The LXX Bridge

An earlier Fish Hooks (The LXX) dealt with the Greek translation of the Old Testament that was the ‘scripture’ of many Jewish people at the time of Christ when few still understood Hebrew.   The history of this translation, known as the Septuagint (and abbreviated ‘LXX’), is certainly interesting, but why devote another Fish Hooks to it?

The answer is that this Greek translation helps to clarify some questions that are important for those who believe, as we do, that the entire Bible is God’s inspired Word for our salvation.  The issue is that the New Testament was originally written in Greek and the Old in Biblical Hebrew, so how do we reliably connect the two, despite the language differences?  The LXX, as a direct translation into Greek from the original Hebrew, provides an important ‘bridge,’ as the following examples will illustrate.

Example 1: Isaiah 7:14 – The King James Version (KJV) of 1611 was the Bible read by English-speaking Protestants until the Revised Standard Version (RSV) was published in 1952 .  But though most applauded the RSV’s “modern language” rendition of the New Testament, there was fierce opposition to the translation of Isaiah 7:14, which in the KJV reads: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”  In the RSV this passage now reads: “… a young woman shall conceive…”.  The RSV scholars correctly pointed out that the Hebrew word almah that was translated as ‘virgin’ in the KJV really meant something more like ‘maiden’ which though the expectation is of virginity, the word technically doesn’t require that.  Matthew 1:23 quotes this passage using the Greek word parthenos, which does mean ‘virgin,’ suggesting to some that Matthew had subtly misquoted this important prophecy; others accused the RSV translators of yielding to ‘Jewish influences.’  Since the virgin birth of Jesus is such a key tenet of Christian belief, this is obviously an important issue!  But what are the facts?  Did Isaiah speak of the virgin birth?  Or did Matthew impose his later Christian perspective on this ancient prophecy?

It is thus immensely helpful to recognize that Matthew quoted his version directly from the LXX, which was considered by Jews to be an authoritative translation for two centuries before the birth of Christ.  Though this doesn’t end all scholarly debate about this verse, it does tell us that Matthew was conforming to mainstream Jewish understanding of the time when he cites this important Old Testament prophecy.   (It will presumably not surprise anyone that modern Jewish translations now say “young woman.”)

Example 2: Matthew 16:18 – When Jesus responds to Peter’s confession of faith by saying: “on this rock I will build my church” what did He mean?  Though the word ‘church’ plays a major role in the NT, this is the first time it is used, and since Jesus said it long before Pentecost, when the Christian church was born, wouldn’t it be odd for Him to assume His listeners were on the same wavelength?  But the Greek word ‘ekklesia’ that Matthew’s gospel uses is the same one the translators of the LXX frequently used, as for example in Deuteronomy 18:16, to mean the assembly of the people of the covenant.  Thus, this new concept of ‘my church’ of which Jesus speaks had deep roots in Jewish understanding of a people in a covenant relationship with God.

Example 3: Matthew 1:1 – Matthew’s gospel begins with the Greek phrase: “Biblos geneseos Jesou Christou” (“The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ”).  What’s remarkable is that those are the exact same Greek words that the LXX uses when it speaks of the biblos geneseos of heaven and earth in Genesis 2:4 and of the first man, Adam, in Genesis 5:1.  Thus Jewish readers would have made the immediate connection that Jesus Christ is the ‘new beginning’ in God’s continuing narrative of history.

These three examples illustrate how valuable the LXX remains for bridging the language and understandings of the Old and New Testaments.  (It’s almost like God planned things this way, isn’t it!)

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