All Scripture Is Inspired by God: What is the Septuagint?

9 January 2015

Joel Kalvesmaki authJoel Kalvesmaki is Editor in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, overseeing the production of Dumbarton Oaks’ flagship Byzantine publications, print and digital. He is active in the digital humanities and his research covers intellectual history in late antiquity, with a focus on ancient number symbolism and the writings of Evagrius Ponticus.


All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.
(II Tim 3:16)

Is the Septuagint basically the same as our Old Testament?

In our popular literature, apologists claim that the LXX is very close to the Hebrew text we have today. This claim aims at validating modern Western translations of the Bible, which are based on the Hebrew text. Is this true? And how close is close?

To answer this question, you must study the LXX and comparing it with modern translations. When I first started to read the LXX, many things surprised me. Working through the Pentateuch, I made note of the many significant differences between the Hebrew and the Greek. God’s curse on Cain is a case in point.

Genesis 4:7, LXX Genesis 4:7, Hebrew (AV)
Hast thou not sinned if thou hast brought it rightly, but not rightly divided it? Be still, to thee shall be his submission, and thou shalt rule over him. If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? And if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.

Likewise, the genealogy from Adam to Noah in the LXX places the flood 2242 years after Creation. But our modern translations based on the Hebrew text indicate a lapse of 1656 years. This difference springs from the LXX putting the birth of the first-born sons of various patriarchs later in their life than that reported by the Hebrew text.

The last ten chapters of Exodus and the entire book of Jeremiah contain a number of different passages where verses are either omitted, paraphrased, or completely rearranged. Sometimes the Hebrew has more text than the LXX, sometimes vice versa.

In I Kings 12-14, the events surrounding the life of King Jeroboam are arranged in a different order and include a story not reported in the Hebrew text, an account of how he came to marry Ano, the eldest sister of the wife of Susakim, the then-current pharaoh.

These are four of the many differences between the LXX and the Hebrew. Having been led to believe the text was basically the same I was quite disappointed. For instance, Evidence that Demands a Verdict, by Josh McDowell, calls the LXX “very close” to the Masoretic. How close is close? Had Mr. McDowell really read the LXX?

The Role of the Septuagint in the New Testament

The LXX helps explain what Paul might have meant by “all Scripture.” As previously mentioned, this is the version Paul most often quotes. And in some cases the claims of the New Testament theologically depend on the peculiarities of the LXX.

For instance, Hebrews 10:5 quotes Psalm 40:6 as a messianic prophecy:

Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says, “sacrifice and offering Thou hast not desired, but a body Thou hast prepared for Me.

The author has directly quoted from the LXX Psalter. A quick turn to our modern Bibles will confirm that the Hebrew text reads:

Sacrifice and meal offering Thou hast not desired; My ears Thou hast opened.

Based on the Hebrew text, the author of Hebrews has not only misquoted the passage, but has made his mistaken citation a central part of his argument. Only the rendering of the LXX justifies this as a Messianic passage. Did the author of Hebrews get it wrong? Was it an inspired mistake?

In Acts 7:14 St. Stephen relates the story of the Israelite nation, and refers to seventy-five people who traveled from Canaan to Egypt in the emigration of Jacob’s family. This is not what Genesis 46 states in our Bibles, where it catalogues seventy sojourners. But the LXX lists seventy-five people, confirming St. Stephen’s account, with the differences accounted for by the grand- and great-grandchildren of Joseph (Gen 46:20-22).

Most importantly, it is only in the LXX that Isaiah’s prophecy of the Virgin Birth makes its bold appearance (Is 7:14). The Hebrew text uses the word “woman” (“marah”) instead of “virgin” (“parthenos”). In their earliest confrontations with Christians, Jews objected most strongly to this verse being used to support Jesus’ Messiahship. The Jews claimed that Isaiah was prophesying of King Hezekiah and he knew nothing of a miraculous virgin birth. The Septuagint, they said, had been tampered with. The early Christians responded by claiming that it was not they, but the Jews who had cut passages out of the Hebrew text out of envy. (Justin Martyr, Trypho, 71-73)

If we agree with the ancient Jews that the LXX translation was a faulty translation, then why is such a substandard text part of Holy, Inspired Scripture? Doesn’t the New Testament suggest that the LXX was considered not just trustworthy, but even preferred by the Apostles? This is not out of harmony with the testimony of the Early Church, which regarded it as a sound and inspired translation.

As a Bible believing Christian, facing this dilemma was not easy. I felt that by trying to honestly grapple with textual issues, I was questioning the authority of God’s Word. This is not at all what I intended. I simply wanted integrity in my Christian faith. With time, as I struggled through some of these facts, I realized I needed to come to Scripture on its own terms, not on my expectations as a twentieth century Westerner. This desire for integrity aided me as I swallowed hard and proceeded to study the canon of the Old Testament.

What is in the Septuagint?

All Scripture is inspired and, in both St. Paul and St. Timothy’s mind, that meant the LXX. So much is clear. But the LXX included the books we know today as the Apocrypha.

The earliest copies of the Greek Bible we possess, such as the Codex Alexandrinus and Codex Siniaticus (4-5th centuries) include the Apocrypha. The apocryphal books are not placed in a separate section in the back of the codex, but are rather interspersed by book according to literature type: the historical books with Kings and Chronicles, the wisdom literature with Proverbs and the Song of Solomon, and so forth.

The Apocrypha retained respect in various Jewish communities, including the Essenes and Hellenized Jews, until around thirty years after Paul’s death. From that point, Pharisees began to assume more and more control over the Jewish community, and the Pharisees, probably in the late first or second century, decidedly rejected the apocryphal books.

It seems unusual that most Evangelical Christians today, often by pointing to the school of Jamnia, embrace the Pharisees as arbiters of their canon. After all, these men were not Christians. In fact, they vehemently opposed Christ and the Apostles, and they intended to drive Christian influence out of the Jewish community.

The early Christians paid no heed to the Pharisees, and continued to use the apocryphal books, and with good reason. Often they saw in them prophecies of Jesus Christ. Read, for instance, what is written in the book of Wisdom:

Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us; he sets himself against our doings, Reproaches us for transgressions of the law and charges us with violations of our training. He professes to have knowledge of God and styles himself a child of the Lord. To us he is the censure of our thoughts; merely to see him is a hardship for us, Because his life is not like other men’s, and different are his ways. He judges us debased; he holds aloof from our paths as from things impure. He calls blest the destiny of the just and boasts that God is his Father.

Let us see whether his words be true; let us find out what will happen to him. For if the just one be the son of God, he will defend him and deliver him from the hand of his foes. With revilement and torture let us put him to the test that we may have proof of his gentleness and try his patience. Let us condemn him to a shameful death; for according to his own words, God will take care of him. (Wisdom 2:12-20)

Is such a powerful Messianic passage, written before Christ, merely a coincidence? Or could the Apocrypha be inspired Scripture?