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Reading the Old Testament (in Greek): Septuaginta: A Reader’s Edition

The Septuagint isn’t something you hear about very often. Even in more academically minded Christian circles it comes up only occasionally, and there it’s typically mentioned in passing. To a certain extent, that is understandable, and probably appropriate in many cases.

But the Septuagint is gaining more sustained attention for itself these days. Why? To answer that we first need to understand what it is and why it’s important.

The word “Septuagint” is an anachronistic catch-all label applied to a more-or-less fixed collection of ancient Jewish writings in Greek. About two-thirds of that collection consists of Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible, or the Christian (specifically Protestant) Old Testament. The other third is made up of the books commonly known as the Apocrypha (or “Deuterocanon”), such as Judith, Tobit, and 1–2 Maccabees. Those books form their own category of sorts since they were either originally written in Greek or weren’t received into the canonical collection. Altogether these books form what scholars call the Septuagint, which in different ways constituted the scriptures of both ancient Judaism and early Christianity.

Once understood this way, it’s easier to see how the Septuagint would be important for historical, textual, and linguistic reasons related to the study of the Bible. Let’s look briefly at each of these.

The Septuagint was produced by Greek-speaking Jews mostly in Egypt sometime between the third-century b.c. and the second-century a.d. The exact time and place of each book’s translation or composition is rarely beyond dispute. As scholarly understanding of this part of world history has progressed in recent decades, so has our understanding of the context in which the Septuagint was produced. To translate the entire Hebrew Bible into Greek was a major undertaking. It would have taken not only quite a bit of time and money but also the right kind of education and experience. The Jewish community responsible for initiating the project must, therefore, have not only had the means to do it—both in finances and personnel—but the desire to use them. To make their scriptures accessible in a language that the community knew (Greek) was clearly a matter of great importance.

Even as the earliest portion of the Septuagint (the Pentateuch) was completed, a tradition had developed of translating in a way that very closely follows the word-order of the corresponding Hebrew text. This approach, which was deliberate and required considerable linguistic skill, had numerous consequences, and its rationale is still heavily debated. But it became a style that would, with certain exceptions and qualifications, eventually characterize the whole Septuagint corpus, even the books that were originally written in Greek and were not translations of Hebrew originals. Without wading too far into deep waters, it is fair to conclude from this translation—and from the revisional activity that followed—that the Jewish community wanted a Greek version of the scriptures that prioritized adherence to their originals. We should be cautious of reading too much into this or of unnecessarily ruling out other motivating factors; the production and transmission of the Septuagint is fiendishly complicated. But in some respects, the result was a translation from which we may surmise the antiquity and stability of the Masoretic Hebrew text that is used as the basis of today’s English Bibles, which is also confirmed by the Dead Sea Scroll discoveries.

Of course, the only way to approach these complex historical and textual issues directly is through the Greek language. The Septuagint is one of the largest corpora of post-classical (“Koine”) Greek. This was the historical phase of the language that developed after the ancient Mediterranean world was Hellenized and that endured through the Byzantine age. It had styles of both high and low, literary and everyday, sophisticated and rudimentary. All this variety appears in the language of the Septuagint, bringing with it many curiosities, questions, and delights. One of these is the fact that it is the same kind of Greek as what we find in the New Testament.[1]

And that means that, if you can read the New Testament in Greek, you can read the Septuagint.

If you have made it this far you were probably somewhat interested in the Septuagint to begin with and may already have considered reading it. Now it’s time to get your hands dirty and dig deeper. Reading the Septuagint can be a challenge. But it’s one that is soon to become much more manageable.

Over the last several years I have been working together with Gregory R. Lanier, assistant professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando), to produce a brand-new resource called Septuaginta: A Reader’s Edition. It’s set to be released this November by the fine folks at Hendrickson Publishers, who have done a wonderful job meticulously typesetting and binding the results of this massive undertaking. It stretches well over three thousand pages and will come in two volumes.

Now, many have become acquainted in recent years with other “reader’s editions.” The idea is simple: Present the text of the Greek New Testament or the Hebrew Bible along with strategic lexical information in an apparatus at the bottom of the page to facilitate reading without having to consult any other resource. Learning the languages well and maintaining them is a seminal aspect of ministry in the Church. A reader’s edition is an excellent way to encourage and enable pastors, students, and scholars alike to continue (or begin again!) to read the biblical languages with greater consistency and comprehension. The payoff is significant for general biblical literacy, exegesis, sermon preparation, and even personal devotion. In this connection, many have recognized the value and enjoyment of regular, focused, and prolonged reading in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Even in this digital age, the movement for doing so has been decisively towards the physical text of a book, as throughout Christian history, rather than the ever-present screen. While great options have already appeared for reading the Old and New Testaments in Hebrew and Greek, this is the first reader’s edition for the Septuagint. Click To Tweet

While great options have already appeared for reading the Old and New Testaments in Hebrew and Greek, this is the first reader’s edition for the Septuagint. It shares its main features with other reader’s editions. Within the main Greek text—which is the excellent Rahlfs-Hanharts edition—we provide footnotes marking less frequent vocabulary, defined as words occurring one hundred times or fewer, for which key information is given in an apparatus at the bottom of each page. That information includes the lexical form of the word, parsing (for verbs), and one or two contextual glosses in English.

Perhaps most important for those who are on the fence about whether they really can read the Septuagint for themselves, we deliberately designed Septuaginta for those who have taken courses in New Testament Greek. To do so, we integrated the Septuagint vocabulary we provide in our apparatus with the New Testament vocabulary typically required in seminaries around the globe. So if you remember your New Testament vocabulary down to thirty occurrences (or are willing to refresh it), then you can pick up Septuaginta: A Reader’s Edition and start reading. In general, we erred on the side of being overly generous with the words that we provided for readers. But any words that are not footnoted in the main text are provided in a glossary at the back of each volume. At every point, our goal was to facilitate a seamless and pleasant reading experience to help our readers focus on comprehending the text.

There is much more that could be said. To do so easily, we set up a blog for Septuaginta that you can find here. You can read much more about the project on that site, and we’ll be posting more in due course.

[1] For a full-length treatment, pick up a copy of Invitation to the Septuagint by Karen Jobes and Moisés Silva.

William A. Ross

Starting in 2019, William A. Ross will be Assistant Professor of Old Testament of Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cambridge and blogs regularly at Septuaginta &c. Prior to his doctoral degree, he earned an M.Div. at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Along with Gregory R. Lanier, he is the editor of Septuaginta: A Reader’s Edition.

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