Without the Greek Septuagint, The New Testament Might Have Been Written in Aramaic
There was one book which existed prior to the New Testament that was enormously influential in the development of the Christian Bible. It is the Septuagint. This book was not just “the Old Testament” – it was how the religion of the Jews was understood around the world by religious Jews during most of the so-called ‘Second Temple Period’ – for 350 years – from 280 B.C. to 70 A.D.
While Rome was politically in control of Judaea, the language used there was not Latin. Instead, the common people spoke Aramaic while the merchants spoke Greek and the religious hierarchy comprised the few users of the Hebrew tongue. If Greek had not been the language employed throughout the region prior to the time of the New Testament, the writings of the new faith likely would have been in Aramaic – and not Greek, Hebrew, or Latin.
So it is that the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX, the roman numerals reflecting “the seventy” supposed scholars who produced the Hebrew-to-Greek translation), constitutes the bridge between the Old Testament and the New. In fact, the Septuagint served as the Christian Bible for most of Christendom for over 500 years, until the Latin Bible (the Vulgate), became the accepted Bible of the Western Church during the sixth and seventh centuries A.D. This means that the “Old Testament” – which influenced the ancient world for almost a full millennium – was the Greek Bible and not the Hebrew Bible. This point of history is generally lost on the Christian Church. Indeed, most Christians really know very little about how we got our Bible.
And we should also take note in passing that the Eastern Church – the Greek and Russian Orthodox – continues to use the LXX down to today. For the Eastern Church, the LXX exists in an unbroken lineage of biblical usage for teaching, ritual, and authority.
It’s important to recognize that most of the world’s Christians have never referenced the Hebrew directly. Jerome’s Vulgate, produced in 405 A.D., was a Latin translation from the Hebrew. And Protestant Bibles whether German or English are one-step removed, as translations of the Hebrew for their Old Testament. For Protestants, our Bible tradition begins with Tyndale’s Bible, then the Geneva Bible, and finally, the King James Bible. These translations originated during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But it was the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that held sway and dominated the development of Christianity for centuries. And that fact is hardly incidental to getting back to the authentic message of the Bible. Furthermore, the characteristics that were peculiar to the Greek Old Testament (in contrast to the Hebrew that was “remastered” and “remanufactured” in Palestine around A.D. 100) were vital to many understandings that crossed over into the New Testament.
It is not too much to say, that to be ignorant of the Septuagint, is to be ignorant of how we Protestants got our Bible. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the Septuagint, the New Testament would read very differently than it does while our doctrines would look much more like rabbinic Judaism with the emphasis upon following the Mosaic Law and the Gentiles being second-class citizens in the People of God.
The Septuagint Was the Bible of the Apostles
As we turn to the writings of the New Testament, we begin with the fact that the Greek Septuagint was the Bible almost exclusively used by the Apostles and in many situations, even Jesus Himself. No about that Jesus places his person and ministry in the context of the Hebrew Old Testament, citing the prophets and Moses. But the Hebrew Bible was understood by most of the world through its Greek translation – even in Judaea. Jesus asserts that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, and therefore, claimed that Moses spoke of Him. But how Moses spoke of Jesus – indeed how we understand what all the biblical writers wrote about Messiah – was not the same in the Hebrew Bible of 400 B.C. with the altered version in A.D. 100. Changes had been made to hide the fact that Jesus was the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy by the rabbinic school at Jamnia at the close of the first century A.D.. Even the timeline for when the Messiah would come was altered because of changes made in the Genesis chronology (of chapters 5 and 11), as well as the history of the Persian kings during the Second Temple Period. Daniel’s 70 Weeks as we Protestants number them, were different because of changes made by Josef ben Halafta, a disciple of Rabbis Akiba, in the Jewish calendar, aka Seder Olam Rabbah, in A.D. 160.
Despite this, ancient history provides the truth of these facts for those willing to dig into it. We have the ancient statement of the Jewish historian Eupolemus, circa 150 B.C., mentioned by Church historian, Eusebius of Caesarea, writing in the fourth century A.D., that “Moses was the first wise man. He taught the alphabet to the Jews who passed it on to the Phoenicians, who passed it to the Greeks. Moses first wrote laws for the Jews.” (Praeparatio Evangelica, 9:26.1) Eusebius taught that the world understood about Moses because of the Greek version of the scripture. Indeed, the translation of the Hebrew into Greek was an extraordinarily important factor in the “preparation of the evangelion” – the gospel. We learn from the writings of Eupolemus that he too supplied a corroboration in chronology indicating that the creation of Adam was 5,149 years from the fifth year of Demetrius – 158 B.C. (Clement’s Stromata 1.141,4), This asserted the creation of Adam in 5308 B.C. Thus, Eupolemus presents a chronology virtually the same as that of the Septuagint. HIs was only two hundred years shorter than the chronology presented in the Septuagint’s Pentateurch (which has Adam’s “birth” at 5500 B.C., and not 4004 B.C. as was famously held by Bishop Ussher and made popular by the King James Bible). Indeed, the commonplace Fundamentalist chronology is wrong, according to ancient sources, by 1,300 to 1,500 years. This is because the Masoretic text, which began with the “adjustments” of Rabbi Akiba, is the basis for the Protestant Bible (and the Latin Vulgate being a product of the “revised” Hebrew Bible of Akiba). And as a fascinating sidebar: Eupolemus comments that the Tower of Babel was built by giants who survived the Flood of Noah! Yet another voice corroborating the existence of giants (the Nephilim in ancient times AFTER the Flood of Noah).
But Eupolemus is not the only ancient writer to support the accuracy of the Septuagint against the Masoretic text. Once again, In Eusebius’ Praeparatio Evangelica (The Preparation for the Gospel) from the fourth century A.D., this first Church historian wrote that the world became Greek through Alexander the Great and his lasting influence enduring hundreds of years after which continued to his day (A.D. 264-340). Alexander forced the world to learn Greek to “make the world one.” (We could say that Alexander was the first “globalist.”) Rome would one day conquer and eliminate the Greek Empire in the second and first centuries B.C., but it would never overcome the intellectual dominance of the Greek world. Indeed, we speak of Western civilization today as a product of the “Greco-Roman” world. Westerners should know (but generally don’t) that the city Alexander founded, Alexandria, Egypt, became the intellectual center of the world and stayed so for almost 800 years. Indeed, we Westerners, are, in part, its legacy.
Alexandria had as its center, its amazing library and university which bequeathed us the likes of ancient engineering genius Archimedes, the grand neo-Platonic philosopher/theologian Clement of Alexandria, and Euclid, whose book on mathematics, Elements, continues to be a resource for mathematicians today. Alexandria would also serve as the home for Jewish philosopher Philo, and the infamous Origen (whose theology, whether deserved or not, gave birth to the Arian controversy and led to his posthumous excommunication by the future Roman emperor, Justinian in the sixth century). Nevertheless, thanks in no small part to Origen, at the start of the third century Alexandria became a Christian city highly devoted to Christian Theology. While its scriptural interpretive method emphasized allegory, for which it receives considerable criticism, nevertheless, Alexandria was key to promoting the Christian religion and worldview throughout northern Africa, the Middle East, Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), and Europe.
It’s Greek to Me
The Septuagint set the stage for the New Testament’s composition in the language of Koine Greek, the same as the Septuagint in its translation of the Hebrew Old Testament when it was created almost four centuries earlier in Alexandria. A primary motive for the endeavor had to be that the Alexandria, aka the Pearl of the Mediterranean, was a city with a large and thriving Jewish population. Perhaps as much as 40% of the population was Jewish. Hence, while the librarian and curator of the enormous library at Alexandria was motivated to have a copy of the Hebrew Bible in the Greek language, equally important if not more so, was the eagerness of the Jews living in Egypt to enjoy their scriptures in the language that they were, by then, using almost exclusively. As I hinted earlier, Hebrew was nearing extinction around the world. It was certainly without practice in northern Africa. And its usefulness in Judaea was limited too.
The entire Pentateuch (the Bible’s first five books) was translated within a relatively short time (just a few years) after it was commenced, circa 282 B.C. This project began under Ptolemy I, Soter, and finished under the auspices of Ptolemy II, Philadelphus. Next, all the Septuagint was translated over the next 150 years, being complete about 130 B.C. The original Hebrew source material had been compiled and placed in a near-final form circa 450 B.C. This meant that the Greek Bible would become a “snap-shot” of how the earliest Hebrew books were composed, then collected under the eyes of Ezra. Therefore, the Septuagint was created in close proximity to the time that the Hebrew itself had been completed. What is interesting and important to the Christian faith is that the Septuagint provided many unique perspectives of the revelation of God to the Hebrews that were subsequently lost in the Hebrew – variations that clearly showed the Christian view of God and His Messiah. This is significant because this Greek version, despite being a translation, reflects the oldest Hebrew text – the Hebrew which was authentic. In other words, what we have in the Greek LXX in many passages, specifically those which related to the mission and ministry of the Messiah, is quite different from the proto-Masoretic text prepared a vast 400 years more distant in the future by the newly-constituted Palestinian rabbis ca. 120 A.D. (the timespan from 280 B.C. to A.D. 120). Furthermore, during this 400 years, the Hebrew text continued to change so that the Hebrew “base” used by Akiba was not the same as that used by the Septuagint’s translators. The Greek Septuagint had “frozen” the oldest, authentic Hebrew original with its creation.
But The Septuagint Was Altered 200 Years After Christ
Initially, the Septuagint translation was celebrated by Jews everywhere. It quickly became the Bible for Jewish synagogues throughout the Mediterranean world, aka for the Diaspora. This Greek Bible is known today as “the Old Greek.” Unfortunately, the Old Greek would would be altered by a process involving rabbi loyalists creating new Greek translations based on the revised Hebrew and one particular famous Christian theologian, Origen, who became enamored with the revised Hebrew text at the expense of the Greek.
The first phase of altering the Greek Old Testament came about through three new Greek versions created by Jewish scholars, Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion, followers of the rabbinical school led by Rabbi Akiba. All three of these versions were based not on the Old Greek or the oldest forms of the Hebrew Bible used by the Old Greek. Instead, they were based upon the altered Hebrew Bible, aka the proto-Masoretic Text recreated by Akiba and the rabbis. Aquila’s version was likely completed c. A.D. 130, Theodotion’s c. A.D. 200, and Symmachus’ version somewhere in between.
Origen, who moved from Alexandria to Caesarea in Palestine, came under the influence of the many Jews living there. His commitment to the Old Greek waned because he believed he must evangelize the Hebrews from the way their Hebrew Bible was worded – not as the Septuagint’s wording had the authentic Hebrew from 500 years earlier. Consequently, he decided he must, for evangelistic reasons, create a harmonization of these new Greek versions, the Old Greek, and the Hebrew text itself (the revised text), which he saw was different from the way the words of the Septuagint read when the two were compared. He created a six-column interlinear called the Hexapla.
These three versions would come to comprise three columns of the Hexapla. The Hebrew proto-Masoretic Text was a fourth. The Old Greek Septuagint was a fifth. There was a sixth column as well which was a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew (helping the Greek speaker pronounce the Hebrew correctly). But it was this fifth column that Origen would mark up in a Hebrew-Greek comparison wherein Origen would attempt to harmonize all the Greek versions – and unfortunately omit portions of the Greek that were not reflected in the Hebrew he had at his disposal (which was the altered Hebrew Bible of Akiba). Origen’s alterations occurred in the third century (c. 240). But, within two more centuries, by the fifth century that is, the Greek Bible then being used had become“Hexaplaric.” This meant that the resulting Greek Bible was no longer as true to the original Hebrew as the Old Greek had been. Nonetheless, we can still see clear differences. Indeed, the Septuagint still retained a unique character despite changes made by Origen to “reconcile” the Greek and Hebrew Bibles. Thus, this “evangelistic” bible intended to help Christians preach to the Jews, inadvertently, lost some of its original flavor. And so it was that the interplay between the Hebrew, Latin, and Greek Bibles would become a significant part of the Bible’s story during the third through sixth centuries.
So, the reader may be asking, “Can we get back to the Old Greek?” First off, while the Septuagint did become Hexaplaric, we can continue to see strong evidence of the distinctions between the original Hebrew and the Hebrew that became the basis for the Latin and the Protestant versions of the Old Testament. Secondly, yes, there is a path to restore the Old Greek. Supposedly, the Syriac version of the Greek Septuagint has the markings of Origen that were lost in the years following his “adaptation” or recension of the Old Greek based upon the three new Greek versions. I am not aware at this time whether an effort is being made to return the Septuagint to its original wording. This is the work of scholars. But if this were to take place, it is likely that some additional insights would emerge that also underscore and support the message of the New Testament. Namely, these messages would reemphasize that Christ was a divine Messiah – not solely human. And it would make it very clear that his mission was to bring Gentiles into the People of God though faith and grace – and not the law of Moses. The point being, that these messages are central to the changes made by the rabbis. In fact, it remains apparent today when we compare the wording of the English translation of the Septuagint with the wording in our Protestant English translation of the Hebrew Masoretic text (in other words, when both are translated into English where we can lay them side-by-side). This comparison is performed in my book REBOOTING THE BIBLE. And the story of the Septuagint, along with many other topics that tell us how the Bible came down to us, are also covered in this book and my most recent book, A BIOGRAPHY OF THE CHRISTIAN BIBLE.
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