What Is the Septuagint (LXX)?

The earliest Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible still matters today

What Is the Septuagint?
Ancient biblical manuscripts at the Bible Lands Museum, Jerusalem, Israel. Uriel Sinai / Stringer / Getty Images

The Septuagint (pronounced sep-TOO-uh-jint) is a Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures, completed sometime between 300 to 200 BC.

The word Septuagint (abbreviated LXX) means "seventy" in Latin, and refers to the 70 (or more accurately, 72) Jewish scholars who supposedly worked on the translation. Many ancient legends exist as to the book's origin, but modern Bible scholars have determined the text was produced in Alexandria, Egypt and finished during the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus.

While some contend the Septuagint was translated for inclusion in the famous Library of Alexandria, more likely the purpose was to furnish Scriptures to Jews who had dispersed from Israel across the ancient world.

Over the centuries, succeeding generations of Jews had forgotten how to read Hebrew, but they could read Greek. Greek had become the common language of the ancient world, due to the conquests and hellenizing done by Alexander the Great. The Septuagint was written in koine (common) Greek, the everyday language used by Jews in dealing with Gentiles.

Contents of the Septuagint

The Septuagint includes the 39 canonical books of the Old Testament. However, it also includes several books written after Malachi and before the New Testament. Jews and Protestants do not consider these books to be inspired by God but they were included for historical or religious reasons.

Jerome (340-420 AD), an early Bible scholar, called these noncanonical books the Apocrypha, which means "hidden writings." They include Judith, Tobit, Baruch, Sirach (or Ecclesiasticus), the Wisdom of Solomon, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, the two Books of Esdras, additions to the book of Esther, additions to the book of Daniel, and the Prayer of Manasseh.

The Septuagint Goes into the New Testament

By the time of Jesus Christ, the Septuagint was in widespread use throughout Israel and was read in synagogues. Some of Jesus' quotations from the Old Testament appear to agree with the Septuagint, such as Mark 7:6-7, Matthew 21:16, and Luke 7:22.

Scholars Gregory Chirichigno and Gleason Archer claim the Septuagint is quoted 340 times in the New Testament against only 33 quotations from the traditional Hebrew Old Testament.

The apostle Paul's language and style were influenced by the Septuagint. Other apostles also quoted from it in their New Testament writings. The order of books in modern Bibles is based on the Septuagint.

The Septuagint was adopted as the Bible of the early Christian church, which led to criticism of the new faith by orthodox Jews. They claimed variations in the text, such as Isaiah 7:14 led to faulty doctrine. In that argued passage, the standard Hebrew Masoretic text translates to "young woman" while the Septuagint translates to a "virgin" giving birth to the Savior.

How the Septuagint Influenced Christian Thought

Nonetheless, the Septuagint had a strong impact on Christian thought. When Hebrew writers used the common Greek language to translate the Scriptures, a natural consequence was that Greek forms of thought and expression began to deeply influence the Jewish community. Some terms and ideas that were limited in the Hebrew language expanded through the cultured and rich Greek vocabulary. The four Gospels were originally written in Greek and the messages of Jesus were first spread throughout a Greek-speaking community. Thus, the early Christian church was significantly impacted by the language of the Septuagint. 

Today, only 20 papyrus texts of the original Septuagint exist. The Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in 1947, contained portions of Old Testament books. When those documents were compared to the Septuagint, the variances were found to be minor, such as dropped letters or words or grammatical errors.

In modern Bible translations, such as the New International Version and the English Standard Version, scholars primarily used Hebrew texts, turning to the Septuagint only in the case of difficult or obscure passages.

Why the Septuagint Matters Today

The Greek Septuagint introduced Gentiles to Judaism and the Old Testament. One probable instance is the Magi, who read the prophecies and used them to visit the infant Messiah, Jesus Christ.

However, a deeper principle can be inferred from Jesus' and the apostles' quotations from the Septuagint. Jesus was comfortable using this translation in his spoken citations, as were writers such as Paul, Peter, and James.

The Septuagint was the first translation of the Bible into a commonly used language, implying that careful modern translations are equally legitimate. It is not necessary for Christians to learn Greek or Hebrew to access the Word of God.

We can be confident that our Bibles, descendants of this first translation, are accurate renderings of the original writings inspired by the Holy Spirit. In the words of Paul:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17, NIV)

Sources

  • Old Testament Quotations in the New Testament: A Complete Survey. Gregory Chirichigno and Gleason L. Archer.
  • International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. James Orr, general editor.
  • Smith's Bible Dictionary. William Smith.
  • The Bible Almanac. J.I. Packer, Merrill C. Tenney, William White Jr.