrinus of the fifth contain virtually the whole of the Old Testament, as well as the New, and are some 600 years earlier than the oldest comparable Hebrew versions. It is possible that variations between the Septuagint and the version that was to become standard among Jews, the Masoretic text, can sometimes be accounted for by alterations having made to the latter. (Margaret Barker has written about this. As far as an outsider can judge, the Dead Sea Scrolls are far more closely aligned to the Masoretic than the Septuagint version, but speculation on what this may imply is necessarily very complicated and definitely above my pay grade.)

Bu there is a stronger reason for the adherence of the Orthodox Church to the Greek text. During the Hellenistic period Judaism became largely Greek speaking, so that Jews accessed their Bible by way of its translation into Greek; as Rangar Cline points out in a recent study of inscriptions, ‘Jewish communities in Asia Minor made use of the Greek translation, rather than the Masoretic text, of the Jewish scriptures.’ This seems to have been the practice of Christ; while the Gospels admittedly give his words in Greek, his usage of the Hebrew Bible tends to be that of the Septuagint. This is also generally followed by St Paul and the evangelists, so that when Matthew has Isaiah predict ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child…’ (Matt 1:23, quoting Is 7:14) he relies on the Septuagint; whereas the Hebrew has ‘young woman’, the Greek uses the word for virgin (parthenos). Hence, far from manipulating the Old Testament in the interest of Christian propaganda, Matthew simply follows a translation made by Jews that was generally used among the Jews of his day. And the Church continues to use what Christ and the Apostles knew as the Bible, but we as the Old Testament, in the version known to them. 

Many scholars have sought to get behind the Septuagint to what the most famous of their number, Jerome, called ‘Hebraica veritas’ (Hebrew truth). But this raises the possibility of seeing the Bible as somehow more fundamental that Christ. An ecclesial community that interprets the Bible in the light of its own experience of Christ will be inclined to read the Bible in the form used by him.

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