The First Bible of the Church: A Plea for the Septuagint (JSOTSS 206)

Written by Mogens Müller Reviewed By D.L.E. Anderson

‘What makes us so certain today that it is the Hebrew text that represents the Old Testament in a Christian context?… Today it is an open question whether the Septuagint should be reinstalled as the Old Testament of the Church’ (p. 7). Beginning with this thesis, Mogens Müller, Professor of NT Exegesis at the University of Copenhagen, examines the roles played by the Hebrew OT and the Septuagint in the life of the early Church, and questions the validity of the continuing predominance of the Hebrew text in the Church today.

Müller divides his book into seven chapters. In the introduction he begins with a look at the differences between the Jewish Bible and the Christian Bible. The Jewish Bible is the Hebrew OT. The Christian Bible however, is Old and New Testaments together; and the OT of the NT writers appears to have been the Septuagint. ‘These circumstances should be borne in mind when it comes to deciding what the Old Testament really is in a biblical theological context’ (p. 19).

With this in mind, he surveys various aspects of the formation of the OT. ‘It has been acknowledged that, at least until c. CE 70, the Hebrew Bible text was to some extent fluid, that is, there was a plurality of Bible texts’ (p. 35), and there is evidence for a relationship between the Septuagint and the Samaritan Pentateuch, the two other important text-forms of the OT, as over against the Hebrew. Thus, the Hebrew should not be elevated to such a position as to exclude the testimony of the Greek.

Even as the Masoretes were standardizing the Hebrew consonantal text, other Jews were defending the Greek translation of the Law. In Chapter 3 Müller quotes Aristeas, Aristobulus, Philo and Josephus in this connection. ‘In none of these authors … is there any indication that the Greek version is understood as incomplete or secondary’ (p. 66).

Müller goes on to quote several early Church writers who not only accepted the Septuagint, but also accepted the Aristeas legend regarding its translation. But ‘parallel to its adoption … the obsession with the Hebrew canon continued to grow’ (pp. 78–9). Müller gives equal time to the writers from this period and several others from the early years of the Reformation period who accepted the Hebrew to the exclusion of the Greek. However, ‘it may be said that the Septuagint continued to exert a substantial indirect impact on the translation practice of the Protestant Church, in particular because of the traces it left in the NT’ (p. 97).

In Chapter 5, Müller discusses various aspects of the Greek over against the Hebrew. The Greek Bible was the only Bible for Christians who did not know Hebrew, and it left its stamp on the vocabulary of the early Church. ‘In a biblical theological context the Septuagint does in fact convey, more convincingly than Biblia Hebraica, what the NT authors understood as their Holy Writ’ (pp. 120–1). In Chapter 6 he deals with the biblical theological impact of the OT, particularly in its Greek translation, on the NT, and gives several examples of this.

Müller concludes by stating that ‘it is theologically unrealistic, seen from a tradition-historical viewpoint, to replace the Greek Bible version by a Biblia Hebraica …’ (p. 143). Although Müller does not convince Christians to abandon Biblia Hebraica for the Septuagint, and indeed does not seem to have this intention, he does give Christians ample reason for including the Septuagint in their biblical studies.

D.L.E. Anderson

Morden, Surrey