The Septuagint And
The Modern Versions
Trinitarian Bible Society
The use of modern versions of the Holy Scriptures based upon an unreliable form of the underlying text is sometimes defended on the ground that our Lord and His apostles used the Septuagint, (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament), notwithstanding its known deficiencies. It is suggested that if it was right for our Lord to use a defective version because there was no better version available, it must be right for Christians today to use one or other of the modern versions in spite of their faults.
There are several objections to this statement of the case, and it can be shown that the method adopted by the New Testament writers in their use of the Septuagint is, in fact, a strong argument against the use of defective versions such as the Revised Standard Version, the New English Bible, the Living Bible, the Good News Bible, etc.
The Septuagint, the version of ‘The Seventy’, was a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament made at Alexandria about two hundred and fifty years before the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. At the time of our Lord’s earthly ministry it was the universal practice of Greek speaking Jews throughout the whole of the Middle East to read in their synagogues and to quote in their discussions the Old Testament Scriptures in this Greek version.
It is agreed that the Septuagint was far from perfect, and no claim can be advanced for the divine inspiration of the translators. However, if we observe the manner in which the Apostles refer to the Old Testament Scriptures, we see a striking indication of the inspiration under which they themselves wrote. When they refer to the Septuagint, they do so under the supernatural guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Divine Author of the original revelation. Their authority is therefore higher than that of a translator.
Use of the Septuagint in the New Testament
This higher authority is shown in three ways. Firstly, where the LXX translators were correct, the Apostles quote verbally and literally from the Septuagint, and thus remind their readers of the Scriptures with which they were already familiar in that particular form. Secondly, where the LXX is incorrect, the Apostles amend it, and make their quotations according to the Hebrew, translating it anew into Greek, and improving upon the defective rendering. Thirdly, when it was the purpose of the Holy Spirit to point out more clearly in what sense the quotations from the Old Testament Scriptures were to be understood, the Apostles were guided to restate the revealed truth more fully or explicitly. By the hands of the Apostles the Holy Ghost thus delivers again His own inspired message, in order to make more clear to later generations what had been formerly declared through the prophets in an earlier age. By giving again the old truth in new words, the Holy Ghost infallible imparted teaching which lay hidden in the old, but which could only be fully understood by a later generation if given in a different form.
There are about 263 direct quotations from the Old Testament in the New, and of these only 88 correspond closely to the Septuagint. A further 64 are used with some variations, 37 have the same meaning expressed in different words, 16 agree more closely with the Hebrew, and 20 differ both from the Hebrew and the Septuagint. From this it is evident that the Holy Spirit exercises independence of all human versions when He guides His Apostles to quote in the New Testament that which He had caused to be written in the Old. The Lord Jesus Christ, being One in Divine power and glory with the Eternal Father and the Eternal Spirit, demonstrated the same independence, and exercised the same authority.
It may also be helpful to show how different was the conduct of our Lord and His Apostles from that of present day ministers who attempt to vindicate their own inconsistent practice on such inadequate grounds. Our Lord, and those whom He appointed to be His chief messengers, were not referring to a version produced by men who denied the Divine inspiration, inerrancy and authority of the Holy Scriptures, but this is the case with those who use some of the modern versions. The New Testament writers were not referring to a version which was calculated to diminish the testimonies of Holy Scripture to the glory of the Divine Redeemer, but many of the modern versions in English and other languages are of this character. The Apostles did not deliberately reject a more accurate version already in widespread common use, in favour of an unsound version produced by ‘liberal scholars’, but this is happening in many parts of the world today.
When the Lord Jesus Christ and the inspired evangelists quoted from the Septuagint they were referring to a version which emphatically asserts the miraculous virgin birth of the Messiah. The modern versions in English and in other languages obscure this essential truth. Before the incarnation of the Saviour the Jews held the Septuagint in high esteem, but after His birth and earthly ministry they turned against that version because it was used so effectively by Christians to demonstrate that the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament were fulfilled in the Person and work of the Redeemer.
Aquilla, Symmachus, and Theodotion
A little before the middle of the second century of the Christian era Aquila, who had been a Christian, but was cast out of the church for some misdemeanor, became a Jewish proselyte. Having then learned the Hebrew language, he made a new translation of the Old Testament into Greek, in opposition to the Septuagint, translating many passages concerning the Messiah otherwise than they had been rendered by the LXX, so as to make it impossible to apply those passages to the Lord Jesus Christ. Not long afterwards Symmachus, a Samaritan by birth, who became a Jew, then professed the Christian faith, then attached himself to the Ebionite sect, made another translation from the Hebrew into Greek. As a Judaizing Christian he was hardly likely to excel in preserving the purity of the text. About the time Theodotion, who had once professed faith in Christ, and afterward became a Jew, produced yet another Greek version.
Jerome of Bethlehem, who saw these Greek translations of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion, makes it quite plain that these men were Judaizing heretics, and their versions were made out of hatred to Christianity.
Before the birth of the Messiah the Jews used to observe a feast in memory of the translation of the Septuagint. Philo the Jew, who lived in the of Caligula the Roman Emperor, while the Apostles were fruitfully engaged in the preaching of the Gospel, tells us in his Life of Moss that to that time they kept a yearly feast in memory of the Scriptures having been translated into Greek by the seventy-two interpreters. After Philo’s days the Jews turned that feast into a fast, lamenting that such a translation had been made. As the version became more popular with Christians, it grew out of credit with the Jews, who preferred to use a version which the Christians could not so easily apply to the Messiah.
In Isaiah 7.14 Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion departed from the rendering of the Septuagint PARTHENOS and substituted NEANIS, a term which may be applied to a young married woman, and is not the proper equivalent of the Hebrew word, which is limited by its usage in the Old Testament to the unmarried woman. PARTHENOS, Virgin, is the word used by Matthew, and this may be regarded as the inspired evangelist’s confirmation of the correctness of the SeptuagintGreek translation of the Hebrew word used by the inspired prophet Isaiah.
The New Testament Often Corrects the Septuagint
In no less than 175 of their 263 direct quotations the Apostles were guided by the Holy Spirit to make significant corrections of the version from which they quoted. Those who make indiscriminate use of the modern versions do not insist on making a proportional number of significant corrections in the Revised Standard Version, New English Bible, Good News Bible, Living Bible, etc., and their counterparts in other languages. Even 175 corrections could make a considerable improvement in some of the modern versions, especially if the passages which diminish the Scriptural testimonies to the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ were corrected.
In the exercise of His gracious providence the Divine Author of the Holy Scripture has raised up men to translate the revelation which He has given, and in many languages there are now translations which are in many respects far superior to the LXX. In so far as it is a human undertaking, every translation has its imperfections, but there is a radical difference between many of the earlier versions and the modern versions which are being thrust upon Christian communities throughout the world today. The earlier versions were the product of devout scholarship which acknowledged the divine inspiration of the Holy Scriptures and the Deity of Him Who is ‘The Chief Subject of the Sacred Book.’ Many of the modern versions are the fruit of a naturalistic scholarship which diminishes or denies both.
Nothing can be gained by the pretence that Our Lord Himself encouraged His disciples to use a defective version. This indeed is the very opposite of the truth. Those who would show themselves worthy of the evangelical character which they profess are encouraged by the Word of God itself to ‘contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints’ and to ‘strive together for the faith of the Gospel’. The quiescent acceptance of unsound versions can only help to undermine the foundations of that faith. At the present time it is more than ever necessary that those who respect the Divine inspiration and inerrancy of the Holy Scriptures should labour to preserve sound versions already in use, to produce faithful versions where these are not available, and to reject and expose versions which are marred by the misguided scholarship of their originators.