The Psalter according to The Seventy
From 'Again magazine'
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America
Volume 15, No. 3, September 1992, pp. 7-10
The Use of the Septuagint by the Early Church
What Old Testament text did early Christians use when they prayed the Psalms? Many are surprised to learn that the official text was not the Hebrew or Masoretic text which forms the basis of most modern English translations today. In order to understand why, it is necessary to know something of the background of the text of the Old Testament.
At the time of Christ, the Apostles, and the early Church, Hebrew had long since ceased to be the commonly spoken language, even among the Jews. Although Jesus understood Hebrew, He would have spoken Aramaic – the common language of Palestine – with His disciples. ; Jesus and His disciples were probably familiar, at least to a certain extent, with Greek, the common language of the Roman Empire.
Because Greek was the most widely spoken and read language of the empire at large, a translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek had been accomplished, according to tradition, by seventy translators, in the city of Alexandria, during the third century before Christ. The name Septuagint means “according to the seventy.” The Septuagint, or LXX, was without question the most common text of the Scriptures at the time of Jesus and the Apostles. It was the Old Testament of the early Church.
The other text used at that period was the Hebrew text that had been preserved by the rabbis and scribes of Israel. Those who read today about scriptural manuscripts will have undoubtedly run across references made to the “masoretic” texts, which means the texts of the scribes (who were known as “masoretes”).
In the first century, after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, and the end of the Jewish priesthood, the authority of the rabbis in Israel became absolute. Before that time the rabbis occupied a position secondary to the priests. The rabbis and scribes distrusted anything that was not written in the traditional Hebrew language, and consequently they rejected the Septuagint text. But for the early Church the Septuagint was always used. When the New Testament quotes the Old, which it frequently does, and when it quotes the Psalms, which it very frequently does, it quotes the Septuagint text exclusively. That is one of the reasons why the Orthodox Church today still continues to use the Septuagint text.
From what Hebrew text was the Septuagint translated? The actual Hebrew manuscripts which formed the basis of this translation, centuries before Christ, have been lost. The Orthodox Church believes that the Hebrew text upon which the Septuagint is based is actually older and more venerable than the Hebrew text of the scribes.
Though both texts, the Masoretic text and the Septuagint, are quite similar in many ways, there are significant differences. These differences can primarily be summed up by saying that the messianic prophecies found throughout the Psalms and the prophetic writings are far more explicit in the Septuagint text than in the Masoretic text.
A careful study of the Psalms reveals how crucially different the Septuagint text is in these messianic portions. Orthodoxy regards the intensification of messianic prophecy that occurred in the Septuagint text to be the inspiration of the Holy Spirit preparing Israel for the coming of the Savior. As the time of the Messiah drew nearer and nearer, the prophecies of His coming became more and more explicit.
For the most part, translators during and after the Reformation, in an attempt to get back to what they thought were the roots of the Old Testament text, chose to use the Hebrew texts of the scribes and rejected the traditional use of the Septuagint. Therefore the Bibles most commonly available in English, whether they be NKJV or RSV or another English translation, are translations of the Hebrew text of the scribes, not translations of the Septuagint. The traditional text of the Orthodox Church, however, whether it be in her singing of the Psalms in worship, or her study of the Old Testament, is still the text of the early Church: the Septuagint.