Justin Martyr on the Greek Old Testament

Justin Martyr on the Greek Old Testament (The Septuagint)

Considered one of the ‘Apostolic Fathers’—a Saint who lived within the lifetime of the first seventy apostles of Jesus Christ—Justin Martyr is one of the earliest, and most important Christian apologists.

Spending much of his life searching for truth in Greek philosophy, St. Justin (commemorated June 1) was introduced to Christianity by a learned elder who showed him the superiority of divine revelation over the ‘wisdom of men.’ Desiring to either confirm or deny accusations of pagans against the Christians, he journeyed to Rome in his philosopher’s ‘cape,’ and soon acquired a popular following in that city.

In Rome, St. Justin witnessed the martyrdom of several Christians, and was soon convinced that myths being spread about them were not true. He afterwards wrote an apology or ‘defense’ of the Christian faith for the Emperor Antonius Pius (reigned A.D. 138–161), which led to a temporary end of persecution. He then used this decree to save the lives of many would-be martyrs in Asia Minor.

When he returned to Rome (~161), the new Emperor—a learned philosopher himself—Marcus Aurelius had renewed Christian persecution. After St. Justin wrote a second apology, he was imprisoned by the malice of his Cynic opponent Crescens. Out of jealousy, Crescens poisoned St. Justin while he was in jail, rather than allow him to defend himself before the Senate. St. Justin, both then and presently known as ‘the Philosopher,’1 had now become Justin Martyr (~165–167).

Besides these apologies, St. Justin wrote two treatises against paganism, as well as a dialogue with the Jewish rabbi Trypho. It is in these works that St. Justin discusses the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint or LXX). In fact, St. Justin is one of the first—if not the first in writing—to name the entirety of the Greek Old Testament ‘the Septuagint,’ rather than the Pentateuch alone.2

In his debate with Trypho, St. Justin refers often to the authority, inspiration, and text of “the seventy,” or “the seventy interpreters,” over and against the text of his opponent. For example, he says “though the Seventy have not so explained it” (Dialogue with Trypho 120), or “but in the version of the Seventy it is written . . .” (124), showing a distrust for the texts of second century rabbis—texts he viewed as having been altered, edited, and revised. Like most early Christians and later Church fathers, he believed they were edited several decades after the resurrection of Jesus Christ in order to avoid the Christians’ messianic conclusions (among other reasons).

St. Justin even mentions specific examples of this editing (71–73); for example:

But I am far from putting reliance in your teachers, who refuse to admit that the interpretation made by the seventy elders who were with Ptolemy [king] of the Egyptians is a correct one; and they attempt to frame another. And I wish you to observe, that they have altogether taken away many Scriptures from the translations effected by those seventy elders who were with Ptolemy, and by which this very man who was crucified is proved to have been set forth expressly as God, and man, and as being crucified, and as dying. —Dialogue with Trypho 71

As the name ‘Joshua’ in the Greek translation of the Old Testament is the same as ‘Jesus’ in the New—Iesous—Justin and other fathers connected the deliverance of Israel into the promised land with the superior ministry of Christ and the Gospel (over Moses and the Law):3

Jesus, as I said many times before, whose name had been Hosea, was named Jesus by Moses when he was sent out as a spy with Caleb into the land of Canaan. Now, you are not curious to know why he did this, nor do you ask or investigate the reason. Hence, you have never discovered Christ, and when you read you fail to understand; when you hear us now telling you that Jesus is our Christ, you do not study the question to discover that he was given this name deliberately and not accidentally. —Dialogue with Trypho 113

Where Moses and the Law failed, Jesus the the Gospel prevailed. This sort of dichotomy exists, of course, in the Hebrew, but it is far more apparent in the commonalities between the two Greek testaments—and especially for fathers like Saints Justin, Irenaios, and Ignatius of Antioch, who knew little of Hebrew but had Greek as their native tongue.

And finally, when it comes to the origins of the third century (B.C.) Greek translation, St. Justin unapologetically affirms its veracity, miracles and all. Following the narrative of the Letter of Aristeas (second century B.C.)—along with the writings of Jewish historians Philo (20 B.C.–A.D. 50) and Titus Flavius Josephus (A.D. 37–100)—St. Justin remarks:

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.
Oratory Address to the Greeks 13

This story of origins was, for St. Justin, “no fable.”

He notes his own journey to Alexandria, and the very place—the “cots”—where each of the seventy translators had done their work. So for him, the story of the Greek translation by the seventy Jewish scribes was not so far-removed from his own lifetime, with tangible evidence readily available.

With this knowledge and experience at his disposal, Justin Martyr confidently defended the Christian faith—and our choice of sacred scripture in the Greek language—against the arguments of both pagans and Jewish rabbis. To St. Justin and the other, early Christian fathers, the Old Testament (regardless of language) was ultimately written for the sake of Christians, and not for the rabbis who had since rejected both its author and Messiah—this ‘Joshua’ who had finally led the people of God into Canaan.

For Orthodox Christians today, the importance of the Septuagint for the foundation and explanation of orthodox, Christian theology continues to be immeasurable. It is not some tangential, secondary, or even optional concern, but speaks to the very heart of our theology, piety, doctrine, and practice. We’ll consider more on that topic soon.

Show 3 footnotes

  1. Notably, like Plato
  2. When God Spoke Greek, p. 117
  3. When God Spoke Greek, p. 135

Comments

  1. Helen says

    Dn. Gabe,
    Justin is saying he saw the cots (remains of) of the Seventy? That makes those relics +-300 BC + his +-165 AD (now knowing when he wrote this) +-465 years old? That those cots were EVEN preserved in Alexandria that long? Who was preserving them? The Rabbis? Surely not. Any add’l info, please. This is fascinating for me (in this detail) but to explain to those that ask me where the Bible came from.

    • says

      Helen,

      This is a reference to the “huts” or small houses where each of the translators did their work. This is mentioned by the Letter of Aristeas and other ancient authorities on the event. They were kept separate so that each translator would not collude with the other. The miracle was that each wrote the exact same translation.

  2. Victor Weis says

    “For Orthodox Christians today, the importance of the Septuagint for the foundation and explanation of orthodox, Christian theology continues to be immeasurable. It is not some tangential, secondary, or even optional concern, but speaks to the very heart of our theology, piety, doctrine, and practice. ”

    Gabe, I very strongly agree with your statement here, which is why I am concerned that at my parish (an OCA parish) they read from a MT translation. I asked my parish priest about this and he said that it basically has to do with copyright restrictions on LXX translations, and that licensing costs would be far too expensive. Do other jurisdictions have this problem? How do they handle it? And what can be done for the OCA? Will the EOB fix this problem once it is completed?

    Thanks,
    Victor

    • says

      Victor,

      The same is the case in the current (and, quite frankly, awful) Narthex Press translations used by the Greek Archdiocese here in America.

      For most I’m sure it’s a matter of licensing and/or a lack of initiative and organization. The lack of an English standard for much of the Orthodox services is also a contributing factor. I don’t know if the EOB will be the solution, as that’s just one project, but it doesn’t hurt. The more to choose from, the better.

      But if the churches care enough, they can use Brenton’s English Septuagint which, albeit older, is in the Public Domain. There’s solutions if people care enough to do something about it. And it really is a problem that needs fixing. I plan to do a post in the future about how not using the Septuagint completely ruins some of our services, especially during Holy Week.

  3. Richard Covarrubia Jr. says

    Dear, Mr. Martini,
    I am absolutely fascinated by the information presented in this article. I happened across it while seeking more detail on a statement written by Matthew Henry in his unabridged commentary of the Bible KJV (I am currently studying to gain a deeper insight of The Holy Word, resulting I hope, in a deeper intimacy with my Lord Jesus). Having reached the first book of the gospel up to Matt14, wherein the death of John the Baptist is recorded, the commentary reads in part: “As the first Old-Testament saint, so the first New-Testament minister, died a martyr.”

    After reading this, I sought to know to whom the first part of the statement applied; the latter of course being John. During this search, one of the Google results was your article. My curiosity aroused, I followed the link and read the material, comments and replies included, several times over.

    Now, at the risk of sounding vain, I consider myself relatively well educated as a graduate engineer, and well read as a Christian endeavoring to constantly grow in the faith. Clearly I am not nearly as well studied as I would like to believe – I cannot recall ever reading or being taught about Justin Martyr nor of his investigation and influence on the foundation of the Old Testament.

    Having been raised in the church by devout Catholic parents, and then later in adulthood parting with it (much to my parent’s chagrin I might add) I turned to worship in a Baptist church (yet refraining from being identified as such).

    I am simply amazed that despite earnest, diligent, and consistent study, the information you have presented is absolutely new to me. I must confess that even as I am writing this comment, I am being made aware of sinful vanity persisting in my heart. Please excuse me for cutting short as this “awareness” is causing me to feel a great deal of disturbance, and I must attend to it. However, if I may impose on your goodwill, would you take a moment to send me by email the titles of reference books that I may more fully explore the central thesis of your article? For I have held and expounded the idea that the Old Testament was written and preserved specifically for the edification of New Covenant believers in laying out foundational truths for the support and understanding of The Gospel of Christ.

    Thank you for promulgating the truth!