The Orthodox Church has always preferred to use the Septuagint (LXX) manuscripts and canon of the Old Testament. This often puzzles Protestants, who wonders why we would prefer a Greek translation of books which were originally written in Hebrew. It might be helpful to understand the origins of the LXX, it’s usage in the early Church and the difference between the LXX and the earliest complete Hebrew manuscripts, the Masoretic texts.

The Origin of the LXX

In the time after the Babylonian captivity, the Jewish people had become more and more hellenized, and for the vast majority, Greek, not Aramaic or Hebrew, was their native language. There was, therefore, a need to translate the Scriptures into a language that most Jews understood. According to Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BC – 50 AD) it was the Greek king Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt that employed seventy-two Jewish scholars to translate the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, for its inclusion in the great Library in Alexandria. Though the scholars were working on their translation separately, they were all reported as producing identical translations. With this traditional account, and others like it, we can see that many Jews in the days of Christ held the LXX translation to be divinely inspired. The Fathers of the early Church, as well as the Apostles themselves, received these accounts as accurate. The LXX was widely used, primarily in Hellenic areas, but also in Jerusalem.

Early Church Usage

Of the almost 300 Old Testament quotations in the New Testament, the vast majority are direct quotes from the LXX. We will look at a few examples in a moment. In the Greek East, the LXX was the Old Testament of the Church. In the Latin speaking West, the Vetus Latina-translation was based on the Greek LXX. St. Jerome later wanted to use some Hebrew manuscripts for his Vulgate, but was criticized by his contemporaries for deviating from the Apostolic Tradition. Nonetheless, Jerome’s Bible, the Latin Vulgate, more or less maintained the LXX canon, and not the more limited Hebrew canon. The Hebrew canon (which today is the basis for the canon in Protestant Bibles) had been formed by Rabbinical Jews at Jamnia around 110 AD, who despised the Greek translation despite the fact that earlier generations had considered the LXX to be inspired. Their canonical list, which only included books originally written in Palestine, in the Hebrew language, was likely a reaction against the success of the Christians, who used the LXX to show from prophecies that Jesus was the Christ. Overall, with the exception of the Latin Vulgate, the LXX has been the foundation of virtually all Old Testament translations in the Church throughout church history, until the dawn of the Protestant Reformation.

The Protestant Bible

The Protestant Reformation did not want to base its translations on the Roman Catholic Vulgate, but desired to “go back to the original language” (ironically following the reasoning of St. Jerome, the translator of the Vulgate).  The Protestants followed the Masoretic texts, the oldest Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts available. The Masoretic manuscripts, however, had not been written until the 9th century AD! It is also noteworthy that the Masoretic translation is decidedly non-Christian, and has, in many places, removed the messianic foreshadowings of the Old Testament. In contrast, the LXX translation predates the Masoretic manuscripts by more than 1,000 years, and is clearly messianic. Moreover, when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered between 1947 and 1956, the Hebrew and Aramaic fragments of the Old Testament, dating from the 2nd century BC, were over all more in accord with the LXX than with the Masoretic manuscripts.

The Protestant Reformation also decided to do away with those books not recognized by the Jews at Jamnia, even though these books had been part of the Scripture that the Apostles themselves used. One of the reasons for the omission seems to be doctrinal, in that they clearly contradict Protestant teaching regarding prayers for the dead (2 Maccabees 12:43-45) and the Lutheran notion of sola gracia and sola fide (Tobit 12:9, Wisdom of Sirach 8:33).

A Few Notable Differences

There are several passages that clearly show the difference in meaning between the LXX and the Masoretic manuscripts. For example, the LXX text of Isaiah 7:14 reads:  “A virgin conceive and have a son.” The Masoretic text loses the reference to Christ and reads, “a young woman who is pregnant will have a son.” The LXX translation is quoted in Matt 1:23.

The LXX text of Isaiah 42:4 reads “and in His name will the Gentiles hope.” The Masoretic text omits the messianic promise to the non-Jewish peoples, and reads “and the coastlands wait for His law.” Christ is quoted using the LXX version in Matt 12:21.

In the LXX, Psalm 8:2 reads “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings thou hast brought perfect praise,” while the Masoretic text reads “by the mouths of babes and infants thou hast founded a bulwark.” Christ is quoted using the LXX version in Matt 21:16.

Summary

The LXX was the Bible of the Apostles, and of the Early Church. Following in the footsteps of those first generations of Christians, the Orthodox Church continues to regard the LXX as its canonical text of the Old Testament. The omission of the “Deuterocanonical” books by the Jews at Jamnia was not embraced by the Church at the time, but rather seen by most as a radical distancing from the Christian tradition. The Masoretic texts, though written in Hebrew, were not authored until the 9th century AD and show many signs of anti-Christian bias in its translation.

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