Is the Septuagint inspired?

(Photo: Unsplash/Sixteen Miles Out)

It is time for Christians to rediscover the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Protestant Christians accept the Hebrew text as the normative version of the first part of the Bible, but research for my book on the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament made me read the Septuagint and I discovered that the translators of the Septuagint sometimes took God's revelation in the Hebrew Bible further, thus shedding new light on that revelation. Indeed, much of the New Testament depends on their wording.

The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, but already translated into Greek before the coming of Christ. The Septuagint version was the Bible that was used in the early church outside the land of Israel, and by the so-called Hellenistic Jews (see Acts 6:1). Today, the Septuagint is available in modern English as the New English Translation of the Septuagint (2007) and online.

Modern research shows that the various books of the Hebrew Bible were translated by different people at different times and possibly at different places, although much was done by Greek-speaking Jews in Alexandria. Like all translations, it is not completely literal and the interpretation of the translators often shines through clearly in their choices, for better or for worse. Moreover, at times the Septuagint seems to be based on a better Hebrew text than what we have.

Most authors of the New Testament knew Hebrew and could have written their books in Hebrew, but they chose to write in Greek because it was the language of the spreading church and it would have been unworkable to communicate in Hebrew. The practical effect of this decision was that the writings of the early church were linked to the Septuagint version of the Scriptures of Israel. Often the Old Testament is quoted according to the Septuagint, although the New Testament authors were selective and could use other Greek renderings as well or providing their own translation of the Hebrew.

What may surprise you is that most English translations already selectively make use of the Septuagint. For example, the NIV indicates in its footnotes that in Genesis 4:8,15; 37:36; and 47:21, 31 it follows the Septuagint and other versions over and against the Hebrew text (called the Masoretic Text). In Isaiah the same happens in 5:17, 11:11, 21:8 and 23:10. The NIV also uses the famous Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah next to the Septuagint (see 37:20, 25, 27).

In other places, such as Genesis 11:12-13 and Isaiah 6:9-10, 10:27 and 11:6, the Hebrew text is translated but the reading of the Septuagint is given in a footnote in the NIV.

I think that it is acceptable to use the Septuagint where – for whatever reason – it is better than the Hebrew text. But are we aware that in this way - which occurs in all modern English translations - the relevant part of the Septuagint is treated as inspired Scripture? I suppose that few Bible readers have reflected on this aspect of their translation.

The church father Augustine would agree with the modern use of the Septuagint, for he wrote that 'where the difference [between the Hebrew text and the Septuagint] is not a mere copyist's error, and where the sense is agreeable to truth and illustrative of truth, we must believe that the divine Spirit prompted them [the Septuagint translators] to give a varying version'. Augustine thus regards the translators of the Septuagint as prophets, and therefore as inspired authors.

When they quote the Scriptures, the writers of the New Testament regularly follow the Septuagint where it differs from the Hebrew text. I have given examples of this practice in my book; here I mention only Matthew 21:16 using Psalm 8:2, and Romans 15:12 using Isaiah 11:10. For this reason too it is right that sometimes the wording of the Septuagint forms the basis for modern translations, or at least is mentioned in a footnote.

This situation raises the same issue as above: can we and should we draw the conclusion that some readings of the Septuagint are inspired just because of their role in the New Testament? I think so. Some elements of the Septuagint enhance the witness of the Old Testament to God, so they clearly represent God's continuing revelation. In other words, some words or verses of the Septuagint which go beyond the Hebrew text should be considered inspired and therefore be translated. Which ones they are will always be a matter of interpretation.

My thesis is that where it faithfully renders or improves the Hebrew text, the Septuagint has derived authority as a translation of an authoritative text. Where it misrepresents the Hebrew, it can be ignored. 

An example of the added value of the Septuagint is the choice of the Greek word parthenos to refer to the young woman in Isaiah 7:14. The Hebrew word here is ambiguous; it probably but not necessarily indicates a virgin. On the other hand, the word parthenos clearly means virgin. We see that the Septuagint specifies what was latent in the Hebrew Bible, namely the virginity of the mother of the promised child.

Another example of added value which commends the Septuagint to our attention is the use of the word agapē. This was a rare Greek word until it became prominent in the Septuagint. The translators of the Septuagint chose it to render the Hebrew word for love, and it was then also adopted in the New Testament. Jesus and his followers filled agapē with a unique meaning. They could not have done this if the Septuagint had not introduced this word into biblical language. Indeed, I would argue that the Septuagint's choice of agapē was inspired.

In the same way, the Septuagint translation of Amos 9:12, where Edom is replaced with Adam, human being, enables the use of this verse in Acts 15:16-17. More examples could be given but I think I have seen enough to conclude that some elements of the Septuagint extended God's revelation in the Old Testament in such a way that they made a significant difference to the New Testament. These translations constitute inspired parts of Scripture for the Church in which we hear the Holy Spirit addressing us. This being the case, Christians should take the Septuagint seriously!

A scholarly version of this article appears in the European Journal of Theology 30.1 (2021).