As a Greek prof, I have fun “cold busting” my students reading contraband Bibles: namely, English translations. Some give me the old lame excuse: “But I was reading the Old Testament.” On cue, I launch into my lecture about how reading the Greek Old Testament is just as valuable because (1) it predates our current Hebrew text and (2) was the version that the NT authors chiefly quoted. I teach them Greek so that they can read both the Old and New Testaments. To drive this point home, I often begin class by having my students compare a Greek translation of the Old Testament (LXX) to our Hebrew text (MT). Here’s an example from my class this past week. Before you read my comments below, what differences do you see between the two versions?

 

Ps 85:6-8 (NIV based on the Hebrew text—MT) Ps 84:7-8 (My translation of the Greek OT—LXX)
Will you not revive us again,
that your people may rejoice in you?
Show us your unfailing love, Lord,
and grant us your salvation.I will listen to what God the Lord says;
he promises peace to his people,
his faithful servants but let them not turn to folly.

 

God, after you turn to us, you will revive us,
and your people will rejoice in you.
Show us your mercy, Lord,
and grant us your salvation.I will listen to what the Lord God will say to me;
for he will speak peace to his people,
his faithful servants who are turning their heart to him.

After we translated the two versions, my students said they enjoyed how the LXX turned the rhetorical question from the MT into a confident pronouncement. That is, the MT asks God whether he will revive his people so that in return they would be able to rejoice in him. But in the LXX, it is not a matter of “if”: it’s a matter of time—“after God turns” he will give new life to his people and they will delight in him.

The students also liked how the Psalmist in the LXX makes the song more personal. In the LXX, God won’t just speak: he will speak “to me.” And finally, my students said they actually preferred the happier ending of verse 8 in the LXX to that of the MT. Rather than a prohibition to avoid turning to folly (MT), the LXX gives the positive promise to those who turn to the Lord.

A couple of my students expressed a bit of fear that I was trying to undermine their Old Testament translations. To allay their concerns, I contrasted the LXX with Siri on my iPhone. Just a few days before that class, I had decided to take a powernap. I grabbed my iPhone, pushed the button for Siri and said: “Wake me up in 25 minutes.” I am not sure what happened, but something went terribly wrong. Siri responded in her feminine robotic voice: “Okay, playing Keith Sweat songs for 25 minutes.” Wait…what? That wasn’t even close to what I said!

I told the students that unlike Siri in this instance, the LXX doesn’t totally miss what the MT was saying. Rather, it often nuances the MT and sometimes even enhances it. Some of our English translations and paraphrases do the same thing as they look for the best way to express a Hebrew word, phrase, or concept in English. To be clear, I am not arguing that we should read one over the other—just that there’s value in reading them both side by side.

(And for the record, I do not have 25 minutes worth of Keith Sweat music on my phone. Five maybe, but not 25.)

If you’d like to try it, you can read the English translation of the Greek OT here: http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/nets/edition/ or here http://ecmarsh.com/lxx/.

I recommend starting with the popular Psalm 23 (which is Psalm 22 in the LXX).

7 COMMENTS

  1. Shouldn’t you and your students be asking the question, Does a given LXX
    reading represent what the Divine Author intended in the OT passage?
    There are plenty of places where the LXX drops the ball on the correct
    meaning of an OT passage.

    • Dear Michael,

      Thank you. We do indeed consider that question as well.

      I also enjoy highlighting the human agency of Scripture, since I teach in a context where people are almost “docetists” with respect to the Bible. I also find it interesting when the translators of the LXX and early Christians reinterpreted “the correct meaning of an OT passage” as a sensus plenoir. It also seems to be the case, that in some respects, the NT authors are also influenced by intertestamental interpretations of the OT as well as “the correct meaning of an OT passage” (e.g. the serpent in Genesis 3, the sons of God in Genesis 6, the fish/seamonster in Jonah). I do not think any of this marginalizes the purpose of the Divine Author however.

      grace and peace,
      j

    • Thanks so much Dr. Grisanti for weighing in! That is indeed a big difficulty of the LXX. While it is another witness to the original text, since it is through translation, I’ve also found that it seems the LXX translators often are just wrestling with a difficult Hebrew text. And so many times the LXX will be simpler than the MT, but that doesn’t mean it’s more original.

      Joey, in at least two of your examples (Genesis 3, and Genesis 6, I’m not exactly sure what you’re getting at with Jonah), I’d say that what you are arguing is an intertestamental interpretation, are in reality the author’s original intent and can be clearly seen in the MT. So unless I’m missing something, the LXX isn’t adding to the MT in those cases or even reinterpreting them, but just seeing what is there from the beginning. There are of course more difficult cases of LXX and NT use of the OT, but those need to be looked at on a case by case basis, and I’ve found that often the NT writers are seeing clues that the OT writers intended for people to pick up on.

  2. Good post, brother. In light of some of the comments, I think we need to at least allow for the LXX representing the original inspired Hebrew text over against the MT (which dates back to AD 1000). In many places, yes, the LXX is an intertestamental interpretation of the original Hebrew. However, there are many other places when the LXX agrees with the Dead Sea Scrolls against the MT.

    In layperson’s terms, this means that the LXX better represents what the inspired OT authors actually said. In some places, at least.

    And again, as you said, it’s fascinating that the NT most often quotes from the LXX (or a version of the Greek Old Testament) and NOT a Hebrew text represented in the AD 1000 mss we call the MT.

  3. I was absolutely loving this blog post until Keith Sweat was mentioned…

    ;-p

    I’m thankful to my former prof Dr. Varner at TMC for making much of the LXX. Thank you also for this important lesson. 🙂