Should We Use the Septuagint and Accept Its Canonical Books?

Question: Recently I heard someone argue for the use of the Septuagint on the basis that the early church, apostles and Jesus himself used it. I discovered that the early church did in fact use the LXX, but they they also considered the deuterocanonical books which are a part of the Septuagint to be scripture as well.

Would mind sharing your thoughts on this?

My Answer

The whole issue of the Scriptures is much more complicated than just "we ought to use the Septuagint."

First, a definition ...

What is the Septuagint?

It is a translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek done in Alexandria between the 2nd century BC and the 1st century AD. Tradition has it that seventy Jewish elders were appointed by Ptolemy of Egypt to make the translation.

The term Septuagint means "seventy" and is a reference to the seventy elders. It is also called the LXX for the same reason.

Early Christians believed that the seventy elders were put in seventy different rooms, yet they all produced exactly the same translation of the entire Old Testament, word for word (e.g., Justin Martyr, Hortatory Address to the Greeks 13). This is ridiculous, of course, and did not happen.

Ridiculous?

It's not that I don't believe that God could do something like have seventy people translate the Scriptures into exactly the same words in another language. The issue is, why would he do that?

It's important to watch what God is doing today. God has not changed. He still works miracles today. However, never has the Bible been translated more than it has in the last forty years. Never have Christians fought so hard for one authoritative, word-for-word-inspired translation. Yet no clear-thinking person believes that any English or any other translation is inspired.

If we are watching what God is doing, then it's clear that he's not interested in proving the exact wording of Scripture to anyone.

That's because he's much more concerned about our righteousness.

The Septuagint Quoted in the New Testament

The fact is, a lot of quotes in the New Testament line up with the Septuagint, but not all of them. I've heard estimates from 50% to two-thirds. It is very hard to come up with an exact figure because so many passages are loosely quoted. For example ...

  • Matthew 4:10 clearly quotes the Septuagint version of Deuteronomy 6:13, using terminology only found in that version and using it exactly.
  • In 1 Corinthians 15:58, the Septuagint of Hosea 13:14 is much closer to Paul's quote than the Masoretic text, but the difference is still significant. Some will say Paul was quoting the Septuagint; others will disagree.
  • In 1 Corinthians 2:8-9, Paul quotes Isaiah 64:4, and the quote is clearly from the Hebrew. The wording in the Septuagint is much different.

In the first century, a large percentage of the church was Jewish. The apostles who stayed in the Roman Empire—which are the ones who wrote most of the New Testament—would have had need for the LXX, but they also would have been familiar with the original Jewish text from their days in Israel.

Thus, the New Testament is a mix of quotes, some of which match the Septuagint, some of which match our Masoretic text, and some of which match neither.

Where Do Those "Other"Quotes Come From?

The reason it may match neither is because we have no early copies of the Masoretic text, and it may have become corrupted over the centuries. There were also competing Hebrew texts even in the 1st century. The Isaiah scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, matches neither the Septuagint nor the Masoretic text (reference: The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia).

Masoretic Text

The Masoretes were a school of Jewish scholarship between the 7th and 11th centuries A.D. who carefully preserved the Jewish Scriptures. The earliest manuscript we have in our possession is from the 9th century.

Further, without a Bible like ours—simple to leaf through and marked with chapters and verses—early Christians had difficulty finding verses in their scrolls. Or worse, they had difficulty finding a scroll of a particular book of Scripture at all!

Thus, many passages are likely quoted from memory. A scholar like Paul, who would have seen both Hebrew and Greek versions of the Scripture, may have had great difficulty being consistent in quoting from the same version every time.

The Septuagint Quoted in the Early Churches

The story with 2nd and 3rd century Christians is much different. They almost exclusively used the Septuagint.

Early Churches Versus Early Christians

It is common for us to refer to the Christians of the 2nd and 3rd centuries as "early Christians."

In the context of a history site, though, I think it is wiser to refer to the "early churches" rather than "early Christians," especially on a page like this. It is the churches that decided which books were accepted as Scripture in their midst, not individual Christians. Each church might vary from another, but Christians used the books their churches used.

The same was true of the "rule of faith," the codified "basics" of Christianity for each Christian. The rule of faith varied from church to church—though not by much—but each Christian learned his rule of faith from the church he belonged to. He was not free to have his own rule of faith. That was known as "heresy."

The reason for that is simple. They almost exclusively spoke Greek.

The 2nd century church was largely Gentile, and it was largely found outside of Israel because Israel is a small country. The church had spread throughout the known world even in the 1st century. Thomas had gone as far as India, and tradition has it that Paul made it even to the British Isles.

Further, all the writings we have from the 2nd century come from Greek-speaking parts of the Empire. The exceptions are some possible writings made in Syriac.

Greek speakers used a Greek translation. This cannot be used as evidence that we all should be using the LXX as our base text today.

Which Books Are Included in the Septuagint (LXX)

The early churches used books that are not in our 66-book Protestant Bible; however, since they didn't have a Christian bookstore with a Catholic Bible, a Protestant Bible, and a couple different versions of Orthodox Bibles, you can't really pin down "the" deuterocanonical books.

The Roman Catholic Apocrypha

The Roman Catholics include 7 books that the Protestants do not. The Septuagint includes even more.

The 7 Roman Catholic Deuterocanonical books.

  • Tobit
  • Judith
  • Wisdom
  • Ecclesiasticus (or, Wisdom of Sirach)
  • Baruch
  • First Maccabees
  • Second Maccabees

The Apocrypha also includes two extra chapters in Daniel and an addition to Esther.

To this day, Orthodox churches have a varying canon. Most will include all 4 books of the Maccabbees, while the Roman Catholics include only 2. They also include 1 Esdras, which the Roman Catholics do not. The same with the Wisdom of Solomon.

But ...

  • The Armenian Orthodox Church has a 3 Corinthians.
  • The Ethiopian Orthodox Church includes the Book of Enoch in its canon.
  • The Assyrian Orthodox Church ends its New Testament at 1 John.

Even as late as A.D. 395 or so, Augustine was saying that a good student of the Scriptures emphasizes the books that are accepted by all churches, then those that are accepted by major churches [i.e., those established in the 1st century by apostles, like Ephesus, Rome, Corinth, etc.], and lastly those that are accepted by more minor churches.

Books like Judith, Tobit, and the Wisdom of Sirach are quoted by lots of early Christians, a sign that they were accepted by many churches. Augustine accepts all three. His contemporary, Jerome, rejects all three.

It appears as well that most early Christians were familiar with the Book of Enoch. That book is directly quoted—and attributed to Enoch—in Jude in our Bible (vv. 14-15).

The Book of Enoch

Enoch will be difficult for modern Christians to swallow, with 300-ft. tall giants and the sun rising and setting through windows in heaven. Nonetheless, 1 Enoch 1:9 (or 2:1, depending on your version) is quoted in Jude 14-15.

I personally recommend Ecclesiasticus [The Wisdom of Sirach]. It's an awesome book with an awesome prophecy of Christ in chapter two. You'll find it in all Catholic Bibles or in any copy of the Apocrypha.

Hebrews and a Closed Canon

To be honest, I do not understand how we modern Christians can include Hebrews in the canon. It's a great book. I have no problem with its teaching, but it specifically says it wasn't written by an apostle, nor an apostolic worker. It was not universally accepted even into the 4th century, and Eusebius of Caesarea, arguably the ablest scholar of his day, questions it in his Ecclesiastical History in 323.

It's in Hebrews 2:3-4 the book practically says it ought not to be in the Scriptures ...

How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which first began to be spoken to us by the Lord, and then was confirmed to us by those who heard? God also witnessed to them with signs, wonders, and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit.

If you'll read through the writings of the early churches, you will soon begin to pick up that the NT Scriptures are all the writings written by "those" that confirmed the Gospel to "us," as the writer of Hebrews puts it.

The reason that Hebrews wound up in the canon is that those churches that accepted it believed that it was written by Paul, a very strange belief considering Hebrews 2:3-4. How could Paul possibly write something like that? He clearly saw himself as one of those preaching the Gospel from the Lord, not receiving it from others (Gal. 1:11-12).

My point is that the canon was flexible in the early churches. Why shouldn't it be for us as well?

Unsettled Canon in the Early Churches

The fact is, no one can pin down exactly when the canon was set.

The Roman Catholics didn't officially decide the canon until the Council of Trent in the 16th century!!! Martin Luther objected to the canon, and he wanted to remove Hebrews, James, and the Book of Revelation.

Internet rumors abound that the synod of Hippo (often falsely called the council of Hippo) decided the canon in 393.

True, they did. But they were simply a local synod with no authority. No one listened to them (Catholic Encyclopedia).

How do I know? Because Augustine, the bishop of Hippo, gives directions for picking which books a good student of Scripture will emphasize, and he mentions books accepted by only some churches. He wrote that during the same decade that the synod of Hippo convened, but in 397, four years later.

How We Got Our Canon

To this day, if you ask an Orthodox believer which books belong in the canon, most won't be certain. Orthodox churches, even though they're organized into much bigger organizations than they were in Augustine's day, still vary in their canons.

For example ...

  • The Armenian Orthodox Church includes a letter called 3 Corinthians, which most churches reject as false.
  • The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has Enoch in their Bible.
  • The Assyrian Orthodox New Testament ends at 1 John.

There is a reason this is not true among western Christians, and it is not because the canon was decided upon by a council.

In the early 5th century, Jerome translated the Scriptures into Latin.

A High View of Scripture is an excellent coverage of the canon in the early church by a respected, conservative Evangelical publisher.

In Roman-ruled Europe, Jerome's "Vulgate" soon became the only translation in use.

Sadly, the product of the rule of the Roman bishop was ignorance and superstition [thus fully establishing that the Pope cannot be God's representative on earth since good trees produce good fruit]. Latin became the only intellectual language of Europe, and the Roman Catholic Church forbad its translation into common languages for fear of misinterpretation by the ignorant masses.

This horrific state of affairs continued for nearly a thousand years until the Renaissance began a change and Martin Luther completed it with the Protestant Reformation.

In this way, Jerome's Vulgate became the standard for canonicity without there ever being an official decision on it at any general council until Trent in the mid-1500's.

The Real Role of Scripture ...
And, Thus, the Septuagint as Well

The worst problem of all, I think, is the wrong emphasis we put on Scripture. Scripture is important. All Scripture is inspired by God, makes wise for salvation (2 Tim. 3:15), and equips the man of God for good works (2 Tim. 3:17; Note: not good systematic theology, but good works).

Nonetheless, the sons of God are those who are led by the Spirit of God (Rom. 8:14). As Jesus told the Pharisees, "You search the Scriptures because you think that you have life from them. But these are they which testify of me; yet you refuse to come to me so that you might have life" (Jn. 5:39-40).

What I'm saying on this page is very controversial, so here's my apologetic for my position, which is nothing more than the position of all early churches ...

The Standard of Truth for the Early Churches

In the early churches, they were given a rule of faith. That rule of faith contained the basics that each Christian had to believe. Each Christian learned and confessed it at their baptism.

The rule of faith for the Church of Caesarea is what was used as a basis for the Nicene (or Apostles) Creed.

Their teachers taught from the Scriptures. They, like us, were willing to be corrected by the Scriptures. But they knew what the Scriptures teach—which is that the Christian life is about obeying Christ, not analyzing doctrines to extremes.

Of course, they didn't have to worry about some of the things that we have to deal with. No one then believed in eternal security. All of them had hands laid on them to receive the Spirit immediately after baptism. Only some spoke in tongues, and there were no movements to get everyone to speak in tongues.

If there had been, it would have been shut down.

Churches could answer any such questions by consulting the churches started by apostles or just looking at what they did.

Irenaeus (c. A.D. 185) said it this way ...

Suppose there arises a dispute relative to some important question among us. Shouldn't we have recourse to the most ancient churches with which the apostles held constant interaction and learn from them what is certain and clear concerning the present question? (Against Heresies III:4:1).

Thus, while the Scriptures are important due to their being inspired by God, they were never meant to create systematic theologies. Instead, they provided encouragement, insight into the will of God, and guidance for living righteously.

Once you're delivered systematic theologies and arguing over the doctrines that go in systematic theologies, then all the exactitudes concerning the Septuagint or the Masoretic text doesn't matter much.

Jerome, the Septuagint, and the Exact Wording of Scripture

From To Pammachius on the Best Method of Translating, par. 9, as found in NICENE AND POST-NICENE FATHERS, SERIES 2: The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series II, vol. VI.

Matthew says: ... " ... are not the least among the princes of Judah." In the Septuagint this is, " ... are small to be among the thousands of Judah," while the Hebrew gives, " ... though you be little among the thousands of Judah."
     There is a contradiction here—and that not merely verbal—between the evangelist and the prophet, for in this place at any rate both Septuagint and Hebrew agree. The evangelist says that he is not little among the princes of Judah, while the passage from which he quotes says exactly the opposite of this; "You are small indeed and little, but yet out of you, small and little as you are, there shall come forth for me a leader in Israel." This sentiment in harmony with that of the apostle, "God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty" [1 Cor. 1:27]
     Let us pass on now to the apostle Paul who writes thus to the Corinthians: "For had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, 'Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for them that love Him'" [1 Cor. 2:8-9]. ... It is found in Isaiah according to the Hebrew text: "Since the beginning of the world men have not heard nor perceived by the ear, nor has the eye seen, oh God, beside you what you have prepared for them that wait for thee" [Is. 64:4]. The Septuagint has rendered the words quite differently: "Since the beginning of the world we have not heard, nor have our eyes seen any God beside you and your true works, and you will show mercy to them that wait for you."
     ... From all these passages it is clear that the apostles and evangelists—in translating the Old Testament Scriptures—have sought to give the meaning rather than the words, and that they have not greatly cared to preserve forms or constructions, so long as they could make clear the subject to the understanding.

It may be nice to research things like how Matthew 1:23 came to be quoting Isaiah 7:14 as "virgin" rather than "young maiden." It may be nice to know why Jesus quotes words in Matthew 4:10 that aren't in our version of the verse. However, your knowing the answer to those questions will have no effect on your obedience to God, and obedience, after all, is the purpose of the Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:17).

How Important Is Exact Wording?

Whether exact wording is important affects whether our use of the Septuagint is important.

The fact is, God hasn't given much effort to preserving exact wording for us. There are thousands of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. While this helps establish that the general wording of our New Testament is accurate, it also has made it impossible to determine the exact wording of hundreds and perhaps thousands of verses.

King James only adherents, for example, like to say that modern versions have "corrupted" over 5,000 verses.

We will never be able to decide on many of those extremely minor differences in wording. That is because God doesn't want us to focus on words!

Words were Old Testament. The New Testament is written on our hearts! (1 Cor. 4:20; 2 Cor. 3:6)

This doesn't mean we ignore Scripture, but it does mean that if we spend time trying to nail down words and letters, we will be distracted from our real purpose.

Where To Go From Here

If you enjoyed this page, you may enjoy History of the Bible. Also, my doctrine page gives a Scriptural and historical look at what exactly qualifies as "sound doctrine."

Finally, please consider signing up for our monthly Early Church History Newsletter.

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