Today is International Septuagint Day, established by the International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies (IOSCS) to promote Septuagint studies throughout the world. It is so designated because, on February 8, 553, the Emperor Justinian made it illegal for the Jews in the Byzantine Empire to read the Bible in Hebrew and required them to read the scriptures in Greek or Latin or another language that could be understood by the people. His hope was that this might encourage the Jews to convert to Christianity. “Necessity dictates that when the Hebrews listen to their sacred texts they should not confine themselves to the meaning of the letter, but should also devote their attention to those sacred prophecies which are hidden from them, and which announce the mighty Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” To that end, he required that those Jewish synagogues choosing the Greek version “shall use the text of the seventy interpreters, which is the most accurate translation, and the one most highly approved.”
Why should you study the Septuagint? Here are four reasons:
First, it is our oldest witness to the text of the Old Testament. The Leningrad Codex, which is reproduced in Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, is a medieval manuscript dated to the beginning of the 11th century. By contrast, the Septuagint Pentateuch (the LXX proper) was produced ca. 250 BC on the basis of Hebrew manuscripts that had to have been at least 1,250 years older than the Leningrad Codex. There are many cases where the Septuagint preserves a more accurate reading than the Leningrad Codex. For example, the Masoretic Text at Gen 4:8 seems to have dropped a phrase, “Let's go out to the field,” which makes more sense of the verse. But that phrase is found in the Septuagint along with other ancient versions (see NIV and ESV footnotes). The reputation of the Masoretes as careful scribes checking every jot and tittle is deserved, but they were not infallible. And in some instances, theological concerns crept in and influenced their work.
(I want to be careful here. There are also many cases where the Septuagint translators flat-out misunderstood the Hebrew, so the Septuagint is not infallible either. I am not arguing that the Septuagint is always to be preferred over the Masoretic Text. I think we need to engage in textual criticism of the Old Testament using an eclectic method that looks at each variant on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all of the evidence, including the Samaritan Pentateuch, the biblical texts at Qumran, the ancient versions such as the Vulgate, the Septuagint, and others. However, due to the traditional primacy of the Masoretic Text, we have more work to do in taking the Septuagint into account as a weighty ancient witness to the text of the Old Testament.)
Second, the vast majority of the New Testament quotations, allusions, and paraphrases of the Old Testament are either directly based on the Septuagint or a Greek Bible tradition related to it. The Septuagint (broadly speaking) was the Bible that Jesus and the apostles read, studied, used, and quoted. Have you ever had the experience of reading the New Testament in your English Bible, coming across a quotation from the Old Testament, and then flipping back to the Old Testament to read the quotation in context, only to be puzzled by the differences, sometimes really big differences? This happens time and time again. Why? Because our English Bibles rely primarily on the Hebrew Leningrad Codex, whereas the New Testament authors were using the Greek Bible, and these two traditions are separated in time by a millennium, not to mention the fact that the Hebrew Bible was copied and preserved during that millennium by non-messianic Jewish scribes. The New Testament writers were not quoting from the Leningrad Codex. In fact, they were not even quoting from a Hebrew manuscript. They were quoting from the Greek Bible traditions that we call the Septuagint.
Third, much of the specialized theological vocabulary of the New Testament is colored by the biblical usage in the Septuagint. Just think of key words like ἄγγελος (angel), διαθήκη (covenant), δικαιόω (declare to be righteous), δόξα (glory), and many more, all of which have taken on unique shades of biblical meaning. The Septuagint was like the King James Version of the Greek-speaking Jewish synagogue, so it is not at all surprising that its vocabulary, syntax, and even theology have influenced the writers of the New Testament. Accordingly, it would seem to me that the development of a unified biblical theology of the Old and New Testaments would require a strong (though not exclusive) reliance on the Septuagint as one of the ways of making the connections from Old to New.
Fourth, the Septuagint was the Bible of the church for the first four centuries. In the West, it was eventually supplanted by the Latin Vulgate in the early middle ages. In the East it continues to be the Bible of the Greek-speaking churches in the Orthodox tradition. When the church fathers quoted the Old Testament, they almost always used the Septuagint.
There are many other reasons to study the Septuagint, but those are the four big ones that motivate me.
If you would like to get started, I would recommend the following tools:
Finally, if you are interested in the exciting study of the ways in which the Septuagint has influenced the New Testament in terms of vocabulary, syntax, and quotations, see my unfinished paper in which I am trying to collect as many examples as possible. There are so many studies out there on the Greco-Roman and Jewish materials as background for the NT, but the most obvious background, which has had the greatest impact of all, and the one that has been sitting right under our noses this whole time, has not received the attention it deserves.