Recently on a particular academic mailing list, someone entirely in earnest put forth the question, “Which is the Christian Old Testament—the Septuagint or the Masoretic Text?” This person rightly recognized the use of various versions by the writers of the New Testament, a point to which we will return. However, his rather simple question brings to mind a flood of further questions and answers. Thus a relatively simple question involves much more than a simple answer of one word.
Firstly, this is not a question that can be answered as it is phrased. Why is that? It is because different Christians have different Biblical canons and hold different versions of the Old Testament (and, mutatis mutandis, the New Testament). Thus there is no single “the Christian Old Testament.” A more proper question would be “Which is the Old Testament of the [insert descriptor] Christian?” where the descriptor is “Roman Catholic”, or “Greek Orthodox”, or “Lutheran”, and so on. A more informed question will point in a meaningful way to the issues involved, and the correct answer for the particular situation in view. For a Roman Catholic, the official Old Testament (established by canon law) is the Latin Vulgate (specifically the Clementine Vulgate, though in recent official Vatican editions, the Nova Vulgata, itself based on the Clementine, is used). Although translations from the Hebrew Masoretic Text have been made (as in The Jerusalem Bible and The New American Bible), these were to take into account the differences in the Vulgate, preferring them to readings in the Hebrew where different. For the Greek Orthodox, the Septuagint is the Old Testament (mostly the Old Greek editions of books, though in some cases with other versions having replaced the Old Greek long ago, e.g., the Theodotionic Daniel). But the form of liturgical readings, preserved in the Prophetologion and other service books providing lectionary readings, trumps the preferred continuous text (formerly the Lucianic, but more recently adapted toward the text of Codex Alexandrinus). That is, where the liturgical texts differ from the continuous text (in Old or New Testament readings), the lectionary readings are preferred, and editions of the continuous text Septuagint are typically altered to reflect the litugical versions. All the Orthodox (Eastern and Oriental) hold to the liturgical texts as canonical. For the Syrian Orthodox, their own continuous-text Old Testament is the Peshitta with additions from later versions, and these are adjusted to the liturgical texts where necessary. And so on. There is, however, the interesting case in the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox communions that the versions held as primarily authoritative for each national church (Coptic, Greek, Syrian, Georgian, etc) are not held to be exclusively authoritative. That is, the other versions used in the communion are recognized as valid, inspired, and true. There has never been any sort of conciliar discussion or determination regarding which text is considered exclusively canonical.
Then we are also faced with the relative anomaly of the Protestant preference for the Hebrew Masoretic Text as the basis for their Old Testament. Although the Lutheran and Anglican canons include various books of the Apocrypha within their own canons (originally deriving from the Vulgate versions, most of which in turn derive from the Septuagint), the books existent in the Hebrew Masoretic Text are considered of primary authority. The Septuagint, Vulgate, Peshitta and other versions are considered additional witnesses to an earlier version of the Hebrew text that has been corrupted, and they are (in)consistently mined for their variant readings to address that situation.
The development of the discussion leads into the territory of which one of these versions is “true” for the Christian. At this date, the answer can only be “all and none.” There are two reasons for this. Firstly, all of the versions of the Old Testament are recognized by some ecclesiastical authority as true and inspired and canonical for its respective flock, and yet all recognize that errors have crept into the texts so that none is exactly perfect, and, effectively, thus not exclusively true. Secondly, due to the variety of errors in transmission and the variety of textual traditions in question, it is certainly the case that no version (not even the Masoretic, as careful as its transmission has been) preserves a text entirely uncorrupted, much less a single manuscript. Yet in aggregate, some find it to be the case that where one tradition is in error, one or another or severl others may be correct, and perhaps all of these issues can be worked out, so that all the versions may be considered, in toto, to represent the original accurately. So in that sense, it is only by seeing all versions as exemplars of an original text, some more distant from it than others, that “all” may be considered true. This understanding lies at the heart of textual criticism of the Bible, whether of a version of the Old Testament (Hebrew Masoretic Text, Septuagint, Peshitta, etc) or the New Testament.
Even so, a question such as “Which of these versions is true for a Christian?” is not the kind of question that can be answered on an academic mailing list, nor should it be asked of one. This is precisely because of the multi-confessional situation described above. In addition, however, academic study has no standing to answer that question. That is, it is outside the competence of the Academy to decide in such matters. The answer to that particular question lies in the realm of ecclesiastical authority and religious tradition. There can be no academic answer to it. The Church and the Academy are separate worlds in that regard as in others, with distinct boundaries. And while each may learn from the other, they are neither one beholden to the other’s conclusions.
We return now to a very interesting fact: the use of various versions of the Old Testament in quotation in the works in the New Testament. Setting aside a detailed description of the quotations and issues involved (though referring the reader to the excellent Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, edited by Beale and Carson), I will posit that the answer to all the questions asked above is thereby given. That is, the Christian is to consider all the various available versions inspired and authoritative, just as the New Testament authors did, quoting from one or another at a given time. That is, the New Testament itself gives an answer to the question of “Which Bible is to be preferred?” That answer would have to be “All of these.”
So, though one may prefer to follow the tradition of one’s own Christian affiliation in regards to a preferred text of the Bible, the evidence of the New Testament itself suggests a less restricted and more open approach in embracing a variation in texts according to exegetical need. That should provoke some thought in those with more exclusionary views.