I’d heard that there is some evidence that Jesus Himself used the Septuagint. On a simple search, most of the results that I’d come across were people seeking to refute this theory, and I didn’t find any convincing evidence to support the theory that Jesus used Greek. Is there any good evidence to back up either side?
This is a great question, and it’s more important than people may realize. The answer is that as far as we can tell, both Jesus and the New Testament authors use the Greek version of the Old Testament at times. As a general shorthand, I’ll say Greek or LXX version for the Septuagint and other Greek translations, and the Hebrew or MT version for the Hebrew versions. The Masoretic Text (MT) wasn’t around at the time of Christ, but is the modern version based upon older Hebrew versions, and is at least a pretty reliable indicator of what the Hebrew version of the OT looked like in Jesus’ day.
It’s important to acknowledge a few important caveats at the beginning: (1) most of the differences between the Hebrew and Greek version are minor, like the differences between Bible versions today, (2) many of the NT quotations are too short to say for sure which version of the OT it’s from, (3) many “quotations” are paraphrases instead of exact quotations, and (4) the New Testament is written in Greek, so it’s not always clear if the authors are translating Jesus.* Finally, any most importantly, I’m not a Greek or Hebrew speaker. All of my knowledge comes second-hand, so take it with a grain of salt. One resource I relied upon is here, and is helpful and straightforward, compiled by an Eastern Orthodox author with a thorough knowledge and love of the LXX version of the Old Testament. Another resource I found a bit late was this one.
Still, here are a handful of the cases I know about where it seems obvious enough that the Greek version was used, because there are differences in content between the two versions.
I. Times Jesus Used the Greek Version
Like I said, it’s sometimes hard to know whether Jesus used the Greek version, or whether the New Testament writers, in translating His words, mirrored the Greek translations of the OT. But there are a couple times when it’s nearly irrefutable that Jesus Himself used the Greek version. For example:
- Hebrews 10:5-7 and the Incarnation
The most important passage to know on the question of Jesus’ use of the Greek version of Scripture is Hebrews 10:5-7, which says:
5Therefore, when Christ came into the world, He said:
“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but a body you prepared for me;
6with burnt offerings and sin offerings
you were not pleased.
7Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—
I have come to do your will, O God.’ “
Even the NIV notes that this is a quotation from the Greek version of Psalm 40:6-8. Here’s why that’s important. In the Hebrew versions, Psalm 40:6 says, “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but my ears you have pierced.” But all three major Greek versions, the Septuagint, Symmachus and Theodotion translations, list it as “a Body You prepared for Me.” What may have happened, as one author explores here, is that the Hebrew expression is an obscure idiom, and the Greek translations were intentionally non-literal. The theory is that since slaves often wore an earring showing who their master was in the Near East, that offering your ears to God could mean either listening or offering your whole body.
Now, if Psalm 40:6 is a prophesy of Christ, it’s not because God opened His ears, but because Jesus is God-in-the-flesh, with a Body prepared for Him by His Father. So how and why the Greek and MT versions came to be distinct isn’t particularly important, compared to the fact that (a) they are distinct, and (b) Hebrews 10:5 only makes sense with the Greek. Significantly, the author of Hebrews isn’t just saying that the Greek version of the Psalm is a prophesy of Christ. He’s saying that Jesus Himself said it was.
- Jesus quotes the LXX version of Isaiah 29:13 in Mark 7:6-8; the MT version says “their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men,” with no reference to the worship being vain; the LXX version says “They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.” Jesus chooses the LXX, which makes a difference. The context of Mark 7 is not on worship, but on the way they’re living and expecting others to live (ceremonial washing before eating, the Corban, etc.), so the MT version of Isaiah 29:13 doesn’t fit very well, while the LXX version is directly on point, since it deals with both vain worship and teachings.
- In Matthew 21:16, Jesus asks, “have you never read, ‘From the lips of children and infants, you have ordained praise’?” That’s the Greek version. The Hebrew version says “ordained strength.” And note that Jesus is responding to the chief priests and scribes of Jerusalem, who were upset at the children praising Jesus, “Hosanna to the Son of David” (Matthew 21:15).
There are plenty of other examples, but those are three I know of where it almost certainly wasn’t Matthew or Mark translating into the Greek, but Jesus using the Greek originally, since using the Hebrew would have made substantially less sense.
II. Times the New Testament Authors Used the Greek Version
It’s a lot easier to establish that the New Testament authors frequently used the Greek version of the Bible, and since the Bible is “God-breathed,” it still seems to establish God’s stamp of approval on non-Hebrew versions of the Old Testament over the Hebrew versions, at least at time. So here are a few times where it’s obvious that a Greek version is used, because the author’s point really only makes sense using the Greek:
- Matthew 1:23 and the Virgin Birth
The most important example of a New Testament writer using the Greek version is in Matthew 1:23, in which Matthew declares that Christ being born of the Virgin Mary fulfills Isaiah 7:14’s prophesy that “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call Him Immanuel.” Matthew purposely quotes from the Greek version here, because only the Greek version is unambiguously a prophesy of the Virgin Birth.
Here’s what I mean. The Hebrew word used in Isaiah 7:14 is `almah. That can be a reference to virginity, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s almost identical to the older English word “maiden,” which can mean virgin, unmarried woman, or young woman, or all of the above. So the Hebrew version of Isaiah 7:14 is basically, “the maiden will be with child and give birth to a son,” which might or might not be about the Virgin Mary giving birth.
But what’s significant is that when it was translated into Greek (which was before the time of Christ, mind you), the translators understood it to be about a coming Virgin Birth. And so they chose a Greek word which clearly meant “virgin.” This decision on their part is important, because it was unbiased — the translator wasn’t trying to prove or deny the Virgin Birth, as translators after the coming of Christ have been.
Still, St. Matthew reaches for the Greek version of the prophesy when he’s announcing its fulfillment. And the choice is deliberate. In Matthew 2:15, he chooses the Hebrew version, where that one is more clear.
So that’s the most important example of the Greek being chosen over the Hebrew. There’s another important one, at the Council of Jerusalem.
- Acts 15:17 and Salvation for the Gentiles
James, at the Council of Jerusalem, argues that salvation by Jesus Christ is extended to even the Gentiles. He bases this conclusion in part upon Peter’s testimony, and in part on the Old Testament. In particular, he says in Acts 15:15-18,
The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:
” ‘After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, that the remnant of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things’ that have been known for ages.”
That’s Amos 9:11-12 he’s quoting, and it’s the Greek version. We know it’s the Greek version because the Hebrew version says that God will restore and rebuild David’s fallen tent, “so that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations that bear my name,” suggesting that the restored Israel would conquer, rather than save, the Gentiles. If the Masoretic Text were right here, this would seem to be an argument against James’ point, which is that the Church, as the restored and rebuilt Israel, is for all the faithful, including the Gentiles.
Beyond those two examples, here are a few others, where it just seems obvious enough that the Greek is being preferred:
- Peter, in 1 Peter 4:18, says “And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?” That’s an exact quotation of the LXX version of Proverbs 4:11. But the MT version of Proverbs 4:11 says something totally different (and strange): “If the righteous will be rewarded in the earth, how much more the wicked and the sinner! ”
- Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:55, quotes Hosea 13:14 to say, “Where, O death, is your sting?” while the MT version of that verse says, “Where, O death, are your plagues?” The meaning is similar, but he chose the Greek version.
- Finally, the MT version of Deuteronomy 32:43 is: “Rejoice, O nations, with his people, / for he will avenge the blood of his servants; / he will take vengeance on his enemies /
and make atonement for his land and people.” The Septuagint, along with the Dead Sea Scrolls, include the line “and let all the angels worship him“ between the first and second line. Hebrews 1:6 says, “And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says, ‘Let all God’s angels worship him.’” So here, the author of Hebrews is quoting to a line of the song that’s not found in the standard Hebrew (MT) version. So there’s literally no way he’s quoting (or even paraphrasing) the verse from the MT, since it doesn’t exist there.
There are dozens of verses in addition to this one, but most of those are really inconsequential differences you wouldn’t ever notice without comparing the text side by side.
III. Why This Matters
My point is not that Jesus and/or the authors of the NT thought that the Greek version of the Old Testament was better than the Hebrew version of the Old Testament.
Rather, as I mentioned with St. Matthew, you can find plenty of examples of Jesus, and the NT writers, using both versions of the Old Testament. Quite frankly, neither the LXX nor the Masoretic Text is perfect, just as there’s no single English-language version of the Bible which is absolutely perfect. That’s clearly the view of Jesus and His Apostles, since they don’t feel tied to a single translation or version. And it’s clearly the view of the Church: She’s willing to use translations, even by heretics — to the disgust of Jerome, as I noted this morning — if it’s a more accurate version. Sometimes, that meaning is best captured by having multiple translations. For example, Jerome himself translates the same phrase in the Lord’s Prayer as both “daily Bread” and “supersubstantial Bread.” Taken together, these phrases capture a full range of meaning: that the Eucharist is “supersubstantial,” that It is the fulfillment of the Old Testament manna, that we should pray to receive Christ in the Eucharist daily, etc. So the fact that no one version of the Bible, in English, Greek, or Hebrew, isn’t particularly cause for alarm — it can even be a blessing in disguise.
But it’s significant that it’s just assumed that the Greek version of the Bible is Scripture. Jesus expected even the chief priests and scribes of Jerusalem to know the Greek version as Scripture, which Matthew 21:15-16 makes clear. That’s very important because the Greek version contains the Deuterocanon. Even though modern Jews reject the Greek version of Scripture, and reject the Deuterocanon, at least some Jews at the time of Christ (plus, of course, Christ Himself) knew it and considered it Scripture. It’s Christ, not the Israelites, who is in the best position to declare what is and is not Scripture. And He’s spoken here. What further reason could there be to reject the Deuterocanon?
*So, for example, the Shema Israel in Deuteronomy 6:5 says to love God with all your heart, soul, and strength; but in the Greek translation, it’s heart, mind, soul, and strength. The reason is that the Hebrew term for “heart” had more meaning, so it took two Greek words to translate the one Hebrew word. In Mark 12:30, we hear Jesus quoting the Greek version, but in Matthew’s account of the same conversation (Matthew 22:37), He’s quoting the Hebrew version. What happened? Jesus said it in Hebrew, and the oldest known versions of both Matthew and Mark’s Gospels are in Greek. So Mark, or someone translating Mark’s Gospel into Greek, did the same thing the LXX translators did when they translated Deut. 6:5, while Matthew kept the more literal version. Here, if you didn’t have two versions, it might look like Jesus was using the Greek, but Matthew’s version is pretty strong evidence that He used the Hebrew version. (Although it’s possible that Jesus said it in Greek, and Matthew translated it back into Hebrew, that’s the less likely of the two options).