In the late-to-mid third century BC, a group of Jewish translators gathered together in Alexandria to begin a Greek translation of Old Testament books. Because of the tradition that there were around 70 translators assigned to the task, the work was given the name Septuagint (sometimes called LXX, after the Roman numeral). Much later on, in the early seventeenth century AD, a group of English translators would meet to begin the translation of the Authorized Version (AV), which would become known historically as the King James Version (KJV). Since their conceptions, both translations have experienced similar traditions and misconceptions regarding how they developed and what, exactly, they are. Sometimes they are used as a kind of supreme authority or standard, while other times they are worshiped almost like gods. I thought it would be worth going over some of the comparative problems that occur regarding these two translations.
It should be noted that this is examining the beliefs stemming from King James Onlyism and what one might call “Septuagint-Onlyism,” or at the very least the more extreme opinions of those who adhere to the Septuagint. This is not meant as an attack against those who personally like the KJV as a favored translation, nor against those who study the Septuagint or appreciate it as a historical document relevant to the study of scripture.
1) The translators were divinely inspired.
The most extreme of KJV-Onlyists believe that God Himself had a hand in the translation of the book, so much so that some have claimed “[so-called] mistakes in the A.V. 1611 are advanced revelation” (pg. 19; Ankerberg). By contrast, the original KJV translators saw themselves in a much more humble light. In an introduction to the first edition of the KJV, entitled The Translators to the Reader, the authors of the KJV said “a variety of translation is profitable for finding out the sense of the Scriptures,” meaning that reviewing other translations besides the KJV was helpful in determining the original wording of scripture. One of the guidelines given the translators, in fact, was that they were to review previous translations (including Tyndale’s and Geneva’s) when dealing with more difficult passages (pg. 71; White). The translators of the original AV certainly did not consider themselves higher or better than any translator who had come before them, nor any that would come after. They considered their translation one in a great line of English translations, and recognized as language developed that many more translations would be needed in the centuries to come.
With the Septuagint, there are many traditions surrounding its creation. One of the most popular is that the 72 translators came from Palestine and were placed on an island until their task was completed. Another tradition says that each translator worked alone, shared their results, and found they had miraculously come out with the exact same wording all 72 times. A more “refined” version of this tradition says that the 72 translators broke up into teams of twos, and each group of twos came up with the exact same wording. However, the language of the Septuagint suggests it was not done by Palestinian Jews, as “there are words and expressions which plainly denote its Alexandrian origin” (pg. ii; Brenton). Also, the tradition regarding the translators breaking up and coming up with the exact same wording for their translation holds little historical merit.
Some have proposed that, because the New Testament writers used the Septuagint, the translation must have a divine source. In fact, the New Testament writers were not always reliant upon the Septuagint:
In the consequence of the fact that the New Testament writers used on many occasions the Septuagint version, some have deduced a new argument for its authority, – a theory which we might have thought to be sufficiently disproved by the defects of the version, which evince that it is merely a human work. But the fact that the New Testament writers used this version on many occasions supplies a new proof in opposition to the idea of its authority, for in not a few places they do not follow it, but they supply a version of their own which rightly represents the Hebrew text, although contradicting the Septuagint. [pg. iv, Brenton]
Some of these changes are fairly minor. For example, in Christ’s use of Deuteronomy 6:13 in Matthew 4:10, it states at the end “and serve him only” (NASB). However, the word “only” (monos in the original Greek) is not in the Septuagint translation – it was added here as emphasis, given the context of Christ being tempted to worship Satan.
2) There has only been one version of the translation throughout history.
Many KJV-Onlyists have the idea that the KJV they hold in their hand is the same KJV that was published in 1611, and thus for more than three hundred years the English translation hasn’t seen a single change. This simply isn’t true – the version which the vast majority of people use today is actually the 1769 edition, completed some 158 years after the first edition of the KJV. Compare Genesis 1:2 with the two versions:
And the earth was without forme, and voyd, and darkenesse was vpon the face of the deepe: and the Spirit of God mooued vpon the face of the waters. [1611 printing]
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. [1769 printing]
While the overall context stays the same for the most part, there are major changes to spelling and punctuation. There are bigger differences still – for example: Psalm 69:32 originally read “seeke good” in the 1611 edition, while the 1769 edit changed it to “seek God”; Jeremiah 49:1 originally read “inherit God” in the 1611 edition, while the 1769 edit changed it to “inherit Gad.”
This doesn’t cover that, up until the 1769 edition, there were dozens of editions of the KJV printed. In fact, a new edition of the KJV was printed the very next year, in 1612. These later editions were not always perfect – one contemporary source made the claim that, of the six editions of the KJV printed in the 1650’s, over 20,000 errors could be found (pg. 78; White). Some of these were even “embarrassing printing errors”:
The 1613 printing omitted the word “not” from the seventh commandment, inadvertently “encouraging” people to commit adultery. This King James edition became known as the “Wicked Bible.” Another printing of the KJV became known as the “Unrighteous Bible” because it stated that the unrighteous will inherit the kingdom of heaven. And a few printing errors continue to occur in the KJV and other versions today. [pg. 13; Ankerberg]
In the same fashion, some believe that the Septuagint they hold in their hand is the exact same Septuagint that has been seen throughout history, right from its publication down through the Church Fathers. I touched on this in another post, but it’s worth going over again here. In essence, the idea that the copy of what we have today that is known as “the Septuagint” is the same as what was first translated by the initial seventy translators is simply false. Many seem to think that Church Fathers were walking around with one copy of the Septuagint under their arms, and they were all pretty much the same – such a mindset is likewise false.
For one, the initial translation of the Septuagint was simply the Law, not the entire Old Testament. The rest of the books were translated somewhat piecemeal throughout the next hundred years, and while we don’t know the exact date of when all books were completed, the prologue from the Wisdom of Sirach suggests that the entirety of the Old Testament was completed sometime by the second century BC, so that by the time of Christ the Old Testament was readily available in Greek.
Even after this, the history of the Septuagint is not complete, for three major revisions happened afterward: the first, by a Jewish proselyte named Aquila, in the early second century AD; the second, in the late second century AD, by a Jewish convert named Theodotion; the third, by a Samaritan convert to Judaism named Symmachus. The revision by Theodotion is especially important for this discussion, as his version was actually used many times by Church Fathers (such as Justin Martyr) over and against the wording of the “original” Septuagint. His version of Daniel was especially widely used by Christian apologists and theologians. Among the Jews in Asia Minor and the Middle East, the version of the Septuagint by Aquila became popular and was used as their “official” version of the Septuagint well into the Middle Ages.
This is not to say that we have absolutely no idea what the Septuagint said – we simply have to be careful when we say “Church Fathers quoted the Septuagint” or “early Christians used the Septuagint.” It’s a much more complicated situation than we may realize.
3) The translation is pure and nearly without error.
A lot of people believe that the KJV is the most pure and undefiled version of the Bible available, but the plain facts present a problem with this assumption.
For one, the KJV is based on far less manuscripts than modern-day translations. Whereas today we have over 5500 manuscripts to use in translating and studying the New Testament, the translators of the KJV had only five or six late manuscripts (12th-14th century). While the overall message and theology of the KJV and later manuscripts differs little from modern translations and earlier manuscripts, there are significant results of this. One is the inclusion of major textual variants, many of which are not considered to be part of the earliest manuscripts and readings. The most famous example of this is the longer reading of 1 John 5:7, aka the Comma Johanneum, which was believed to have been introduced through a note on a Latin manuscript and hence is not original.
For another, there are noticeable translation errors within the KJV. Some are perceived contradictions within scripture that do not exist in the original Greek (cf. Acts 9:7 versus 22:9 in the KJV). Others are supposed references to mythical animals, such as unicorns (Nu 23:22, De 33:17, etc.) and satyrs (Isa 13:21; 34:14). Some critics of Christianity have used the KJV’s mention of unicorns and satyrs against the Bible, not seeming to realize that the original text doesn’t speak of such animals; on the other hand, some KJV-Onlyists, in an attempt to respond to this dilemma, have gone so far as to try to prove unicorns existed!
In regards to the Septuagint, it has been said by some that it is one of the most accurate translations of the Old Testament into another language. In actuality, modern scholars are often critical of the accuracy of some of the books. It must be remembered, as explained earlier, that the Septuagint was a translation over time, with only the books of the Law being completed first, with the others completed bit by bit over time, most likely by different parties. We are able to discern different translators because of the varying skills and styles of translating found within it.
The variety of the translators is proved by the unequal character of the version: some books show that the translators were by no means competent to the task, while others, on the contrary, exhibit on the whole a careful translation. The Pentateuch is considered to be the part the best executed, while the book of Isaiah appears to be the very worst. [pg. iii; Brenton]
Even contemporaries of the Septuagint offered some constructive criticism regarding its language. While discussing the translation of his grandfather’s work from the original Hebrew into Greek, the author of the Wisdom of Sirach makes reference to the Septuagint in his introduction:
You are urged therefore to read with good will and attention, and to be indulgent in cases where, despite out diligent labor in translating, we may seem to have rendered some phrases imperfectly. For what was originally expressed in Hebrew does not have exactly the same sense when translated into another language. Not only this work, but even the law itself, the prophecies, and the rest of the books differ not a little as originally expressed. [source]
Some of the errors in the Septuagint especially came out during Jerome’s translation of the original Hebrew text into the Latin Vulgate.
In the early fifth century Jerome provided a fresh translation of the Old Testament in Latin. What made his work unique was that it was based not upon the Greek Septuagint version, but upon the actual Hebrew of the original Old Testament. Jerome was one of the very few early Christians who was able to read both Greek and Hebrew. As he translated from the Hebrew, his version varied both in content (the LXX having some additions and some deletions when compared with the Hebrew text) and in style (Jerome did not feel he had to accept every interpretive translation that was to be found in the Septuagint)…One aspect of his work that caused consternation among the people was that he did not use the traditional translation in the book of Jonah regarding the “gourd.” The Hebrew is difficult here, and Jerome decided not to follow the LXX’s identification of the plant as the “gourd,” but instead followed the Palestinian Jewish understanding and identified it as the caster-oil plant. [pg. 11; White]
Some have attempted to put forward that the Septuagint is a far more accurate translation than the Hebrew Masoretic Text, based on a conspiracy theory that the Jews purposefully changed their scripture to take out all references to Jesus. While it is true that there are some moments in the Masoretic Text where the Jewish scribes clearly wanted to minimize the potential of Christian use, and did so in the process of adding the vowel marks, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has shed greater light on the accuracy of the Masoretic Text. It has shown that, by and large, the wording of the Old Testament has remained fairly consistent between the years before Christ and the years after Christ.
Keep in mind that all of this is not saying that the KJV or Septuagint are completely unusable. No translation is perfect, and some are more flawed than others. The key is identifying where these flaws are and being able to deal with them if they come up. It is also important to know, when the enemies of Christ turn to finding flaws in his written word, where they are attacking something on the basis of what is said, and where they are attacking something on the basis of how it was translated.
Ankerberg, John and John Weldon. The Facts on the King James Only Debate. Eugene: Harvest House, 1996.
Brenton, Sir Lancelot C.L. The Septuagint with Apocrypha: Greek and English. Peabody: Hendrickson, 2009.
White, James. The King James Only Controversy. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1995.