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What is the LXX and why is it so noteworthy that there is a Greek translation of the OT? Wouldn't it be better to directly reference manuscripts in the original languages?

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Related Can we trust the Septuagint? – Richard Oct 4 '11 at 20:56

Before 1947, a good case could be made that the Septuagint represented a more ancient tradition than the Masoretic versions of the Tanakh. Since the Septuagint was produced before 132 BCE (and probably in the 3rd century BCE) and the earliest known Masoretic manuscripts date to the 10th century CE, the Greek translation might have fossilized an early rendering of the Scriptures while the Hebrew continued to be copied and potentially altered. To further support the primacy of the Septuagint, the early Christian and Hellenistic Jewish texts, tended to use that translation rather go back to Hebrew sources.

An interesting counter-argument arises from the observation that during the 600 years from Jerome's translation into Latin (the Vulgate) to the earliest Masoretic manuscripts, the Hebrew seems to have been faithfully copied. That suggests that Jewish scribes were exceptionally careful to duplicate their scriptures.

After 1947, the evidence changed. According to Wikipedia:

About 35% of the [Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS)] biblical manuscripts belong to the Masoretic tradition (MT), 5% to the Septuagint family, and 5% to the Samaritan, with the remainder unaligned. The non-aligned fall into two categories, those inconsistent in agreeing with other known types, and those that diverge significantly from all other known readings. The DSS thus form a significant witness to the mutability of biblical texts at this period. The sectarian texts among the Dead Sea Scrolls, most of which were previously unknown, offer new light on one form of Judaism practiced during the Second Temple period.

A few caveats are in order:

  • Surveying the Qumran about religious texts seems something akin to surveying a hippie commune about political issues—you're likely to experience some bias. If we could obtain a similar collection from Jerusalem, we'd likely find more agreement and likely the side of MT. Given the diversity in non-Scriptural texts, 35% seems quite solid support.

  • Another division of the scrolls suggests that 60% are categorized as "Proto-Masoretic", which suggests the majority are closest to the MT.

  • While its unlikely, there exists a chronological possibility the scrolls associated with the Septuagint-aligned Hebrew were influenced by the Greek. (Any references one way or the other would be appreciated.)

What remains therefore is a window into the community of Alexandrian Jews that produced the translation. For those who are interested in the development of Jewish belief, that can be extremely useful. N. T. Wright's book, The Resurrection of the Son of God, shows that the LXX translators chose to interpret key texts from Daniel and Ezekiel about the resurrection as literal rather than metaphorical. He argues from this that belief in bodily resurrection was more common in Jesus' day than other scholars assert.

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Excellent question!

The Septuagint (LXX) was the version of the Bible used by the authors of the New Testament. Therefore, the authors sometimes quote the Septuagint rather than the Masoretic (Hebrew) text.

One example:

Matthew 1:23 NRSV "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."

The Masoretic Text of this quoted verse in Isaiah:

Isaiah 7:14 NRSV
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

The difference is pretty striking.

Because of this, the translators of some versions of the Bible tend to use the Septuagint in the Old Testament.

The Septuagint text from that same verse:

Isaiah 7:14 ESV
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.


Ultimately, the Septuagint is useful to help gain an understanding of why the authors of the New Testament used quotes that they used. It helps clarify understanding of how the Greek was used.

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The quotation of Psalm 40:6 in Hebrews 10:5 is another striking example. – Soldarnal Oct 4 '11 at 21:11
This is the best answer that I've read yet. – swasheck May 2 '12 at 15:16
@swasheck: Yes. We miss Richard! – Jon Ericson May 2 '12 at 18:00

One of the most important aspects of the Septuagint is that it helps us understand how Greek was used by Jews in the 3rd century BC to talk about God and the Scriptures. This turns it into a valuable tool to look at the Greek of the NT and understand how to translate and examine it.

Here is an excerpt from a Christianity.SE answer that I provided to illustrate one use of the Septuagint in this manner:

This document should shed some light on the usage of the word porneia and the Greek word family it belongs to.

Here is an excerpt from the conclusion: "In this study we have looked at the word family -porn- in extra-biblical Greek literature, in the OT, and in the NT. In all sources, porneia and the related terms refer to sexual acts only. Both OT and NT correspond largely when it comes to the word family. Though the OT favors the figurative sense and the NT the literal meaning, the different aspects of porneia are found in both testaments. They include prostitution, premarital sexual relations, adultery, incest, and homosexuality, in short, sexual relations outside of the marriage. Thus, OT and NT enlarge the understanding of fornication as found in the Greek world."

The bottom line is that the Septuagint and the NT have close agreement on the term. If you recall that the Septuagint dates back to the 3rd century BC, giving us an idea of how Greek was used and translated in relation to Hebrew. The agreement between the usage of this word in the NT and the Septuagint provides strong evidence to the colloquial use in those times.

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The reason I most often use the LXX is to find the concept the NT authors were using. Yes, they wrote in Greek, but they were thinking Jewish thoughts. Many times, you can take the Greek words in the NT, find them in the LXX, and see what Hebrew words they translated.

For example, the word ecclesia is used in the NT in Matthew 16:18 and 18:17. Some argue that this means Matthew is written late because Jews in the time of Jesus would not use the concept of ecclesia. Patently false. If you check the LXX, you find the word ecclesia commonly translates qhl, which means "sacred assembly." And that means 2 things. 1) As the LXX was translated centuries before Christ, Jews were familiar with the concept of ecclesia and used it. 2) Matthew's use of ecclesia does not mean it is late.

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IMO it is a mistake to consider the LXX too noteworthy. The NT authors quote from it under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, however that should not be taken to imply that the LXX translation as a whole is inspired.

Wouldn't it be better to reference the Hebrew original?

Yes, except when dealing with the NT quotations in question. And translators are making a mistake if they use the LXX as an authoritative basis for translating the old testament even for those passages quoted in the NT

Of course none of this is to say the LXX is not useful as it may shed light on translation issues, as mentioned in other answers.

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I don't know why this answer was downvoted. It's a legitimate stance. – Jon Ericson Oct 14 '11 at 20:57
@H3br3wHamm3r81 This is how I interpret 2 Peter 1:20-21: "knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit." Do you read that differently to me? It'd be great to say hello in The Library if you'd be willing to share your thoughts with me in there? – Jack Douglas Jan 24 '13 at 19:02

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