Secular Sam’s Guide to the Old Testament: The Septuagint

The Septuagint generally refers to the books of the Old Testament in their old Greek translation. Some scholars only use the term to refer to the Pentateuch section, although mostly the term is used to represent the Greek translation of the entire Old Testament. The correct pronunciation of the term, and the one used by Septuagint scholars, is SEP-tu-jent, the ultimate and penultimate syllables almost sounding as one. Most other folks, however, continue to pronounce the term sep-TU-a-jint.

The origin of the Septuagint is unclear due to fictitious stories surrounding its inception. The most popular is from the letter of Aristeas which describes King Ptolemy Philadelphus’ desire to build a library containing all the books in the world. He requested a copy of the “laws of the Jews” (the OT), and so word was sent to Jerusalem to send 72 elders (6 from each tribe) to work on the translation from the Hebrew to the Greek. Legend states that the Septuagint was written in Ptolemaic Egypt (probably true) from the ancient Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament (also probably true). There were 70 (sometimes 72) Jewish elders who independently, and without consultation one with another, each produced their own translation of the entire OT (probably not true). Once completed, the texts were compared with each other, and miraculously none of the translations deviated from each other, but were all in complete and total accordance (total bogus). Various other stories regarding the translation exist, and the reader is encouraged to seek secondary literature on the subject for more. This Greek translation of the OT often goes by the abbreviation “LXX,” the Roman numeral for “70.”

Various mss of the LXX have been found and used, although none of the autographs survive (the usual case with ancient scripture). For the most part, modern go-to sources for the LXX are an eclectic version, much like our current NA27 or UBS4 versions of the NT. Several of these scripts appear in cursive or uncial formats and some vary in their word choices (despite the legends). The Greek of the LXX indicates that it may have been written as early as the 3rd century BC, but scholarly consensus has not been reached. Other postulated dates for the mss of the LXX are mostly later than this, and very, very few hypothesize an earlier date.

Of all the versions and recensions of the LXX, perhaps the most important is Origen’s Hexapla. The Hexapla was a six-column work created by Origen, an Egyptian Christian ca. 240 AD. The various columns of the Hexapla included 1) The Hebrew OT, 2) A Greek transliteration of the Hebrew*, 3) Aquila’s ms, 4) Symmachus’ ms, 5) the LXX, and 6) Theodotion’s ms. Origen wrote the Hexapla in effort to assist Christians in their discussions with Jews, who often used the Hebrew ms of the Bible (Egyptian Jews most likely used the LXX).

One of the main issues surrounding the use for the LXX today is to illustrate that the Hebrew text from which the LXX was translated is, in some places, non-existent today. For example, some parts of the LXX are much longer than they now appear in our MT (cf. Deut. 32:43ff), others are shorter (Josh. 20:4-6 is missing in LXX), and in some cases, like certain pieces of the book of Jeremiah, the text has been heavily re-arranged. Likewise, the order of the books in the XII prophets is re-arranged in the LXX. Many of these problems persisted and puzzled scholars for centuries. With the discovery and publication of the Qumran manuscripts, many of the oddities between the MT and the LXX were explained. At times the deviant portions of the LXX were confirmed by the Qumran versions, indicating that the MT would be the anomaly. The LXX, for these reasons and many others, continues to assist text-critics of the MT (and LXX scholars) in arriving at the most ancient versions of the OT (one of the primary goals of text-criticism).

The LXX was the primary scripture for the early Christian church. Many of the OT quotations in the NT come to us through the LXX, assuming the author did not make his/her own translation of the Hebrew/Aramaic. Because of this, several hermeneutical concessions and interpolations were made from the Greek of the LXX which distanced the Jews from the Christians. One such instance is the LXX version of Isaiah 7:14, which the early church used to proof-text Jesus’ virgin birth. The Hebrew text could read, however, not “virgin,” but ‘almah, or “young woman.” That virginity was inherent in the Greek term is without question, but the Jews felt this was not the case in the Hebrew word ‘almah. Because of the Christian use of the LXX, it was only a matter of time before the Jews began to disband their use of the LXX in favor of the older Hebrew Bible.

For Mormon studies, 2 Nephi 12:16 was the center of attention for quite some time. The BofM version states “upon all the ships of the sea, and upon all the ships of Tarshish.” The Hebrew version does not mention “ships of the sea.” The LXX does not mention “ships of Tarshish,” and in the BofM we have both, as stated here. Several scholars in the church (and outside it!) have done the grunt-work on the anomaly. Other issues are also being used and discovered.

15 Replies to “Secular Sam’s Guide to the Old Testament: The Septuagint”

  1. Sources:

    Peters, Melvin K. H. “Septuagint.” Pages 1093-1103 in vol. 5 of Anchor Bible Dictionary. 6 volumes. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
    Fausset’s Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Septuagint.”
    International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. Bromiley, s.v. “Septuagint.”
    LDS Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Septuagint.”
    Greenspoon, Leonard J. “Between Alexandria and Antioch.” Pages 425-427 in Oxford History of the Biblical World, edited by Michael D. Coogan. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
    Evans, Craig. Noncanonical Writings and New Testament Interpretation. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1992. Pages 73-74.

  2. Good post.

    I’ve wondered for awhile about a proto-LXX as an antecedent for some of the quotations in the BoM. The expression that triggered my interest was “in the gall of bitterness.” It’s in Acts 8 of the AV, and it’s OT precursor is in LXX Deut 29 (I think), but not the MT. It’s used very differently in Acts and the BoM, as well. There’s a translation issue with Acts.

    It would be interesting to find a passage from the LXX (or Qumran) that was not in the AV of the NT but did have an undisputed LXX allusion. So far, I don’t think I’ve recognized any, but I’m no text critic.

  3. Thanks for the great post. I especially appreciated the pronunciation guide. I cringe to think I have been mispronouncing that for so long.

    On another note, is there a post somewhere that gives a summary for all the different bible shorthans that you guys use? I have no idea what the NA27, UBS4, AV or MT are and I will likely forget what LXX is unless I have something to refer to.

  4. J,

    I’m a bit sketchy about the recent “wikipedia-ization” of knowledge, but that database would probably contain all the answers. But off the top of my head:

    NA27 – the “27” is usually written in superscript, but I don’t know how to do that in html. Anyway, this is one of the versions of the Greek MT. It takes many of the manuscript traditions and sort of “combines” them into one. It’s the one I use.

    UBS4 – kinda the same thing, only different committee.

    AV – authorized version.

    MT – Masoretic Text. Basically a quick way to write “Hebrew Bible” is “MT.” It includes all those naughty vowel-pointings and other marks and marginalia.

    IVP’s Pocket Dictionary of Biblical Studies by Patzia and Petrotta is a great little (I mean little) resource for one to have handy. It has all of this and more. It’s great for stuffing into your briefcase, backpack, or scripture tote. Very accessable — doesn’t require much expertise to use it.

  5. On the pronuniciation, I don’t understand why you are collapsing the penultimate syllable. This is a latin term and this vowel combination isn’t a dipthong, so the two vowels should be pronounced separately.

    Mogget, if I am understanding your last paragraph, this work has been done. I recall an article in one of the encylopedias of the NT that lists all of Paul’s uses of the various LXX quotations. It also has several MT versions and a number that fit neither the LXX or the MT.

  6. this work has been done

    You are correct as far as the NT goes, but my last para was unclear.

    What I was thinking out loud about was the question of LXX usage in the BoM. From a chronological perspective, the LXX is far closer to the BoM than the MT, and somewhat closer than 4QIs.

    I think, however, that if there were much evidence of LXX usage in the BoM, it would have been found. As these things go, it’s definately low-hanging fruit.

  7. Taylor,

    Dude, good to have you here. I’m glad you stopped by. You’re good people. How’s life in… Indiana was it? Don’t worry, the Colts will go all the way next year. Take that to the bank.

    About the pronunciation, I put it there because it stood out to me when I took a graduate course in noncanonical books for NT studies (it was built around Evans’ book). Personally, I stick to the normal pronunciation, but my instructor, who had LOTS of LXX training, informed us that LXX gurus use the funky pronunciation amongst each other. Maybe it’s akin to a Masonic passoword or something, I don’t know. But you’re right, it makes no sense. Sort of like people in Utah pronouncing the name of the town “Two-ILL-ah” instead of “Tooele” (TOO-lee).

  8. David J,
    I am a different Taylor. I am pretty sure that the other Taylor is at Indiana, though we only met once way back when he was at Yale. I am glad to have found you guys though. I typically don’t dwell off of the bcc, t&s, m* path, but I will definitely be dropping by more often.
    I am doing my doctorate in NT/Early Christianity. Your right that there are weird pronunciations of things sometimes. All of my profs pronounce it the regular way, but they aren’t LXX scholars (thank goodness!).

  9. Mogget,
    Are you looking for LXX quotations in the BoM as evidence of a shared Hebrew urtext? Or are you looking for LXX quotations as evidence of a 6th c. BCE greek text known to Lehi’s family?

  10. Taylor,

    Sorry about that, bro. Alas the anonymity (and pseudonymy) of the internet.

    Well, I saluted T&S, and M* for the final time a few weeks ago. Too conservative and basically concerned with stuff that I don’t care about. I love BCC, lots of abrasive and funny folks over there. And they care about wacky stuff, which I find refreshing.

    Again, welcome.

  11. One last thing regarding the last paragraph of the original post above. I’m of the persuasion that Joseph did not have in front of him an LXX or a Hebrew Bible and that even if he did, he did not have the know-how in the original languages to be able to make the translation found in 1 Nephi 12:16.

    What’s curious is that John Wesley 100 years earlier spotted the difference, but I think he had more education in Bible stuff than JS did.

  12. I just found out that the Coverdale Bible (17th c.) translates both the LXX and MT version of the Isaiah passage, but who knows if JS had access to that translation. He seems to know the KJV only, so unless there is a footnote in the Bibles of his day, he couldn’t have known about it.

  13. Hi Taylor,

    Hope you will drop by often — I’m so swamped by all these OT/ANE guys….


    Anyway, about the LXX / MT behind the BoM. The short answer is, I’d rather expect a shared ur-text. But I really haven’t done any more than think about it on and off. There was a discussion of sorts over on Mormonanity this AM on Alma 7:11, but I haven’t stopped back in lately to see if anything else happened.

  14. Mogget,
    It is an interesting topic. I’d be suprised if someone hadn’t done it already, but who knows. The most important thing that needs to be taken into consideration is Skousen’s critical edition of the BoM. Interestingly, he showed that most of the differences b/t KJV Isaiah and BoM Isaiah were actually in the Printer’s Manuscript (PM) and not in the Original Manuscript (OM).
    Off the top of my head, I don’t recall any other quotations of biblical texts in the BoM besides Isaiah, Micah, Mt, and Paul. Am I forgetting any undisputed quotations? Probably. Anyone know where I can get a list?

  15. Well, there’s Malachi in 3 NE from the OT. There the “gall of bitterness” from Acts… My impression is that there’s a lot of NT stuff: allusions, echoes, that sort of thing. I’ve never really worked on it, though. Then there’s the Tree of Life as ekphrasis. And the christology is high, higher even than the deutero-Paulines, I think.

    I’m not much into Things Mormon, I guess. Although one of these days I am going to blog on comparisons between the BoM and the NT on the subject of how God has “dealt decisively with sin in the flesh” in the two works. I think the BoM is “supra-Pauline” in issues like this, too.

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