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Larry Perkins Ph.D.

Septuagint Studies and Evangelicalism – Using the Bible Paul Used

The study of the Septuagint in Canada during this past century has occurred primarily in the graduate departments of selected Universities, primarily the University of Toronto. The same reality marks the majority of Septuagint Studies that occur in the United States, Great Britain and Europe. Few, if any Evangelical Seminaries have considered Septuagint Studies sufficiently significant to provide scarce resources for its support. Yet, strangely in the case of the University of Toronto Ph.D. in Septuagint Program, many of the participants were Evangelicals.

Is there a compelling case to be made for Septuagint Studies in Canada to find a home in an Evangelical Seminary or Divinity School? In Canada the major scholars in Septuagint Studies were at the University of Toronto, but they have retired and there do not seem to be plans to replace them. Is it possible this gap to be filled by an Evangelical Seminary or Graduate School of Theology? If so, what should Septuagint Studies look like in such a context for it to contribute meaningfully to the mission achievement of such an institution?

Historically Septuagint Studies at the University of Toronto focused primarily upon textual, historical, linguistic and hermeneutical issues. Cognate disciplines of Hebrew language and literature, Hellenistic history, secondary translation languages (Syriac, Coptic, Latin, Armenian, etc.) have also been associated with such studies as necessary competencies.

When we consider locating Septuagint Studies in the context of an Evangelical Seminary or Divinity School, what would Septuagint Studies look like? If its focus should change, would it still legitimately be considered by the academy as Septuagint Studies? What shifts could or should occur in Septuagint Studies so that it reflects the particular values or educational outcomes that characterize an Evangelical Seminary or Divinity School? Educational programs are developed and implemented because of mission compatibility and a sense that the time is right for such educational processes. How then might Septuagint Studies be conceived in an Evangelical Seminary environment so that a compelling case can be made that such studies are necessary and timely?

What is "Septuagint Studies"? It comprises the cluster of disciplines, competencies, and cognate materials that enable us to understand the origins, transmission, development, usage and influence (both Jewish and Christian) of the pre-Christian Greek translation of the Old Testament (probably located in Ptolemaic Alexandria and initiated around 280 B.C.) and its revisions, as well as its relation to other, later Greek translations of the Old Testament (i.e. Aquila, Symmachus, Theodotion, etc.). The Septuagint represents the first major translation project of a religious text in human history. As sacred text it served the needs of the Greek-speaking Jewish Diaspora in the three centuries prior to Jesus and concurrently with him. As the Christian church emerged from within Judaism, its expansion very early in its history into the Greco-Roman world required the use of the Septuagint as the sacred text to support its message. As the Christian church developed its own sacred text, we find these writings modeling and incorporating materials from the Septuagint and being combined with this Greek form of the Jewish Canon. This Greek translation of the Old Testament was linked with the emerging New Testament to form the Bible used by the Church during the first several centuries of its history and formed the basis for secondary translations used to support significant missionary ventures (Old Latin, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian, some Syriac materials, etc.). Because the first segments of this Greek translation seem to arise at the beginning of the third century B.C., it forms a unique witness to the state of Hebrew Scriptures at that period and the hermeneutical principles and interpretation of those scriptures by Jews in Alexandria. For this reason it plays a significant role in understanding the textual development of the Hebrew Old Testament.

The role of the Septuagint for the historical development of Jewish and Christian sacred texts remains significant. Evangelicals have a serious interest in understanding all aspects of biblical text development, transmission and interpretation because of their faith commitments related to the authority and use of biblical materials to inform spiritual life. We are a people of ‘the book’. It is in our interests to understand, include and nurture within our research, teaching, and ecclesial life a deep appreciation for the Septuagint. The issues such study raises continue to challenge the Evangelical world. As well such study will bring greater opportunity for understanding other streams within the broader Christian tradition, namely the Orthodox tradition because significant parts of this tradition continue to use the Septuagint as their Scripture in liturgy and spiritual life.

  • For Septuagint Studies that are conducted within an Evangelical Seminary to retain the respect of the academy, certain knowledge and skills must be taught and developed. Since such Studies are textually based, but deal with translation literature, there is need for the textual domain to remain a central part of Septuagint Studies.
    1. This is advantageous for the Evangelical Seminary because of its commitment to Scripture as established canonical text. For those committed to the authority of Scripture insuring that such Scripture are correctly transmitted, translated and interpreted remains a central value.
    2. Septuagint Studies bridge the Old and New Testaments and in the Evangelical Seminary both Testaments are esteemed. As well their respective influence and relationship is a critical question. Because canonical issues are surfacing in new ways and the boundaries of the sacred text within Christian circles are debated, the influence of Septuagint upon Christian practice and thought remains critical.
    3. The principles of textual criticism used within the setting of Septuagint Studies in most instances are the same as those used within New Testament Studies. As students hone such skills in Septuagint Studies, they are easily transferred to the textual issues of New Testament Studies.
    4. Hermeneutics has occupied a central place in theological and biblical studies for over a century. The discussion shows no sign of diminishing. Septuagint Studies raise central hermeneutical questions. For example, as the New Testament references Old Testament materials through the Septuagint, what does this mean hermeneutically? If the hermeneutics employed in the New Testament reflect Jewish practices and the Septuagint is a Jewish document reflecting the translation and interpretation of Jewish sacred text, then we have much to learn from Septuagint Studies that can inform New Testament hermeneutics, particularly the Jewish aspects of New Testament hermeneutics.

In these ways the traditional aspects of Septuagint Studies can inform and significantly assist biblical studies within the Evangelical Seminary or Divinity School.

  • The Second Temple Period of Judaism holds great significance for understanding Christian origins. This period when the Old Testament materials were achieving their final form and Judaism was emerging under the shadow of the Persian, Greek, and Roman Empires forms the context for life in first century Palestine. The Septuagint comprises one of our major sources for understanding Jewish thought during this period, particularly in the Egyptian Diaspora. The occurrence of Septuagint and other Greek materials among the Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrates that this translation was used in Palestine. By the time Jesus was born, Palestine had experienced Hellenistic culture for over three hundred years and Roman supremacy had rule for half a century.
  • The Evangelical Seminary’s primary mission is to develop good ministry leaders. Broadly conceived, such training will engage in some way the questions raised in section 1. But what other elements of Septuagint Studies would support such a mission?
    1. The vast majority of Evangelical Christians access their sacred scriptures through translation. This is different from Islam. Christian ministers have to know how to affirm the authority of God’s Word as it occurs in a translated form. The Septuagint represents the first great experiment in biblical translation. Fundamental principles relating to translation and translation process are raised through its study. We have the opportunity to discern how difficult texts are construed, what strategies are followed to insure consistency, what freedom the translators possessed and what limits they had, how the translation was received, how it was revised, etc. As English translations proliferate, ministry leaders need to understand the theological implications of such work and Septuagint Studies provide an excellent case study.
    2. The majority of preaching today in Evangelical Circles arises from the New Testament. A significant part of this sacred text includes material quoted from the Septuagint. Key passages in Romans, Galatians, 2 Corinthians, the Synoptics and Acts, Hebrews, 1 Peter, James, just to cite a few, are replete with such quotations. In some cases these Septuagint quotes represent an understanding of the Hebrew text that is quite different from the Hebrew text that we have received. Ministers need to know how to deal with such issues so that the coherence of the canon can be understood.
    3. Worship practices continue to change and develop in Evangelical churches and good ministry leaders will need to understand how liturgy has developed historically. The Septuagint was the Bible of the early church and so significantly shaped the worship practices of the church. As churches explore the ancient-modern worship paradigm, connecting with worship roots that originate in the second and third century church, Septuagint materials become important.
    4. The early church fathers, particularly the Greek-speaking fathers, used the Septuagint as their Bible. Their commentaries, homilies, and letters quote it freely and it forms the foundation for their exposition and direction in matters of faith and practice. As we understand this part of the Church’s life more deeply, we will have a richer context for nurturing the spiritual life of our churches today.
  • Good ministry leaders within the Evangelical Church tradition are characterized by theological astuteness. Critical to this competence are highly developed exegetical skills. These include expertise in the biblical languages and awareness of the way language works.
    1. The issues of semantics, discourse analysis, and rhetorical usage are significant components in New Testament exegesis. Because there is significant overlap in the vocabulary of the New Testament and the Septuagint there are natural linkages between Septuagint Studies and New Testament exegesis.
    2. Various aspects of Septuagint style may also have influenced the form of New Testament materials. The narrative style of Mark and Luke 1-2, the hymns in Luke 1-2, and the vocabulary used in Revelation reflect Septuagint influence. Discerning the meaning of such terms and their possible religious nuance is an important issue.
    3. The Septuagint represents one of the largest bodies of Hellenistic Greek and so for the New Testament provides a significant resource in understanding language.
  • Contextualization remains a current issue. The Septuagint represents a major attempt to contextualize Jewish religious thought. It predates the time of Jesus and so helps us understand some of the ways in which Judaism responded to the pressures of Hellenism through the translation process. Since the majority of the Septuagint seems to be a product of the Diaspora, and Alexandria in particular (Letter To Aristeas), it will reveal various ways in which the Jewish community sought to relate their Jewish faith to their Hellenistic environment.
  • The Bible that Peter, Paul, Luke, Mark, and John1 used primarily was the Septuagint. The more we are familiar with its phrasings, lexica, and interpretive processes, the better we will appreciate and understand their teaching.

Septuagint Studies within the setting of an Evangelical Seminary or Divinity School will build upon the base of textual and historical competency, but use this as a means to explore the salient issues of:

  • Canonical studies
  • Translation – its hermeneutical and theological implications
  • Contextualization issues
  • Jewish-Christian relations
  • Significance and use of Old Testament materials in the New Testament
  • Liturgical history
  • Historical theology – first three centuries of early church thought and its development
  • Understanding the Old Testament as it was interpreted in the three centuries prior to Jesus – setting the scene for Jesus’ ministry
  • Understanding the Bible of Paul and Peter, i.e. the Early Church, and how this enables us to discern the meaning of their respective letters.
  • Understanding Eastern Orthodoxy as part of the Christian tradition, because it continues to use the Septuagint as its Scriptures, regarding it as inspired.

A Seminary or Divinity school setting encourages these inter-disciplinary aspects of Septuagint Studies to be explored and developed in ways that they could not be in a secular University setting. This enrichment of the task and agenda that defines Septuagint Studies would be a significant contribution to Septuagint Studies and the ministry of the Church.

In terms of timing we suggest that Septuagint Studies in Canada are at a crossroads. We are losing the most significant Canadian Centre for Septuagint Studies. Those scholars that have been instrumental in developing Septuagint Studies are eager to see their work continue in Canada. They have offered their libraries to the TWU/ACTS context to support Septuagint Studies if we were to commit to establish a Septuagint Studies graduate program and Institute. Further, there is a vacuum regarding Septuagint Studies in Canada that we can fill and do so in creative and innovative ways.

In the context of the SGS and GSTS of Trinity Western University we have four faculty who have Ph.D. level expertise in Septuagint Studies. This resource represents a unique clustering that exceeds even the level of support that the University of Toronto had to resource their Ph.D. in Septuagint Studies. We are well-positioned in this regard to be the Canadian Centre for Septuagint Studies.

There is another factor of timing that is significant. Through the work of many scholars the project to establish an edited text of the Septuagint is nearing completion. The only major segments of the Greek Old Testament that still lack such texts are Joshua through Chronicles and Psalms through Ecclesiastes. Work is progressing on some of this. So we are at a point in Septuagint Studies when the agenda can shift its focus to consider more intently the impact of this translation on the Jewish and Christian religious communities, as well as the emergence of the Septuagint as a literary artifact.

When we ask the question what Septuagint Studies contributes specifically to our understanding and advancement of the Believers’ Churches and their missions, the responses are complex. As with many aspects found within the curriculum we have designed to develop good ministry leaders within this part of the Evangelical spectrum, the connections emerge primarily because this tradition fits within the general stream of Christian orthodoxy. What Septuagint Studies contribute to our understanding of Jewish-Christian relations, the interpretation of sacred text, and the history of the emerging Church, it also contributes to the Believers’ Churches lodged within general Christian orthodoxy. The better we understand these elements, presumably the better we will understand the nature of the church, its mission, and its message.

Specifically, as we consider the recently revised statement of the Seven Believers’ Church principles that form the theological basis for the ACTS Consortium, Septuagint Studies relates primarily to:

Principle # 5 Belief in a high view of Scripture….the Holy Scriptures alone are fully authoritative and fully trustworthy as the very Word of God written. In Scripture God has given the Church a sufficient guide and final authority for all Christian teaching and practice.

In the Consortium agreement this gets translated into a statement of purpose that includes:

    • to uphold the Bible, as originally written, as the inerrant, infallible Word of God and to produce graduates thoroughly knowledgeable in the Word and competent in understanding, expounding, applying and communicating it.

As we have sought to outline in the paper, Septuagint Studies contribute substantially to achieving this part of our stated purpose. We seek to discern what Scriptures as originally written say and Septuagint Studies play an integral role in discerning this. Further if graduates are to be thoroughly knowledgeable in the Word, then some awareness and understanding of Septuagint Studies, particularly the dynamics of translation and its impact on interpretation must be part of this understanding. Finally, we emphasize the ability to understand and expound it (i.e. the Bible), as desired competencies and this requires some awareness of the Septuagint, particularly in terms of the New Testament implications.

There is a second area of purpose that Septuagint Studies will assist, namely:

    • to prepare ministry leaders and indeed the whole people of God to understand and address competently the Canadian and global cultural mosaics and to have a transforming impact on them through the Gospel.

As we have tried to express in this paper, Septuagint Studies in essence is a study in religious contextualization. The cultural diversity of the Hellenistic era in which Jewish and Christian people lived required careful and thoughtful response to relationship of their religious beliefs to the dominate cultures of their day. These issues remain for the church a significant challenge and Septuagint Studies provide many good examples of strategies employed to deal with such questions.

Finally, a specific purpose for the Consortium is:

    • to produce leaders….who are able to work cooperatively with fellow believers in other denominations to the glory of God and the building of the church of Jesus Christ.

The Believers’ Church tradition has not had much experience in relating to Eastern Orthodox traditions. However, with the increased movement of peoples around the world and the entry of much of Eastern Europe into the European Union, we will have to understand these traditions more adequately. Since their religious traditions build upon the Septuagint, the more we understand this part of our Christian heritage, the better we will be able to appreciate and understand the specific concerns of Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

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  • 1To what extent Jesus had access to and used Septuagint materials is a vexed question.

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