Considering the Septuagint: Today’s forgotten book that changed human history (Part 1)

In the Welcome Article for this blogsite I raised the remarkable phenomenon of how the gospel spread so quickly and pervasively when it burst onto Greco-Rome of classical times – even though it was met with ferocious and bloody opposition from that same world.  So what fueled such a forceful advance?  Several reasons stand out, but the one that I want to focus on for the next while has to do with what the people of that era saw in the Bible of their day.  But to better  appreciate what they saw, we need to re-discover their Bible since it has become a mostly forgotten book in our day.  So with this endgoal in mind, I introduce the Bible of that era – the Septuagint.  But first let’s back up abit in history.

Historical Background to the Septuagint

When Alexander the Great conquered the then known world he brought the Greek language, culture and philosophy to the civilizations of the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and Asia.  When he died in 323 BC at the age of 32 he left behind a world that almost universally adopted the Greek language, thought and culture (known as Hellenism), thus unifying the world so that ideas and writings could be exchanged by all in one universal language – Greek.  And the Roman Empire which succeeded his short-lived conquests continued to use, and thus increase the influence of, Greek.

Greek was the principal language of the classical world from about 300 BC – 300 AD, and thus a translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek was made around 200 B.C. by a group of Jewish rabbis in Alexandria (a city in Egypt present till today and founded by Alexander the Great).  Known as the Septuagint (or LXX), it was widely used in the Greco-Roman world and was of critical importance in the development of the Gospel for several reasons.

Impact of the Septuagint

First of all, the Septuagint translation was made because in that Hellenistic world the Jewish people were slowly losing their grasp of Hebrew and many were becoming primarily Greek-speakers and the LXX thus allowed them to continue reading their scriptures in their new language.  But it also allowed the writings of the Old Testament to be read and assessed by basically all Gentiles (non-Jews).  And in the spirit of that age in which philosophy, history and religion of various cultures were read, for the first time many non-Jews were exposed to the writings of the ancient Hebrew prophets.

Septuagint impact on New Testament times

We see the impact of this in the New Testament historical accounts.  John 12:20 tells us that Greeks (i.e. non-Jews) were worshiping at a Jewish feast in Jerusalem and asked to meet with Jesus.  Why are Greeks ‘worshiping’ at a Jewish festival in Jerusalem?  It is the influence of the Septuagint.  The book of Acts records the travels of the apostles subsequent to the ministry of Jesus and it notes how they would come upon (and even look for) non-Jewish converts to Judaism.  Why are there non-Jewish converts to Judaism dotted around the Greco-Roman world in the period 30-60 AD (the period covered by Acts)?  Again, the influence of the Septuagint having been read, heard, and brought to the attention of non-Jews for more than two hundred years had fostered this development.

And what did these people ‘see’ in the Septuagint?  For starters they saw ‘Christ’ in the pages of the Old Testament because the word was used directly in it.

Septuagint in Modern Textual Criticism and Translation

The Septuagint is also significant in textual criticism.  We noted in the 2nd video of Session 3 (the one dealing with Old Testament textual reliability) that we basically have two families of Hebrew manuscripts with which we access the Hebrew Old Testament and translate it into a modern language.  The more traditional stream is the Masoretic family of manuscripts, which has extant manuscripts dating from about 900 AD.  This is the traditional source for the Old Testament in today’s Bible.  I noted that the second stream, the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) were only recently discovered in 1948 and are dated back to about 200 BC.  Thus in the DSS we have a much older family of manuscripts than the Masoretic text.  And I noted that these two families of texts are basically identical – showing how well preserved the Hebrew Old Testament is.

The Septuagint gives us a third stream of text to access the Old Testament.  Since the Septuagint was translated from the Hebrew around 200 BC we can see (if in a sense we reverse translate) what these translators had in their Hebrew manuscripts that they translated from.  The most widely accepted view today is that the Septuagint provides an  accurate record of an early Hebrew text, now lost, that had some variance from the ancestors of the Masoretic text.  And so it is used as a supplemental source in translation today.  This is why you can see some footnotes in modern translations of the Old Testament where our modern translators tell us what the Septuagint says in some particular passage.  In other words, translation scholars use the Septuagint to this day to help them translate some of the more difficult passages of the Old Testament.  Greek is very well understood and in some passages where the Hebrew is obscure translators can see how the Septuagint translators understood these obscure passages.  As an example, when the New International Version translates the last phrase of Job 7:20 to ‘Have I become a burden to you?’ they are helped by the Septuagint. How do I know this?  The footnotes indicate it. The overall contribution then of the Septuagint to the Old Testament is that it provides another manuscript stream supporting the reliability of the Old Testament as well as providing insight for some more obscure passages.

Septuagint in the Orthodox

But even more than a supplement to translate the Old Testament, followers of the Gospel in Eastern Orthodox traditions (Greek, Coptic etc.) to this day use the Septuagint over the Masoretic text (either in reading from the LXX directly or in translating primarily from the LXX rather than the Hebrew text).  It is their preferred manuscript family.

Extant Septuagint Manuscripts

Of course, just like we do not have the originals of the Hebrew Old Testament, neither do we have the originals of the Septuagint (ie the scrolls that the original translators back in 200 BC developed).  We have manuscript copies of these.  The oldest extant manuscripts of the LXX include fragments of Leviticus and Deuteronomy dated to 2nd century BC (Rahlfs nos. 801, 819, and 957), and 1st century BC fragments of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and the Minor Prophets (Rahlfs nos. 802, 803, 805, 848, 942, and 943).  Complete manuscripts of the LXX are found in the Codex Vaticanus (325 AD) and the Codex Sinaiticus (350 AD). (See Session Three if you need a primer on what these Codices are.)

Summary of Old Testament development with Septuagint

We can summarize what we have covered of the Old Testament text using a timeline shown in the figure below.  The individual books of the Old Testament were written down in Hebrew over more than a thousand year period .  They were translated into the Septuagint (LXX) around 200 BC so from then on there was a Greek as well as a Hebrew text stream.  The Codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus (from early-mid 300’s AD) are extant copies of the LXX.  The Hebrew text was preserved by the Masoretes, from whom we have extant manuscripts dating approximately 900 AD.  The Dead Sea Scrolls was another Hebrew textual family dating to around 200-100 BC that was essentially identical to the Masoretic text.  Translations into English today primarily use the Hebrew Masoretic and Dead Sea Scrolls, but the LXX is also used to inform translators on meaning and choice of words.

History of the MSSs including LXX that give us modern BiblesBut these are not the primary reasons why the Septuagint ‘has changed human history’  We consider that in our next post.

Addressing objections to the Signs of Abraham & Moses

In my previous post I noted that a really good comment had been submitted on the External Evidence Session, basically questioning the value of external evidence.  The comment noted that external evidence does not tell us whether or not the gospel stories were legendary extrapolations built around a historical kernel of events.  I agreed, but submitted that at the very minimum external evidence can be used to weed out pretenders from contenders, similar to how first-year university courses are often designed to weed out students with insufficient motivation or aptitude.

First-year courses also serve as the foundational prerequisites upon which the more useful upper-year courses are built – the ones that give the knowledge and information that we really use.  In a similar way we are now in a position to integrate the External Evidence Session with that of Session 5 – where we opened a case to see if there is a Divine Mind behind the biblical account.

Abraham sacrifices his Son

In that 5th Session we looked at two very important stories in the earliest section of the Old Testament – in the Pentateuch of the books ascribed to Moses.  We first looked at the account of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah, which (though many are not aware of it) we showed to be the place where the city of Jerusalem was eventually established.  And we saw that there are allusions in this account of Abraham that have fascinating parallels with, and point to, Jesus’ crucifixion in Jerusalem.  It is the fact that the allusion predates the event it alludes to by thousands of years that makes it so especially intriguing.  It points to a drama/literary mind, but since no human mind can coordinate events far into the future it opens the possibility that there is indeed a Divine Mind coordinating these events.

Tacitus: External Evidence Corroborating where Jesus was crucified

Now the first (and most obvious) rebuttal to this is that the gospel writers simply made up the ‘detail’ of Jesus’crucifixion being in Jerusalem to make it ‘fit’ that Abrahamic allusion.  But now we know from external evidence that Tacitus (a historian not at all sympathetic to the gospel) places that event in Judea.  He says:

Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, … but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated…(Annals XV. 44)

Josephus: External Evidence Corroborating Jesus

Josephus, the Jewish historian from the same period agrees with Tacitus in saying that:

At this time there was a wise man … Jesus. … good, and … virtuous. Many people among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned Him to be crucified and to die.  (Antiquities Book XVIII, III)

And Josephus tells us in his Antiquities in the two paragraphs just preceding this quote that:

But now Pilate, the procurator of Judea, removed the army from Cesarea to Jerusalem, to take their winter quarters there …Pilate was the first who brought these [pagan] images to Jerusalem and set them there …But Pilate undertook to bring a current of water to Jerusalem (Antiquities Book XVIII, III)

In other words, though the Roman center had previously been in Cesarea, Pilate was in Jerusalem when Jesus was executed.  So we have two external sources with unbiased or negative motives that corroborate the crucifixion of Jesus being under Pilate in Jerusalem.  Thus we know that the Gospel writers did not fabricate this detail to make it ‘fit’ the allusion from Abraham.

Moses’ Passover Account

Similarly with the Mosaic Passover story we saw allusions pointing to the Passover as the time of year when Jesus was to be executed.  For Jesus’ death to fall on that same festival by chance is slim indeed.  Adding to that is that the Mosaic account tells us that this festival is a ‘sign for us’ and it comes with so many parallels to Jesus crucifixion.  Did the Gospel writers fabricate this link to the Passover to make it ‘fit’ the allusion from Moses?

Jewish Talmud: External Evidence

We did not cover this particular item in the External Evidence session, but in the Jewish Talmud is preserved this statement about the execution of Jesus.

“Jesus was hanged on Passover Eve.  Forty days previously the herald had cried, ‘He is being led out for stoning because he has practised sorcery and led Israel astray and enticed them into apostasy.  Whosoever has anything to say in his defence let him come and declare it’.  As nothing was brought forward in his defence he was hanged on Passover Eve” cited in FF Bruce,  Jesus and Christian Origins outside the New Testament. 1974 p.56

So we have, once again, hostile witnesses, that though disagreeing on the meaning of Jesus, place Jesus’ crucifixion (ie hanging) at Passover.  They would be the last people to have any motive to do so because it strengthens the meaning of Jesus that they are vehemently at odds with.

So we cannot simply dismiss the fulfillment of these allusions that we looked at in Session 5 as simply fabrications on the part of the gospel writers.  We have to take it seriously as history.

And that does partially address an issue that was raised when Justin asked:

The main issue at hand, I think, is the apparent impossibility of Jesus’ miracles and resurrection…can that really be addressed in this way?

In other words, how can one verify the miraculous?  And we here are confronted with a strengthening case for a Divine Mind in these accounts since, using external evidence, we cannot dismiss their fulfillment simply by saying that the gospel writers made it up.  These particular details are verifiable.  And if there is a Divine Mind, i.e. God, then certainly miracles are possible.  Now, I titled Session 5 as an ‘opening case’ because I think if there are only these two allusions it is certainly conceivable that coincidence could explain them.  But it does open up a possibility that surely warrants further investigation.  Are there more, even ones that are more explicit?  Here is a good place to start to investigate.

Religious Evidence: From Flying Spaghetti Monsters to Mormons and Miracles

Justin, your comments in my Introduction to External Evidence were so insightful I thought conversation should continue around them with a post.  You summarized my intent by surmising

I guess your main aim was to convince us that the Bible’s content is not ‘mythical’ in the sense that it was not entirely made up, and I agree with that (except in the case of the creation story)…

And that indeed was my aim.  I was not trying to prove or state that the Biblical account is true, proven or inspired, but that it sits on a tight historical framework.  So why do I think that to be significant?  Permit me to draw upon my university experience to illustrate.

When I started out in Forest Engineering I took courses like statics, dynamics, physics and mathematics.  They were rather tough courses for us first year students so the failure rate was high.  “Why are they loading us down with so many hard assignments and killer tests?” we would complain to each other.  The word spread that in fact the professors intentionally structured things this way to ‘weed out’ students.  And in fact that is what happened.  We ended that year with about half the number of students that started.  Those of us who remained were still not ready to graduate and get our engineering rings – other difficulties lay ahead and not all would make it – but now the professors would continue our education with smaller, more focused classes.

Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster

This illustrates my first reason for looking at external evidence – it ‘weeds out’ many spurious candidates.  And you will find that there are many contestants in this ‘class’.  There are enough to make us wonder if we can make any sense of it.

For example, if you google ‘flying spaghetti monster’ you will find that the FSM (to use the acronym) is touted by some as a deity.  Now they do so in parody and satire (they are pastafarians of the church of the FSM!).  By their satire they are asking a very pointed question: “Why should anyone take a biblical account more seriously than how you take the FSM deity (which you dismiss)?  If you dismiss the FSM out-of-hand why not dismiss the Bible out-of-hand?”  Applying external evidence is my ‘first cut’ by which I rationally weed out pretenders from contenders.  Why do I dismiss the FSM?  There is not one shred of evidence that the FSM has interacted through history in any way.  This is not the case for the Bible.  FSMers, however, in their mockery, have never informed themselves enough of the Bible to see the difference.  Their scorn for the Bible has kept them in ignorance of its historical evidence.

Similarly, I have friends who claim that Jesus never existed.  External evidence shouts that this is nonsense.  Historical writers outside the Bible, living in the first century (ex. Josephus) , affirm Jesus’ existence.  I know others who worship pagan deities such as Thor.  External evidence allows me to ask, “Has this god/figure ever intersected with humanity in a historical way?”  External evidence allows me to dismiss Thor and accept Jesus at a purely historical level.  External Evidence is a great way to make a ‘first cut’.

The Mormon Claim

External evidence is also useful in assessing the claims of those who have added or interpret the Bible in an unusual way.  Mormons are a good example of that.  When I was a university student, Mormon missionaries met with me over multiple weeks to explain their message.  I learned that their founding prophet, Joseph Smith, had discovered scriptures in the early 19th century buried in the ground in New York State that told the history of a clash of civilizations in North America.  These civilizations stemmed from a small Jewish community that left Jerusalem around the time of its first fall (586 BC) and emigrated to North America.  This discovery by Smith was written in a book made from golden plates in a language of ‘Reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics’.

External evidence allowed me to ask and assess some basic questions.  Why would Jewish people write in ‘Reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics’ when in all their other (numerous) writings they used Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek?  In fact, there is not one shred of one historical document in existence anywhere in the world today written in ‘Reformed Egyptian Hieroglyphics’ (the gold-plated original that Smith discovered was ‘lost’ just after he translated it into English), so there is no external evidence, within a sea of data from that era, that even such a language ever existed, let alone that this gold-plated document existed.  All other writings from that era were written on scrolls made from animal skins or papyrus plants.  Why would these Jews start using gold plates?  No other gold plate documents from any culture in that era exist.  There is no archeological evidence of any civilization in North America having a Jewish distinctive (and remember that Jewish people have been dispersed throughout the world for millennia and have always maintained their Jewish distinctive customs and scriptures).  The lack of external evidence starts to scream against these claims.

Jews have existed in various countries around the world, living distinctive from the native population for thousands of years.  Whether religious or not they have always maintained the ritual of circumcision.  Mormons claim that the indigenous natives of North & South America are the descendants of these first Jews who came from Jerusalem in 586 BC.  Yet not one Native American tribe or civilization maintains in their culture any circumcision ritual.  Jews in India, Tunisia, Jamaica, Turkey, Morocco, Spain etc. have maintained the circumcision ritual.  Yet all the ‘Jewish’ Native American forgot it?  That makes no sense.  The Native Americans were not Jewish, and the whole Mormon story falls apart for this lack of external corroborating evidence.

Krishna and External Evidence

The significance of the external evidence supporting the Gospel may perhaps be better appreciated by comparing it with a non-Western scripture.  The central figure in Hinduism is Krishna who is the incarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu.  The pivotal event in his incarnate life was when he was a charioteer in the Kurukshetra War, and he gave wise advice and indispensable aid to one of the armies in this war.  So historically, when did this pivotal war for the central figure in Hinduism happen?  Wiki sums it up well:

The Kurukshetra War is believed to date variously from 6000 BCE to 500 BCE, based on the astronomical and literary information from Mahābhārata…. The historicity of the Kurukshetra War is unclear… The reconstruction of the history of Vedic India is based on text-internal details.

There is no external evidence at all to help us find this most important event of the Hindu scriptures in history, and thus there is about a 5000 year range in (basically) guessing when this may have happened.  In comparison with this, the external evidence from both extra-biblical writers and archeological artefacts concerning the Gospel, as we saw in Session 4, is stunning.

Substantiating miracles in the Biblical record?

But perhaps you have already done your ‘weeding’ and have your ‘short-list’ and you are perhaps feeling stuck because external evidence does not help you further at this point.  In particular you are asking whether the biblical account is a “distortion of the truth, rather than ‘mythical’”, and whether (or not) the Gospel writers fabricated details around a historically verifiable kernel of truth.  I think you wonder about this because the Bible contains accounts of miracles.  As you ask:

The main issue at hand, I think, is the apparent impossibility of Jesus’ miracles and resurrection…can that really be addressed in this way?

It is at this point that the Bible itself introduces a specific and impossible-to-fake test to determine whether there is a supernatural or miraculous Mind behind it or not.  The test is to make precise long-range predictions about the future and see if they were fulfilled or not.  The reasoning is that though some humans may be clever or charismatic enough to draw a following (eg. Joseph Smith founder of Mormons) no human knows the future.  If there is a God, only He does.  So verifiable prophetic predictions inked out in black and white for all to evaluate provides an objective test to determine if there is a Miracle-working God or not.

Whether you approach the Bible and God with scorn as the Flying Spaghetti Monster people do, or whether you come from a biblical offshoot sect like Mormons do, or from another ancient religion with a different scripture, or just wonder if there is anyway to know, it certainly is worthwhile to be informed of the prophetic credentials of the Bible so that you can make an informed opinion.  My article here will introduce you to the basics.

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