Why Does My New Testament Quote the Old Testament Incorrectly?
by Clark Bates
Have you ever been reading in the New Testament and read a passage where Paul or Matthew, or another writer, quotes from the Old Testament, and you turn to the passage in your Old Testament only to find that it doesn’t sound anything like that? I certainly have. For many years that puzzled me, and I have little doubt that it might puzzle you too. Perhaps you’ve just been told that it’s because they used the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) in Jesus’ day. While this is certainly true, a little more information might help you come to terms with some of the differences you find and how you can explain them to others.
How the Septuagint came to be
It’s an established fact that the Old Testament in use during the time of Jesus and his apostles was the Greek Old Testament, commonly referred to, today, as the Septuagint or LXX. The advent of the Greek Old Testament is surrounded largely with mythology, the most popular account coming from a 2nd Century BC, Jewish pseudepigraphical work called “The Letter of Aristeas”. In the “Letter” the story is told that 72 Jewish elders came from Palestine to Alexandria to translate the Torah (first five books) into Greek. It’s said that they completed the work in 72 days and all did so separately without collaboration resulting in a miraculous unanimity between each text.
Now this story is, of course, rejected on historical grounds, but it’s likely that it still contains a kernel of historical truth. It would be likely that, under the patronage of the 2nd century ruler Ptolemy II, Jewish scribes would have been tapped, due to their knowledge of Hebrew, to translate the Torah into Greek. A large portion of the Israelite community was Hellenized at this stage of history and growing increasingly illiterate of their original Hebrew dialect. The need for a “Hebrew” Bible in the language of the people was evident. In keeping with the myth, it does also seem accurate that the initial translation into Greek was the Torah.
As time went on, other books were translated, the Prophets being the next most likely candidate, in keeping with synagogue custom of reading a section of each during service. As the synagogues became increasingly Hellenistic, they would have needed readings translated into Greek for their Greek speaking congregation. The next group of books to be translated would have been the Writings (Psalms, Proverbs, Eccl…) although it’s largely thought that the Writings weren’t quite complete by the time of Jesus, which could give some credence to his references to the OT in a bifurcated way (law and prophets) rather than a threefold division (law, prophets and writings) common in later records.
It was around this time that some of the work that we call the Apocrypha were also translated…
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