Commissioning of the Septuagint Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The translation of the Jewish Scriptures from Hebrew into vernacular Greek was intended to serve Jews outside of Palestine, but also resulted in becoming the link between Judaic and Christian holy writ during late antiquity.

Summary of Event

Although there has always been resistance among Jews to reading the Holy Scriptures in any language other than Hebrew, considered by some Jewish scholars to be the holy tongue if not the original one, conditions made translations essential. The first translation of the Bible into vernacular, or koine, Greek was to serve nearly one million Jews living in Egypt, primarily in Alexandria, who could no longer read Hebrew. In the two thousand years since this Greek edition, the holy book has been translated into literally hundreds of languages and dialects. Ptolemy Philadelphus Aquila of Pontus Theodotion Origen

The Septuagint became so venerated that its origin was glamorized with romance. The pseudepigraphic Letter of Aristeas (c. 150 b.c.e.) relates that Ptolemy Philadelphus arranged to have seventy-two Jews translate the Pentateuch into Greek for his royal library, hence the term Septuagint, Greek for “seventy” and the cryptic designation “LXX.” The scholars, supposedly housed on the island of Pharos, completed their work according to legend in seventy-two days. A later story pictured them working in pairs in separate cells to produce thirty-six copies of the whole Old Testament, all finishing at the same moment without a single variant in their Greek texts.

Actually, the translations were made piecemeal between 250 and 130 b.c.e. by many scholars in various synagogues whenever and wherever portions of the Old Testament were needed in the vernacular. The work was complete before the Hebrew canon as a whole had been finally set.

The Septuagint was received differently in different quarters. Greek-speaking Jews such as Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 b.c.e.-c. 45 c.e.) found it indispensable. To Hebrew-speaking Jews, the work had little relevance except as an occasional textual corrective for Samuel, and to some extent for Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Jeremiah. Generally renounced by Judaism because of its Christian adoption, the Septuagint was replaced by three new Greek translations in the second century c.e. Aquila of Pontus, a Christian who later became a Jew, made a conservative and literal translation using the name Yahweh in the text but in Greek transliteration to replace the Septuagint’s earlier substitution of Kurios, or Lord. Theodotion, probably a Jew, also revised the Septuagint in the second century, and Symmachus in the late second or early third century rendered a free translation that put more of a premium on style than on verbal accuracy.

The Septuagint differs considerably from the Hebrew text both in the order of the books and also in textual differences within them, especially in Job, 1 Samuel, and Jeremiah. Moreover, the Septuagint includes the so-called Apocrypha: Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Judith, Tobit, and Baruch. In general, the Greek translation tends to tone down the anthropomorphisms of the Hebrew: the “hand of God” becomes “the power of God,” and “his robe” becomes “his glory.”

Significance

One of the purposes for translating the Old Testament into Greek seems to have been an apologetic, propagandistic one, to convince the world that Jews possessed a literature rivaling the wisdom of the Greeks. The popularity of the Septuagint, however, was chiefly among Christians. A careful examination of New Testament citations of Old Testament verses shows that statistically, the Septuagint was used more by early Christians than any other Hebrew version. Direct quotations, word usage, phraseology, and even similarity of literary form make it evident that the New Testament is the child of the Septuagint.

Christian reliance on the Septuagint persisted until the fourth century. New Testament writers quote from it, and it served as the foundation for the Old Latin version of the Scriptures used in the early Church. Origen (c. 185-c. 254 c.e.), in his work the Hexapla (c. 235 c.e.), was the first Christian to take an interest in checking the Septuagint text by comparing it with the Hebrew and the other three Greek versions of the second century. When Saint Jerome (331/347-c. 420 c.e.), at the urging of Pope Damasus (c. 304-384 c.e.), restudied the Hebrew to reestablish the text of the later official Vulgate, Saint Augustine (354-450 c.e.) was disturbed. He, like most Christians, assumed that the Septuagint was divinely inspired and its variants with the Hebrew were, in his mind, divinely contrived as part of a new revelation. Finally, the Septuagint was largely responsible for the acceptance of the Apocrypha as canonical by the Western Church.

As mistrust of the Septuagint arose among the Jews, Christian writers and teachers adhered to it all the more ardently. The many commentaries written on it by the early Church Fathers attest to its continued Christian popularity up to the time of Jerome, and to its reputation as a book of equal or even greater inspiration than the original Hebrew. The Septuagint served the early Church well during the great crises in her early history, particularly in the struggles with Judaism, Marcionism, and the various schools of Gnosticism and Arianism. Even after Jerome’s Vulgate appeared, the Septuagint remained important for textual criticism as the oldest translation of the Old Testament. Even the Vulgate, which was purposely based on the Hebrew text, perpetuates many of the characteristics of the Septuagint.

The fact that the Septuagint was used by Jews, not only in Palestine and Egypt but throughout West Asia and Europe as well, created, as it were, an official language of religion other than Hebrew, which Christianity as a Gentile movement could readily use to lend dignity to its New Testament. Furthermore, translation of the Old Testament into Greek set a precedent for all further translations so that as Christianity spread, the Septuagint lent itself readily to translation into Latin, Coptic, Gothic, Armenian, Slavic, Georgian, Ethiopian, and Arabic. During the Renaissance and Reformation the rebirth of interest in Greek studies caused the Septuagint to become popular again. This renewed interest was motivated by the desire of critical language study to rediscover the original archetype behind the Massoretic text and other versions of the Bible.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bartlett, John, ed. Jews in the Hellenistic and Roman Cities. New York: Routledge, 2002. This series of essays provides cultural background on the situation of Hellenistic Jews that led to the translation of the Septuagint.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beck, John A. Translators as Storytellers: A Study in Septuagint Translation Technique. New York: P. Lang, 2000. Studies the literary aspects of the translation from Hebrew to Greek.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brenton, Lancelot, trans. The Septuagint with Apocrypha: Greek and English. 1851. Reprint. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1986. Provides the Greek on one side of the page with the English translation next to it for easy comparison.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jobes, Karen H., and Moises Silva. Invitation to the Septuagint. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 2000. A clear, reader-friendly introduction to the Septuagint. Includes illustrations, maps, timeline, indexes, and appendixes of organizations, research projects, reference works, glossary, and a summary of the versification differences between the Septuagint and English versions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tcherikover, Avigdor. Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews. 1959. Reprint. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1999. An excellent account of cultural background leading to the development of the Septuagint.
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Saint Augustine; Saint Jerome; Origen; Philo of Alexandria; Ptolemy Philadelphus. Septuagint

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