If you recognize what that title is all about, well then: Congratulations! You now qualify as a Certified Bible Geek! (You can still award yourself consolation credits if you recognize ‘LXX’ as the Roman numerals for the number ‘seventy’ – but no points if you think this will be about some future Super Bowl!)
OK, now that we’ve presumably made it clear that this Fish Hooks is going to be about a rather obscure topic, we hope that you’ll hang in with us as we try to demonstrate that this bit of historical trivia is: (a) an interesting story in itself, and (b) relevant to our modern understanding of the Bible.
Long before the time of Christ, the Hebrew in which the Jewish Scriptures were written had become a ‘dead’ language in the sense that no one spoke it for daily use. So when Ptolemy II (the Greek King of Egypt in the third century BC) wanted to have a copy of the esteemed Jewish Torah (the first five books of the Bible) for the famous library at Alexandria, he commissioned a translation into Greek, which was the common shared language of the Mediterranean. According to legend, this work was performed by 72 respected rabbis (six from each of the traditional twelve tribes) who were confined to separate rooms and each ordered to set down the complete words of Moses in Greek; when the 72 independent products were subsequently compared, they were all found to agree exactly, thereby proving that this was the TRUE translation! For this reason, this work was popularly referred to as “The Translation of the Seventy.”
The rest of the Hebrew scriptures were also translated into Greek over the next 100 years and were added to this same collection, which came to be known as the Septuagint (from the Latin word for ‘seventy’), and that’s often further abbreviated as LXX. So now you know!
The Septuagint (pronounced “SEP-too-ah-gint”) was very important to the New Testament church because it was the way that early Christians mostly encountered the Old Testament. The New Testament writers all wrote in Greek, and when they quoted from the Old Testament, they almost always lifted the Greek translation from the Septuagint. That helps to explain why New Testament quotes from the Old Testament are often worded differently in our Bible – for example, when we read Mark 7:6-7 we are reading a translation of the Septuagint’s Greek rendition, whereas when we read Isaiah 29:13, we are reading a translation from the original Hebrew.
Another important carryover from the Septuagint is the presence of a group of books in Catholic Bibles with names like Judith, Tobit, Wisdom, and Maccabees that aren’t found in Jewish or (most) Protestant Bibles. Commonly called The Apocrypha, these are later Jewish writings that were written (mostly in Greek) in the period between the Old and New Testaments and included in the Septuagint collection. But neither Jews nor Christians could fully decide whether they really qualified as Scripture.
Despite the reservations of many Christian leaders, these books were included in the 4th century Latin translation of the Christian Bible called the Vulgate. However, when a group of Jewish scholars labored to define the authoritative Hebrew text of their scriptures around the 11th century, they did not include the Apocrypha. When Luther translated the Bible into German in the 16th century, he worked from that Hebrew text, but he still included the Apocrypha in a special section between the Testaments with the note that: “These Books Are Not Held Equal to the Scriptures, but Are Useful and Good to Read.” When the Catholic Council of Trent met in response to the challenges raised by the Reformation, one of their official acts was to officially declare the Apocryphal books as Holy Scripture, and this has been an area of disagreement with Protestants ever since.
But, though our Protestant Bible is not derived from the Septuagint to any significant degree, the LXX remains a key resource for all New Testament scholars because it provides a vital link for connecting the Old and New Testaments. Biblical Hebrew can be ambiguous at times, but having this ancient translation into Greek helps us to understand how the Old Testament was being read at the time of Christ, and thus improves our understanding of both Testaments.