Why do Christian Bibles use the Hebrew Masoretic text and not the Greek Septuagint?

A link to a discussion on this question, with lots of information about the Septuagint.

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Or read answer on this website:

Which is more accurate: The Septuagint or the Masoretic text of the Old Testament?

While Leslie’s answer [EDIT: Leslie offered this terse summary: “Well, since the Septuagint is a translation of the original Hebrew, I would give the prize to the Masoretic Text”] seems intuitive enough and for much of the Hebrew Bible is true, there are problems with this statement for numerous reasons. This is because some parts of the Masoretic text have either suffered in transmission, even after centuries of copying and recopying, or the condition of the texts are at significant variance with the Septuagint. The catch here is that for much of the Septuagint, it is of course a translation, but of (what most scholars have now concluded to be) an EARLIER available set of Hebrew texts available to the 3rd through 1st century BC translators than what eventually was consolidated into the Masoretic text of the current Hebrew Bible/Tanakh/Old Testament nearly 1,000 years later. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls {DSS) showed that in fact little had changed for much (but not all) of the Hebrew Bible, but for the sake of example, here at least two cases of books that the Septuagint reading is often considered the “superior” reading. The first is the book of Joshua, which has numerous problems with its Masoretic side, but that are cleared up consistently on the Septuagint side. Some scholars even argue that the LXX of Joshua is more likely to be closer to whatever the original text was than what we now have in MT. Another would be 2 Samuel, where there are significant issues with the DSS version over the MT version, and again the LXX version may resolve issues. There are numerous textual issues even found in the Dead Sea Scrolls that make having the Septuagint an invaluable resource.

But there is an important caveat: there is not only ONE Septuagint version, what we have today are amalgams of the best readings from numerous manuscripts and two or three large codices, mainly the Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus. The clearly contain variances in numerous minor places between them, not all of them are “earth-shattering,” it may only reflect numerous issues that are common in textual criticism, and these problems have special names like dittography, homeoteleuton, etc. They often are not intentional but they reflect the fact that copyists and scribes are human and don’t always make perfect replicas, although it is the case that some copyists and scribes, sensing some problem or mistake MAY make an emendation, to a letter, a word, or add a word for clarity etc. It is a nuanced and complicated study.

The good news is that you can read an English translation of the Septuagint in at least three different versions that have been produced over the last 15–20 years, some fairly recent because of a (metaphoric) explosion of interest in Septuagint studies.

EDIT: For those interested in the English translations of the Septuagint text, there really are only four widely available in print, and the first of the four is Lancelot Brenton’s 1844 translation which has multiple issues too complicated to go into and is simply too dated for today’s readers, and may in fact do them more of a disservice.

The other three are the New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS), published by a committee of Oxford scholars in 2007 and revised 2009; the second is the Orthodox Study Bible, intended for those who are practicing Orthodox Christians and thus are relying on a consistent translation, and homiletic aids and comment based on Orthodox Christian dogma, published by Thomas Nelson in 2008; and the most recent is the Lexham Septuagint Bible, published most recently in 2019, which addresses the issues of these others and defends its purported advantages over these others. The NETS leaves the forms of names as they are written in Greek and not their more familiar English counterparts, and the Lexham people think that’s more of a distraction than an aid as an editorial decision. I think any of them do an admirable job in the work of translation itself, although the Orthodox Bible may confuse many Christians (and the Jewish community!) only familiar with Western Christian traditions and theology that have either derived from the Roman Church or during the Reformation and afterward. For the record, I have all of these as I am a Septuagint “hobbyist” (the word is not entirely misleading) with a background in Greek and Hebrew so it’s something I feel qualified to evaluate, besides copies of several of the Greek texts of the Septuagint itself.

EDIT: Thank you all for your continued views of this post, I never imagined it would be viewed more than 4k times! I hope that it has motivated at least more than a few people to order an English translation of the Septuagint for themselves to see just how different some texts can be, and in turn, this may offer insight into understanding more about the text itself.

EDIT 2 (Oct 28, 2022) I’ve added some additional clarifications. There are entire sections of the Society of Biblical Literature devoted to Septuagint [LXX] Studies, and each case of a variant can be considered and analyzed in great detail, whether it is the language used in a Psalm, additional or less text than that found in the Masoretic Text, some different phrasing, or even cases where it seems either the original that the Septuagint translators were looking at did not make clear sense, and so although a later Masoretic Editor might have emended it, what we have still persisting in the Greek is an effort of an earlier and possibly more authentic but less clear text.

EDIT 3 (August 10, 2023) Wow!! Almost 12.5 thousand views! I had no idea, when first writing this answer, that it would circulate steadily on Quora, most answers just get buried and the views cap off to virtually nothing. This post of mine and occasionally a few others apparently receive an average of over 500 views per week (according to Quora anyway), which gratifies me that so many Quora users out there find this information helpful and/or interesting, or worth their time in viewing, and in some cases, upvoting. Thank you all for your continued upvotes, I never imagined when I first worked on this, in the depths of the Pandemic, that over two YEARS later the post would continue to receive attention and appreciation. I am proud of the work I put into it because I think many students/readers of the Bible (outside of the Eastern Orthodox tradition readers) are surprised to find a whole dimension of these texts they may be unfamiliar with. Again, gratitude to you all, I hope that it has motivated more than a few fellow travelers to look closer into this fascinating and (IMO) somewhat underappreciated aspect of Biblical Studies.

EDIT 4: (August 30, 2023) I am aware of some updated English versions of Brenton’s 1851 translation of the Septuagint, something that has been going on for at least 20 (or more) years, first with modernizing or using conventional names, most recently the force behind the open-sourced World English Bible (WEB), Michael Paul Johnson, who himself is not really a translator, but a well-meaning editor whose ambition exceeds his scholastic abilities, that of a far more arduous task of actually creating a new translation based on the various manuscripts available. So as of 2022, Mr. Johnson (through ex Fontibus publishers, which name somewhat ironically means ‘from the sources’ in Latin, ironic when they are publishing a gloss of an 1851 translation!) has published essentially (his own) 3rd edition of Brenton’s translation, by doing some light literary housekeeping and possible even running software to simply change pronoun forms to current use, eliminate or simplify some floral excesses of Brenton’s style, but fundamentally do little in the way of making what is actually a *new* translation based on even an “eclectic” version of the source critical text. This is because (as scholars know) Brenton based his translation primarily on Codex Vaticanus without reference to the other “great uncials” (not least because not all Codices were known or available to him) including Codex Sinaiticus (re)discovered by Tischendorf in the 19th century, or a number of the other manuscripts or sources that have become available. In the world of scholarship and Biblical translation, simply updating an already existing (170 year old) translation regardless of comparing the sources behind that original translation does not itself offer a “new” translation, only a ‘simplified’ or modernized version of a dated one that may have its own inherent flaws. Something similar happened with the Douay-Rheims project, a translation of just the Latin Vulgate Bible (warts and all) with no reference to any textual or manuscript sources thought to be of greater reliability than the Vulgate itself. But that it is a different subject. Septuagint studies and scholarship have come a long way since Brenton translated Codex Vaticanus, the same way scholarship has come a long way since Erasmus’s efforts at creating a ‘Textus Receptus.” None of this “revising” process of publishing purportedly new translations is new; just as the WEB simply takes the 1901 Authorized Standard Version and updating it for ‘modern’ readers and putting it up as a free internet-based resource, the RSV itself is purportedly a revision of the KJV, and then the ESV a revision of that, etc etc.

My recommendation for the serious student not versed in ancient Greek would be to lean toward either the NETS or the Lexham translations at this point (unless you are Eastern Orthodox and you will have your reasons to rely on the Thomas Nelson text with glosses) as these have put the greatest amount of scholarly effort into putting together all the available textual resources.

EDIT 5 (January 18, 2024): Here we are, in 2024, and this answer continues to get upvoted and read, now over 17K views. If it has provided the least help to any of you out there, then my aspiration of bringing truth and stimulating interest in this topic will have been well met. And I can only imagine it has, for as esoteric a topic as this to have achieved over 50 upvotes, on something fairly involved and complex, is more than I truly ever imagined, let alone how many have viewed/read it.

Why did the gospel writers use the Septuagint, an “inferior" translation of the Old Testament?

The Septuagint was not an inferior Greek translation of the Old Testament. It was the only Greek translation of the Old Testament.

Until the point that Christians (of whom all the original leaders were Jews) picked it up, it was widely used in Jewish circles, and not considered to be controversial. If the New Testament writers had made their own translations, or used a ‘non-approved’ translation, then they would have been criticised or even ridiculed for ‘mistranslation’. So they used the received text among Greek-speaking Jews at the time.

The premise of the question is slightly faulty. The Septuagint, Dead Sea Scrolls and Masoretic text are our three early witnesses to the original Old Testament, but The Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) and the Septuagint (LXX) are significantly earlier than any of our manuscripts for the Masoretic text. There are a number of places where DSS and LXX agree—for example on the height of Goliath—and Masoretic text disagrees. If you take the Masoretic text as the sole, inspired, received version, then DSS and LXX ‘must be’ ‘wrong’. But, in fact, the height of Goliath makes a lot more sense in DSS and LXX, being at the upper end of human giantism, whereas Masoretic Text is outside that of any known human.

People sceptical of Christianity allege that many Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament in English are not in the ‘original’, but are LXX mistranslations. But this begs the question: it is just as likely that the received meanings and interpretations (and, in some cases, the text) were modified in the Masoretic text as that the LXX deliberately mistranslated only in ways conducive to Christianity.

This is not just about what the words are. It is also about what their best translation is, and what was accepted as their meaning at the time. Given that LXX was entirely translated by Jewish scholars, and was widely distributed among Hellenistic Jews, where the translation is freer, it forms an important earliest commentary on what inter-testamental scholars thought the text actually meant.

If you have not been trained in philology or textual criticism, or have little experience with ancient documents, it is easy to imagine that there are ‘clearly right’ and ‘clearly wrong’ translations. The vocabulary of the Old Testament is complex, and for any word which occurs only once, known as a hapax legomenon, a translator can follow earlier translations, or make etymological comparisons with other ancient languages, but, in some cases, for example the identity of particular animals, we actually don’t know. This doesn’t affect anything doctrinal, but it does mean that all arguments on the lines of ‘the Bible is wrong because it misdescribes the behaviour of rabbits’ are subject to the simple riposte ‘in that case the word must have meant something else to the original writer’. It is extremely unlikely that misdescription of the behaviour of rabbits would have survived generations of copyists. Our examples of medieval copyists reveal that copyists are all too ready to correct ‘mistakes’, sometimes because they simply misunderstood what they were copying.

By the time of Christ, Hebrew was already a dead language. The translators of the Septuagint were much closer to Hebrew as a living language. There are some arguments about the exact date of the translation, but it would be fair to say that the Septuagint translators ought to have had an intrinsically better understanding of meaning than anybody from the first century onwards. Scholarly glosses during the middle ages, or even the Talmuds compiled at the end of the 4th century AD, were much further removed. While some scholars will insist that the Septuagint is wrong on passages of controversy between Christians and Jews, this is really no more than stating that the controversies are unresolved.

© OTR 2023