One forgotten Bible study tool every Christian needs

Everyone’s got a Bible, or twelve. We’ve got access to commentaries, dictionaries, and other lexical aids — any tool you need to dig deep into the original Hebrew. But what about the Greek?

No, not the Greek New Testament. The Greek Old Testament. I’ve mentioned the Septuagint a few times in recent posts, though I’ve not done much to direct people to any resources for their own study.

There are definite reasons for at least consulting the Septuagint in the course of Old Testament study. For one, the Septuagint (often abbreviated LXX) was the Bible of the early church. Moses didn’t speak Greek, but his people did — particularly centuries later in the diaspora. A few hundred years before Christ Jews in Egypt translated the Scripture into Greek, and the result was so popular it became the dominant version in use down to the day of the apostles and beyond (the Christian East still uses it today).

The Bible of the early church

When the New Testament writers quote the Old Testament, they primarily quote the Greek Old Testament. One statistical analysis of the quotations I’ve seen shows more than 85 precent of OT quotations are from the Septuagint. An example:

Sacrifices and offerings thou hast not desired, but a body hast thou prepared for me.

That’s from Hebrews 10.15, which is a quote of Psalm 40.6. Christians saw it as a prophecy about the Incarnation. But now take your standard English translation (KJV, RSV, NiV, ESV) and what does that Psalm look like?

Sacrifices and offerings thou hast not desired, but thou hast given me an open ear.

What was previously considered a messianic prophecy now becomes a jarring and confusing discrepancy between the two testaments. But not really. The author of Hebrews is, ironically, not quoting from the Hebrew. The body reference is found in the Septuagint, preserved in the New Testament quote though lost in its Old Testament source because the translators opted for a different version of the text than the New Testament writer employed.

A real baffler

There are other examples of the same sort of thing. One of great significance for Christians occurs in Psalm 22, in which the speaker talks of his hands and feet being pierced (v. 16). Christians have long read that as a messianic prophecy concerning Christ, whose hands and feet were pierced upon the cross.

But the Hebrew is not so clear. While most translations working from the Hebrew render it as “pierced,” they get that reading from the Septuagint, not the Hebrew itself. Textual notes indicate that the Hebrew actually means “like a lion,” which creates a real baffler: “like a lion my hands and feet”?

In his celebrated translation of the Psalms Robert Alter addresses this problem in the Hebrew and then proposes an emendation that gets him around it. But he admits his solution — “bound my hands and feet” — has no textual warrant.

No worries. There is no such confusion in the Greek.

The lost prize

This is to say nothing of the fact that the church fathers relied heavily upon the Septuagint (as well as, interestingly, on other iterations of the text like Syriac) and treated it as authoritative, including the books found in the Septuagint that Protestants later separated and labeled apocryphal.

Clement of Rome, for instance, who knew both Peter and Paul personally, alludes to Judith and the “apocryphal” sections of Esther, and quotes from Wisdom of Solomon. Not only are these books missing from most English Bibles today, but the text from which they came is missing as well (excluding the occasional marginal note, which few people pay any attention to).

So how do you access this largely forgotten treasure that was once the prize of the church?

4 Septuagint solutions

Like everything today, it’s online. Here are a few ways of finding and using it today:

Lancelot Brenton’s classic translation of the Septuagint can be found here, though it might strike some as a bit archaic.

For a more contemporary rendering, you can consult The New English Translation of the Septuagint. The NETS does have some curious anomalies, a striking one being that it renders Psalm 40.6 (39.7 LXX) with “ears,” not “body.” By and large, however, it’s a good and serviceable edition, available online in the form of PDFs and also in hardback from Oxford University Press.

Another resource is the Orthodox Study Bible, published by Thomas Nelson. It’s a full Bible — both testaments — but the first is a new translation of the Septuagint.

And finally, for those who can use it, here’s an interlinear Greek/English Septuagint.

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  • Gotta love the Septuagint. Thanks for the list of resources. Greek is such a rich language, and there is a lot to learn by doing a bit of digging. (The bible school I work with teaches students how to do basic translation, aided by a computer. We teach them the grammar, the computer takes care of the vocabulary part.)

    • Joel J. Miller

      That’s cool. I always wished I’d learned Greek. I know a priest who reads the Bible directly in both Greek and Hebrew. It’s an enviable skill.

      • I’m pretty rusty at it myself, but it’s still helpful when studying or prepping a teaching. Pretty impressive about that priest-it would be great to be bale to read it in the original languages like that.

  • kevin kirkpatrick

    Very nice Joel. The septuagint needs more love. I don’t fully trust the Masoretic text, as I think they rabbinic scholars who made it were a little biased. They have a “maiden will conceive” in Isaiah, and the LXX has “A virgin shall conceive” It seems to me they didn’t like this Christian proof text and let that influence their translation. I for one, don’t care if I read anything other than the septuagint, as devotional reader only. I am not doing in depth study to present theology, just for my edification, and the OT from the LXX in the Orthodox study bible is perfect. Please do a post about the richness and value of the other cool books in the apocrypha. I was taught my whole life about the 400 year “silent period” from the end of Malachi to the Gospels when God had nothing to say apparantly. Stil upset about this!

  • w1hit1der

    I prefer the Pesitto used by the Syriac Churches and the Septuagint used
    by the Greek and Latins (later the Vulgate) over most modern ones,
    although the RSV-CE is quite good and easy to read.

    The funny
    thing is, in general evangelicals and other non-denominational
    protestants were the ones dismissing the Septuagint because the Orthodox
    and Catholics used it. Not to mention the books missing from the
    protestant versions found in the Septuagint – how do you address that?

    • Joel J. Miller

      Well, I am Orthodox. I address it by saying, “You made a mistake. Come check it out.” My daily Bibles are the NKJV and the RSVCE. I use the NETS a lot as well.