Often, in reading Orthodox
literature, people come across Scripture quotes with the Roman numerals "LXX" (meaning
"seventy") after them. The symbol "LXX" means that the quotation is citied from
the "Septuagint" version of the Old Testament. The Septuagint is the official
version of the Old Testament used by the Orthodox Church. It has its roots in
the Greek collections of the Old Testament books that were popular with the
Jews in the first century B.C. Some of these books were additions to already
existing works, such as the additions to the Book of Daniel. Some were Greek translations
of Hebrew works that were later lost to general circulation and survived only
in Greek, such as the Wisdom of Ben Sirach or the Books of the
Already two centuries before
the advent of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Jews living both in Palestine
and those scattered throughout the Roman Empire
found it necessary to have translations of the Hebrew Old Testament. This was
because the Hebrew language, while still used in worship and perhaps in some
rural villages, was no longer a widely spoken language.
In the synagogues, the
Scriptures were still read in the Hebrew original but a translator would then
render the reading into the Aramaic language, spoken in Palestine,
or into the Greek language, spoken in places like Alexandria
This is illustrated by the
words of our Lord on the Cross. He quotes the first verse of Psalm 22, not in
Hebrew, "Eli, Eli lema asavtani," but in the Aramaic language
He spoke daily, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani."
In time, these translations,
produced originally on the spur of the moment, were written down. Among Aramaic
speaking Jews such a translation was called a "Targum" and there were
Among Greek speaking Jews
there were several translations as well, but the most popular was known as the
"Septuagint." This translation was the one frequently quoted by New
Testament authors such as St. Paul (To cite one example, Romans 12:20 is a
direct quote of the Septuagint version of Proverbs 25:21-22.) and retained its
popularity with the Greek speaking Fathers of the Church. To this day it is the
"official" text of the Orthodox Church.
is this version of the Old Testament, and not the Hebrew, that the Early
Christians used as well as the Church Fathers. The Hebrew version of the Old
Testament was unknown to most Christians in the Ancient Church, save for those
few scholars like Origen, St. Epiphanios of Salamis and St. Jerome who took an
interest in it.
The Septuagint derives its
name from a document called the Letter of Aristeas that purports to
relate how the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek. According to Aristeas,
King Ptolemy II of Egypt
wished to enlarge the famous library of Alexandria
with a copy of the Hebrew Scripture, but translated into Greek so that it could
be understood. Accordingly, seventy (or in some accounts seventy-two) learned
translators were dispatched from Jerusalem to Alexandria circa 280 B.C. Working
separately on the island of Pharos, the seventy were later astounded to find
that their translations agreed word for word and believed that the Holy Spirit
must have inspired them.
From then on the translation
was known as the Septuagint from the Greek word for the "seventy"
(i.e. the seventy-two translators).
Hence, the Roman numeral LXX for seventy is often used as a modern
shorthand way of referring to the Septuagint.
The Letter of Aristeas
could perhaps best be described as a Jewish "apology" for the
existence of the Septuagint against those Hebrew and Aramaic speaking
Palestinian Jews who were critical of it. Most modern scholars hold that the
Septuagint was the product of translations that were made in the city of Alexandria over several
generations for use among Greek speaking Jews who no longer understood the
One of the criticisms that
was brought against the Septuagint by the Jewish Rabbis during the early centuries
of the Christian church was that it was not an accurate translation of the
Hebrew text, which later came to be called the "Masoretic Text." Many
Christian leaders discovered this as well, much to their chagrin, in debates
with the Jews. Since very few Christians had any knowledge of Hebrew, and
textual criticism was virtually unknown as a science, the Church was often
reduced to trudging out the Letter of Aristeas and proclaiming the
Septuagint was divinely inspired as a translation and/or claiming the Jews had
falsified the Hebrew text of the Old Testament in their hatred for Christ.
Often, the underlying reason
that the Septuagint and the Hebrew text in use by the Jews
of the early Christian centuries differed is due to the fact that the Hebrew
text of the Alexandrian synagogues, underlying the Septuagint translation, was
not the same text as was used by the Jews in Palestine
This has been recently born out by the discovery of many Hebrew texts that are
the source of the translation of the Septuagint Greek Old Testament among the
documents of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
We must remember that much
of the Biblical tradition was, at first, oral tradition, and only in
later times was it written down through laborious copying and re-copying.
Often, there were slight differences between texts because scribes did not use
the same "master copy." While much of the Septuagint and the
so-called "Masoretic" Hebrew text of the Synagogue stand in agreement,
there are some differences that must be noted.
the most controversial of these is the wording of the Septuagint found in
Isaiah 7:14: "A virgin shall be with
child." The Hebrew text that was used by the Jewish polemicists against
the early Church reads in this passage (as the Hebrew text still does today): "A young woman shall be with
child." St. Matthew quoted the Septuagint text in his Gospel and not
(An interesting tradition
exists in the Church that St. Simeon, who embraced the forty-day old Christ
Child in the Temple
(see Luke 2:25-35), was
one of the original translators of the Septuagint. Accordingly, he wished to
translate the Isaiah 7:14
passage as "young woman" rather than "virgin," disagreeing with all the other
translators on the grounds that it was illogical for a virgin to be with child.
As a result, the Lord told him that he would live to see the event come about,
which inspires his famous prayer, "Now, O Master, let you servant depart in
peace..." when he holds the infant Messiah. Seeing the prophecy of Isaiah
fulfilled, he "departs in peace" at the age of 276.)
Other differences are less
profound. For instance, Psalm 23 begins in the Hebrew text with the familiar
words, "The Lord is my
shepherd...." But the Septuagint text reads, "The Lord tends me as a shepherd." There are many other
small differences between the two, such as the numbering of the Psalms. This is
why the familiar Psalm 50 in Orthodox Prayer books, "Have mercy on me, O God....,"is
Psalm 51 in our Bibles.
vast majority of the English translations of the Old Testament have been
prepared from the Hebrew "Babylonian" or "Masoretic" text, which is simply the
common text of the Hebrew synagogue since the Middle Ages.
however, when reading the services of the Church, the New Testament or the
Church Fathers, it would be most helpful to be able to refer to the
Septuagint. There is an English
translation of the Septuagint available in a Greek-English edition published
currently by Hendricksons. (It is available from our Christ the Saviour
Seminary Bookstore.) Its greatest fault, aside from its small print, is that it
was translated from only one Greek manuscript.
Several years ago, Holy
Transfiguration Monastery in Boston
prepared a very well done edition of the Septuagint's Psalter. This is still
Oxford University Press is
currently preparing a new English edition of the Septuagint. Hopefully, this
will be a high-quality work. Perhaps, some day there will be a well-prepared
Orthodox edition of the Old Testament for worship, study and prayer.
- Fr. Lawrence Barriger