Chris Fresch follows the footnotes to unravel the mystery of the Septuagint and its influence on modern Bible translations
You sit in your favourite armchair, eagerly anticipating an evening with the Old Testament. You flip to Ezekiel 7 in the ESV and begin reading. However, as you make your way through the text, verse 24 causes you to pause: ‘I will bring the worst of the nations to take possession of their houses. I will put an end to the pride of the strong, and their holy places9 shall be profaned.’ You notice the footnote indicator and look to the bottom of the page, where the following information greets you: ‘By revocalization (compare Septuagint); Hebrew and those who sanctify them.’
Flummoxed, you decide to leave prophetic literature for narrative, opening 1 Samuel 10. However, you cannot get past the first verse before coming to another footnote: ‘Then Samuel took a flask of oil and poured it on his head and kissed him and said, “Has not the Lord anointed you to be prince over his people Israel? And you shall reign over the people of the Lord and you will save them from the hand of their surrounding enemies. And this shall be the sign to you that the Lord has anointed you to be prince2 over his heritage.”’ Casting your eyes below, you read: ‘Septuagint; Hebrew lacks over his people Israel? And you shall. . . . to be prince.’
You may very well be wishing for a cipher key to decode these footnotes. Though it may not be readily apparent, footnotes such as these indicate where the translators diverged from their default source for the text of the Old Testament. In these cases, the ESV translation committee decided against following the Masoretic Text (a medieval Hebrew text tradition). They instead followed a source known as the Septuagint.
What is the Septuagint?
The Septuagint is the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. However, there are caveats and nuances to add to that definition. First, the term ‘Septuagint’ can be misleading. It is derived from septuaginta—Latin for ‘seventy.’ According to legend, the Greek translation of the Pentateuch was produced by a group of seventy translators (or seventy-two, depending on which version of the legend you read), hence the name. Properly, then, ‘Septuagint’ refers to the Greek translations of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. However, it is commonly used to refer to the entirety of the Greek Old Testament.
This leads to the next caveat: the phrase ‘the Septuagint’ can also be misleading because there is no such thing as the Septuagint. There are individual Greek translations of individual books of the Hebrew Bible. They were completed by different translators at different times and in different places, and compiled together later. ‘Septuagint’ is a convenient way of referring to this collection.
A third issue is that this collection of texts comprises more than the translated books of the Hebrew Bible. Collected alongside them is the Apocrypha, a group of texts that originated within Second Temple Judaism and that some Christian communities have regarded as Scripture (texts such as 1 Maccabees, Sirach, Bel and the Dragon, the additions to Esther). Some books of the Apocrypha were translated into Greek from Hebrew, and some were original Greek compositions.
When was the Septuagint produced?
Since the Septuagint is a collection of individual texts, it was produced over the course of centuries. Generally, the books that constitute the Septuagint were produced from the middle of the third century BC to the end of the first century BC, though a handful were produced in the first century AD. The books of the Pentateuch were translated first (mid-third century BC) and the rest followed.
What physical evidence do we have?
According to research by Old Testament scholar Ernst Würthwein, we have approximately 2,050 complete and fragmentary manuscripts of the text of the Septuagint.1 And this is before considering additional evidence such as lectionaries, quotations in the early church fathers, and translations of the Septuagint into other languages. This is a substantial amount of evidence, and its importance only increases when we consider the ages of the manuscripts, which range from the second century BC to the sixteenth century AD. Our earliest evidence is fragmentary, containing books and portions of books, but by the fourth and fifth centuries AD, significant Bible manuscripts such as Codex Vaticanus, Codex Sinaiticus, and Codex Alexandrinus attest to all or large portions of the Septuagint.
It is difficult to overstate the significance of our evidence. Such a vast collection of manuscripts across time provides innumerable insights into the text of the Septuagint, its development, and its relation to the Hebrew Bible.
How does the Septuagint relate to the Hebrew Bible?
Given the nature of our evidence, the Septuagint is arguably the oldest witness to the books of the Old Testament in their entirety. Although we have hundreds of Hebrew witnesses among the Dead Sea Scrolls (dating from the second century BC to the second century AD), they are fragmentary, and our oldest complete Hebrew manuscript, the Leningrad Codex, dates to AD 1008. Granted, the Septuagint is a collection of translated texts, thereby requiring care when considering what can be discerned about the Hebrew texts from which they were translated. Nevertheless, it is an extraordinary and invaluable witness to the text of the Old Testament.
Many of our Bible sources complement each other rather than compete for superiority. The Septuagint attests to both the antiquity and reliability of the Masoretic Text. Many of the books of the Septuagint were translated from Hebrew sources that largely correspond to the Masoretic Text. This indicates that the textual base that would become the Masoretic Text, or at least portions of it, was in use as early as the third century BC. Moreover, the fact that we can compare the Masoretic Text, the Septuagint, and Hebrew manuscripts from the Dead Sea Scrolls and see large-scale agreement demonstrates the incredible reliability of the copying process, even over a millennium. The scribes who made these manuscripts were not perfect at their job—mistakes get made; they were human, after all—but they were very, very good at it. By looking to the Septuagint, we can see the ancient roots of the Masoretic Text and that it was copied with great accuracy into the medieval period.
However, the complex textual history of the Bible means that it is not always so simple. In fact, the Septuagint also confirms the antiquity of other textual traditions, and we find that the Septuagint and Masoretic Text do not always agree. There are several potential causes for this that naturally occur in the process of translation and copying. For example, translators do not always understand the text in front of them or may misread it, which leads to an accidental divergence from the source. Or a scribe (whether copying Greek or Hebrew) could miss a word or even a line while copying, unintentionally altering the text. Errors of this sort are common and, thanks to our wealth of data in Hebrew, Greek, and other languages, they are relatively easy to figure out.
However, there are instances where the nature of the difference between the texts and the nature of the data available do not indicate an accidental error, but rather a different textual tradition entirely. Two commonly cited examples of this are the books of Proverbs and Jeremiah. The Hebrew and Greek texts of Proverbs, though overlapping in many ways, also exhibit considerable differences. Verses and chapters appear in different orders; there is material in the Greek text that is not in the Hebrew text; and there is material in the Hebrew text not in the Greek. Regarding Jeremiah, the Greek text is significantly shorter than the Hebrew text, and there are verses and chapters that appear in different orders. Moreover, we have Hebrew manuscripts of Jeremiah from the Dead Sea Scrolls that match what can be observed in Greek Jeremiah, seemingly providing direct Hebrew evidence of that textual tradition. In this way, the Septuagint both gives insight and raises further questions into how the biblical text developed and was used by the ancient communities who claimed it as their own.
Finally, returning to where this article started, as a witness to the text of the Old Testament, the Septuagint enables us to discern what that text is and thus informs Bible translations today. Recall the examples given earlier:
‘I will bring the worst of the nations to take possession of their houses. I will put an end to the pride of the strong, and their holy places9 shall be profaned.’ (Ezekiel 7:24)
Footnote: ‘By revocalization (compare Septuagint); Hebrew and those who sanctify them.’
Where the ESV reads, ‘their holy places,’ the Masoretic Text has ‘those who sanctify them’ (מְקַדְשֵׁיהֶם meqadshehem). In the Hebrew, the whole sentence reads: ‘I will put an end to the pride of the strong, and those who sanctify them will be profaned.’ The Hebrew makes little sense in context. However, if we turn to the Septuagint, we read ‘their holy places (τὰ ἅγια αὐτῶν, ta hagia autōn) will be profaned.’ This makes much better sense.
However, before we can decide if the Greek represents the actual text of Ezekiel 7:24, we must consider whether there is a reasonable explanation for the conflicting variants. The ESV footnote states it arrived at its translation ‘by revocalization.’ This refers to the vowel markers in the Hebrew text. The Hebrew language contains vowels, but those vowels are not represented within the alphabet and thus not written. In the medieval period, the Masoretes created a system of vowel markers to represent and preserve the oral tradition (how the text was read aloud) that had been passed down for a millennium. In other words, when Ezekiel 7:24 was first written and subsequently copied, מְקַדְשֵׁיהֶם did not have the vowel markers. Instead, it would have looked like this: מקדשיהם. The oral tradition that the Masoretes received was ancient and well-preserved, but there are instances where our textual evidence demonstrates that there were different ancient traditions of vocalization and that no tradition can always be perfectly preserved. In the case of Ezekiel 7:24, the Greek attests to a different vocalization. Instead of מְקַדְשֵׁיהֶם (meqadshehem), the Greek translator read מִקְדְּשֵׁיהֶם (miqdeshehem), ‘their holy places.’
Turning to our other example:
‘Then Samuel took a flask of oil and poured it on his head and kissed him and said, “Has not the Lord anointed you to be prince over his people Israel? And you shall reign over the people of the Lord and you will save them from the hand of their surrounding enemies. And this shall be the sign to you that the Lord has anointed you to be prince over his heritage.”’ (1 Samuel 10:1)
Footnote: ‘Septuagint; Hebrew lacks over his people Israel? And you shall. . . . to be prince.’
The ESV footnote points out that the Masoretic Text does not contain the portion of the verse underlined above, whereas the Septuagint does. This is an illustration of a common scribal error known as parablepsis, the accidental skip of the eye. Sometimes when copying a text, a scribe’s eye would accidentally skip from one series of letters or words to a different series of those same or similar letters or words that occur later in the verse. As a result, the scribe mistakenly omits the intervening content. In this case, at some point, a scribe copied the Hebrew text, but their eye unknowingly skipped from the first ‘the Lord anointed you’ to the second. By comparing the Masoretic Text to the Septuagint, we are able to see how this happened and suggest the original text.
From earliest translation to modern Bibles
We have only lightly scratched the surface of all that there is to say about the Septuagint, its relation to the Hebrew Bible, its significance to the study of the Old Testament text, and its application to Bible translation. But for the present purpose of following the footnotes of our Bible translations, we can summarise as follows: The Septuagint allows Bible translators both to confirm the antiquity of the Old Testament text and reliability of transmission of the Hebrew Bible, and to make informed decisions with regard to the original form of the text.