Invitation to the Septuagint
Understanding the Septuagint's significance and history enhances knowledge of the ancient world. By Karen H. Jobes and Moisés Silva (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000).
Associate Professor of New Testament, Westmont College
The Septuagint is a fascinating treasure of the ancient world that has come down to us through the ages. It was preserved because it was Scripture for Greek-speaking Jews and—together with the New Testament—for Christians of the Hellenistic age for more than four centuries. The term “Septuagint” refers to the set of books that appear to be a translation into koine Greek of all the books of the Hebrew Bible, or what Christians call the Old Testament, plus a few more books that were apparently originally written in Greek. However, unlike modern Bible translation projects that produce a translation of the Bible through the sustained effort of one committee, the individual books of the Septuagint—perhaps with the exception of the first five—were probably translated by many people working independently at different times and places, possibly with very different motivations.
The only historical evidence concerning the origin of the Septuagint apart from the texts themselves has survived in a document called the Letter of Aristeas, also written in koine Greek. This text claims to be a lengthy, personal letter from a man named Aristeas to his “brother” (or friend), describing, among other things, how the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (the Torah) were first translated into Greek for the great library of the Egyptian king Ptolemy Philadelphus (285–247 B.C.E.) in Alexandria, Egypt.
According to the author of the letter, Ptolemy’s librarian requested the high priest of the temple in Jerusalem to send translators with the Hebrew Torah scrolls to Alexandria. The high priest sent six men from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, that is, seventy-two translators. The twelve tribes of Israel had long before been dispersed, so if there is any truth to this unlikely story, the number of people sent would have been merely a symbolic gesture. It is from the number of the translators allegedly involved in the translation of the Torah that the Septuagint took its name in the second century of this era. The word is a transliteration of the shortened form of the Latin title Interpretatio septuaginta (“the translation of the seventy”), which is thought to be a round figure or abbreviation for the number of original translators. Because of its name, the Septuagint is often abbreviated with the Roman numeral for seventy, LXX.
The entourage sent from Jerusalem was welcomed to Alexandria with a lavish banquet lasting several days. Finally, the translators were escorted to their work on the nearby island of Pharos. According to Aristeas, after working for seventy-two days, their completed translation was read to the Jewish community of Alexandria, who asked Ptolemy’s librarian to have a copy made for their use.
Scholars today believe the Letter of Aristeas was written much later than the events it describes during the conflict within Judaism over the influence of Greek language and culture. The fact that the Letter of Aristeas has survived in about two dozen copies handwritten in the medieval period suggests that it was widely copied and circulated, which further indicates that it was not a personal letter at all but was intended as an “open letter” to a wider audience. Even though the authenticity of the letter should be rejected, some of its information is probably reliable. The first Greek translation of the Hebrew Torah would have been needed by Jews living in the Diaspora after the conquests of Alexander the Great (c. 333 B.C.E.). It is, therefore, likely that the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, were first translated into Greek by or for the Alexandrian Jews in the middle of the third century B.C.E. The historical and prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible were probably translated into Greek by various people at various times during the next century, but we do not know where or by whom.
Because the Septuagint was the first translation made of any major literary work into another language, it marks a milestone in human culture. Any knowledge of the ancient world would be incomplete without understanding the significance of the Septuagint and the history that brought it into existence. The Septuagint is written in the common Greek of the Hellenistic age (c. 323 B.C.E. to c. C.E. 400) and is a major source of information about the language of that period. Moreover, because the translation attempts to clarify and contemporize the meaning of the Hebrew text it translates, the Septuagint reflects the theological, social, and political interests of its translator(s), providing valuable information about how the Hebrew Bible was understood and interpreted in the Hellenistic age. The Septuagint also has great value for the study of the development of the Hebrew text itself, for it was apparently translated from a Hebrew text that was earlier than, and not identical to, the Hebrew text from which today’s modern translations of the Bible are made, the Masoretic text.
After the coming of Jesus Christ, the Septuagint was the primary theological and literary context within which the writers of the New Testament worked, for they were primarily Jewish men writing in Greek about their religion in the light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. As biblical scholar Adolf Deissmann once wrote, “A single hour lovingly devoted to the text of the Septuagint will further our exegetical knowledge of the Pauline epistles more than a whole day spent over a commentary.” The New Testament writers used expressions found in the Septuagint to draw their reader’s mind to specific passages of Old Testament Scripture. Paul, for instance, describes the ultimate exaltation of Jesus by using the phrase every knee shall bow in Philippians 2:10, taken from the Septuagint of Isaiah 45:22-23 in reference to God. The New Testament writers frequently quote the Greek Old Testament directly—perhaps as many as three hundred times. The continuity and development of thought between the Old and New Testaments is of particular concern for biblical theology. The Septuagint provides essential, but often overlooked, theological links that would have been familiar to Christians of the first century but are not so obvious in the Hebrew version or the modern translations of it.
After New Testament times, the Septuagint, not the Hebrew text, was the Bible used by the early church fathers and councils. As Christian doctrine on the nature of Jesus and the Trinity developed, discussion centered on the exegesis of key Old Testament texts. Because most of the church fathers could not read Hebrew, exegetical debates were settled using the Greek Old Testament. While no point of Christian doctrine rests on the Greek text in contradiction to the Hebrew, it is also true that the Septuagint text was the Word of God for the church in its first three centuries. Moreover, the Eastern Orthodox churches inherited the Greek text as the canonical text for their Bible and liturgy, and so the Septuagint holds a special place in a large portion of the church today.
Because of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, most Christians in the Western church today are completely unfamiliar with the Septuagint and have probably never even heard of it. Part of the reason for this development is that the Reformation shifted attention away from the early translations of the Hebrew Bible, whether they be Greek or Latin, back to the original Hebrew text. Today’s modern translations of the Old Testament are quite rightly based, not on the Greek, but on the best available Hebrew text, for that was the language in which Scripture originated. Nevertheless, the Septuagint contains textual links not found in the Hebrew text that provide historical and literary continuity for the important task of biblical theology and for accurately understanding the exegetical debates of the early church fathers.
This fascinating treasure of the ancient world is the focus of an active branch of modern biblical studies around the world. Scholars today are working on establishing the original text of the Septuagint and its relationship to the surviving Hebrew text, using the Septuagint for textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible, determining the meaning of Greek words found in the Septuagint, reconstructing the development of the extant Greek texts from the original translation, and understanding the development of Jewish theology in the Hellenistic age. Several translations of the Septuagint into modern languages are in process, including the New English Translation of the Septuagint. The Septuagint of Psalms in modern English is now available from Oxford University Press. The International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies publishes an annual journal and holds meetings in association with the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) and the International Organization for the Study of the Old Testament (IOSOT). Further information can be found at their web site: http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/ioscs/.
Karen H. Jobes is a distinguished Associate Professor of New Testament at Westmont College