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The importance of the Septuagint

Jul 08, 2011

The Septuagint (LXX) is the "authorized" Greek translation of the Old Testament that was produced by 72 Jewish scholars. They began their translation about 280 B.C. No one is certain how long it took to complete, though legend says it took just 72 days.

"The Septuagint was held in great respect in ancient times; Philo and Josephus ascribed divine inspiration to its translators. . . Of significance for all Christians and for Bible scholars, the LXX is quoted by the New Testament and by the Apostolic Fathers."


This translation was important for many years because so many Jews had forgotten Hebrew and had begun to speak Greek. This happened after Alexander the Great built a new city in Egypt (331 B.C.), Alexandria, named in honor of himself, and then gave tax breaks to Jews if they would help colonize his city. It is said that about 50,000 Jews moved there, and since Greek had become the main commercial language of Egypt and the Empire itself, the Jewish children naturally learned Greek.

By 280 B.C., fifty years later, a whole generation of Jews no longer spoke Hebrew, and a Greek translation was needed.

The Septuagint is important to us today because it provides, in essence, a Hebrew-to-Greek lexicon. It expressed Hebrew words in Greek, but more important, Hebrew CONCEPTS from the Old Testament were being expressed in Greek. Many of these Greek words were being used by the Greeks themselves to express Greek religious concepts, but those Greek definitions were not necessarily the same as the Hebrew definitions.

For example, sheol was the Hebrew word for the grave. The scholars translated it into its Greek equivalent, hades. To a Hebrew, sheol was a place of "silence" (Ps. 115:17) where "the dead know not anything" (Eccl. 9:5). It was a place of "sleep" as they awaited the resurrection. But to a Greek, those in hades were quite alive and conscious.

The point is that when we study the Greek New Testament, where the Septuagint is often quoted, we have to understand that the writers used the standard Greek words to express Hebrew thoughts. We cannot indiscriminately use classical Greek definitions of a word and apply them to Scripture.

Among the important equivalent words to consider are the Hebrew word olam and its Greek equivalent, aion and aionian. These are words that often end up being translated "forever," or "everlasting," or "eternal." These translations are misleading at best, because the Hebrews did not have a word that only meant "forever."

The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. IV, under Time says,

"The OT and the NT are not acquainted with this conception of eternity as timelessness." (p. 643)

"The OT has not developed a special term for 'eternity' which one could contrast with 'temporality'." (p. 644)

Dr. Bullinger's Appendix 129 to The Companion Bible, says this about the NT term aion:

"aion = an age, or age-time, the duration of which is indefinite, and may be limited or extended as the context of each occurrence may demand. The root meaning of aion is expressed by the Heb. olam . . . which denotes indefinite, unknown or concealed duration; just as we speak of 'the patriarchal age,' or 'the golden age,' etc."

This agrees with Gesenius Lexicon, which defines olam: "what is hidden; specially hidden time, long; the beginning or end of which is either uncertain or else not defined." The root word is alam, which means "to hide, to conceal." Hence, the word means an indefinite or unknown period of time. To translate it as "everlasting" takes it from the indefinite to the infinite according to the bias of the translator.

This is why both Rotherham and Young refuse to translate olam as "everlasting" or "forever." They use instead the terms "age-abiding" and "age-during."

By the way, someone recently challenged me on Dr. Young's translation. I had said that Young's Literal Translation says "age-during," while Young's Concordance says these words mean "age." My critic claimed that he had a Young's LEXICON which translated the word as "everlasting."

I would like to see that lexicon. So far, I have not found it to exist. No book store has it, and no publisher claims it.

The point is that if olam and its Greek equivalent, aion, are an indefinite period of time known as an AGE, then Bible translators have no right to tell us that it must mean "for ever." Scholars should form their views according to the meaning of the biblical words; they should not force their own views on the Bible in order to trick Christians into believing the scholar's view.

Even our English word "eternal" did not originally have to convey the idea of unending time. It too was indefinite in the early days. It comes from the Latin word aeternus, which Jerome used in his Latin Vulgate in the 5th century. One scholar comments on Augustine's City of God, saying:

"The words 'eternal' and 'eternity' from Latin aeternus, aeternitas, are related to aevum, which means BOTH 'unending time' and 'a period of time'; for the second meaning the commoner word isaetas."

In other words, if they wanted to express the idea of a period of time, they probably would have used the word aetasAeternus could mean both. Yet over the years Church teaching has forcedaeternus to always mean unending time. So Jerome's original translation of aionian into aeternuswas not incorrect. But in later years, the Church narrowed the definition of the word according to its own bias.

So when we read Scripture, we must be aware that when English translations use the terms eternal, everlasting, or for ever, this is not necessarily accurate. More often than not, it ought to read "age-abiding" or "for the age" or "into the age."

This brings us to the Hebrew concept of "The Age," a term used in ancient times referring to the Messianic Age that was to come. While many modern Christians yearn for life in heaven, the Hebrews looked for the great Messianic Age, which they often described as the seventh millennium. To them, it was the Great Sabbath, the thousand-year "Day" in which the Messiah would rule in a Golden Age of Peace.

By translating olam and aion as "everlasting," the translators have largely hidden this idea of The Age. But it is everywhere in Scripture. Matt. 25:46 says,

(46) And these shall go away into aionian punishment; but the righteous into life aionian.

The Cambridge Bible Commentary, by A.W. Argyle, comments on the above verse:

eternal punishment, i.e., punishment characteristic of the Age to come, not meaning that it lasts for ever.

eternal life, i.e., the life that belongs to the Age to come, the full abundant life which is fellowship with God.

We will have more to say about this next time.

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Category: Teachings

Dr. Stephen Jones

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