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Sola Scriptura and the Greek Old Testament

I invite those who hold to the principle of Sola Scriptura to consider what role the Greek Old Testament should play within that Sola. For those who might be unfamiliar with it, the Greek Old Testament is also called the “Septuagint.” Due to the wide impact of their work, I offer below the 1611 King James Version translators’ comments on the Septuagint, explaining why the Apostles used the Septuagint. The “Seventie” in the following quotes refers to those who translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek. Their spelling is retained, beginning in sentence 7 of paragraph 7:

Therefore the word of God being set foorth in Greeke, becommeth hereby like a candle set upon a candlesticke, which giveth light to all that are in the house, or like a proclamation sounded foorth in the market place, which most men presently take knowledge of; and therefore that language was fittest to containe the Scriptures, both for the first Preachers of the Gospel to appeale unto for witnesse, and for the learners also of those times to make search and triall by.

It is certaine, that the Translation was not so sound and so perfect, but that it needed in many places correction; and who had bene so sufficient for this worke as the Apostles or Apostolike men?

Yet it seemed good to the holy Ghost and to them, to take that which they found, (the same being for the greatest part true and sufficient) rather then by making a new, in that new world and greene age of the Church, to expose themselves to many exceptions and cavillations, as though they made a Translation to serve their owne turne, and therefore bearing witnesse to themselves, their witnesse not to be regarded. This may be supposed to bee some cause, why the Translation of the Seventie was allowed to passe for currant.1

Sentence 16 of the same chapter ends thus:

“the Seventie were Interpreters, they were not Prophets; they did many things well, as learned men; but yet as men they stumbled and fell, one while through oversight, another while through ignorance, yea, sometimes they may be noted to adde to the Originall, and sometimes to take from it; which made the Apostles to leave them many times, when they left the Hebrew, and to deliver the sence thereof according to the trueth of the word, as the spirit gave them utterance. This may suffice touching the Greeke Translations of the old Testament.”2

One more relevant comment comes in sentences 11-12 of paragraph 13:

“The translation of the Seventie dissenteth from the Originall in many places, neither doeth it come neere it, for perspicuitie, gratvitie, majestie; yet which of the Apostles did condemne it? Condemne it? Nay, they used it, (as it is apparent, and as Saint Jerome and most learned men doe confesse) which they would not have done, nor by their example of using it, so grace and commend it to the Church, if it had bene unworthy the appellation and name of the word of God.”3

To summarize the KJV translators’ points:

  • The Apostles used the Septuagint.
  • The Septuagint was correct for the most part, but had many errors.
  • The Apostles corrected the Septuagint where it varied from the Hebrew.
  • The Apostles graced and commended the Septuagint to the Church.
  • The Apostles deemed the Septuagint worthy of the title “word of God.”

 

PROBLEM FOR THE KJV TRANSLATORS

According to the 1611 KJV translators,the Apostles used the Greek Old Testament not only because of the popularity of the Greek language in that century, but also to avoid accusations that they had created their own translation. Yet the KJV translators admitted that the Apostles did change many Old Testament passages when the Septuagint “left the Hebrew.” Yet where the Apostles differed from the Septuagint, they did not usually favor the Hebrew. Likewise, the Apostles most often favored the Greek Old Testament when quoting passages that differed between the Greek and Hebrew.4 Thus, the 1611 KJV translators contradicted themselves in two ways:

  1. The Apostles’ use of the Septuagint could not protect them (as claimed) from accusations of changing Scripture, since the Apostles did change Scripture (by the admission of the KJV translators).
  2. The Apostles did not favor the Hebrew when quoting and changing the Old Testament, begging the question which the KJV translators attempted to answer: why did the Apostles often change the Septuagint text when quoting it?

I addressed these questions in a previous article. To put it briefly, the early church considered the Greek Septuagint translation to be at least equal5 in divine inspiration, in comparison to the original Old Testament. Early Christians explicitly considered the omissions and additions in the Greek Old Testament to have been inspired by the Holy Spirit.6 If the early Church was right about the divine inspiration of the Greek Septuagint, then the same inspiration process explains why the Apostles changed the wording of the Old Testament when referencing it in the New Testament. The Apostles brought new truth to light which been hidden in both the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek Old Testament.

 

SOLA SCRIPTURA AND THE GREEK OLD TESTAMENT

I began with the KJV translators’ view of the Greek Old Testament because their approach to Scripture shaped a longstanding disregard of the Septuagint, especially among English speakers. If I have adequately addressed the KJV translators’ approach, then those who hold to Sola Scriptura have three very good reasons to contemplate what role the Greek Old Testament should serve within that Sola.

First, the Apostles favored the Septuagint in their references to the Old Testament in the New Testament. Plenty of research is readily available to corroborate that point.7 Second, the Apostles referred to the Septuagint as “the word of God,”8 therefore Sola Scriptura demands an explanation as to why Scriptura applies that title to a version of Scripture that is generally ignored within the Sola crowd.

Third, the early Church deemed the Septuagint to be divinely inspired.9 Not all, but many (if not most) who hold to Sola Scriptura also idealize the early church and seek to return to the faith of the early church, not knowing that the early Christian faith considered the Septuagint text to be divinely inspired. As referenced in the previous article, I do not argue for the Septuagint to utterly replace the Masoretic Hebrew. Yet the widespread ignorance of the Greek Old Testament among modern Christians does not reconcile easily with the facts surrounding the Septuagint’s treatment by the Apostles and the early Church.

 

OBSTACLES TO THE GREEK OLD TESTAMENT

When considering why Protestants tend to neglect the Greek Old Testament, three concerns stand out. First, the Reformers sought out the original languages as a means of correcting perceived errors in Roman Catholicism. Since the Reformers appear to have erred in relying on the Hebrew, a modern embrace of the Septuagint among Protestants will include admitting a rather serious error by some of their historic heroes. None of the five branches of Christianity easily admit fault in their traditions, so this hurdle is not exclusive to the Sola Scriptura branch of the Faith.

Second, Protestant leaders generally (and strangely) do not offer courses in ancient Greek to their congregants. I cannot fathom why leaders who proclaim Sola Scriptura would omit teaching believers how to read the purest extant form of Scriptura.10 If ancient Greek were more widely taught, then Protestants would quickly see how Greek Old Testament language plays into New Testament prophecy. As just one example, the Apostles quoted Moses from the Septuagint as using the New Testament word for “resurrection” when he prophesied of Jesus: “The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me…” (emphasis added; Acts 3:22; Deuteronomy 18:15).

Finally, the canon of the Greek Old Testament looms over how one views the Septuagint. If Protestants were to reconcile the Apostolic use of the Greek Old Testament with Sola Scriptura, then perhaps Protestant leaders fear that congregants might question the number of books found in the Septuagint. Yet even Martin Luther called those other books “profitable and good to read.” A considered reconciling of the Greek Septuagint with Sola Scriptura might get proponents of Sola Scriptura into “profitable and good to read” books.11 Therefore if the canon is a concern, it is also an opportunity for spiritual profit.

If you personally hold to Sola Scriptura, have you considered the prevalence of the Septuagint in New Testament Scriptura? If so, then how do you view the Greek Old Testament in light of that Sola?

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Matthew Bryan

Matthew Bryan

Matthew is a post-Protestant disciple of Jesus, an avid disciple-maker, a father of 2 grown men, and the delighted husband of Kristy. He holds a Bachelor of Science summa cum laude from the University of Memphis and has authored 3 books. A former church planter, Matthew now serves within the Restoration Movement. He enjoys reading the letters of Desiderius Erasmus, learning the history of empires, and encouraging believers to take up Biblical Greek for the twin purposes of clarity and unity.