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What is often called the “Greek Old Testament”?

The Greek Old Testament refers to a translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek around the time of Hellenism. Alexander the Great was changing the world by not only conquering nations and empires, but imposing Greek culture and language upon them. This is called Hellenization.

Because everyone knew Greek to communicate with each other, Hebrew became the second language of the next generation of Jews. The rabbis needed a way for them to still read the Old Testament Scriptures.

Seventy elders and translators got together to translate the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek so that they could be read by all Jews everywhere. We must also remember that some Jews stayed in the different lands they were transferred to during the exile. They also would know Greek better than Hebrew.

These translations into Greek by the elders and translators came to be known as “The Seventy,” or the LXX, but most commonly the Septuagint. The Septuagint was then dispersed throughout the Greek and Roman empires for the Greek speaking Jew to be able to read.

Jesus and most of the apostles would have either read from the Septuagint or the Targums, an Aramaic translation of some of the Old Testament. From what we read in the New Testament, most of it is from the Septuagint.

This is why you will sometimes read the Old Testament (based on the Hebrew translation in most Bibles) and noticed differences in the wording when the New Testament quotes from the Old Testament.

Our Old Testaments are usually translated from what is called the Masoretic Text, a Hebrew translation from the eighth century. But the New Testament uses the Septuagint in its quotes of the Old Testament.

The Septuagint has different dates. For instance, it was probably finally finished around 200 AD. But the Jews in Jesus’ day were using the Septuagint and reading from it. After Alexander the Great Hellenized the world with the Greek culture and language, it was an absolute necessity for those who are not near Jerusalem or in the land of Israel.

Synagogues were set up during the time of the exile and continued to be used even after the Temple was rebuilt. In those synagogues many of the Scriptures are in Greek rather than Hebrew. As we see for example in Luke 4, Jesus himself reads from the scroll of Isaiah, possibly in Greek.

But the language Jesus spoke was Aramaic because he lived in the land of Palestine. During the first century, the Jews spoke Aramaic instead of Hebrew. Hebrew was mostly used in the Temple itself for reading the scrolls in a sacred manner.

Jews would still learn the Torah in Hebrew as long as they lived in Jerusalem or around it. But the only Scriptures available to those outside of the land of Palestine, the Diaspora Jews scattered during the exile, would be the Greek Septuagint.

I would say it became a widespread practice to read the Septuagint instead of the Masoretic Text around the 200s BC. This is why they were fairly common even in the land of Palestine by Jesus’ day in the first century.

The Septuagint does not only contain the Old Testament Scriptures that we are used to seeing in our Bibles today but also had what we call the Apocrypha, around 14 books of Jewish history and apocalypse. These books were included in the Septuagint and became very popular among the Jews.

We see their effects in the New Testament. One of the most common examples I think of first is the book of Jude where he talks about the book of Enoch and fallen angels. These are very common themes in that book. Whether the book of Enoch is accurate in its apocalyptic approach, he uses it as an illustration in his inspired epistle.

The Septuagint slightly differs from the Hebrew text of the Bible. Anyone who does a comparative analysis of both will find that the New Testament often quotes the Septuagint over the Masoretic Text. The reason for this is that the Septuagint was most likely the Bible of Jesus and the apostles.

The translators of the Septuagint made some interesting changes that may give us enlightenment as to the belief system at the time that they translated the Septuagint from the Masoretic Text. Some of the word changes they use in Greek are different from what you would think they would choose for the Hebrew words provide insight into their understanding of the Hebrew text and what it was meant to say.

As with all translations, they do make some interpretive moves from the Hebrew to the Greek that can either help or hurt our understanding of the Hebrew text. One thing I would say is that since it was used so often in the New Testament, where the New Testament quotes it, those interpretive moves may have been ordained by God for a clear understanding in some ways.

Anyway, the Septuagint is a fascinating study in and of itself. Comparing it with the Hebrew text sometimes enlightens us and sometimes confuses us. Different languages sometimes have the ability to bring clarity and other times just show the different beliefs or understanding of the text at the time that the translation was made.

Along with a good study and comparison of the Septuagint and the Hebrew text for New Testament study, the Dead Sea Scrolls have also brought a lot of understanding because they are so much older than the Septuagint translation. Languages of the Bible are a fascinating study!

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