The Septuagint
Early Christian Writings
A fundamental change in the way the Church viewed the Old Testament was engineered by St. Jerome, early in the fifth century.  Until that time, the Church had relied on the Septuagint in the East and on a Latin translation of the Septuagint in the West.  When Jerome set about to make a new translation into Latin, he determined to revert to Hebrew for his source text. 

The Church being an essentially conservative institution, his decision to follow such a novel course was criticized.  It is interesting to read his response to that criticism, for he explains his decision on the basis of apostolic precedent - that is, that the New Testament authors made reference to the Hebrew Old Testament rather than to the Septuagint on several occasions:

I have received letters so long and eagerly desired from my dear Desiderius ...  entreating me to put our friends in possession of a translation of the Pentateuch from Hebrew into Latin.  The work is certainly hazardous and it is exposed to the attacks of my calumniators, who maintain that it is through contempt of the Seventy that I have set to work to forge a new version to take the place of the old.  They thus test ability as they do wine; whereas I have again and again declared that I dutifully offer, in the Tabernacle of God what I can, and have pointed out that the great gifts which one man brings are not marred by the inferior gifts of another.  But I was stimulated to undertake the task by the zeal of Origen, who blended with the old edition Theodotion’s translation and used throughout the work as distinguishing marks the asterisk and the obelus, that is the star and the spit, the first of which makes what had previously been defective to beam with light, while the other transfixes and slaughters all that was superfluous. 

But I was encouraged above all by the authoritative publications of the Evangelists and Apostles, in which we read much taken from the Old Testament which is not found in our manuscripts. For example, ‘Out of Egypt have I called my Son’ (Matt. 2.15):  ‘For he shall be called a Nazarene’ (Ibid. 23): and ‘They shall look on him whom they pierced’ (John 19.37): and ‘Rivers of living water shall flow out of his belly’ (John 7.38): and ‘Things which eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man, which God hath prepared for them that love him’ (1 Cor. 2.9), and many other passages which lack their proper context.  Let us ask our opponents then where these things are written, and when they are unable to tell, let us produce them from the Hebrew.  The first passage is in Hosea, (11.1), the second in Isaiah (11.1), the third in Zechariah (12.10), the fourth in Proverbs (18.4), the fifth also in Isaiah (64.4). ...

Are we condemning our predecessors?  By no means; but following the zealous labors of those who have preceded us we contribute such work as lies in our power in the name of the Lord.  They translated before the Advent of Christ, and expressed in ambiguous terms that which they knew not.  We after His Passion and Resurrection write not prophecy so much as history.  For one style is suitable to what we hear, another to what we see.  The better we understand a subject, the better we describe it.  Hearken then, my rival:  listen, my calumniator; I do not condemn, I do not censure the Seventy, but I am bold enough to prefer the Apostles to them all.  It is the Apostle through whose mouth I hear the voice of Christ, and I read that in the classification of spiritual gifts they are placed before prophets (1 Cor. 12.28; Eph. 4.11), while interpreters occupy almost the lowest place.  Why are you tormented with jealousy?  Why do you inflame the minds of the ignorant against me?  Wherever in translation I seem to you to go wrong, ask the Hebrews, consult their teachers in different towns.  The words which exist in their Scriptures concerning Christ your copies do not contain.  [From Jerome’s Apology, Book II, Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol 3.]

This is a fascinating passage.  First, note that Jerome was correct in his statement that several New Testament passages follow the Hebrew meaning in distinction from the reading in the Septuagint.  But it is curious that he believed the passage “For He shall be called a Nazarene” from Matthew 2.23 is a quotation from Isaiah 11.1 - it is not.  That passage does not exist in any of our current texts - in Hebrew or in Greek.  (Isaiah 11.1 does, however, contain the Hebrew word for branch, neser.)  Similarly, the passage “Things which eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man, which God hath prepared for them that love him” is not to be found in Isaiah 64.4, according to the Masoretes.  Again, the passage “Rivers of living water shall flow out of his belly” which Jerome attributes to Proverbs 18.4 is not in our current Hebrew - though Proverbs 18.4 and Isaiah 58.11 both speak of water, there is no reference to that water’s pouring out of anyone’s belly.  Did Jerome have access to a substantially different Hebrew source than we have today?

The other two examples Jerome provided to show how the Hebrew text enjoyed New Testament sanction are indeed absent from the Septuagint - see the list of similar passages.  However, can Jerome have been ignorant of the far larger number of New Testament quotations from the Septuagint where the Greek version differs from the Hebrew?  If New Testament warrant is the key determinant in deciding the source text to be employed in translation, the evidence fairly clearly supports the Septuagint over the Hebrew.

St. Augustine of Hippo was one of those who criticized Jerome’s decision to make his translation into Latin out of the Hebrew.  He was concerned about two issues:  (1) that the new Latin translation would lead to divergences with the Greek-speaking part of the Church, and (2) that the translation would not be authoritative since Jerome’s skill in the interpretation of Hebrew would be questioned, and validated only with great difficulty.

For my part, I would much rather that you would furnish us with a translation of the Greek version of the canonical Scriptures known as the work of the Seventy translators. For if your translation begins to be more generally read in many churches, it will be a grievous thing that, in the reading of Scripture, differences must arise between the Latin Churches and the Greek Churches, especially seeing that the discrepancy is easily condemned in a Latin version by the production of the original in Greek, which is a language very widely known; whereas, if any one has been disturbed by the occurrence of something to which he was not accustomed in the translation taken from the Hebrew, and alleges that the new translation is wrong, it will be found difficult, if not impossible, to get at the Hebrew documents by which the version to which exception is taken may be defended.  And when they are obtained, who will submit, to have so many Latin and Greek authorities: pronounced to be in the wrong?  Besides all this, Jews, if consulted as to the meaning of the Hebrew text, may give a different opinion from yours:  in which case it will seem as if your presence were indispensable, as being the only one who could refute their view; and it would be a miracle if one could be found capable of acting as arbiter between you and them.  [From Augustine of Hippo’s, Letter LXXI, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Volume 1.]

It would perhaps be an interesting study to determine the extent to which using different Old Testament texts has contributed to the separation between East and West through the centuries.  Clearly, Augustine’s own reliance on a poor Latin translation of the book of Romans led him into erroneous conclusions regarding original sin. 

Augustine went on to state his desire that Jerome would provide a fresh translation of the Old Testament into Latin from the Septuagint, since it “has no mean authority, seeing that it has obtained so wide circulation, and was the one which the apostles used, as is ... proved by looking to the text itself.”  In that statement, I think, it is clear that Augustine was correct.  Yet Jerome was of a contrary opinion, stating “Wherever the Seventy agree with the Hebrew, the apostles took their quotations from that translation; but, where they disagree, they set down in Greek what they had found in the Hebrew.  [Jerome’s Apology, Book II.]”  But that claim is manifestly false - unless Jerome’s Hebrew text was radically different from what we possess today.

Jerome accused the Jews who translated the Septuagint of deliberately altering the Hebrew meaning in order to avoid offending or misleading the Ptolemaic king of Egypt for whom the work of translation was done.  His desire, he stated, was to bring to light the underlying Hebrew meaning that had been repressed by those Jewish translators.  Jerome thus lacked the near-ubiquitous suspicion of the Hebrew text shared by those who were in polemical combat with the Jews in the early centuries.  He seemed to take the Hebrew text available to him at the time as verity.  The notion that the Septuagint may have been based on a different underlying Hebrew - for which hypothesis the Dead Sea Scrolls furnish positive evidence (see the appendix) - seems never to have occurred to him.

One difficulty Jerome brought forth for those who would wish to prepare a translation into the Latin from the Septuagint, instead of the Hebrew, was the rarity of manuscripts that were not based on Origen’s Hexapla edition.  Origen had attempted to reconstruct the text of the Septuagint by comparing that text available to him with the Hebrew and other Greek translations.  Following Origen’s reconstructed Greek, Jerome had translated some of the canonical books into Latin.  Augustine wrote to Jerome to ask him why he did not follow the same procedure in his new translation.  Jerome replied:

In another letter you ask why a former translation which I made of some of the canonical books was carefully marked with asterisks and obelisks, whereas I afterwards published a translation without these. You must pardon my saying that you seem to me not to understand the matter:  for the former translation is from the Septuagint; and wherever obelisks are placed, they are designed to indicate that the Seventy have said more than is found in the Hebrew.  But the asterisks indicate what has been added by Origen from the version of Theodotion.  In that version I was translating from the Greek: but in the later version, translating from the Hebrew itself, I have expressed what I understood it to mean, being careful to preserve rather the exact sense than the order of the words.  I am surprised that you do not read the books of the Seventy translators in the genuine form in which they were originally given to the world, but as they have been corrected, or rather corrupted, by Origen, with his obelisks and asterisks; and that you refuse to follow the translation, however feeble, which has been given by a Christian man, especially seeing that Origen borrowed the things which he has added from the edition of a man who, after the passion of Christ, was a Jew and a blasphemer.  Do you wish to be a true admirer and partisan of the Seventy translators?  Then do not read what you find under the asterisks; rather erase them from the volumes, that you may approve yourself indeed a follower of the ancients.  If, however, you do this, you will be compelled to find fault with all the libraries of the Churches; for you will scarcely find more than one Ms. here and there which has not these interpolations.

The copies of the Septuagint then widely available, according to Jerome, were actually Origen’s redaction - and perhaps the editorial symbols that would have allowed one to locate the true Septuagint reading were missing from many of the copies in the libraries.  But clearly Jerome had access to copies which contained Origen’s symbols - in fact, the Hexapla was still extant in Caesarea of Palestine at the time Jerome wrote.  And Jerome, as is clear, had translated some books into Latin from a copy of the Septuagint containing Origen’s symbols. 

Origen’s reconstruction of the Septuagint was thought necessary, apparently, because of the diversity of readings in the many copies in circulation.  In fact, in addition to Origen’s version, two other recensions of the Septuagint were prepared early in the fourth century:  one by Lucian of Antioch, and the other by Hesychius of Egypt.  The Hebrew then available to Jerome did not share the problem of multiple variant readings.  This is perhaps the true reason why Jerome chose to translate from the Hebrew instead of the Greek.  Yet, from Jerome’s remarks earlier, we can only surmise that his Hebrew text was somewhat different from our own, or his knowledge of the Hebrew language was inexact. 

(One hundred years ago, it was though that the fourth century uncial manuscript known as Vaticanus reflected a neutral Septuagint text - neutral in the sense that it is relatively uneffected by Origen, Lucian and Hesychius’ efforts.  Alexandrinus was said to show signs of both Origen and Lucian’s revisions.  But the frequent correspondence between Alexandrinus and the New Testament suggested that it preserved a more ancient text.   At that time, no firm judgment of Sinaiticus had been formed.  I do not know what the current state of scholarship is on this matter.  In terms of printed editions of the Septuagint, the Complutensian Polyglot, printed in 1517, reflects the Lucianic recension to an extent, while the Aldine edition of 1519, the Hesychian.  The Septuagint text used in the comparisons in this article is that of Sir Lawrence Brenton (1851).  Brenton’s text is based on Valpy’s 1819 edition, which in turn depends upon the Sixtine edition of 1587.  This last corresponds roughly with Vaticanus.  Extensive use has also been made of Alfred Rahlfs’semi-critical edition of 1935, especially to identify variant readings.)

The difficulty involved in locating a relatively uniform source from which to translate should not be an overwhelming deterrent to translation.  If it were, we would not have the New Testament in English today:  variant readings in the multiple extant New Testament manuscripts have elicited several recensions of that text since Erasmus’ time.  So, though it was true that the Hebrew text had been standardized to an extent since the Septuagint was generated, and was thus likely to be more uniform than the Greek, these facts hardly justify abandoning the Old Testament of the apostles. 

Contrast Origen’s viewpoint with Jerome’s.  Though he was aware of numerous instances of divergence between the Septuagint readings and those of the Hebrew, yet his trust in God’s providence prevented him from automatically assuming that the Greek version was in error.  How could God have suffered His Church to use an erroneous version of scripture for the first two hundred years of Its existence?

Again, through the whole of Job there are many passages in the Hebrew which are wanting in our copies, generally four or five verses, but sometimes, however, even fourteen, and nineteen, and sixteen. But why should I enumerate all the instances I collected with so much labor, to prove that the difference between our copies and those of the Jews did not escape me?  In Jeremiah I noticed many instances, and indeed in that book I found much transposition and variation in the readings of the prophecies.  Again, in Genesis, the words, “God saw that it was good,” when the firmament was made, are not found in the Hebrew, and there is no small dispute among them about this; and other instances are to be found in Genesis, which I marked, for the sake of distinction, with the sign the Greeks call an obelisk, as on the other hand I marked with an asterisk those passages in our copies which are not found in the Hebrew.  What needs there to speak of Exodus, where there is such diversity in what is said about the tabernacle and its court, and the ark, and the garments of the high priest and the priests, that sometimes the meaning even does not seem to be akin?  And, forsooth, when we notice such things, we are forthwith to reject as spurious the copies in use in our Churches, and enjoin the brotherhood to put away the sacred books current among them, and to coax the Jews, and persuade them to give us copies which shall be untampered with, and free from forgery! Are we to suppose that that Providence which in the sacred Scriptures has ministered to the edification of all the Churches of Christ, had no thought for those bought with a price, for whom Christ died; whom, although His Son, God who is love spared not, but gave Him up for us all, that with Him He might freely give us all things? 

Indeed, Origen remained true to the Septuagint, but he also perceived great value in knowledge of the Hebrew, particularly in discussions with the Jews. 

In all these cases consider whether it would not be well to remember the words, “Thou shalt not remove the ancient landmarks which thy fathers have set.”  Nor do I say this because I shun the labor of investigating the Jewish Scriptures, and comparing them with ours, and noticing their various readings.  This, if it be not arrogant to say it, I have already to a great extent done to the best of my ability, laboring hard to get at the meaning in all the editions and various readings; while I paid particular attention to the interpretation of the Seventy, lest I might to be found to accredit any forgery to the Churches which are under heaven, and give an occasion to those who seek such a starting-point for gratifying their desire to slander the common brethren, and to bring some accusation against those who shine forth in our community.  And I make it my endeavor not to be ignorant of their various readings, lest in my controversies with the Jews I should quote to them what is not found in their copies, and that I may make some use of what is found there, even although it should not be in our Scriptures.  For if we are so prepared for them in our discussions, they will not, as is their manner, scornfully laugh at Gentile believers for their ignorance of the true reading as they have them.  [Origen, A Letter from Origen to Africanus, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 4.]

We find the same regard for the Septuagint a few years earlier, in the second century, when we examine the writings of Sts. Irenaeus of Lyons and Justin Martyr.  In his Against Heresies, Irenaeus discussed one point of contention between the Jews and Christians of his day over the Old Testament - the prophecy of the virgin in Isaiah 7.14:

God, then, was made man, and the Lord did Himself save us, giving us the token of the Virgin.  But not as some allege, among those now presuming to expound the Scripture, [thus: ] “Behold, a young woman shall conceive, and bring forth a son,” as Theodotion the Ephesian has interpreted, and Aquila of Pontus, both Jewish proselytes.  The Ebionites, following these, assert that He was begotten by Joseph; thus destroying, as far as in them lies, such a marvelous dispensation of God, and setting aside the testimony of the prophets which proceeded from God.  For truly this prediction was uttered before the removal of the people to Babylon; that is, anterior to the supremacy acquired by the Medes and Persians. But it was interpreted into Greek by the Jews themselves, much before the period of our Lord’s advent, that there might remain no suspicion that perchance the Jews, complying with our humor, did put this interpretation upon these words.  They indeed, had they been cognizant of our future existence, and that we should use these proofs from the Scriptures, would themselves never have hesitated to burn their own Scriptures, which do declare that all other nations partake of [eternal] life, and show that they who boast themselves as being the house of Jacob and the people of Israel, are disinherited from the grace of God.  [From Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter XXI, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 1.]

Irenaeus argued that since the Jews themselves made this translation - which proves the deity of the Savior - long before the advent of Christ, it is free from bias; while their new translations (those of Aquila and Theodotion) are tainted by their hatred for Christianity.  The extent of Irenaus’ admiration for the Septuagint can be gauged from the following account of the history of the translation, which hints at divine involvement.  This account differs somewhat from that given in The Letter of Aristeas, discussed in the Introduction:

For before the Romans possessed their kingdom, while as yet the Macedonians held Asia, Ptolemy the son of Lagus, being anxious to adorn the library which he had founded in Alexandria, with a collection of the writings of all men, which were [works] of merit, made request to the people of Jerusalem, that they should have their Scriptures translated into the Greek language.  And they - for at that time they were still subject to the Macedonians - sent to Ptolemy seventy of their elders, who were thoroughly skilled in the Scriptures and in both the languages, to carry out what he had desired.  But he, wishing to test them individually, and fearing lest they might perchance, by taking counsel together, conceal the truth in the Scriptures, by their interpretation, separated them from each other, and commanded them all to write the same translation.  He did this with respect to all the books.  But when they came together in the same place before Ptolemy, and each of them compared his own interpretation with that of every other, God was indeed glorified, and the Scriptures were acknowledged as truly divine.  For all of them read out the common translation [which they had prepared] in the very same words and the very same names, from beginning to end, so that even the Gentiles present perceived that the Scriptures had been interpreted by the inspiration of God.  And there was nothing astonishing in God having done this, - He who, when, during the captivity of the people under Nebuchadnezzar, the Scriptures had been corrupted, and when, after seventy years, the Jews had returned to their own land, then, in the times of Artaxerxes king of the Persians, inspired Esdras the priest, of the tribe of Levi, to recast all the words of the former prophets, and to re-establish with the people the Mosaic legislation.

Irenaeus, as Augustine did more than two centuries later, acknowledged that the witness of the New Testament authors is in favor of the Septuagint:

Since, therefore, the Scriptures have been interpreted with such fidelity, and by the grace of God, and since from these God has prepared and formed again our faith towards His Son, and has preserved to us the unadulterated Scriptures in Egypt, where the house of Jacob flourished, fleeing from the famine in Canaan; where also our Lord was preserved when He fled from the persecution set on foot by Herod; and [since] this interpretation of these Scriptures was made prior to our Lord’s descent [to earth], and came into being before the Christians appeared - for our Lord was born about the forty-first year of the reign of Augustus; but Ptolemy was much earlier, under whom the Scriptures were interpreted; - [since these things are so, I say, ] truly these men are proved to be impudent and presumptuous, who would now show a desire to make different translations, when we refute them out of these Scriptures, and shut them up to a belief in the advent of the Son of God.  But our faith is steadfast, unfeigned, and the only true one, having clear proof from these Scriptures, which were interpreted in the way I have related; and the preaching of the Church is without interpolation. For the apostles, since they are of more ancient date than all these [heretics], agree with this aforesaid translation; and the translation harmonizes with the tradition of the apostles.  For Peter, and John, and Matthew, and Paul, and the rest successively, as well as their followers, did set forth all prophetical [announcements], just as the interpretation of the elders contains them.

Thus, in Irenaeus’ view, just as God preserved the Israelites through the time of famine safe in the land of Egypt, God kept his word safe in Alexandria though the instrumentality of unbiased Jewish translators.

Writing just a few years earlier than Irenaeus, Justin Martyr presented the same history of the Septuagint’s production.  Then he added:

These things, ye men of Greece, are no fable, nor do we narrate fictions; but we ourselves having been in Alexandria, saw the remains of the little cots at the Pharos still preserved, and having heard these things from the inhabitants, who had received them as part of their country’s tradition, we now tell to you what you can also learn from others, and specially from those wise and esteemed men who have written of these things, Philo and Josephus, and many others.  [From Justin’s Hortatory Address to the Greeks, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 1.]

Though he was willing to debate the Jews on the basis of their version of scripture, Justin alleged that the Jews had removed passages which he discovered only in the Septuagint. 

In short, the vast majority of early Christian writers quoted extensively from the Septuagint, and some considered it a divinely inspired translation.  St. Clement of Rome, writing in the first century, provides the earliest non-canonical example.  It has been estimated that approximately half of his Old Testament quotations are directly from the Septuagint, the remainder being variations due to imperfect memory on the one hand and the use of a text closer to the second century Greek translations of Theodotion or Aquila on the other.  Until the religious controversy with Christians arose, the Septuagint was held in very high regard by Jews also.  Philo of Alexandria - who, with Irenaeus and Justin, believed that the seventy-two translators had miraculously produced identical translations though isolated in separate cells - and Josephus are eminent examples. 

But it is also true that all the Fathers of the Church did not share an aversion to the Hebrew text.  One can find examples where they consulted with those knowledgeable in Hebrew in order to gain a deeper understanding of the Biblical message.  St. Basil the Great, for instance, in commenting on the text “the Spirit of God was borne upon the face of the waters” says:

How then did the Spirit of God move upon the waters?  The explanation that I am about to give you is not an original one, but that of a Syrian, who was as ignorant in the wisdom of this world as he was versed in the knowledge of the Truth.  He said, then, that the  Syriac word was more expressive, and that being more analogous to the Hebrew term it was a nearer approach to the scriptural sense.  This is the meaning of the word; by “was borne” the Syrians, he says, understand: it cherished the nature of the waters as one sees a bird cover the eggs with her body and impart to them vital force from her own warmth.  Such is, as nearly as possible, the meaning of these words - the Spirit was borne:  let us understand, that is, prepared the nature of water to produce living beings:  a sufficient proof for those who ask if the Holy Spirit took an active part in the creation of the world [The Hexaemeron, Homily II, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Volume 8.]

Similarly, St. Gregory of Nyssa consulted Aquila and Symmachus’ translations from an original very close to the Masoretic Hebrew to clarify the meaning of Genesis 1.2.  (See his Hexaemeron.)  When discussing the meaning of Proverbs 8.27, Gregory indicated a willingness to consult the Hebrew to ascertain the meaning of the word rendered “created” in the Septuagint [Against Eunomius, Book I, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Volume 5, page 63].  Perhaps we should emulate the early Christians’ faithfulness to the Septuagint - on the grounds that it is the Old Testament largely witnessed by the New - but temper that loyalty with appreciation for the current Hebrew text.

The claim, repeated above by Irenaeus and Augustine, that the New Testament authors relied upon the Septuagint, is examined in the second part of this article:  The Septuagint in the New Testament.