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The Church in the Septuagint (LXX)

Posted by on Sep 10, 2008 in books, definition, scripture | 9 comments

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I was reading a book called A Vision for the Church edited by Markus Bockmeuhl and Michael B. Thompson (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997) (see the post “Paul’s Vision for the Church“). The first chapter “Septuagintal and New Testament Conceptions of the Church” by William Horbury. In his chapter, Horbury discusses the relationship between the Septuagint (LXX – the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures – the Old Testament) and the early church’s self identification. In other words, the early church understood who they were by reading their Old Testament.

For example, Horbury writes:

[W]hen the Scriptures were read at the time of Jesus and Paul, even non-visionary hearers shared conceptions of the congregation which arose from association and development of the manifold biblical descriptions and images. The Christians were keenly aware of their separate loyalty (1 Cor 16.22), but this was owed to the messiah of Israel; they spoke and thought of themselves as essential Israel, and applied to themselves most of the relevant biblical vocabulary. So in the biblical manner, without special introduction, Paul could speak of betrothing the Corinthian church as a pure virgin to Christ (2 Cor 11.2). To a great extent, therefore, NT conceptions of the Church were ready-made before the apostles preached; and this is true not only of the imagery most readily applicable to the pre-existent or ideal Church, but also of descriptions of the empirical assembly. (1)

From this introduction, Horbury examines two Songs and the Blessing of Moses (Exod 15 and Deut 32 and 33) and the Wisdom of Solomon. Concerning the longer Song of Moses (Exod 15), he concludes:

Thus far, then, the material studied from the LXX has disclosed five attributes of the congregation which are also prominent marks of the NT Church. Constitutionally and liturgically, it is a body in which men and women each take part, and it is governed by a divinely-appointed ruler. To turn to theological attributes, it can be described as a community of faith, the congregation of the redeemed who believe and confess. Correspondingly, in this corporate confession it is a community of the divinely inspired, and its confession is led by prophecy. As God’s own peculiar people and portion, it is watched by the angel-deities to whom the heathen nations are allotted. Its faith is faith not only in God, but also in the appointed ruler, and a great ruler to come will be the focus of its unity. The shape and ethos of the Pauline churches are anticipated here; and although the theological attributes are not made normative in these texts, the fact that they are exhibited by the congregation of the Exodus as described in the Pentateuch accords them authority and influence. (9)

Finally, after examining the various names given for the people of God in this OT passages, Horbury concludes his chapter with this:

It can be said, in conclusion, that the messianic element in Christian faith, and the concurrent Christian modification of the concept of the people of God, are foci of what can be called new in NT conceptions of the Church. Far more, however, is inherited from Judaism as represented the LXX translation, including what might be thought characteristically Christian associations of the Church with faith, confession, inspiration and the messiah. (15)

If I am understanding Horbury correctly, then he is saying that most of the elements of the church were identifiable from the LXX. From the Septuagint, people could learn that God was building a people of faith. It would be a confessing people that relied on inspiration. So what would be missing?

As Horbury said, the missing piece of the puzzle was Jesus Christ as Messiah. This is what’s “new” in the New Testament. The people of God in the Old Testament knew that there would be a messiah, but they didn’t know who, when, how, etc. In the New Testament, those questions were answered.

As the questions about the messiah were answered in the person of Jesus Christ, other information about the church was clarified. While Paul spends much of his writing space considering the implications of the gospel to the people of God, the book of Hebrews also tackles these questions. Importantly, the book of Hebrews shows the connection (both comparisons and contrasts) between the lives of God’s people in the OT and the lives of God’s people in the NT.

While the idea that the “shape and ethos of the Pauline churches are anticipated” in the Old Testament may be fairly new to me (and perhaps others), it was apparently obvious to Paul. Remember that he was probably thinking about the Old Testament when he wrote that all Scripture was inspired and useful (2 Timothy 3:16).

What do you think? Do we find indicators of the church in the Old Testament? Do you think that the primary difference is in the person of Jesus Christ and the gospel? Are there other differences between the people of God in the OT and the people of God in the NT?


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 9-10-2008

    Since you bring up Hebrews, what are your thoughts on 11:39-40? Getting at your question, Hebrews makes it clear that both OT and NT believers are people of faith, thus the authors call to persevere throughout the letter. But according to v40 it would appear that the primary difference is Jesus Christ. But as the author says in v40, ‘God had planed something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.’ I would appreciate your thoughts.
    – Chris

  2. 9-10-2008


    Depends on what you mean by “Church” if you mean believing people of God, then the answer is sure. We see David saying “blessed is the man who sins are not counted against him”. Thus Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Joshua, Moses and others found favor in God’s eye by faith in the promise.

    However, if we mean “Church” by the organism then I say no. I believe that is what Paul is saying of the one new man in Ephesians 2. Until Pentecost there could be no church. Though we see a believing remnant of the people of God throught the OT.

  3. 9-10-2008

    Been giving it much thought. Willing to be patient for answer(s). Paul’s understanding is that Christ is abundantly present in the OT (ie. the rock in I Cor 10, which is a necessary chapter to consider in this discussion).

    The finishing of Christ’s work obviously had significant impact on Jewish believers, and their was a change in the understanding of the outworking of their “chosen-ness”.

  4. 9-10-2008


    Yes, the primary difference is Jesus Christ. And, by the way, I think that is a huge difference – both in his person and in his presence. Also, I think that it is through Christ that we and the OT people of God are ‘perfected’.


    The people of God did change drastically after Pentecost. I’m not sure if that change was due to a different understanding of who they were in God (i.e. an understanding not found in the OT), or a new power and presence through the Spirit of God. What do you think?


    My thinking is similar to yours, if I’m understanding you correctly. There was some understanding of being the people of God in the OT. This understanding changed through the recognition of Jesus as Messiah, and also through his continual presence with his people.


  5. 9-10-2008

    Hey Alan,

    I guess I am talking people of God “nationally” or people of God spirtually. I believe there, to be a difference. As many were unregerate who were saved from Egypt. Many followed the Jewish Law but were unregenerate. Though they offered sacrficies and all. A picture of this is when Jesus tells the Pharisees “you are of your father the devil” that was because they rejected his Messiahship.

    So for me I guess I am talking regenerate vs. national. But many of those who had faith in the promise lived powerful lives we see this in many of the prophets, Moses, Joshua and David.

  6. 9-10-2008


    When I say “people of God”, I’m refering to spiritual Israel not national Israel. As Paul said, “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel…” (Rom. 9:6)


  7. 9-11-2008

    Got you Alan. Sorry about the mix up. So yes I agree then. :o)

  8. 9-12-2008

    I agree that much of the imagery associated with “church” in the minds of the NT disciples came from their knowledge and experience of the OT people of God. I also agree that the coming of Jesus is the primary thing that sets the NT church apart as something new.

    In addition to, and as an outworking of, the advent of Jesus, I would point out a basic change in:

    1. The priestly system. Now, not only a special class of individuals, but rather all the faithful are “ordained” as priests, with Jesus Himself occupying the role of eternal High Priest. (Hebrews; 1 Peter 2:4-10)

    2. The sacrificial system. The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross replaces once and for all the old system. No longer do we offer up sacrifices of animals, but rather the daily sacrifice of our own lives on the altar, the sacrifice of praise, and the sacrifice of good works and sharing with others. (Rom. 12:1; Heb. 13:11-16)

    3. The system of special places set aside for corporate worship. The temple of God no longer resides in one geographical location, but rather within the heart of the believer, and among the people of God corporately, wherever they may be geographically. (John 4:19-24; 1 Cor. 3:15-17; 6:18-20; Eph. 2:20-22).

    Not to infer these are the only differences or discontuities, but they are some of the main ones that come to mind.

  9. 9-12-2008


    Yes, I agree completely. There were big changes when Jesus came on the scene. It seems that most of the changes were related to how we approach God (Heb 10:19-25).