A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Daniel Graham
A careful reader of Scripture will come across notes in their Bible indicating passages where the wording in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, is different from the wording in Hebrew. Indeed, as early as Genesis 2:2 the CSB notes that the Septuagint (often abbreviated LXX) reads “sixth day” instead of “seventh.” Many readers of the Bible, however, are not familiar with the LXX and may be unsure of the meaning or significance of these notes. Gregory Lanier and William Ross address exactly this issue in The Septuagint: What It Is and Why It Matters.
Gregory Lanier is associate professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) in Orlando, FL, and William Ross is assistant professor of Old Testament at RTS in Charlotte, NC. They both have experience working with the Septuagint, having recently co-edited a reader’s edition of the Septuagint. Additionally, Ross helped edit the T&T Clark Handbook of Septuagint Research and contributed to the ongoing Historical and Theological Lexicon of the Septuagint.
In The Septuagint, Lanier and Ross seek “to distill the enormous complexity surrounding the origins, transmission, and role of the Septuagint into a brief introduction that is accessible to laypeople but is still informative for scholars” (20). They do this by addressing two questions: (1) “What is the Septuagint?”, and (2) “Why does it matter?”
They begin answering “What is the Septuagint?” by noting that the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple in 586 BC decentralized the Hebrew Bible, resulting in multiple different Hebrew manuscripts from which the LXX would have been translated. These multiple manuscripts, as well as the length of time over which the LXX was translated, led to confusion in the term “The Septuagint,” which implies a single work translated from one Hebrew text and published all at one time. Lanier and Ross address this confusion by using the term “Greek Old Testament” to refer to all the various translations and later revisions of the canonical books of the Hebrew Bible.
Having clarified terminology, Lanier and Ross trace where, when, and by whom the LXX was translated. Acknowledging that translation efforts likely began with the Pentateuch in Egypt in the late second century BC, they survey possible motivations, both external (Ptolemaic royal sponsorship) and internal (needs of Greek-speaking Jews) for translating the Pentateuch into Greek. They conclude this historical survey by discussing the translation of the rest of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, noting that scholars disagree on specifics, but broadly acknowledge that translation likely occurred in Egypt and Palestine from the middle of the third century BC to the first or second century AD.
Lanier and Ross round off their answer to “What is the Septuagint?” by exploring how it was translated and how the translated text developed over time. Distinguishing between translation (decisions of how to convert from one language to another) and language (how to communicate in an understandable way) they recognize that the translators of the Pentateuch used conventional Greek to represent the Hebrew text word for word. The method of the Pentateuch translators impacted the rest of the Hebrew Bible, with later translators either following the Pentateuch’s method or striving for greater adherence to Greek style or to the Hebrew original. Having established the initial text, Lanier and Ross explore the various intentional and unintentional changes that occurred as the LXX was copied and translated by Jews and Christians through the first four centuries of this millennium.
As they turn to answer “Why does it matter?” Lanier and Ross discuss the impact of the LXX on study of the Old and New Testaments. In reference to the Old Testament, they explore how the LXX influenced the canon of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, leading them to include apocryphal writings in their canon. Lanier and Ross then explain how the LXX affected both the shape of whole Old Testament books as well as specific wordings in various passages, noting how this shaping offers a window into early Jewish interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Turning to the New Testament, Lanier and Ross assert that, with caveats, the LXX was the “pew Bible” of the early church and thus formed the theological dictionary of the New Testament writers and the early church. Lanier and Ross then give multiple examples of ways in which the specific wording of LXX passages strengthens the reliability of the New Testament authors and directly impacts their interpretation of the Old Testament.
Lanier and Ross conclude their discussion of why the LXX matters by addressing the authority the Greek Old Testament holds for Christians today. They argue that the Hebrew text, as contained in the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings holds normative authority for the Church while the LXX holds normative authority only as far as it helps determine the original wording of the Hebrew text. They do argue, though, that the LXX holds derivative authority as an accurate translation of Scripture (much as modern translations do) and interpretive authority as a window into 2nd Temple Jewish interpretation.
There is much to commend in The Septuagint: What It Is and Why It Matters. First, Lanier and Ross target readers without prior knowledge of the LXX by not requiring knowledge of Greek or Hebrew and explaining complex subjects in understandable ways. Each chapter also includes a summary of its contents and concluding thoughts directing the reader to apply the chapter to their own reading of Scripture. Additionally, Lanier and Ross include an appendix answering 10 questions ministers are likely to receive concerning the LXX. This appendix, as well as the multiple direct examples from Scripture throughout the book, guide the reader to a quick and clear understanding of the importance of the LXX. Lanier and Ross also introduce potentially disconcerting information, such as the complex textual history of the Old Testament, in a way that bolsters confidence in Scripture, repeatedly affirming that, despite critical assertions, “the overall shape and specific wording of the Old Testament books attested in both Hebrew and Greek traditions are remarkably consistent and stable” (118).
Another strength of this book is the number of further resources Lanier and Ross point to throughout the work. As they repeatedly acknowledge, the LXX is a complex topic, and explaining it in a clear way runs the risk of oversimplification. But Lanier and Ross provide ample footnotes as well as resource lists at the end of the volume for the reader to dig deeper into topics that require more explanation. Anyone who wants a better understanding of the Greek Old Testament and its importance for Christians today would be well served by reading this book.
Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Buy the books
THE SEPTUAGINT: WHAT IT IS AND WHY IT MATTERS, by Gregory R. Lanier and William A. Ross