Are Levites Needed to Validate Scripture?

by Jimmy Akin

in +Religion, Bible

SeptuagintA reader writes:

My father came to me about the Septuagint and how it is not proper. I know the history of it but he stated something I never heard. He said that the Levites were not there when it was put together and  that null and voids it automatically since God had prescribed them as keepers of scripture. I can't find anything on this. Can you help?

I'm not sure what your father is thinking of. It may be Malachi 2:7, which says:

For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts.

This is a reference to the general teaching function of the priests under the Old Covenant. It expresses what they should do–be good teachers of God's word–but not what they always did. In fact, Malachi's oracle from God then goes on to berate the priests of his day for not teaching properly.

If this is the passage your father is thinking of, it doesn't do the work he seems to think it does. It's a general statement about the teaching responsibilities of Old Testament priests and does not say that they are needed to validate particular Bible translations, like the Septuagint (which, for those who may not know, is a Greek translation of the Old Testament Scriptures that was very popular in the ancient world, particularly among Jews who lived outside of the Holy Land and who spoke Greek).

Also, who says that there weren't Levites involved when the Septuagint was put together? According to the traditional account of its origin, the Torah portion of it was translated by a group of seventy (or seventy-two) Jewish elders (which is why it's called the Septuagint, from the word for "seventy") who may well have included Levites.

And then there was Josephus, the Jewish historian who was himself a priest, who quoted from the Septuagint, implying some form of approval of it, at least personally.

Or your father may be thinking of a different verse, or he may not have any particular verse in mind and may simply be operating on the premise that because God gave the Levites a special religious role in Israel, and since the Scriptures are religious documents, the Levites must give their consent for a Scripture translation to be valid.

If Levites were needed to validate Scripture translations (and note that Malachi speaks not of Levites but of priests, who were just one extended family within the tribe of Levi) then all of us English-speakers are in trouble because, as far as I know, no English translations have been validated by Levites, so all of our Bibles must be "null and void."

I suspect, though, that your father isn't primarily concerned about a particular translation of Scripture (although he might be). Rather, I suspect that he's concerned about the canon that a particular Scripture tradition represents, and here we have a substantive disagreement between Protestant Christians and the rest of the Christian world, for the historically ancient branches of Christianity all recognize (with a few exceptions here and there) the canonicity of certain books that were commonly found in editions of the Septuagint but that are not found in the modern Protestant Old Testament.

The trouble is, what particular groups of non-Christian Jewish people thought regarding which books are canonical cannot be the definitive criterion of what belongs in the Christian Bible.

Why?

Well, for one thing, non-Christian Jews did not accept the canonicity of any of the New Testament books. Neither non-Christian Levites nor non-Christian Jewish priests accepted these. In fact, they rejected and condemned them. So if one is a Christian, one must be prepared to look to the Christian community for the final determination of what belongs in its Bible.

And the early Christians were quite clear in affirming the canonicity of the books found in the Septuagint but not in modern Protestant Bibles.

You can read more about that in my book The Fathers Know Best: Your Essential Guide to Early Christian Teaching.

Just how early did the Christian community accept the use of the Septuagint?

This early: It's the standard version of the Old Testament that the New Testament authors quote from. The vast majority of the time that the inspired authors of the New Testament quote from the Old Testament, it's the Septuagint they're quoting from.

And they do so without issuing any warnings about which books of the Septuagint can be used. In fact, they allude to some of these books (e.g., Hebrews 11:35 is a direct allusion to 2 Maccabees 7; you won't find anywhere in the Protestant Old Testament where people are tortured and refuse release in order to obtain a better resurrection, but that's exactly what you find in 2 Maccabees 7).

So, although I'm not sure exactly what your father's claim is, I hope this provides useful information for dialogue between viewpoints.

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{ 3 comments }

Clint October 26, 2011 at 8:59 pm

Hey Jimmy I’ve had a question about the Septuagint for quite some time. I know that it was the OT of the early Christians and the Jews of Diaspora. My question concerns the books found in the Septuagint. I know that we Catholics accept books that were in the Septuagint and Protestant Christians leave out the deuterocanonicals, but aren’t there 2 or 3 books in the Septuagint that we Catholics do not have in our canon? Why don’t Catholics accept all the books in the Septuagint? I’ve been wondering about this for quite a while and I would love to hear what you have to say.

Eric October 28, 2011 at 12:02 pm

Clint,
Wikipedia’s page mentions that these books are 3 Maccabees, 1 Esdras, Prayer of Manasseh and Psalm 151.
As a former seminarian, I recall the standard that was used to determine which books were canonical was which books were considered canonical universally. Since those books weren’t included, we can conclude many churches probably didn’t have a copy, so they weren’t considered universally accepted, and they weren’t in the canon.
For us as Christians, we can interpret this as: God made sure all of the books he wanted included were widely distributed to all Churches, so they would be considered ‘in’ when the canon was settled in the 4th century.

Kingofages October 30, 2011 at 10:56 pm

Hi
I was not aware that the Gospel autghors cited the Septuagint version of the O.T. Anyway, this post had me wondering how many Protestant translations of the bible include the apocrypha, or deutero-canonical books (those books in the Septuagint not found in Hebrew Scripture).
The NIV, a favored version of the bible among Evangelicals, does not include the deuterocanon, much to the consternation of some high-church protestants. The NASB version also excludes the deuterocanon. However, the ESV version includes the deuterocanon.
The RSV (and NRSV) is a favored translation by both Catholic and Protestant scholars both because of its translation quality, AND because it includes the deuterocanon/apocrypha.

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