It’s no secret that Orthodox Christians prefer the Septuagint (LXX) for their Old Testament. This stems largely from the apparent preferences of Christ, his Apostles, and their earliest disciples (the apostolic fathers). There are only five citations in the New Testament where a text identical to the Masoretic Text today is cited over-and-against the Septuagint tradition (but there are citations from other texts lost to history, or paraphrases beyond this). The bulk of OT quotations from the early Church fathers are aligned with the Septuagint or other Greek translations.
The Protestant Approach
Certain Protestant Christians have adopted a doctrine called “plenary verbal inspiration,” that “the Bible is the word of God . . . that its very words are God’s own words, and that it must be accurate because God cannot err” (Hart, The Dictionary of Historical Theology, p. 198). Given this — and as a former Protestant — I find it surprising that such convictions have not led Protestants to adopt the Septuagint as their primary (or even preferred) OT, since the authors of the NT use it almost exclusively. If their writings are absent of “errors,” then their use of the LXX must be seen as part of this verbal inspiration, must it not? However, with the exception of some in the scholarly community, there is a relative ignorance (or apathy) with regards to the LXX across the broadest spectrum of Protestant Christianity today.
It too should be considered that since we do not have the “original autographs” of the Scriptures themselves, textual criticism has led to a doctrine of inspiration with no practical or incarnate evidence. In other words, the Scriptures might be infallible and inerrant in their original words, but we have no actual example of these original words. All texts of Scripture today are therefore subject to error, if one is truly being consistent. This has perhaps led to the gradual decline of both Scriptural and traditional fidelity within the mainline denominations of Protestantism today — this, and the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. An adherence to apostolic tradition and the incarnate, Spirit-filled life of the Church removes the necessity for extra-Scriptural traditions like Sola Scriptura.
Inspiration and Translation
In the Orthodox Church, the inspiration of Scripture is not limited to either specific words or original autographs. A translation of Scripture can be just as “infallible” and “inspired” within the Christian community as theoretical “original autographs.” The Septuagint is a perfect example of this.
Orthodox Christians believe that the Septuagint is a divinely-inspired translation. We even acknowledge the fact that there were multiple, differing textual families of these scriptures in the days of Christ, along with differing beliefs regarding their “canon” (table of contents). Despite these variances, they are all validly called “Scripture.” While discoveries such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and comparisons with the Samaritan Torah show that the LXX has an ancient and valuable pedigree, there are other texts with an admirable footing.
As already mentioned, the early Church fathers demonstrate a common reliance upon the LXX, as well as other Greek translations like Theodotion, Symmachus, and Aquila (other Jewish translations of the OT into Greek). Beyond their actual use of these scriptures, there were four early fathers that wrote about the importance of the LXX in the Christian Church, along with the history of its translation.
Saint Justin Martyr
Near the middle of the second century (ca. A.D. 150), St. Justin Martyr (called “the Philosopher” in the hagiography of the Orthodox Church) wrote about the origin of the LXX in his Oratory Address to the Greeks (Ch. 13):
But if any one says that the writings of Moses and of the rest of the prophets were also written in the Greek character, let him read profane histories, and know that Ptolemy, king of Egypt, when he had built the library in Alexandria, and by gathering books from every quarter had filled it, then learnt that very ancient histories written in Hebrew happened to be carefully preserved; and wishing to know their contents, he sent for seventy wise men from Jerusalem, who were acquainted with both the Greek and Hebrew language, and appointed them to translate the books; and that in freedom from all disturbance they might the more speedily complete the translation, he ordered that there should be constructed, not in the city itself, but seven stadia off (where the Pharos was built), as many little cots as there were translators, so that each by himself might complete his own translation; and enjoined upon those officers who were appointed to this duty, to afford them all attendance, but to prevent communication with one another, in order that the accuracy of the translation might be discernible even by their agreement.
And when he ascertained that the seventy men had not only given the same meaning, but had employed the same words, and had failed in agreement with one another not even to the extent of one word, but had written the same things, and concerning the same things, he was struck with amazement, and believed that the translation had been written by divine power, and perceived that the men were worthy of all honor, as beloved of God; and with many gifts ordered them to return to their own country. And having, as was natural, marveled at the books, and concluded them to be divine, he consecrated them in that library.
These things, ye men of Greece, are no fable, nor do we narrate fictions; but we ourselves having been in Alexandria, saw the remains of the little cots at the Pharos still preserved, and having heard these things from the inhabitants, who had received them as part of their country’s tradition, we now tell to you what you can also learn from others, and specially from those wise and esteemed men who have written of these things, Philo and Josephus, and many others.
As noted by St. Justin, the miraculous events surrounding the translation of the Torah into Greek led even Ptolemy II Philadelphius to see the translation as being done “by divine power,” concluding that they were themselves “divine” writings. St. Justin also assures the reader that this story (repeated by other fathers, along with Philo and Josephus; cf. Epistle of Aristeas) is “no fable,” providing physical evidence in Alexandria that he had witnessed with his own eyes.
Saint Irenaeus of Lyons
The second early father to comment on these events is the illustrious St. Irenaeus of Lyons, writing near the end of the second century A.D. (Against Heresies, 3.21.2):
For before the Romans possessed their kingdom, while as yet the Macedonians held Asia, Ptolemy the son of Lagus, being anxious to adorn the library which he had founded in Alexandria, with a collection of the writings of all men, which were [works] of merit, made request to the people of Jerusalem, that they should have their Scriptures translated into the Greek language. And they —for at that time they were still subject to the Macedonians — sent to Ptolemy seventy of their elders, who were thoroughly skilled in the Scriptures and in both the languages, to carry out what he had desired. But he, wishing to test them individually, and fearing lest they might perchance, by taking counsel together, conceal the truth in the Scriptures, by their interpretation, separated them from each other, and commanded them all to write the same translation. He did this with respect to all the books.
But when they came together in the same place before Ptolemy, and each of them compared his own interpretation with that of every other, God was indeed glorified, and the Scriptures were acknowledged as truly divine. For all of them read out the common translation [which they had prepared] in the very same words and the very same names, from beginning to end, so that even the Gentiles present perceived that the Scriptures had been interpreted by the inspiration of God.
And there was nothing astonishing in God having done this — He who, when, during the captivity of the people under Nebuchadnezzar, the Scriptures had been corrupted, and when, after seventy years, the Jews had returned to their own land, then, in the times of Artaxerxes king of the Persians, inspired Esdras the priest, of the tribe of Levi, to recast all the words of the former prophets, and to re-establish with the people the Mosaic legislation.
Irenaeus compares the divine translation of the LXX in Egypt with that of the preservation of the Mosaic law and the prophets following exile. He also goes on to draw a comparison between the Lord’s preservation of scripture in Egypt, and His preservation of Israel during the Egyptian yoke. Of the translation, he writes “God was indeed glorified, and the Scriptures were acknowledged as truly divine.”
Saint Cyril of Jerusalem
Thirdly, the great catechist Cyril of Jerusalem writes about the LXX in his fourth lecture on the Divine Scriptures (Catechetical Lectures, 4.34):
Read the Divine Scriptures, the twenty-two books of the Old Testament, these that have been translated by the Seventy-two Interpreters.
For after the death of Alexander, the king of the Macedonians, and the division of his kingdom into four principalities, into Babylonia, and Macedonia, and Asia, and Egypt, one of those who reigned over Egypt, Ptolemy Philadelphus, being a king very fond of learning, while collecting the books that were in every place, heard from Demetrius Phalereus, the curator of his library, of the Divine Scriptures of the Law and the Prophets, and judged it much nobler, not to get the books from the possessors by force against their will, but rather to propitiate them by gifts and friendship; and knowing that what is extorted is often adulterated, being given unwillingly, while that which is willingly supplied is freely given with all sincerity, he sent to Eleazar, who was then High Priest, a great many gifts for the Temple here at Jerusalem, and caused him to send him six interpreters from each of the twelve tribes of Israel for the translation.
Then, further, to make experiment whether the books were Divine or not, he took precaution that those who had been sent should not combine among themselves, by assigning to each of the interpreters who had come his separate chamber in the island called Pharos, which lies over against Alexandria, and committed to each the whole Scriptures to translate.
And when they had fulfilled the task in seventy-two days, he brought together all their translations, which they had made in different chambers without sending them one to another, and found that they agreed not only in the sense but even in words. For the process was no word-craft, nor contrivance of human devices: but the translation of the Divine Scriptures, spoken by the Holy Spirit, was of the Holy Spirit accomplished.
Here St. Cyril ascribes the work “of the Holy Spirit” to the translation. He too relates the common story that the translations of each of the scribes were identical — and this without collusion between them — seeing this as a sign of divine inspiration.
Saint Augustine of Hippo
Finally, even the Latin father Augustine of Hippo shows an affinity for the LXX, and this in spite of the work done by Jerome (the Latin Vulgate). As to the differences between the Hebrew and the Greek, Augustine ascribes divine inspiration to both, while also describing some of the careful, comparative textual work being done in his day (City of God, 18.43.1):
For while there were other interpreters who translated these sacred oracles out of the Hebrew tongue into Greek, as Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion, and also that translation which, as the name of the author is unknown, is quoted as the fifth edition, yet the Church has received this Septuagint translation just as if it were the only one; and it has been used by the Greek Christian people, most of whom are not aware that there is any other.
From this translation there has also been made a translation in the Latin tongue, which the Latin churches use. Our times, however, have enjoyed the advantage of the presbyter Jerome, a man most learned, and skilled in all three languages, who translated these same Scriptures into the Latin speech, not from the Greek, but from the Hebrew. But although the Jews acknowledge this very learned labor of his to be faithful, while they contend that the Septuagint translators have erred in many places, still the churches of Christ judge that no one should be preferred to the authority of so many men, chosen for this very great work by Eleazar, who was then high priest; for even if there had not appeared in them one spirit, without doubt divine, and the seventy learned men had, after the manner of men, compared together the words of their translation, that what pleased them all might stand, no single translator ought to be preferred to them; but since so great a sign of divinity has appeared in them, certainly, if any other translator, of their Scriptures from the Hebrew into any other tongue is faithful, in that case he agrees with these seventy translators, and if he is not found to agree with them, then we ought to believe that the prophetic gift is with them.
For the same Spirit who was in the prophets when they spoke these things was also in the seventy men when they translated them, so that assuredly they could also say something else, just as if the prophet himself had said both, because it would be the same Spirit who said both; and could say the same thing differently, so that, although the words were not the same, yet the same meaning should shine forth to those of good understanding; and could omit or add something, so that even by this it might be shown that there was in that work not human bondage, which the translator owed to the words, but rather divine power, which filled and ruled the mind of the translator.
Some, however, have thought that the Greek copies of the Septuagint version should be emended from the Hebrew copies; yet they did not dare to take away what the Hebrew lacked and the Septuagint had, but only added what was found in the Hebrew copies and was lacking in the Septuagint, and noted them by placing at the beginning of the verses certain marks in the form of stars which they call asterisks. And those things which the Hebrew copies have not, but the Septuagint have, they have in like manner marked at the beginning of the verses by horizontal spit-shaped marks like those by which we denote ounces; and many copies having these marks are circulated even in Latin. But we cannot, without inspecting both kinds of copies, find out those things which are neither omitted nor added, but expressed differently, whether they yield another meaning not in itself unsuitable, or can be shown to explain the same meaning in another way.
If, then, as it behoves us, we behold nothing else in these Scriptures than what the Spirit of God has spoken through men, if anything is in the Hebrew copies and is not in the version of the Seventy, the Spirit of God did not choose to say it through them, but only through the prophets. But whatever is in the Septuagint and not in the Hebrew copies, the same Spirit chose rather to say through the latter, thus showing that both were prophets. For in that manner He spoke as He chose, some things through Isaiah, some through Jeremiah, some through several prophets, or else the same thing through this prophet and through that. Further, whatever is found in both editions, that one and the same Spirit willed to say through both, but so as that the former preceded in prophesying, and the latter followed in prophetically interpreting them; because, as the one Spirit of peace was in the former when they spoke true and concordant words, so the selfsame one Spirit hath appeared in the latter, when, without mutual conference they yet interpreted all things as if with one mouth.
It seems clear that a belief in the divine inspiration of the LXX was common in the earliest centuries of the Church (both east and west).
The textual critics of St. Augustine’s day wouldn’t dare remove words in the LXX that are lacking in the Hebrew, and even editions of the Scripture with this hybrid approach were translated into Latin for the western churches. A broad approach when it comes to the “original autographs” of the scriptures is made evident — a departure from the way this is understood by conservative Protestants today. Fathers such as Augustine were apparently fine with the idea that the Spirit had inspired different versions of the same passages.
From an Orthodox perspective — and taking into consideration the discipline of iconography — a translation of the words of Scripture does not deny or invalidate its inspiration. Just as Christ is the “express icon” (Heb. 1:3) of God the Father, without a difference in essence (ὁμοούσιος), so too are icons a real depiction of their prototype — and of the image of God in their person. Likewise, the words of a translation can be inspired within the life of the Spirit-filled Church, bringing across the same meaning and message as their prototype, regardless of the language being used. By the Spirit, nothing is “lost” between the original and its translation.
This does not mean that every translation of every writing is divinely-inspired. Considering the words of our fathers and the traditions of the Church, however, we know of at least one translation that qualifies.