Why the Greek Old Testament Still Matters
ABSTRACT: What many call “the Septuagint” today was a collection of varied Greek translations of the Hebrew Old Testament that circulated among Jews and Christians in antiquity. The apostles both read and referenced these Greek translations often, especially as they wrote to Greek-speaking churches throughout the Greek-speaking world. Sometimes, their use of the Septuagint comes across through translations of key words; other times, they quote directly from the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew. Their familiarity with the Greek Old Testament also exerts a behind-the-scenes influence on broader New Testament themes. Familiarity with the Septuagint, then, offers a fresh window into the study of the Scriptures, for pastors and engaged laypeople as well as for scholars.
If your personal Bible is the ESV or NIV, you first come across it in a footnote at Genesis 4:8. If you are using the NET, you will spot it even earlier in a translators’ note at Genesis 3:15. But if you cut against the grain and use the CSB, you will see it make a cameo as early as Genesis 2:2. In fact, you will bump into it roughly 96 times in the CSB’s footnotes for Genesis–Deuteronomy.
It is called the Septuagint, or LXX for short: in a nutshell, the Greek form of the Old Testament (OT). Often ignored or misunderstood, it is one of the more important words in your Bible’s footnotes.
Septuagint studies has enjoyed a bit of an academic renaissance in recent decades, but many pastors and laypersons still know little about it. It sounds esoteric, especially with its difficult-to-say title — which scholars do not pronounce uniformly anyhow — and fancy nickname. The aim of this article is to bring it out of the shadows of footnotes and into the light, focusing on clarifying what it is and why it matters to everyday Christians.
What Exactly Is the Septuagint?
Before discussing its relevance, we have to clarify what is meant by Septuagint. But that is part of the problem. The term itself, when paired with the (the Septuagint, or the LXX), and combined with the fact that you can purchase a copy, might give the false impression that “the Septuagint” is a singular book, produced by a single committee, and published in a single place at a single time. But since we are looking back to a time before printing presses, publishers, computers, and online booksellers, little of this impression is accurate. It is better to think of the word Septuagint as a pointer to the process by which the Hebrew Scriptures circulated in the Greek language among Jews and Christians in antiquity. The details are complex, but some key ideas can be sketched.
Clear Starting Point
Most Christians know that their personal copy of the OT is a translation from the ancient Hebrew text, aimed at conveying God’s word to people unfamiliar with Hebrew. Jews in antiquity faced the same issue. After the conquest of Alexander the Great (d. 323 BC), much of the Mediterranean world adopted Greek as the functional language. Jews inside and outside Palestine followed suit to varying degrees, and competency in Hebrew began to wane. In the mid-third century BC, a group of Greek-speaking Jews in Egypt (likely Alexandria) undertook translating the Torah (or Pentateuch, Genesis–Deuteronomy) from Hebrew into Greek, not only to give their own people access to Scripture in their daily language for use in worship but also (possibly) to provide a copy of their law code to the Ptolemaic rulers.
The embellished account of this translation (in the Letter of Aristeas, from the second or third century BC) states there were 72 translators, which, over the course of time, became 70 — the Latin of which is septuaginta or LXX. Strictly speaking, then, Septuagint or LXX refers only to this initial endeavor.
The Plot Thickens
The Greek Pentateuch may have been first in the pool, but over the next centuries more swimmers entered, the water itself began changing, lane markers started crisscrossing, and so on. Five overlapping developments are worth mentioning.
First, more books of the traditional OT were translated from Hebrew into Greek, starting perhaps with Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the minor prophets. The precise sequence, location, and timing are unknown, but most, if not all, were completed by the time of the early church. Swimming in this same pool of activity were the writings known as Apocrypha. Their association with the Greek copies of scriptural books greatly influenced how, in due course, they were designated as deuterocanonical books within Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy.
Second, translation strategies evolved over time. Some books were translated in a way similar to today’s NASB (stricter correspondence to the Hebrew) while others were closer to the NLT (less strictness, more paraphrastic). The translations are all adequate as Greek but had different philosophies, needs, and audiences in view.
Third, existing Greek translations were not carved in stone but began to be revised (or even retranslated), often with the goal of bringing them closer to the Hebrew. Some books like Daniel and Esther even branched into two distinct Greek forms. Such activities are traditionally associated with the Kaige movement, Aquila, Symmachus, Theodotion, Origen, Lucian of Antioch, and possibly others. One could compare these translations to the different editions of, say, the NIV (1978, 1984, 1996 NIrV, 1999, 2002 TNIV, 2011).
Fourth, manuscripts of the emerging Greek versions of the OT themselves took on a life of their own, as they were copied and passed on by Jewish and, in turn, Christian scribes. No scribe was perfect, and accidental or intentional changes entered the stream over time.
Fifth, running through all these developments is the fact that the Hebrew source text itself — which translators were attempting to capture in Greek — was itself not 100 percent stable at the margins. The Hebrew text was passed on with exceptional accuracy, but there is no guarantee that any given translator was working from an identical copy of the Hebrew. (This is why modern Bibles sometimes mention alternative wording found in certain Hebrew manuscripts like the Dead Sea Scrolls — as, e.g., the ESV at Psalm 22:16.)
We could go further into the weeds, but this suffices to prove the point: there really was no such thing as the Septuagint. Talking about it as such is like asking a churchgoer where to find the Bible. Do you want the ESV? NIV? KJV? RVR (Spanish)? A study Bible? Devotional Bible? Interlinear? App? Audio Bible? Even for those who can read the biblical languages, there are multiple options.
Septuagint, then, is at best a kind of shorthand for the complex but fascinating history by which God’s word in Hebrew made its way throughout the empire in various Greek forms.
Why Is It Relevant to the Study of the NT?
Precisely here — the use of Greek Bible(s) in antiquity — the relevance of the so-called Septuagint for us today becomes evident.
By definition, it is clearly relevant to studying the OT, particularly for reconstructing the authentic OT text (e.g., ESV at 1 Samuel 10:1; 14:41), exploring canon-related issues, and tracing early Jewish interpretation — vital topics that would merit a standalone article.
But it is also of great relevance to studying the New Testament (NT), which is our focus here. Early Christians, like their Jewish predecessors, were immersed in a Greek-speaking world. We see this not only in how some of Jesus’s disciples bore Greek names alongside Semitic ones (Saul/Paul, Levi/Matthew, Simon/Peter) or were from Hellenistic backgrounds (Acts 6), but most clearly in the writing of the entire NT in Greek. It should come as no surprise, then, that the authors sometimes make direct use of the Greek form of the OT in addition to or even in place of the known Hebrew form. Just as a Korean-speaking pastor would naturally quote from a Korean Bible in a sermon to a Korean congregation, so also the Greek-speaking apostolic authors would often default to a Greek Bible when writing to Greek-speaking congregations.
Matthew offers a helpful example to prove the point. On the one hand, he uses the specific Hebrew form of Hosea 11:1 (“I have called my son”) and not the Greek (“I have called my children”) in Matthew 2:15. On the other hand, he draws on the Greek form of Isaiah 40:3, even where it differs from the Hebrew, in Matthew 3:2. Since Matthew was a bilingual tax collector, it makes sense that he would be able to navigate the OT in both Hebrew and Greek.
In short, the Greek tradition of the OT influenced the writing of the NT in various ways alongside the Hebrew tradition, which means that today’s student of the Bible would benefit to know something about it. I will trace three ways we can detect this influence, offering brief implications at each step.
The Greek OT shaped the contours of certain words.
When my church congregation prays the Lord’s Prayer, I self-consciously avoid using thy and thine embedded in memory from the KJV. Your Bible influences your theological vocabulary. Similarly, the Greek of the Septuagint texts shaped to varying degrees the specific ways certain words were used by NT authors.
A marquee example is the use of ekklēsia for “church.” Other options existed, and in secular Greek ekklēsia often carried the sense of a civic assembly. So why did this term get applied immediately (and with no apparent debate) to the spiritual gathering of believers (Matthew 16:18; Galatians 1:2)? The Jewish community had already settled on this word as a suitable way of translating Hebrew terms for the congregation or gathering of the Israelites for religious worship and instruction (e.g., Deuteronomy 4:10; Joshua 8:5). Indeed, ekklēsia is used for the assembly of the Israelites in Acts 7:38 and, only a few breaths later, for the early church in 8:1. Knowing something about the Greek OT, then, is crucial to grasping the identity of today’s church as the people of God.
Another key example is “gospel” or “good news.” Euangelion vocabulary was often used for reports of military victories in antiquity. But in the Greek tradition of the prophets (especially Isaiah), it was applied to spiritual good news related to the saving work of God, doubtless shaping the apostolic authors. For instance, Mark 1:1–3 traces the good news directly to Isaiah 40, and Paul treats the good news as something pre-promised to the prophets as well (Romans 1:1–2).
A final example is the term used in the Greek OT for the “sin offering,” namely, peri hamartias (e.g., Leviticus 5:6). Strictly speaking, this phrase means “concerning sin,” but it became a technical term for the specific Levitical sacrifice (see Hebrews 10:6). Its influence can be felt most vividly in Romans 8:3, where Paul refers to Jesus as peri hamartias; though some English translations take this as “for sin” (KJV, RSV), it is more accurate to render it “sin offering” (CSB, NIV), which concretely captures how Jesus’s blood fulfills the Levitical sacrificial system.
Implication: Students of the NT can benefit from adding the Greek OT to their set of tools for studying the semantic ranges of NT words (from covenant to mercy seat/propitiation and beyond). The Greek OT may not answer every question for every word, but it can be a window on common use in the first century — and sure beats using Merriam-Webster!
The Greek OT was often used in specific quotations.
Additionally, NT authors often use wording from the Greek tradition when directly quoting an OT passage. When studying such reuses of the OT in the NT, it is important to keep four basic patterns in mind.
- The wording matches both the Hebrew and the Greek, particularly if the latter is a straightforward rendering of the former (e.g., Leviticus 19:18 in Matthew 19:19).
- The wording matches the Hebrew more closely, and not the Greek (e.g., Zechariah 12:10 in John 19:37).
- The wording matches neither fully but appears to involve apostolic retranslation or interpretation (e.g., Psalm 68:19 in Ephesians 4:8).
- The wording matches the Greek more closely, even where it deviates from the Hebrew.
The fourth category is of most interest here, since it demonstrates the vital importance of the Greek translation(s) of the OT to NT study. I will provide a few examples to illustrate the point.
Let us begin with instances where the use of the Greek OT is important Christologically.
- In Jesus’s visit to the Nazareth synagogue, his reading of Isaiah 61:1–2 as recorded in Luke 4:18–19 includes “and recovering of sight to the blind,” found only in Greek Isaiah and not the known Hebrew. This line is important to the Lukan context because it frames Jesus as the Spirit-anointed deliverer who will, indeed, bring healing to both physical and spiritual blindness.
- Amid the rapid-fire set of quotations in Hebrews 1:5–14, the author writes, “When he [God] brings the firstborn into the world, he says, ‘Let all God’s angels worship him’” (Hebrews 1:6). This line is apparently drawn from the Greek tradition of Deuteronomy 32:43 and is absent in the standard Hebrew tradition, providing the author with helpful wording to express the divinity of Jesus. (Note: some English translations incorporate the line into the text of Deuteronomy, effectively blending the Hebrew and Greek.)
- Hebrews also reflects the distinct wording of the Greek of Psalm 40:6–8 in order to capture the humanity of Jesus via “A body have you prepared for me” (Hebrews 10:5), whereas the Hebrew reads, “You have given me an open ear.”
These are but a few instances where the OT — and the Greek form, at that — is key to articulating the person and work of Christ.
The Greek OT is also missionally important to the NT authors. Occasionally, the ancient Greek translators had already enhanced how a given passage anticipates the inclusion of the nations/Gentiles in the plan of God, allowing the apostolic authors more readily to root the global mission of the church in Scripture.
- Matthew draws on the distinctive Greek wording of Isaiah 42:1–3 to plant the seed that Jesus’s ministry is not only for Jews but encompasses Gentiles, too: while the Hebrew reads, “The coastlands await his laws,” the Greek form that is used in Matthew 12:21 reads, “In his name the Gentiles will hope.”
- At the Jerusalem council, the decisive evidence in favor of not imposing circumcision on Gentiles comes from Amos 9:11–12. The wording of the quotation in Acts 15:17, “that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord,” aligns more closely with the clearer Gentile-inclusive wording of the Greek of Amos rather than the Hebrew.
- Among Paul’s string of OT quotations about the Gentile-embracing work of Jesus is another use of the unique Greek form of Deuteronomy 32:43 (see above), “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people” (Romans 15:10), which is not found in the Hebrew.
No doubt other Hebrew Scriptures would suffice to make the same points, but the apostolic authors apparently opted to draw on Greek translations that were already ripe for use.
Lastly, knowledge of the NT authors’ use of the Greek OT is also helpful apologetically for today’s readers. On occasion, an OT quotation in the NT seems at first glance to contradict what one finds when looking it up in the English Bible (which, recall, uses the Hebrew). In such cases, the Greek OT can sometimes shed light.
- Luke references a figure named “Cainan” in Jesus’s genealogy (Luke 3:36) as well as “seventy-five persons” emigrating to Egypt (Acts 7:14). The former figure is not found in the Hebrew genealogies, and the latter is presented as “seventy” in the Hebrew of Genesis 46:27 and Exodus 1:5. In both cases, however, Luke is seemingly drawing on the Greek tradition, which mentions “Cainan” at Genesis 10:24 and tabulates the descendants (via a different way of counting) as “seventy-five.”
- The quotation of Psalm 95:7–8 in Hebrews 3:7–11 reads, in part, “as you did in the rebellion, on the day of testing.” This seems to contradict the Hebrew: “as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah.” But the author is using the Greek form that has translated those place-names.
- Hebrews 11:21 states that the dying patriarch Jacob worshiped “over the head of his staff,” pointing to Genesis 47:31. The Hebrew reads “upon the head of his bed,” but the NT author has simply used the Greek form.
In these instances and a few others, any apparent misstep by a NT author is ameliorated by recognizing that he is drawing on a Greek form of the text known to his audience.
Implication: Students of the NT, when encountering an OT quotation, should consider consulting not only the English translation (from the Hebrew) but also the Greek form, to see if any specific nuances in the Greek tradition have influenced the apostolic writer. Those who are unable to read Greek can use a modern translation, specifically LES or NETS.
The Greek OT exerts behind-the-scenes influence on broader concepts/themes.
Finally, we see telltale signs of the formative influence of the Greek OT on the NT exegesis of Scripture beyond word-for-word quotations. In such scenarios, knowledge of the broader context of the specifically Greek form of an OT passage often enhances our understanding of what a given NT author is doing.
A simple example involves the Greek form of Numbers 24:17, picturing a royal star that “will rise” (anatelei) from Jacob (versus Hebrew “walk”). The Greek verb provides a clue as to why the magi seek a new Jewish king when they see a star “in its rising” (anatolē, Matthew 2:2).
A more potent example appears in John 12:41, where the evangelist comments that Isaiah “said these things” — referring to two quotations of Isaiah in 12:38, 40 — because he “saw his glory and spoke of him.” The “him” here is Jesus, and the key connection is “glory” (doxa). The quoted passages are from Isaiah 53:1 and 6:10, respectively, and the quoted wording is not otherwise notable. But if one reads each passage in Greek, light bulbs start turning on. In the Greek of Isaiah 52:13–53:12, the “servant” is “glorified,” but his “glory” is rejected (versus Hebrew “lifted up” and “form”); and in the Greek of Isaiah 6:1, the Lord’s “glory” fills heaven (versus Hebrew “train of his robe”). John taps into both “glory” connections in Greek to express what Isaiah “saw” in each scene: namely, the suffering-doxa and heavenly-doxa of the Son of God.
Sticking with Isaiah, another intriguing example is Isaiah 65:17–22, the grand vision for the new heavens and new earth. When the heavenly Jerusalem comes, death will be defeated and God’s people will rest secure. The Greek tradition includes a reference to the “tree of life” (65:22) — a rare mention of this Edenic plant — where the Hebrew reads only “tree.” This detail may to some degree influence the appearance of this same “tree of life” in Revelation 21:1–22:5 (specifically 22:2), where the author is capturing vividly the fulfillment of Isaiah 65.
Staying in Revelation, the initial vision of the “son of man” (Jesus) in Revelation 1:13–14 is intriguing because his attributes (e.g., hair as white as snow/wool) match those of the “Ancient of Days” in Daniel 7:9–14, where “son of man” first appears. In Revelation, the identity of the son of man seems almost to merge with the Ancient of Days, though in Daniel 7 they are distinct. Intriguingly, this close identification of the two figures already occurs in the older Greek tradition of Daniel 7:13, which has the “son of man” coming “as” the “Ancient of Days” (versus “to” or “before the presence of” in Aramaic). Perhaps such an exegetical tradition had taken root before John’s writing of the Apocalypse.
More examples could be mentioned, but the key point is this: in such cases, the influence of the Greek OT is felt not so much onstage (the wording of a given quotation) but more behind-the-scenes, reflecting the NT authors’ rich and multifaceted engagement with God’s word.
Implication: Students of the NT should strive to be sensitive to how the particular Greek form of the OT could shape an NT author’s argument or narrative at the conceptual level. One way to do this is simply to read the Greek OT (even in translation) regularly when studying OT passages that are instrumental to NT theology.
Septuagint and Scripture
Much more could be said, but the hope is that this brief survey has whetted the reader’s appetite to explore the texts of the Septuagint further (see here or here). It offers an exciting gateway to studying both OT and NT afresh, not only for scholars but for ministers and laypersons too.
Many Christians often ask at this point, “If the apostles sometimes used the Septuagint, does that make it inspired?” A common answer is that a NT quotation of the Greek OT does sanction its wording, even when it deviates from the Hebrew. This answer hits the rocks, however, when NT authors do not always use identical wording for the same OT quotations (e.g., Isaiah 6:9–10 in Matthew 13:14–15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:39–40; Acts 28:25–27), making it hard to say which wording is “sanctioned.”
A better answer is this: the Jewish community and early Christians clearly privileged the Hebrew text as the locus of inspiration. However, there were no efforts (then or now) at linguistic Judaizing, whereby new converts would be forced to learn Hebrew to access Scripture. The Greek OT in its varied forms was seen as more than adequate as a translation of the word of God to reach a Greek-speaking world, and the apostles used it accordingly. Does this mean that apostolic use of the Greek OT where it appears to deviate from the Hebrew is an exercise in building theology off a faulty translation? Not at all — it simply means the NT writers felt that the Greek “pew Bible” (in modern terminology) familiar to their readers faithfully captured the theological intent of God-given words, so they used it accordingly.
Studying the Septuagint, if nothing else, is an illuminating exercise in tracing God’s faithfulness in using his word to motivate and sustain the early church in proclaiming Christ from the Scriptures to the ends of the earth (Luke 24:44–47).