Bibliotheca Sacra 112 (Oct. 1955) 344-55.

          Copyright © 1955 by Dallas Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.

 

 

                                        Department of

                             New Testament Greek and Literature

 

  THE IMPORTANCE OF THE SEPTUAGINT

            FOR BIBLICAL STUDIES (Part I)

 

 

                    BY EVERETT F. HARRISON, TH.D., PH.D.

 

            EDITOR'S NOTE : Dr. Harrison is Professor of New Testament at

            Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California and an

            outstanding evangelical New Testament scholar.

 

            In these days when the study of Greek as an element in

ministerial training is being viewed with waning enthusiasm

in many quarters, being reduced from a required to an elec-

tive status in institution after institution, some courage is

required to maintain that the scope of Greek studies not only

should be retained but broadened. Yet this is our conviction.

How many seminary graduates of our era have made the

acquaintance with the Greek Fathers through the original

texts? Fortunately this deficiency is compensated for to some

degree where there are courses in early church history which

go into the source materials. But in the case of the Septuagint

nothing in the curriculum helps to overcome the lack of

familiarity with the Old Testament in Greek.

 

            FIRST TRANSLATION OF OLD TESTAMENT

 

            What Deissmann wrote years ago is worthy of repetition

today. "The daughter belongs of right to the mother; the

Greek Old and New Testaments form by their contents and

by their fortunes an inseparable unity. The oldest manuscript

Bibles that we possess are complete Bibles in Greek. But

what history has joined together, doctrine has put asunder;

the Greek Bible has been torn in halves. On the table of our

theological students you will generally see the Hebrew Old

Testament lying side by side with the Greek New Testament.

It is one of the most painful deficiencies of Biblical study at

                                                ( 344 )



The Importance of the Septuagint for Biblical Studies     345

 

the present day that the reading of the Septuagint has been

pushed into the background, while its exegesis has been

scarcely begun."1  The same writer holds out this inducement

to the uninitiated: "A single hour lovingly devoted to the text

of the Septuagint will further our exegetical knowledge of

the Pauline Epistles more than a whole day spent over a com-

mentary."2 This was not theoretical with Deissmann, for he

testified in another place, "In preparation on my first piece

of work on the formula ‘in Christ Jesus’ I read rapidly through

the whole Septuagint in order to establish the use in construc-

tion of the preposition ‘e]n.’ (The English Concordance [Hatch

and Redpath] fortunately had not then reached e). I am

indebted to this reading for great and continuous stimulus.

For some years now there have been lectures and classes on

the exegesis of the Septuagint held in the Theological Faculty

at Berlin."3

            To the Septuagint belongs the honor of being the oldest

version of the Old Testament. Tradition tells us that the

work was begun in Egypt during the reign of Ptolemy Phil-

adelphus (285-246 B.C.). At first the translation was confined

to the Pentateuch, but within a century or thereabouts the

remainder of the Old Testament had been rendered into

Greek. Though the Letter of Aristeas ascribes the translation

of the Law to the royal interest in literature, it is clear from

the Letter itself, as Swete perceived,4 that the real inspiration

for the version sprang from the need of the Jews in Alex-

andria for the Scriptures in their adopted language. Some

Egyptians words, in fact, are imbedded in the text, testifying

to its Alexandrian provenance. Examples are ko<ndu, a vessel or

cup (Gen. 44:2); qi<bij, ark (Ex. 2:3); and pa<puroj, which is

well known in English in its transliterated form papyrus

(Job 8:11). In addition, certain Greek words are chosen by

the translators as specially fitted to convey information pecu-

liar to Egyptian conditions. Such is the expression a]fe<seij;

 

1 The Philology of the Greek Bible, pp. 11, 12.

2 Ibid., p. 12.

3 Paul, p. 101, fn 1.

4 Introduction to the O.T. in Greek, p. 20.

 



346                             Bibliotheca Sacra

 

u[da<twn in Joel 1:20, reflecting the network of channels or

canals familiar to residents of Egypt. Deissmann notes that

in Genesis 50:2 the Septuagint does not use the ordinary

term for physician in rendering the Hebrew, but rather

e]ntafiasth<j, "the technical term for members of the guild that

looked after embalming."5 The facts seem to warrant Kahle's

contention that, "It is clear that the version was not made by

Palestinian Jews, but by people acquainted with the language

spoken in Egypt.”6  In the history of Bible translation, then,

the Septuagint took a pioneering place, becoming the first of

many hundreds of attempts to place the Scriptures, whether

in whole or in part, in the hands of the people in a form they

are able to comprehend for themselves.

            During the course of the early Christian centuries several

linguistic groups derived their Old Testament from the Sep-

tuagint rather than from the Hebrew. The most important

of these versions were the Coptic, Syriac, and the Old Latin

(in distinction from the Latin Vulgate of Jerome, who used

both Hebrew and Greek in his work).

            But the influence of the Septuagint was even greater and

more continuous throughout the Greek-speaking church. Few

of the Greek Fathers were conversant with Hebrew, so they

read their Old Testaments in Greek and built their homilies

on this text. Of the influence on the New Testament it will be

necessary to comment later and in more detail.

 

            RELATION TO OLD TESTAMENT CANON

 

            The Septuagint necessarily enters into the discussion about

the canon of the Old Testament. Our great uncial manuscripts

of the Greek Bible, namely, Aleph, B, A, and C all contain the

Old Testament Apocrypha whether in whole or in part. From

this the conclusion has often been drawn that originally there

was no clear-cut line between such books and the canonical

Old Testament Scriptures, or at least that a more liberal

attitude prevailed in Alexandria than in Palestine. The Pales-

 

1 The Philology of the Greek Bible, p. 97.

2 Paul E. Kahle, The Cairo Genizah, p. 132.

 



The Importance of the Septuagint for Biblical Studies     347

 

tinian view of the canon is set forth in Josephus' work

Contra Apionem I, 8. Here it is indicated that the Jewish

Scriptures consist of twenty-two books. Certain groups of

books were treated as one in such an enumeration. It is clear

that the canon did not admit of the inclusion of the Apocry-

phal books. New Testament use of the Old supports this re-

stricted canon.

            As to the attitude of Alexandrian Jews, we are fortunate

in possessing a considerable body of writings from the pen of

Philo, who flourished near the middle of the first Christian

century. Philo's great preoccupation was with the Pentateuch,

which he quotes about 2,000 times as over against some 50

times for the balance of the canonical Old Testament. But

what of the Apocrypha? H. E. Pyle comments as follows on

this matter: "Philo makes no quotations from the Apocrypha;

and he gives not the slightest ground for the supposition that

the Jews of Alexandria, in his time, were disposed to accept

any of the books of the Apocrypha in their Canon of Holy

Scripture. That there are occasional instances of correspond-

ence in subject-matter and in phraseology between Philo and

the books of the Apocrypha, in particular the Sapiential books,

no one will dispute. But it is very doubtful whether the in-

stances contain actual allusions to the Apocryphal writings.

It is more probable that the use of similar terms arises merely

from the discussion of similar topics. The phraseology of

Philo helps to illustrate and explain that of the Apocrypha,

and vice versa. More than this can hardly be affirmed with

any confidence."7 It should be noted also in this connection

that in no case where there is a supposed allusion to the Apoc-

rypha does Philo make use of a formula of citation such as he

employs when quoting passages from the acknowledged canon.

            Some of the above-mentioned manuscripts of the Greek

Bible include works of the early post-apostolic age also, such

as the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, and

First Clement, which occupied a deutero-canonical position at

best in the eyes of those who regarded them highly. Their

 

7 Philo and Holy Scripture, p. xxxiii.

 



348                             Bibliotheca Sacra

 

presence, however, appended to the sacred text, helps us

to understand the inclusion of the Old Testament Apocrypha.

F. F. Bruce makes a suggestion as to the manner in which

these latter books became joined to the canonical Old Testa-

ment Scriptures. "There is no evidence that these books were

ever regarded as canonical by any Jews, whether inside or

outside Palestine, whether they read the Bible in Hebrew or

in Greek. The books of the Apocrypha were first given canon-

ical status by Greek-speaking Christians, quite possibly

through a mistaken belief that they already formed part of

an Alexandrian canon. The Alexandrian Jews may have added

these books to their versions of the Scriptures, but that was

a different matter from canonizing them. As a matter of fact,

the inclusion of the apocryphal books in the Septuagint may

partly be due to ancient bibliographical conditions. When each

book was a papyrus or parchment roll, and a number of such

rolls were kept together in a box, it was quite likely that un-

canonical documents might be kept in a box along with canon-

ical documents, without acquiring canonical status. Obviously

the connection between various rolls in a box is much looser

than that between various documents which are bound to-

gether in a volume."8

 

            RELATION TO OLD TESTAMENT TEXT

 

            Another area in which the Septuagint proves its value

is in the opportunity it affords us to compare the extent of

the text in each book with the text as we have received it

from the Hebrew tradition. Antedating as it does our Hebrew

manuscripts of the Old Testament, it gives us a check on the

actual amount of the text. The agreement is not complete,

but substantially so, especially when the addition to Daniel

and Esther are excepted, since they really form part of the

Apocrypha. Ordinarily one may read chapter after chapter

and find that the text underlying the Greek is the same in its

length as the text of our Hebrew Old Testament. The differ-

ences in order, especially in Jeremiah, constitute a vexed

 

8 The Books and the Parchments, p. 157.

 



The Importance of the Septuagint for Biblical Studies     349

 

problem, but it a rather peripheral problem as compared to

the possession of the text itself.

            One who has a strictly linguistic interest finds the Septua-

gint worthy of his attention. There was a day when men

thought of the language of the Greek Old Testament as a

literary vehicle which was forged out by the translators them-

selves in large part as an attempt to render a Semitic original

in a Greek dress. It was doubted that the Septuagint at all

accurately reflected any Greek being spoken at the time. But

all this has been changed through the papyri discoveries made

in the very region where the Septuagint was created. These

fragments, covering a wide range of human activities and rela-

tionships, are obviously in the language of every-day life.

Misspellings are not infrequent. Enough parallels have been

established between these non-literary papyri and the Septua-

gint to make it apparent that the latter represents a living

form of Greek, so that the Septuagint must be included in any

list of sources for the koine.

            The student of the history of religion also will find the

study of the Septuagint rewarding. For example, the New

Testament acquaints us with the fact that Judaism had been

active for some time making proselytes among the Gentiles

(Acts 2:10; 6:5; 13:43). The zeal of the Pharisees on behalf

of their own sect is also noted (Matt. 23:15). Now the word

proselyte is Greek, and makes its first appearance in Exodus

12:48-49—e]a>n de< tij prose<lq^ pro>j u[ma?j prosh<lutoj poih?sai to>

pa<sxa kuri<&, peritemei?j au]tou? pa?n a]rseniko<n, kai> to<te proseleu<setai

poih?sai au]to> kai> e@stai w!sper kai> o[ au]to<xqwn th?n gh?j pa?j a]peri<tmhtoj

ou]k e@detai a]p ] au]tou?. no<moj ei#j e@stai t&? e]gxwri<& kai> t&? proselqo<nti

proshlu<t& e]n u[mi?n. Here one catches the flavor of the word.

It denotes literally one who draws near. He has a desire to

identify himself with the Hebrew nation, especially in the

observance of this great national festival of the Passover. The

noun and the verb forms of the same root jostle one another

in the passage. It is interesting to observe that in the Epistle

to the Hebrews the verb has an almost technical sense as a

designation for a worshipper, being translated come or draw

near (e.g. Heb. 4:12; 11:6). Incidentally, the statement in

 



350                             Bibliotheca Sacra

 

Hebrews 11:28 concerning Moses, pepoi<hken to> pa<sxa, may be

said to gain illumination from Exodus 12:48, just cited, where

poie<w is used in the sense of observance of the Passover.

            A chapter in the history of polemics belongs to the Septu-

agint. Although the Jews of the Dispersion highly regarded

this translation at first (even Philo acknowledged its inspira-

tion), the increasing use of it by Christians, especially in

their appeal to it for the verification of the Messianic dignity

of Jesus of Nazareth, gradually estranged the Jews. We find

Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew register-

ing the accusation that Trypho's people had tampered with

the sacred text in order to remove proof texts favorable to the

Christians. One of the most famous of these passages is

Psalm 96:10, which according to Justin Martyr properly read,

Tell ye among the nations that the Lord hath reigned from

the wood (cross).9 Of this alleged original there is no trace.

The last three words must be put down as a Christian in-

vention. Even more famous as a ground of contention was

Isaiah 7:14. Christians pressed the fact that it was the Jews

themselves who had translated the Hebrew hmlf by parqe<noj,

virgin. The pressure of debate forced the Jews to construct a

new Septuagint, which was undertaken by Aquila in the

second century. It used nea?nij, ‘young woman,’ in Isaiah 7:14.

In general the translation was marked by an almost painful

literalness in rendering the Hebrew. But at least it gave the

Greek-speaking Jews a version which they could use after the

Septuagint was proscribed by the synagogue.

            In the discussions on Christian theology the Septuagint has

ever and again played an important role. A good example of

this is the battle which raged over Proverbs 8:22 f. in the

Arian controversy. This famous passage on Wisdom runs as

follows according to the Septuagint: "The Lord created me

as (the) beginning of his ways for his works; before time

(the age) he established (founded) me, in the beginning

before he made the earth. . ." Here the crucial word is e@ktise,

which we have translated "created." The Arians found a basis

 

9 Dialogue with Trypho, chapt. 73.

 



The Importance of the Septuagint for Biblical Studies    351

 

here for their doctrine of the creaturehood of Christ, that

there was a time when he was not. Athanasius sought to meet

the exegesis by asserting that it was our Lord's humanity

which was created and manifested to us for our salvation.10

The stamp of this controversy remained on the text of Scrip-

ture for many centuries. To avoid any possible Arian connota-

tion, the Vulgate rendered the crucial word possedit. Both the

A.V. and the R.V. have possessed, showing their dependence

on the Vulgate. However, the Hebrew hnq has the thought of

acquisition rather than possession, and the Septuagint has

rendered it faithfully. The student will find it interesting to

note that in a passage like Genesis 14:19, removed from theo-

logical controversy, the Vulgate rendered the same root by

creavit.

            Scholars have long recognized the value of the Septuagint

as an instrument for textual criticism of the Old Testament.

While the consensus of opinion has been to the effect that in

places where the Massoretic Text and the Septuagint diverge,

the former must be given the preference in the vast majority

of cases, especially since it is often possible to trace the very

processes by which the Greek translators have strayed from

the path, yet it has been conceded that here and there the

Greek rendering has undoubtedly preserved the original. One

of the clearest cases is Genesis 4:8, where the words "let us

go into the field" have dropped out of the Hebrew text in some

way. That something is needed at this point is evident because

the verb rmx does not mean to speak with but to say. In this

case the Septuagint does not stand alone, but is supported by

the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Targums, the Latin and the

Syriac versions.

            A common objection raised against the Revised Standard

Version is that too large a use has been made of the Septu-

agint (and other ancient versions) instead of clinging to the

Massoretic Text as the basis of translation. It is possible that

the translators have erred in judgment in certain passages

by relying on the Septuagint as opposed to the Massoretic

 

10 Expositio Fidei, 4; De Decretis III, 14.

 



352                             Bibliotheca Sacra

 

Text, but it is certain that their procedure is not faulty as to

principle. Modern research has demonstrated that the Hebrew

text was revised and fixed in its present form early in the

Christian era and that it does not represent throughout a

pure text which can with confidence be said to represent the

original. Students of the Septuagint have long been suspicious

that the Greek Old Testament is more trustworthy here and

there than the Massoretic Text. Archaeology has begun to

confirm this conjecture. Hebrew manuscripts of the Old

Testament are coming to light in the Dead Sea region which

in some cases (others agree closely with the MT) correspond

to the Septuagint rather than to the Hebrew. This is particu-

larly true of Samuel. Frank M. Cross Jr. writes, "In these

Samuel fragments there is now direct proof that there were

Palestianian Hebrew texts of Samuel of precisely the type

used by the Greek translators, and that the Greek version is

a literal and faithful translation of its Hebrew predecessor.

Hence reconstruction of the text of Samuel in the future must

put serious weight on the witness of the Septuagint."11

 

      RELATION TO NEW TESTAMENT QUOTATIONS

 

            We come now to quotations. Everyone knows that the

New Testament is written in Greek, although its writers, with

the probable single exception of Luke, were Hebrews. It is

natural, then, that when they desire to draw excerpts out of

the Old Testament, that they should resort to the Septuagint.

Certainly the vast preponderance of quotations lies on the

side of the Greek rather than the Hebrew original, although

some New Testament writers knew Hebrew and resorted to

the Hebrew text on occasion. An example of this is found in

Matthew 8:17, where a slavish adherence to the Septuagint

would have resulted in support for the idea that our Lord

bore men's sins during His ministry and not simply at His

death. Therefore Matthew made use of the Hebrew text

which has "sicknesses" rather than the Septuagint text

which has "sins." The context of Matthew 8:17 is Jesus'

 

11 The Biblical Archaeologist, February 1954, p. 18.

 



The Importance of the Septuagint for Biblical Studies     353

 

healing activity. But the general fact is undisputed, that the

large use of the Septuagint in the quotations shows its domi-

nant position in the early church and the high regard in

which it was held. However, the presence of a considerable

number of quotations agreeing neither with the Hebrew nor

with the Septuagint constitutes a difficult problem.

            Matthew's Gospel offers an especially interesting area in

which to study the quotations. H. St. J. Thackeray noted that

in addition to quotations from the Septuagint which Matthew

has in common with other Synoptists there is a group of

eleven "proof-texts" introduced by the formula, "that it

might be fulfilled," which derive from another source. This

he thought may have been a "Testimony Book" which possibly

contained this material already in Greek dress, which Mat-

thew utilized.12

            The subject of Testimonia has engrossed scholars both in

the ancient and the modern church. Cyprian was one of the

first to draw up such a list of passages, but it was based on

earlier attempts of the same kind. One of the most outstand-

ing is in the New Testament itself.13  Among modern writers

Rendel Harris in his two volumes entitled Testimonies sought

to demonstrate that the New Testament quotations were

drawn up according to subjects and with indications of the

source of their quotations. Such groupings of Scripture, if

they were thus utilized as a source for New Testament quota-

tions, would help to explain the composite character of some

of the quotations and also the attribution to one Old Testa-

ment writer of what is found in another, as in Matthew 27:9.

But further research has put Harris' position in doubt, espe-

cially with regard to the materials in Matthew. According to

J. A. Findlay, "Subsequent collections of testimonies do not

follow his (Matthew's) model either in order or language.”14

            Krister Stendahl has opened a new line of investigation.

He builds upon the discovery of J. C. Hawkins that whereas

the quotations in Matthew which occur in the common Synoptic

 

12 Journal of Transactions of the Victoria Institute, Vol. 58, pp. 162, 163.

13 Romans 3:10-18.

14 Amicitiae Corolla, p. 69.

 



354                             Bibliotheca Sacra

 

narrative tradition (Mark or Luke or both) follow the Septua-

gint very closely in the main, those which are introduced by

the writer of the First Gospel show much less agreement

with the Septuagint, only slightly more than half the words

being derived from that source.15

            This latter group is the same as that which Thackeray

commented on, as noted above. It may be said to consist of

formula quotations. Stendahl believes that the situation re-

ceives illumination from the Habakkuk Commentary of the

Dead Sea Scrolls, where the Hebrew text of the first two

chapters of this prophecy is quoted with considerable alter-

ation and adaptation in order to fit the belief of the sect re-

sponsible for the scroll that the Teacher of Righteousness, as

he is called, had fulfilled the terms of Habakkuk's prophecy.

Stendahl finds in Matthew's formula quotations "scholarly in-

terpretations" akin to those of the Qumran sect, except that

Matthew's interest centers in Jesus of Nazareth rather than

the Teacher of Righteousness.16

            The whole of Stendahl's thesis regarding the nature and

origin of Matthew need not detain us here, but he favors the

view that the Gospel reflects the interest in theology and

teaching of the particular group from within which it sprang.

His conclusion on the quotations is that, "The formula quota-

tions would thus have taken shape within the Matthean

church's study of the Scriptures, while the form of the re-

mainder is on the whole that of the Palestinian LXX text."17

This is a highly interesting observation and one which prom-

ises to be fruitful for further study. It is clear that in the

New Testament generally the actual form of the quotations is

determined by the use to which they are put, their New

Testament setting demanding some alteration for purposes of

smooth and suitable application as well as to bring out the

element of fulfillment. Certainly the New Testament con-

ception of fulfillment is not exhausted by a "this is that"

correspondence between the Old and the New. It includes the

 

15 Horae Synopticae, pp. 154, 155.

16 The School of St. Matthew, p. 201.

17 Ibid., p. 195.

 



The Importance of the Septuagint for Biblical Studies     355

 

clear by the fuller revelation of the New (note, for example,

how the word fulfill is used in Romans 8:4).

            In addition to passages of greater or lesser length which

are clearly intended to be quotations either by the presence

of some formula of citation or by the way in which they are

treated in the context, the Greek text of the New Testament

abounds in words and phrases which modern editors have put

in bold type in order to show their Old Testament provenance.

In the margin of the Nestle text the location of the Old

Testament passage is indicated. Even so, there is room for

further work in identifying passages in the Old Testament

upon which the New Testament writers have drawn. Recently

the present writer was reading in the Septuagint text of

Deuteronomy 1:16 and noticed the striking verbal agreement

of a]na> me<son a]demfou? with Paul's language in 1 Corinthians

6:5. His word sofo<j may well have its seed-plot also in the

previous verse, where it occurs in the plural.

            A question naturally arises, in view of the large use made

of the Septuagint in the composition of the New Testament

and the high regard in which it was held in the early church,

as to its authority in relation to the Hebrew text. Does it

have equal inspiration with the Hebrew, or does it have any

at all? We have no basis on which to plead its inspiration

except in the broad, uncritical sense in which people today

designate their English Bible as inspired. A version is entitled

to be called the Word of God if it represents an honest and

faithful attempt to reproduce the original text. But the Septu-

agint is unique in this respect, namely, that some hundreds

of verses from its corpus have been lifted out and trans-

planted into the organism known as the New Testament, and

there they have taken their place in the category of inspired

Scripture as truly as the text around them which they are

called upon to support or explain.

 

Pasadena, California.

 

 

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Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu