Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

26 Jan 2017

The Septuagint and Modern Translations

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I have recently been interested in the relationship between the Septuagint (LXX, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) and the New Testament. Most commentators recognize that NT authors cite from the LXX more frequently than from the Hebrew. I believe the implications of this fact are significant for the way we view translations and the translation task.

First, how does the use of the LXX relates to the doctrine of inspiration? Augustine along with many other church fathers believed the LXX was itself inspired, calling the translators prophets. He argued that both the Hebrew (original) and the Greek (translation) “should be employed as authoritative, since both are one, and both are inspired by God.”[1] Jerome sought to correct this view by returning to the Hebrew rather than translating from the LXX, which was the practice in his day.[2] I find this historical point interesting, since some in the King James Only Movement have also argued for the inspiration of a semi-modern translation. Perhaps this reflex is reflective of our deep appreciation for the text as it has been given to us along with a misunderstood application of the doctrine of preservation. In the end, there is nothing new under the sun, for Jerome recognized the same error in his day that we presently see in the King James Only Movement.

Second, I am interested in the way the LXX impacts our view of modern translations. As anyone who has done translation in the past knows, translation is always interpretive. Because no word in one language relates perfectly to another, no translation can be a perfect representative of the original. Nevertheless, Paul—who certainly knew Hebrew and Greek—cites from both the Hebrew text as well as the LXX. In other words, even when he had access to the Hebrew, he chose to use a translation. The same, I believe, can be said of Jesus. He knew Hebrew, yet He used the LXX for his quotations in some circumstances.[3] Why did they do so? I think Paul did so because he was the apostle to the Gentiles. Some of these Gentiles were God-fearers, who heard the Old Testament proclaimed in the synagogue in Greek. Thus, Paul wanted the Bible to be in their language. Thus, we find divine justification for Bible translation.

Third, as I have worked through the book of Hebrews, I have found that the author of Hebrews sometimes updates the language of his citations from the LXX to match modern usage (e.g., Heb 3:7-11). The LXX had been written hundreds of years before the New Testament and language had shifted during that time. The point is, then, a divinely inspired author updated the language of his translation to make it more understandable to his audience. Here we find divine justification for updating the language of a translation.[4]

Fourth, the LXX lands all over the spectrum in translation philosophy—from significant dynamic equivalence to excessive formal equivalence. Since there was no individual or even committee tasked with the translation, the translation philosophy differs widely from book to book. Nevertheless, both free as well as literal translations are cited in the New Testament.[5] Thus, we have divine justification for both dynamic equivalence and formal equivalence.

Finally, New Testament authors used the LXX even when it differed from the Hebrew. It would be too complicated in a blog post to discuss the various explanations for these occurrences. As a general overview, however, we can say that there are times where the LXX offers a relatively free (dynamic) translation, which borders on interpretive explanation. When such a translation is found appropriate by the NT author (and thus the Spirit!), the New Testament authors embrace the interpretation, affirming that the LXX translator/interpreter got it right. More important are those times when the LXX appears to get it wrong. For instance, while 1 Peter almost always quotes from the LXX, in 2:6 his translation looks nothing like the Septuagint rendering. It appears that Peter (and the early church) recognized the failure of the Greek translation and chose to cite from the Hebrew (or chose to cite a better Greek translation).[6] Thus, there is divine justification for using a translation even when we believe the interpretation got it wrong in some places (though we should obviously not depend on the translation in problematic areas).

Certainly, more could be said about the justification provided by the Septuagint for modern translations, and I encourage you to add your thoughts in the comments below.

 

[1] Augustine, City of God, trans. Henry Bettenson (London: Penguin Classics, 2004), 823 (18.44).

[2] Jerome notes the distinction between prophet and translator: “it is one thing to be a prophet, another to be a translator. The former through the Spirit, foretells things to come; the latter must use his learning and facility in speech to translate what he understands.” Jerome, “The Prologue to Genesis,” 3:516.

[3] While one might argue that the Gospel writers contextualized Jesus’ teaching and thus modified Jesus’ Hebrew citations to LXX citations, this goes against the evidence. Longenecker has shown that Matthew prefers to cite from the Hebrew, but when he records Jesus’ citations, they come from the LXX. The most logical explanation is that Matthew was seeking to be faithful to the teaching of Jesus, using the LXX where Jesus used the LXX. (Richard N. Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period, Rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), 26.)

[4] Thus, I am thankful that the ESV committee reversed the decision to stop updating the text of the ESV.

[5] For a formal equivalent example see 1 Peter 2:7 as it quotes the LXX translation of Psalm 118:22. For a dynamic equivalent example see 1 Peter 5:5c in its use of the LXX Proverbs 3:34.

[6] Our understanding of the Greek texts in the New Testament period is incomplete, but it is evident that there were some Greek versions, which were offshoots of the original LXX but had been reworked to be more faithful to the Hebrew text. Peter may have had access to a translation like this, or he could have translated from the Hebrew himself.

8 Responses

  1. Thank you for this. But I would imagine you would not say that a NT citation of creative rendering by the LXX does not then form a compelling argument to follow the LXX against what we are certain the Hebrew text means, in our own translations. Right?

    May I share the specific I have in mind, and invite your response? I am thinking of the appalling practice of Christians who know better hiding Yahweh behind “LORD” or “GOD.” The only remotely Biblical attempt at a rationalization I’ve heard is the NT writers’ use of the LXX, which itself employs kurios.

    To this, I’ve responded: NT writers give us no explanation, rationale, or imperative in their acceptance of this misrendering. But they do it, and we’ll let them. However, this places no compulsion on us, in our own translation of the Hebrew text, to hide a perfecly plain personal name behind “translations” that we know, beyond the faintest shadow of the faintest doubt, DO NOT represent the meaning of the text.

    To anticipate one response: we are less than 100% certain of the vocalization of YHWH. True. But that never stopped us from rendering Yeshayahu as Isaiah instead of BOOTSTRAP, or Ya`aqob by Jacob instead of PERSIMMON. And we do have bases for vocalizing as “Yahweh.” Personally, if my choice is between a completely-misleading “LORD” and YHWH, I’d choose the latter.

    Your thoughts?

  2. Tim Miller

    I am not sure I would say it forms a “compelling argument,” as though we must follow it. Nevertheless, I believe it does give us license to follow its lead. Further, I am not sure transliteration is always superior. Using your example, YHWH (or however one might seek to transliterate the divine name) does not really represent the meaning of the text either. Finally, I would argue that the translation “Lord” does communicate some of the meaning of the divine name.

    1. Thank you for your response.

      From the second sentence on, I completely disagree. I think that that rationale could lead the translator to a “Who will you believe, the unknown rationale/skill of an unknown LXX translator or your lying 40 years of studying Hebrew?”

      For instance, I’ve struggled with translating Proverbs 22:6. But it’s not even in the LXX. Problem solved? I know you wouldn’t think so.

      Or again, I’m pretty sure that ‎ לַמְנַצֵּחַ is completely misunderstood by the LXX’s Εἰς τὸ τέλος. But shall I go that way regardless, because: apostles?

      And so forth.

      I’m interested in what relationship you see between any sense or use of יהוה or הוה or היה and kurios. In 40+ years of reading, I’ve never seen it suggested, anywhere. But (I say sincerely) I may well have missed it, and would be very interested to see it.

      Again, thank you for responding.

      1. Tim Miller

        Dan,
        Thanks again for the comments.

        I don’t believe the LXX is authoritative on its own. I only believe that when the apostles quote from it, the authority of the apostles as God’s spokesman is attributed to the rendering of the translation. Thus, I would argue that Kurios is a divinely approved translation. Your example with לַמְנַצֵּחַ, would be more helpful to the discussion if you gave an example where an apostle cited the LXX with that translation (I can’t think off the top of my head if they do). If no apostle cited it, I am not convinced we have divine warrant, for I don’t give authority to the LXX itself. (Also, see this Accordance forum discussion where various options are provided for this problematic translation: https://www.accordancebible.com/forums/topic/16039-%CE%B5%E1%BC%B0%CF%82-%CF%84%E1%BD%B8-%CF%84%CE%AD%CE%BB%CE%BF%CF%82-superscripts/)

        As for YHWH and Kurios, I would say that the latter does imply authority and perhaps even Lordship (I do recognize a wide semantic range for the word). No English word will capture the meaning of a Hebrew/Greek word, so there is always some loss. Transliteration offers the possibility of retaining the original meaning to a higher degree than translation, but it is not nearly as clear for newcomers, and in fact can mask the true meaning of the term (e.g., baptizw). In all of this I am not suggesting that Kurios is excessively superior to YHWH, but I am not sure I would call it an “appalling practice.”

  3. Kent

    Have you interacted with John Owen on this subject? He wrote a chapter on it in his Biblical Theology. This is historic (and biblical) theology. I’m assuming my first comment didn’t get through.

  4. Kent

    Owen’s explanation rests on biblical and theological presuppositions, so he comes to a different conclusion than you. He interprets based on the presuppositions rather than ‘letting the evidence ‘lead’ him’ to his position.

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