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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

“The Septuagint: What It Is and Why It Matters,” by Gregory R. Lanier and William A. Ross

Published Monday, January 10, 2022 By Matthew Everhard

In 2021, I challenged myself to read the entire New Testament in Greek. I failed.

If the purpose of my resolution was to complete the entire NT in under a year, I clearly fell short. I just began 2 Corinthians with only a few weeks to go in the calendar year. But if the greater purpose was to keep the flame burning in my heart for the language of the Apostles, then I can truly say, “mission accomplished!”

After I finish the New Testament some time in summer 2022, I may begin reading through the Septuagint as well. To whet the appetite for this major reading project, I requested a review copy of the new book, The Septuagint: What It Is and Why It Matters (Crossway, 2021) by Lanier and Ross.

I am so glad that I did.

The book is organized in two parts, of roughly equal length. The first part, entitled “What is the Septuagint?” is a very helpful historical overview about the texts (note: plural) that comprise the ancient LXX versions, so famously utilized by the New Testament writers. Here, we are disabused of several false assumptions about these ancient translations, including the embellished legend of it’s flawless translation by seventy scholars who miraculously agreed on every jot and tittle.

Lanier and Ross give us a much more nuanced understanding of the origin of these ancient texts. They explain that there is no one, single text or translation that definitively comprises the Septuagint. Rather, we have a series of editions and recensions that together attempt to cast the Hebrew books into readable Greek for that time. Each of these editions employ varying approaches to the task of translating one language into another, much like modern editions range from more literal (NASB) to paraphrastic (NLT) in our own English Bibles.

I found myself educated and edified by Ross and Lanier’s discussions of the various editions of the so-called “pew Bible of the Early Church.” I was introduced to the versions of the Old Greek Text, the Kaige tradition, and rescensions such as those of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotian. As I read, I marveled too at Origen’s Hexapla, containing a six-column “parallel Bible,” an early attempt to collate a “critical text,” anticipating the arduous work of modern scholars to identify the earliest and most faithful wording and phrasing.

The reader may be somewhat disappointed to find that there is no one single “Septuagint” edition, but she will not leave part one of the book without a better appreciation of what we mean by that slippery term.

The second part of the book tackles the topic of “Why Does it Matter?” Here, the authors anticipate questions related to application in faith and doctrine. Should we still use the LXX today? If so, how should we use it? Should it be considered as directly inspired by the Holy Spirit as the Hebrew? Can it be used to supplement—and even correct—the Hebrew Masoretic text? Here we find that some of the answers are as complicated as the Septuagint’s origin story given in the earlier part of the book.

I especially appreciated the authors’ distinctions in part two between “normative authority” and “derivative authority.” As to the question of the Septuagint’s normative authority, the authors are clear: the LXX should not be viewed as having the same inspired and inerrant authority as the Hebrew Old Testament.[1] It is, after all, a translation. English speakers know full well that even our most beautiful translations like the King James Version are subject to the normative authority of the original. In the same way, the LXX must bow the knee to the original Hebrew.

As an illustration, the authors compare using modern translations like the ESV and NASB to the Greek New Testament autographa.[2] The latter is infallible, but the former are mere translations, and therefore subject to correction and improvement. But, they argue, the LXX clearly has derivative authority as an early Greek translation of the Hebrew. The LXX texts are generally excellent, retaining a balance between literal rigor and freedom of expression, though at times deviating from the Hebrew in more significant ways. As such, they can still be thought of as “The Word of God,” in the same way that a pastor can stand boldly in the pulpit and declare, “Thus saith the Lord,” with his English, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, or Swahili translation in his hand.

The ancient Septuagint—in all of its various forms and iterations—is still very useful. Ross and Lanier do well to argue that it holds a weighty and undeniable position in history as the foundational texts for most of the apostolic citations of the OT in the pages of the NT.  For this reason, the LXX versions give us incredible insight into the context, mindset, theological predispositions, and interpretive values of the Apostles themselves as they preached and applied the Scriptures to the people of God in a language their audience could understand.

There is plenty of room to argue or quibble with the authors in the margins of this new book, though I largely agreed with their conclusions. They hold for instance that the Apocrypha is not to be included in the inspired canon.[3] They argue that the Old Greek Text should not be used directly for preaching today. They reject the Septuagint as having normative authority in the same way that the Hebrew OT does. But whether or not one accepts the authors’ final conclusions, all readers will find themselves challenged and stretched in a way that is edifying to both heart and mind.

Perhaps you too will join me in my next quest: to work through portions of the Old Testament in its first significant translation, the rich and colorful tapestry of the Greek Septuagint edition(s).

Dr. Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Gospel Fellowship PCA. He is an enthusiast for Biblical Greek, and a Jonathan Edwards scholar. His newest book, “Holy Living: Jonathan Edwards’s Seventy Resolutions for Living the Christian Life”(Hendrickson, 2021) is now available in print.

[1] This is the Presbyterian confessional position as well. See WCF 1:8 on the Hebrew and Greek authgrapha.

[2] Of course, the autographa are now lost, but the work of recovering the original writings falls upon the shoulders of the textual scholars. Again, we find ourselves in a great debt of gratitude to those who came before us such as the scribes, the Masoretes, Jerome’s Vulgate, and the work of Erasmus, Beza, and Scrivener. Biblical Christians can be entirely confident that we possess the Word of God, “kept pure in all ages,” through God’s “singular care and providence.” (WCF 1:8).

[3] Most Protestants will agree with this, as I myself do; Roman Catholics and the Orthodox, not so much.

  • Matthew Everhard

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