The Relevance of the Septuagint Concerning Biblical Exegesis

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Written by Cory M. Marsh | Associate Professor of Bible and Theology  | Southern California Seminary
This is the third installment in the series, Is the Septuagint a Reliable Guide for New Testament Exegesis?, you can read the previous articles here and here.

The Relevance of the Septuagint Concerning Biblical Exegesis

 While there is no doubt the LXX differs from the Hebrew MT in some substantial ways,[1] its literal translation of the Hebrew into Greek, nonetheless, bears much relevance on the current study. What needs to be remembered, however, is that there really is no such thing as a perfect translation. Every language has its own peculiarities, idioms, and nuances that are restricted to its particular culture and context. Certain words and phrases simply do not cross over in an intelligible way, and this is all the more understandable when it comes to a vivid Eastern-Oriental language such as Hebrew being translated into a Western-Indo European language which is more exact by comparison (as seen, for example, in its five–eight case noun system, and technical use of the article). With this serving as a backdrop, there are several important contributions the LXX makes to the discipline of exegesis, especially as it relates to the GNT and Christian scholarship. In what follows, this author will offer four central reasons why the LXX should be consulted when engaged in biblical exegesis.

  • The Antiquity and Extent of the LXX

It must be kept in mind that the Septuagint is the oldest version of what Christians call “the Old Testament.” Written in the third to second centuries B.C., the LXX “represents the earliest of the translations of the Old Testament.”[2] The Hebrew MT, by comparison (and written in Aramaic script, not the original paleo-Hebrew script) was not produced by Jewish scribes until the 6th–11th centuries A.D. Moreover, the LXX contains the entire corpus of the Judeo-Christian Hebrew Scriptures, not mere parts, and is very well attested by a large number of ancient manuscripts. Thus, the Septuagint’s antiquity and its extent  qualifies it as being applicable to exegesis as it gives us the most ancient version of God’s holy Word.The Reflection of Important Variants in the LXX
 The LXX is, for the most part, a literal Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures.[3] Yet, due to the two separate linguistic worlds colliding (Oriental and Western), significant variants such as chronological data in Genesis, sequence differences in Numbers, and considerable transpositions in Joshua occurred in the translation process. This was inevitable due in part to specific Hebrew words not having exact Greek counterparts, but mostly it is due to the relationship between those words being written inside a unique and thoroughly Jewish context. Coney Beare and Stock call attention to the differences between Greek and Hebrew which the LXX scribes dealt with: “The LXX is on the whole a literal translation, that is to say, it is only half a translation—the vocabulary has been changed, but seldom the construction. We have therefore to deal with a work of which the vocabulary is Greek and the syntax is Hebrew.”[4] However, rather serving as a negative against the trustworthiness of the LXX, these variants actually serve as a positive reinforcement in the world of exegesis. How so? Hebrew scholar, Emanuel Tov, explains: “The importance of the Septuagint is based on the fact that it reflects a greater variety of important variants than all other translations put together. Many details in the Hebrew source of the translation can be reconstructed, since large sections have been translated with a high degree of literalness” [emphasis added].[5]

  • The Linguistic Bridge Effect of the LXX to the GNT

Olander notes: “One of the most obvious connections between the OT Hebrew and NT Greek is that the Hebrew Text was translated into Greek.”[6] Thus, the LXX helps provide a cohesive unity and design of purpose that envelopes the entire Bible. Because the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek, a vital linguistic link was built bridging the gap between the two Testaments. As a result, a cohesive linguistic plumb line exists by way of a language that was so popular globally (Koine Greek), it has left us with thousands upon thousands of ancient documents—both secular and religious. These ancient Greek writings are readily accessible and available for exegetes to study today, giving us a more thorough knowledge of the language used in the LXX.[7] In short, because the LXX is in Hellenistic Greek—an easily accessible ancient language due to its enormous religious and secular manuscript evidence—exegetes today can actually understand the GNT better, as well as ancient Jewish culture.

  • The GNT use of the LXX

It has been estimated that the GNT quotes directly from the LXX in 340 places, while quoting from the Hebrew (in what would become) MT in only 33 places.[8] This point furthers the one above as Greek was the lingua franca of the day, and the Greek Septuagint provides a vital linguistic bridge between the two worlds: Eastern and Western. Many scholars believe the LXX is relied upon so much by the NT authors (to include Jesus himself) due to its Greek translation being more exact viz. making certain things explicit that the Hebrew makes implicit at best.[9]Thus, a few things in this regard are worth mentioning.

  • The LXX is Exegesis Par Excellence.

True exegesis was conducted by the Hebrew scribes of the LXX in order to faithfully translate the Hebrew’s meaning into Greek. Wycoff notes: “Not all Hebrew idioms made sense when translated word for word into Greek, and the translator sometimes opted to render these according to their meaning by adding or omitting words or by paraphrasing. This, too, is exegesis because it involves an interpretation of the Hebrew phrase’s meaning, but it is contextual because its primary criterion is the context in which the LXX was meant to be used”[10] [emphasis added].

  • The LXX Contains Fewer Textual Corruptions.

As is widely known, the original Hebrew text did not contain vowel points, but was rather entirely consonantal. Thus, the LXX translators were able to clear up many ambiguities in the text by supplying translations based on the Greek vowel system. On this point, Stuart observes, “Largely because the Greek language uses vowels, and Hebrew does not, the LXX wordings were less ambiguous and the LXX was inherently less likely to be marred by textual corruptions than the Hebrew, which went on accumulating corruptions (as well as editorial expansions, etc.) for many centuries after the LXX was produced.” [11]
[1] Notable examples from a traditional Protestant perspective would include LXX’s different version of Daniel, as well as the seven apocryphal books contained within its corpus.
[2] Brotzman, Old Testament Textual Criticism, 73
[3]  Cf. Claude Cox, “Some Things Biblical Scholars Should Know About the Septuagint,” 90–91.
[4]   F. C. Conybeare and S.T. George Stock, A Grammar of Septuagint Greek (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1980), 38.
[5] Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, 142.
[6] David E. Olander, “The Importance of Biblical Languages” in Dispensationalism Tomorrow and Beyond: A Theological Collection in Honor of Charles C. Ryrie, ed. by Christopher Cone, 67–96 (Ft Worth, TX: Tyndale Seminary Press, 2008), 17.
[7] An excellent Greek grammar respecting both LXX and NT Greek is Rodney J. Decker, Reading Koine Greek: An Introduction and Integrated Workbook (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2014).
[8] Cf.  Gleason Archer and Gregory Chirichigno, Old Testament Quotations in the New Testament: A Complete Survey (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1983), 25-32.
[9]  A notable example would be the nontechnical term, הָעַלְמָה (hāʿalmâ, the young maiden/woman or the virgin) in the Hebrew text of Isaiah 7:14 translated as the explicit, technical term ἡ παρθένος (hē parthénos, the virgin) in the LXX (cf. Gen 24:43, LXX).
[10] Eric John Wyckoff, “When Does Translation Become Exegesis? Exodus 24:9-11 in the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint,” 677.
[11] Douglass Stuart, Old Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors 4th ed. (Louisville, KT: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 88

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