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NT Studies and the Septuagint

May 1, 2012

It has often struck me as curious that the “Septuagint” (LXX) as been so widely neglected among NT scholars, and so often overlooked by PhD students in the field.  So, e.g., when PhD students tackle the meaning of some OT passage cited or alluded to in the NT, or the meaning of some word/expression that seems to be derived from the OT, they often (typically?) conduct an admirably detailed analysis of the Hebrew OT passage, but do little (often nothing) with the Greek OT.

That’s especially curious for two reasons:  First, for the authors and the intended readers of NT writings a Greek OT was their OT.  So the first/primary question about any OT text thought to have been used in the NT is what the Greek form of the text was.  Indeed, at the risk of being provocative, I would say that you need to justify consulting or at least making much of the Hebrew text.

Second, as is the case for practically any translation of any text, the Greek of the OT gives us a valuable example of how the OT writings were understood in 2nd temple Jewish tradition.  For most OT writings, the Greek OT is the closest that we get to a commentary of the time.

So, I highlight here a few relatively recent works that serious students of NT/Christian Origins should know and engage.

The first:   A New English Translation of the Septuagint, and Other Greek Translations Traditionally Included Under That Title, eds. Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).  This multi-contributor work is a major contribution that should be on the shelves of students and scholars.  In addition to the translation, the editors and contributors give extended information on the translation-policies followed and on other matters.  As with any human work, it isn’t perfect.  But (intending so slight at all), when one considers that it is the only such modern scholarly translation of the LXX into English, one can only be grateful to have it.  (For an extended critical assessment, the following review:  http://www.bookreviews.org/pdf/6729_7295.pdf

Second:   Invitation to the Septuagint, Karen H. Jobes and Moises Silva (Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic; Carlisle:  Paternoster, 2000).  This is a commendably accessible and well-conceived introduction to the LXX, especially useful for students gearing up for serious work in NT/Christian Origins.

Finally, a stimulating study that attempts to place the LXX into its originating setting as a means of maintaining and asserting Jewish religious identity in the Greek-speaking world of its time:  Tessa Rajak, Translation and Survival:  The Greek Bible and Ancient Jewish Diaspora (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

The LXX (esp. if we include the full body of Greek OT writings) was perhaps the largest translation project in antiquity.  Indeed, it would be difficult until modern time to find such a project.  Clearly, great effort and expenditure of human resources were involved.   It certainly deserves a major place in the preparation of scholars of NT/Christian origins.  And it deserves recognition by all who are interested in ancient Judaism and/or early Christianity and its religious heritage.

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15 Comments
  1. W. Andrew Smith permalink

    Even though most of my second year (Masters level) Greek students are looking at their M.Div. as a terminal degree, I make sure they are at least aware the widespread use of the LXX in the NT, the resources available to them to investigate the LXX, and some of the grammatical differences between NT and LXX Greek.

    That said, I have noticed some struggles between Masters students and the LXX.

    First, I am unaware of any kind of a graded reader for LXX Greek. One of my students picked up Brenton’s edition of the LXX (in part because of the English translation) but has had a difficult time working through the Greek. The only LXX grammar I know of is a century old and the expanded vocabulary is sizable for a student (though he is aware of Lust’s lexicon). In the NT we can start beginning Greek students in John / 1 John because of the easy Greek; are there any good starting places in the LXX?

    Second, I don’t think the relationship between the Hebrew and Greek texts is widely understood by students, nor are the TC issues of the OT in general, which leaves students wondering why they should even be interested in the LXX. They can get that the LXX was the go-to OT of the early church, that it is used ~300 times in the NT, etc. but they are faced with a lot of questions that simply picking up Rahlfs doesn’t answer. Apart from taking a class on the Septuagint (which I don’t think would be popular enough to run at a small seminary), I don’t know that a casual brush with the LXX is enough to spark most students to investigate further.

    As an aside, I wholeheartedly agree with the Jobes and Silva book recommendation–that is about as gentle and readable of an introduction to Septuagint studies as one could hope for.

    • Genesis is the LXX equivalent to John in the NT vis-a-vis a good starting point for reading. Conybeare and Stock start their readings with the story of Joseph in Gen 37-45.

      I am actually a bit surprised that anyone who can read the NT has trouble reading the LXX. There are some unique grammatical constructions and new vocabulary in the LXX but nothing major…

      • Yes, the major demand for students entering Koine/Greek via the NT is the MUCH larger vocab in the LXX. But that varies from passage to passage, and the narrative portions are always easier.

    • Shai permalink

      Andrew,
      In regards to the popularity of a LXX class at a small seminary, Dr. Kevin Warstler offered a LXX class this last semester at Criswell College in Dallas, TX (a very small theological school). I was unable to take the class due to a conflict with a class required for my degree, but it seems to have been met with great interest by the students. A sizeable number of students were in the class, and everyone I talked to enjoyed it greatly. You might try contacting him at kwarstler@criswell.edu for the official report on how it received.

  2. Thanks for pointing this out, Larry. In my experience, one of the biggest problems is not that NT students never consult the LXX, but that they consult it without due awareness of critical issues in the study of the LXX, in particular the diversity of texts current in the first century. We can no more assume that the NT authors had access to a pure form of the Old Greek than that they had access to a pure proto-MT tradition.

    • This is certainly a good point. Rahlfs is not necessarily what Paul read! But if students work through the Jobes/Silva introduction they’ll get some good orientation to the complexity of the Greek OT in the early period.

    • I am so new to this, and I’m trying to understand your comment Drew. Would it be wrong for me to understand it through the eyes of the many English translations we have today? If someone had no idea that the Living Bible was paraphrase, the New Revised Standard was a literal translation, and that the New International version was a dynamic equivalent they would get themselves confused and in a little trouble. Is loosely the kind troubles involved in the diversity of the LXX texts?

      Thanks for the help.

      • Drew can also answer for himself, but to ensure that your question is addressed, I’ll comment briefly. What we know as the LXX (“Septuagint”), i.e., a printed edition of the OT in Greek (including a number of writings not in the Hebrew canon) is in this form a Christian edition/canon. It is now clear (esp. in light of pre-Christian manuscripts of the Greek OT writings from the Judean desert) that in the earlier period there was some interesting textual diversity in the Greek OT. So, we can’t simply presume (as some earlier scholars did) that the choices of earliest Christians was simply the Massoretic Hebew text or the LXX. Both the Hebrew OT and the Greek OT then had far greater textual diversity and fluidity than these two options.

  3. The book by Jobes and Silva is outstanding. However, you need a pretty solid level of Greek and Hebrew to fully benefit from it as many detailed text selections are given (in the second part of the book). If you work through the entire book, you will attain a very solid background in the Septuagint and Septuagint studies.

  4. Reblogged this on Methoughts, mefeats and medefeats and commented:
    I should definitely include some chunks of the LXX for study at the Greek Club.

  5. Kathryn permalink

    The NETS translation can be read online here:

    http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/nets/edition/

  6. there’s a online edition for NETS (2009): http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/nets/edition/

  7. This surprised me because it seems like common sense to me to go to the LXX. I’ve known that since undergrad days with Troy Miller. One of my main areas of interest is LXX studies, so this is a good bit of encouragement.

  8. Thanks so much for confirming what has been on my mind for the past couple of years. I am just getting into my education, and late in life at that, so the resources you gave will find there way to my shelves. I have tried to find materials such as these for the past couple of years and have had little success. I hope in the future I can contribute to such study.

  9. I wholeheartedly agree. I hate to keep trumpeting in my comments on your blog how great the coursework is at Duke, but one of the most intellectually stimulating classes I’ve had here at Duke is Mel Peters’ Septuagint class. My NT colleagues made the point of taking this class for their development as scholars and it is well worth it. For those without the benefit of a LXX class, the resources you recommended are indeed useful (and in fact used in my class, except the last one, which was still being published).

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