Did the Septuagint Exist Before the New Testament?

by Luke Wayne
03/29/2010

King James Onlyists distrust translations like the NASB or ESV because, when compared to the KJV, they contain some textual differences. They are based on manuscripts which read slightly differently than those used by the King James Translators. King James Onlyists also distrust translations like the NKJV or MEV because, even though these translations utilize the exact same Greek and Hebrew texts as the KJV, they don't always translate those texts precisely the same way. They obviously word things differently (if they didn't, they would just be copies of the KJV and not new translations) and they are, in various places, more or less literal than the KJV. Thus, all of these translations and others like them are rejected. The core assumption is that, if there are any differences from the KJV, whether they be textual differences or differences in the approach to translation, then the version in question cannot be the word of God.

Thus, one of the great biblical difficulties for King James Onlyism is the New Testament authors' own use of translations. For example, the men who wrote the New Testament (and the Holy Spirit who inspired them) had no problem quoting from the Septuagint (the ancient translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek) and treating it as the word of God without qualification. Yet, when compared to the Old Testament of the King James Version (or even to the Hebrew manuscripts on which the KJV is based), the Septuagint contains some notable differences, both textually and in the approach to translation. This issue has led many of the more extreme King James Onlyists to try and evade the problem by denying that New Testament authors actually did quote from the Septuagint. Since the New Testament obviously contains Old Testament citations that match the Septuagint word for word, these KJVO proponents claim that the Septuagint was a later invention that copied from the New Testament rather than the other way around. Thus, they believe, they can reject the Septuagint as a perversion while still embracing the New Testament.

This argument fails for two reasons. First of all, the Septuagint clearly did exist before the New Testament. Secondly, even if it didn't, the Old Testament quotations found in the New Testament would still present the King James Onlyist with the same problem, if not a worse problem.

The Early Origins of the Septuagint

That the Septuagint already existed and was widely known and used prior to the time of the New Testament is a verifiable fact of history. Indeed, though few and fragmentary, we have Septuagint manuscripts from well before the birth of Jesus. Our oldest copy, Papyrus Rylands 458, is from some 200 years before the New Testament was written. Papyrus Fouad 266 is likewise from a century or two before. We also have manuscripts that were copied by Jewish scribes around the same time the New Testament was being written, such as Oxyrhynchus 3522 and 5101.1

Numerous ancient sources document the origin of the Septuagint, tracing it to the Jewish community in Alexandria, Egypt and placing it during the Ptolemaic era before Rome conquered the region. Modern scholars generally confirm this dating, concluding from the evidence that the Torah of the Septuagint was translated in the 3rd century BC with the other books shortly to follow.2 Indeed, by the time the Pseudepigraphal "Letter of Aristeas" was penned in the 2nd century B.C., the translation was not only known but already so revered that it was said to be miraculous in origin! The story began to circulate that the Septuagint was (or at least the first five books of it were) translated by seventy (or seventy-two) elders who were each isolated in different chambers and yet all miraculously produced identical translations, word for word! The story is highly dubious, but it would be even more incredible to believe that the Septuagint became so revered as to be shrouded in legend centuries before it even existed!

This legend of the Septuagint's divine origin was very wide-spread. It is also described by Philo of Alexandria,3 a Jewish Philosopher in Egypt who lived around the same time as Jesus, and again by the first-century Jewish historian Josephus4 a native of Judea who later lived in Rome. (Through these works we also find quotes from the Septuagint, making it clear that the Septuagint tradition they were describing is the same one we have today). Eventually, even the Babylonian Talmud would briefly record the legend, stating:

"King Ptolemy once gathered 72 Elders. He placed them in 72 chambers, each of them in a separate one, without revealing to them why they were summoned. He entered each one’s room and said: ‘Write for me the Torah of Moshe, your teacher.’ God put it in the heart of each one to translate identically as all the others did."5

Obviously, none of these sources got their ideas (or their Greek Bibles) from the New Testament writers or the early Church. But early Christians were also convinced that this is where their Greek Bible came from, and the story is reported in many second-century Christian writings from all over the ancient world.6 Interestingly, Tertullian (writing from Carthage in North Africa) summarizes the historical details and even claims that the original copies of the Septuagint could (in his day) still be seen in the library at Alexandria,7 but makes no mention of the miraculous portion of the story in spite of his typical tendency to emphasize the miraculous. At any rate, all of this points back to the fact that the early Christians were using a well-known Greek translation of the Old Testament that clearly existed long before them.

Additional Lines of Evidence

Yet, while the earliest manuscripts and historical references are quite enough to demonstrate the point, there are still more reasons we can be sure the Septuagint preceded the New Testament.

In addition to the early manuscripts from before the New Testament, there is another feature in the manuscript tradition worth noting. Even after the time of the New Testament, there are copies of the Septuagint that are found in plainly Jewish sites and/or betray distinctively Jewish scribal habits.8 This would be highly implausible if the Septuagint were a late invention of the Christian community.

There are also numerous places where the differences between the Septuagint and the Hebrew Masoretic text (the Hebrew text behind the KJV and most other English Bible translations) plainly stem from the fact that the Septuagint was translated from ancient Hebrew manuscripts that themselves contained these differences. That stream of transmission was no longer copied and used in the post-New Testament era, which means the Septuagint had to have been translated before then. The dead sea scrolls, however, do contain copies that come from that stream, further demonstrating the Septuagint's ancient origins.  Some clear examples of this are the readings in Psalm 22:16 (pierced vs. like a lion) and Deuteronomy 32:43 (let all the angels of God worship Him). The latter verse is quoted in Hebrews 1:6 and matches the Septuagint text precisely, word for word.

Clearly, the Septuagint is an ancient, pre-New Testament translation and was used and cited by the New Testament authors.

But What if it Wasn't?

Hypothetically, what if King James Onlyists were right and the Septuagint wasn't an ancient pre-Christian translation. It's pure fantasy, but if it were true, would that help the King James Only case? No, actually, it would not. Even if the New Testament authors were not quoting from an existing ancient translation like the Septuagint, they would still be translating and quoting the Old Testament in a way that differs from the Old Testament of the KJV both textually and in translation methodology. Thus, the problem still remains. The New Testament authors did not hold to anything like King James Onlyism. Their citations of the Old Testament often do not match the KJV's Old Testament. Indeed, if the New Testament authors were not quoting the Septuagint and were, instead, producing their own translations of the verses they quoted, this is even worse for King James Onlyism. If that were the case, the New Testament authors would not merely be inspired in their willingness to cite even a variant translation as the word of God. Instead, they would be offering divinely inspired translations of those verses, translations that, again, would not match the KJV's Old Testament. If that were the case, it would not only undermine King James Onlyism; it would undermine even the softer claim that the KJV is the best translation, because one obviously could not translate better than the Spirit of God Himself.

Therefore, not only are these common KJVO claims about the Septuagint untrue, they also would not help the King James Onlyist even if they were. If anything, they would actually make the situation worse for KJV users, not better.

 

 

 

  • 1. Also noteworthy are the Septuagint fragments from Nahal Hever and Qumran
  • 2. Emmanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (Fortress Press, 1992) 136
  • 3. Philo, The Life of Moses, Book 2, Chapter 6-7 (31-44)
  • 4. Josephus, Antiquities, Book 12, Chapter 2
  • 5. Tractate Megillah 9
  • 6. See Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 21; Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 21; Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, Book1, Chapter 2
  • 7. Tertullian, Apology, Chapter 18
  • 8. Larry Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (William B. Eerdmans, 2006) 17-18