Good Enough for Paul the Apostle

By Don Stoner, Revision: 2008/01/20

There is an old joke, still making the rounds, which goes, "If the King James Bible was good enough for Paul the Apostle, it's good enough for me." The King James Version of the Bible is admittedly an excellent translation; in fact it was the best English translation of its day. But however good the K.J.V. is, it is obviously not the Bible Paul the Apostle used; neither the English language nor the New Testament canon existed in Paul's day (and then there are Paul's letters themselves). The Bible normally used by the early Christians was the Septuagint (also called the seventy or LXX); it was a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament Scriptures.

As Christians today often praise the King James translation, likewise the Jews once honored the LXX. In fact, the Jewish writer Philo considered the LXX to be inspired. According to one ancient document, the first five books of the LXX were the work of 72 translators, 6 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel, all working in separate cells, and each translating the whole. As the account goes, in the end all of their versions were identical. Whether or not this account is historically accurate, it illustrates the high respect the Jews once held for the LXX. It was essentially the "Authorized Version" of the Scriptures for Greek speaking Jews until about the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.

But by that time, something had happened which changed this; the promised Messiah had appeared on the scene. His immediate followers, the Greek-speaking first century Christians, also held the LXX in very high regard. Like the Jews, they attached some degree of divine inspiration to it. They used the LXX, not the Hebrew texts, in their defense and propagation of the Christian faith. When they quoted the prophecies which had predicted the Messiah, it was from the LXX, not the Hebrew.

From the evidence, it appears that the Jewish Scribes and Pharisees responded, not by accepting their Messiah, but by dropping the LXX from use. The version which had once been held in highest esteem was suddenly regarded as an evil work. Before the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem, there were still many slightly different variations of the Hebrew Old Testament in use. This is because any popular work, the LXX included, existed in different variations back when all copies were made by hand; copying errors were simply unavoidable. It appears that, at this time, the Jews began to pick through the different Hebrew variations and put together what they considered to be the "best" edition of the text. Most other variations of the Hebrew text were then allowed to disappear. (The process could have been as innocent as failing to copy them as they wore out).

Following AD 70, it became increasingly difficult to find Hebrew manuscripts which did not meet with Jewish approval. The alternate variations which did not disappear include the Samaritan Pentateuch, which was preserved outside Jewish circles, and the lost and forgotten (since about 70 A.D.) Dead Sea Scrolls.

The early Christians continued to use the LXX for the first few hundred years of the Church age; then Latin became the dominant language. The first Latin translations were made from the LXX, not from Hebrew manuscripts. The Greek Church did not ever drop the LXX, but still uses it to this day.

Back to the Hebrew

Then in the year AD 382, Pope Damasus commissioned Eusebius Hieronymus, better known as St. Jerome, to produce a better Latin translation of the Bible. Jerome began the job using the LXX as his source text; but he later decided that it would be better to go directly to the Hebrew text from which the LXX was originally translated. In this way he hoped to avoid one layer of translation error. This was no small undertaking since Jerome, although he was the leading biblical language scholar of his day, had almost no support; he was thought to be the only Christian scholar in the West who had sufficient knowledge of Hebrew to accomplish this translation.

Working essentially alone, without the aid of lexicons or grammars, Jerome translated the entire Old Testament from what he believed to be the original Hebrew. Unfortunately, the only Hebrew text available by this time was not exactly the "original"; it was, of course, the one in the care and keeping of the Scribes, Pharisees and Rabbis. To make matters worse, some help in translation must have come from Jewish sources as well.

Original languages are normally expected to be more accurate than translations made from them; but because the Jews were motivated to find evidence that Jesus was not their Messiah, this may not quite have been true of their "approved" Hebrew text. In this case the LXX might be more true to the real original Hebrew than the surviving Jewish "original" Hebrew text is. As will be shown, evidence from the surviving fragments of Hebrew text from the Dead Sea Scrolls appears to add support to this possibility.

In any case, Jerome translated the entire Old Testament from the Jewish Hebrew text. Not surprisingly, Jerome's translation differed in many places from the Old Latin version (translated from the LXX) to which the Church had become accustomed; as a result, it was not readily accepted. For one lively example, his use of the Latin for "ivy" (hedera) instead of "gourd" (cucurbita), in Jonah 4:6, actually caused a riot in one North African church.

For a more serious example, Jerome's translation greatly bothered Saint Augustine. Augustine believed that, "seventy united witnesses spoke with more authority than one, even if that one was as learned as Jerome" (catching some of the flavor of their disagreement). In an AD 403 letter to Jerome, Augustine expressed a strong desire that Jerome should do his translation from the LXX instead of the Hebrew text, fearing a consequent split between the Greek and Latin churches. Jerome responded at length to Augustine, defending his work - which he went on to complete in AD 405.

Jerome's work was not accepted immediately, but came to be accepted over time. By the eighth century, and with some compromises to the Old Latin, it had become the Latin Vulgate ("editio vulgata" or "common version") - the standard Bible of the Roman Catholic Church. Following its acceptance, the Church essentially ignored the Greek and Hebrew languages for hundreds of years.

With more recent times came renewed interest in original languages. Following Jerome's lead, most new translations were done from the Masoretic text (as the Jewish Hebrew text had, by this time, come to be called), and not from the LXX. The LXX had fallen from favor in the western world: first with the Jews, next with the Roman Catholic Church, and then with the Protestant Churches as they appeared. At present, the LXX is considered by most Christians to be merely a secondary text, being more of historic than textual significance. Few would be willing to give up their K.J.V., N.A.S. or N.I.V. Old Testaments (all translated from the Masoretic text) in favor of a translation from the LXX.

Have we Made a Mistake?

The question must be asked, "Were we right in abandoning the LXX, or have we made a mistake?" Maybe it's time for us to take another look at our modern Old Testaments and compare their merits with those of the LXX. Here are a few places where our modern Bibles differ from the LXX:

Example 1:

Hebrews 1:6 says, "And again, when he bringeth his first begotten into the world he saith, And let all the angels of God worship him." Where does the author of Hebrews find this admonition that the angles of God should worship the first begotten? The early Christians found Old Testament support for these words in Deut. 32:43 of their LXX; we have none in our modern Old Testaments. Which is correct, the LXX or the Jewish Masoretic text? A discovery of a fragment of a Hebrew manuscript of Deuteronomy in cave four of Qumran (one of the Dead Sea Scrolls) confirms that this LXX reading was based on an actual ancient Hebrew document and was not an accidental addition made by the LXX translators. It appears that the Pharisees may have stopped copying all manuscripts which contained the critical lines (and consequently, dropped those lines from our modern Bibles as well). In this case, it appears, it might be better to use the LXX than our modern Bibles.

Example 2:

When Luke quotes the genealogies in the 3rd chapter of his Gospel, we find differences between them and the genealogies found in Genesis 5 and 11 of our modern Old Testaments. This is because Luke copied his genealogies from his Old Testament which was, of course, a LXX. Hebrew texts representing both the LXX and Masoretic variations have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Which version is the more accurate? Perhaps Luke's authority breaks the tie here. He had personally spent time with Jesus and could easily have had some insight concerning which source to quote.

Example 3:

In Acts 15:16-17, James defends the work of the Holy Spirit among the Gentiles by quoting from the prophets (specifically from Amos 9:11,12). When we compare the words of James with Amos, as found in our modern Old Testaments, we might get the impression that James cannot quote scripture very accurately; the key word "Gentiles" is not found at all. But, of course, James was quoting the LXX, not the Masoretic text.

In many cases the LXX has been borne out by the Hebrew found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and in many cases the Masoretic text is not. We begin to get the impression that the Jews, after rejecting their Messiah, may not have been such careful custodians of the Old Testament as we have been led to believe.

The Consequences

Even if the King James Bible wasn't really the Bible Paul the Apostle carried, it is still a very good English translation. To those of us who are accustomed to its archaic language, its faults are few and far between. But faults do exist and many of them appear to be the indirect work of the Scribes, Pharisees and Rabbis. The Septuagint, by contrast, really was the Bible used by the New Testament writers (especially by Luke and the author of Hebrews).

Consider how the LXX might influence the translation of Isaiah 7:14, "Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." The LXX uses a Greek word for "virgin" which can only mean "virgin." By comparison, the Masoretic text uses a word which can also mean "young maiden." A translator who considers the LXX to be authoritative does not need to make any concessions to the liberal "possibilities" concerning the translation of this verse. (There still remains the question of which interpretation best fits the surrounding context.)

On the down side, it appears that Goliath of Gath may have been only about six-foot-eight (I Sam. 17:4). This is the height given by the LXX and confirmed by the Samuel "a" text from Qumran's cave four. Goliath appears to have "grown" to his modern nine-foot-eight-inch height under the care of the Scribes, Pharisees and Rabbis. More specifically, it looks like an exhausted scribe accidentally copied the "six" from the nearby phrase "six hundred" (verse 7) into the phrase "four cubits"; the two are close together in the text and have very similar spellings in the Hebrew (hundred="meah", cubits="ammah"). The evidence suggests that this scribal error may have happened sometime between the transcription of the Qumran texts and the time of the Latin translation by Jerome.

This loss in height may be painful to some Christians; but it does not have any real substance. Six-eight and fleshed out like a warrior is a very literal "giant" to any man considering single combat. Six-eight would have been even more impressive considering the probable nutritional level and consequent average height of the Israelites about 3000 years ago. It would have been more impressive still to a young shepherd boy like David. The literal truth of the Bible is not genuinely challenged by this minor adjustment.

Even so, Goliath's two-cubit loss is still upsetting - particularly since it challenges an old comfortable belief; but if a six-foot-eight Goliath was good enough for Paul the Apostle, then maybe it ought to be good enough for the rest of us as well. At one time we didn't have any trouble believing in a nine-foot Goliath; now that the evidence tells us otherwise, we shouldn't have any trouble believing in one who was "merely" six-eight. It's not as if this new understanding stretches our credibility past the breaking point. There is simply nothing impossible about Goliath being six-eight. So why does it bother us so much?

The loss of stability in what we are expected to believe is what is unsettling to us; but we must remember that the Truth itself never changed. In fact there are Christians who never made the same mistake we did; Goliath has never ceased to be six-foot-eight to the Greek Church. The Truth is the same forever whether or not we as individuals, or even as an English-speaking people, ever get it right. We would like to believe that our favorite English translations are every bit as inspired as the original writings were; but apparently this is not the case. The translators of the K.J.V. certainly never claimed such a high level of inspiration for themselves.

Even so, we don't really need to run out and replace all our modern translations with translations from the LXX; the LXX is not a perfect reflection of the original biblical text either. The LXX, like any ancient manuscript, exists in many slightly different versions due to copying errors. Also, it is merely a translation and therefore cannot exactly reflect the original. Rejecting the King James and blindly accepting the LXX is not the solution. What is needed is the caution recommended in 1 Thess. 5:21, "Test everything." There is no workable substitute for careful testing and study.

God is certainly able to preserve His word; and it is even likely that He has actually chosen to. But we must realize that this does not mean that our relatively modern K.J.V. is always correct and the LXX, used for nearly two thousand years by the Greek Church, is simply wrong.

The Truth never changes; but we are not always as well informed as we would like to believe. We Christians must be flexible enough to change our positions when we discover we have made mistakes. We may not be comfortable with Truth which is different from what we were taught as children; but then we have no promise that the Truth is something which we will always be comfortable with. In any case, when differences come to light, we, not the Truth, must change.