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.

Did Constantine corrupt the Gospel or Bible?

Over the years I have been asked rather frequently about Constantine. There is lots of misinformation and rumour that circulates about him.  Popular books/movies such as the Da Vinci Code or Holy Blood, Holy Grail portray him as the Roman Emperor who basically invented the Gospel for his own political ends.  Is that true?  Let us start with some easy-to-verify facts about him.

Constantine the Great: Facts on-hand

Constantine was Roman Emperor from 306-337 AD.  Prior to his rule many of the Roman Emperors were openly hostile to the Gospel, killing and persecuting many of the followers of the gospel.  The Emperor Nero started this trend in 64 AD, when he took first century followers of the gospel, bound and dipped them in oil, and burned them alive as human torches for lighting in his palace gardens!  Successive Emperors Domitian, Marcus Aurelius (of Gladiator movie fame), Diocletian and others continued this kind of treatment.  But Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, granting religious tolerance to all views.  Constantine became sole emperor of Rome by being victorious in a series of military campaigns against other rivals.  During these campaigns he converted to Christianity (from paganism).  There is much debate today whether his ‘conversion’ was sincere, or whether he did so for political gain.

The Council of Nicaea

In 325 AD Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea, the first empire-wide meeting of church leaders to discuss various controversies.   People often wonder if the gospels were changed or corrupted, or even selected (in some back-room conspiracy) for inclusion in the Bible at this time.  In fact, the main point of discussion was the theological understanding of the relationship between Jesus and God.  One camp (led by Arius) held that they were of different essences, and the other camp (led by Athanasius) held that they were of the same essences.   Therefore we know that theological interpretations were staked out and the summary Nicene Creed was authored from this council convened by Constantine.

Corruption or Conspiracy?

But were the gospels changed and/or selected at this council?  As we saw in Session 3 and the introductory article on Textual Criticism of the Bible, there are many manuscripts on-hand today that come from up to two hundred years before the time of Constantine (and the Council of Nicaea).  If this council (or Constantine) changed the documents of the New Testament then we would see this change in the copies that pre-date the Council of Nicaea from those that come after.  But the copies show no such change.  We see this in the timeline in the figure below taken from an article on the King James Bible where the manuscripts for Bibles today predate Constantine and the Council of Nicaea by up to two hundred years.

manuscripts and times from which modern Bibles are translated
From where does the Bible come?

But were the ‘wrong’ gospels selected into the Bible at this point?  We also know that this was not the case because both sides of the debate (Arius and Athanasius) used the same gospels and epistles (the ones that are in the Bible now) to argue their case.  Arius and Athanasius did not disagree on what the scriptural documents stated, nor did they disagree on which documents should be ‘in’ the Bible.  They disagreed, with heated debate, on the interpretation of these same scriptures.  We know this because an account of the debates and intrigues of the Council of Nicaea and Constantine’s role in it is preserved for us in the reporting of Eusebius who was one of the delegates to this council.  The writings of Athanasius are also preserved.

Constantine vs. the Good News of Gospel

Constantine did have a huge impact on the development of Christianity.  Christian celebrations like Christmas on December 25, how the date for the Easter celebration is calculated, and a reversal of the gospel from being counter-cultural and viewed with mistrust by the government, to becoming the cultural standard of Europe, in alliance with government, started with Constantine.  But the Gospel is not about culture or government power.  It is about a good news message from God freely received in the hearts and minds of people – and then changing their hearts.  And just like barnacles collecting on the hull of a ship can distort the hydrodynamics of a streamlined keel – and must be removed for the ship to regain its ability to move gracefully in the water – so a lot of Christianity that has developed since Constantine might need to be scraped away so we can access the pure gospel.  But it can be done.  And the ‘scraper’ with which we can find the pure Good News is the Bible.  Since the books in the Bible were not invented, modified or corrupted by Constantine we can use them to get a view of Jesus and his Gospel that has been around since his disciples went forth proclaiming his message.  This also allows us to better understand the various conspiracy theories about Jesus, (like did he have a wife or was he ‘invented’ from the ancient Egyptian mystery religion of Osiris, Isis and Horus).  It also allows us to understand where terms like ‘Christ’ originate.

But what about the theology and creeds that came from the Council of Nicaea?  Are they corrupt?  The really good news is that since the scriptures upon which these interpretations were debated are open and available to us today, we ourselves can consider the scriptures, understand its message, and assess those very same interpretations and creeds.  What many people have not understood, is that all themes in the Bible have their origins in the Old Testament, which predates by hundreds of years the influence of Constantine and even that of the Church.  For example, prophetic themes about the coming of the Messiah, as well as themes predicting the development of the Jewish people are dotted through the entire Old Testament.

Whatever we conclude about creeds and theology we can then ‘own it’ if we examine it for ourselves.  We may decide for a multitude of reasons not to believe or accept the Gospel.  Or we may decide to embrace it.  But let us avoid the really foolish notion of bringing Constantine into the mix.  He would be a poor excuse whichever way we land.

Your Common-Sense, Practical Test for the Reliability of the Bible

We are now in the closing hours of 2018.  One of the aspects of life today (and I am sure it will be true in 2019 as well) is that we rely so much on experts to address the various questions we face.  Health issue?  See a doctor, and if (s)he does not know, you can get a referral to a specialist.  Computer problem?  You find either a hardware or a software expert to help you.  In almost any area of life we turn to experts for advice and help Continue reading “Your Common-Sense, Practical Test for the Reliability of the Bible”