The Septuagint is the first Greek version of the Hebrew Bible which was adopted by the early Christian Churches. Sometimes referred to as the Greek Old Testament. But The term Septuagint actually refers to the seventy-two translators—six from each tribe of Israel—involved in translating the Pentateuch from Hebrew to Greek in the third century BCE.
The First Bible Translation And Errors In The Septuagint.
The Septuagint is quite possibly the most important and first translation of the Bible. It is the oldest translation of the OT into another language. It was considered by Philo and Josephus to be on an equal footing with the Hebrew Bible. It was referred to in Hebrew by the early Christian Church. And it sheds much-needed light on the development of the New Testament.
The term “Septuagint” is derived from the Latin phrase Vetus Testamentum ex versione Septuauinta Interpretum (“The Old Testament from the version of the Seventy Translators”) and the Ancient Greek phrase Ἡ μετάφρασις τῶv Ἑβδoμήκovτα, romanized. It was not until the time of Augustine of Hippo (354–430 CE) that the Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures was called by the Latin term Septbuaginta, and the Roman numeral LXX (seventy) is commonly used as an abbreviation.
The Septuagint became synonymous with the Greek Old Testament, a Christian canon incorporating the books of the Hebrew canon with additional texts. Although the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church include most of the books in the Septuagint in their canons, Protestant churches usually do not.
The Greek Pharaoh of Egypt, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, sent 72 Jewish translators to Alexandria from Jerusalem to translate the Tanakh from Biblical Hebrew into Koine Greek for his library. Both the Tractate Megillah of the Babylonian Talmud and the Letter of Aristeas to Philocrates contain this story. Without telling them why they had been called, King Ptolemy once collected 72 elders and put them all in different chambers, each with its own number of 72. Though this is uncertain, Philo of Alexandria claims that the number of academics was determined by choosing six scholars from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. According to later rabbinic tradition, Ptolemy received the Septuagint two days before the Tenth of Tevet.
Parts of the Law were translated from Hebrew into Greek long before the well-known Septuagint version, according to fragment 3 of Aristobulus of Alexandria. He claimed that Pythagoras and Plato were aware of Jewish law and had stolen from it.
Lancelot Charles Lee Brenton recognizes that the Jews of Alexandria were probably the Septuagint’s authors in the preface to his 1844 translation, but he dismisses Aristeas’ assertion as a pious fabrication. Instead, he claims that the Jewish Sanhedrin in Alexandria received the first version from the authors for editing and approval, which is where the name “Septuagint” actually got its start.
Due to its Greek depiction, citations, and manuscripts dating to the second century BCE, the translation of the Pentateuch is credited to the third century BCE. Different translation phases were used for the Septuagint and other versions of the text, ranging from a literal translation through paraphrasing to an interpretive style. By 132 BCE, the original Greek text had been completed in Hellenistic Judaism. It was afterward translated into Latin in a number of variants, the last of which is known as the Vetus Latina.
The Koine Greek was used in the Septuagint. Semiticisms, which are idioms and expressions derived from Semitic languages like Hebrew and Aramaic, can be found in some areas. Stronger Greek influences can be found in other texts like Daniel and Proverbs.
The translation of the Septuagint uses Greek vowels for many proper names, but earlier Hebrew manuscripts lacked vowel pointing, therefore, this may help the pronunciation of pre-Masoretic Hebrew. It is improbable that all Biblical Hebrew sounds have exact Greek translations, nevertheless.
The Jewish use of the Septuagint
It is unknown how much Septuagint authority Alexandrian Jews recognized. The Dead Sea Scrolls contain Septuagint manuscripts, which are believed to have been used at the time by numerous Jewish sects.
Most Jews stopped using the Septuagint in the second century CE due to a number of reasons. Since the Septuagint was the only Greek translation of the Bible at the time and most (if not all) of these early non-Jewish Christians could not read Hebrew, they were forced to utilize it. The Septuagint may have been viewed with suspicion by the younger generation of Jews and Jewish intellectuals due to its relationship with a rival religion. Jews instead used later-compiled Targum manuscripts in Hebrew or Aramaic. Jews instead used Hebrew or Aramaic Targum manuscripts later compiled by the Masoretes and authoritative Aramaic translations, such as those of Onkelos and Rabbi Yonathan ben Uziel.
The Christian use of the Septuagint
Greek writings served as the primary language of the early Christian church, whereas Aramaic served as the primary language of Syriac Christianity. The relationship between the Hebrew texts and the apostolic usage of the Septuagint is convoluted. Matthew 2:15 and 2:23 were cited by St. Jerome in Hebrew sources, but they are not found in the contemporary Masoretic tradition. When mentioning Jewish scriptures in the New Testament, the Greek version is frequently used, suggesting that Jesus, his apostles, and their followers trusted it.
Before the time of Christ, Jews translated the Septuagint, a text from the early Christian Church, and it was seen as proof that Jews had altered the Hebrew text to make it less Christological. Theodotion and Aquila, two Jewish converts, are said to have seen a “virgin” (Greek vo; Hebrew Beulah) who will conceive in this passage. The Ebionites also assert that Joseph was Jesus’ biological father, a position that was strengthened by later anti-Christian translations of the Hebrew text. Augustine harshly condemned Jerome for his decision to translate the majority of the Old Testament in his Vulgate from Hebrew rather than Greek, breaking with church practice. Even though he was critical, Jerome maintained that
When Greek is used as the language of worship, the Eastern Orthodox Church chooses to use the Septuagint as the model for translations of the Old Testament into other languages. When the Hebrew text is obscure, garbled, or ambiguous, critical translations of the Old Testament that rely on the Masoretic Text reconstruct the meaning of the Hebrew text by consulting the Septuagint and other versions. The New Jerusalem Bible’s introduction states: “Emendations or other versions, such as the LXX, have only been used when this (the Masoretic Text) presents insurmountable difficulties.” According to the preface of the New International Version, the translators also reviewed the more significant early versions, such as the Septuagint. When the MT looked unclear, readings from various versions were occasionally used.
The three major versions of the Hebrew Bible are the Septuagint, the Masoretic Text, and the Samaritan Pentateuch. The Septuagint, or LXX, is a translation of the Jewish scriptures into Koine Greek, begun in Alexandria in the late third century BCE and completed by 132 BCE. It was commissioned by Ptolemy II Philadelphus, King of Egypt, to address the needs of the primarily Greek-speaking Jews of the Graeco-Roman diaspora. The Masoretes began developing the authoritative Hebrew and Aramaic text of the 24 books of the Holocaust in Rabbinic Judaism near the end of the Talmudic period. In the sixth and seventh centuries, three Jewish communities contributed systems for writing the precise letter text, with its vocalization and accentuation known as the (Masoretic).
Those living in the Jewish community of Tiberias in ancient Galilee made scribal copies of the Gutenbergian texts without a standard text, such as the Babylonian tradition had, to work from. The canonical pronunciation of the Hebrew Bible (called Tiberian Hebrew) and many of the notes they made differed from the Babian, leading to the development of the ASEIC text in the ninth century. This is the oldest complete copy still in existence.
The Samaritan Pentateuch, which goes back to around 1100 CE, is a version of the Torah that has been upheld by the Samaritan community for centuries. It is a non-canonical secular history that draws inspiration in part from the Book of Joshua in the Tanakh. A single sheet of papyrus was folded into “pages” to create the first codex version of the Hebrew Bible, which was created in the 7th century and made popular by early Christians. These folded pages could be assembled into a “book” that was easier to carry around and more accessible than scrolls. The Hebrew Bible was published in its entirety for the first time in 1488.
The New Testament.
The Synoptic Gospels are a group of religious writings produced over a brief period of time by various Christians. More ancient works have been preserved in manuscripts than these ones, which were originally written in Koine Greek. Paul’s writings were circulated while he was alive, and it is believed that he passed away before 68, under Nero’s rule. These texts were translated into Old Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic, and Latin by early Christians and spread throughout the Roman Empire.
Some Errors in the Septuagint
Before we discuss some of the errors in the Septuagint, I want you to note that; The term Septuagint is often thought of as the Greek version (or translation) of the Hebrew Bible, much like the Vulgate is the Latin version and the Peshitta is the Syriac version. But, technically speaking, there is no such thing as “the Septuagint.” If you own a modern copy of the Septuagint (e.g., Rahlfs or Brenton editions), it is an “eclectic” edition, that is, a collection of the best and most reliable Greek manuscripts reconstructed to approximate the original translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew to Greek.
So, when scholars use this term, it does not refer to a single text. Rather, it refers to a collection of Greek translations produced by numerous scribes over the course of a few hundred years and, in all likelihood, composed in different locations. Today, the term is usually used to refer generally to the various Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible as well as some additional books, such as Tobit, Maccabees, and Sirach, to name a few.
Though somewhat legendary in character, the Letter of Aristeas (second-century BCE) preserves some valuable information on the origins of the Septuagint. It tells us that an Egyptian king, Ptolemy Philadelphus (reigned from 285-246 BCE), commissioned a translation of the Hebrew Bible for his library in Alexandria. Seventy-two translators from Jerusalem were subsequently sent to the island of Pharos to translate the Torah into Greek.
The term Septuagint, meaning “seventy,” actually refers to the seventy-two translators—six from each tribe of Israel—involved in translating the Pentateuch from Hebrew to Greek in the third century BCE (seventy-two is rounded down to seventy, hence the Roman numeral LXX). The rest of the Hebrew Bible was translated from Hebrew to Greek by various hands over the next century or so.
Why is there a need for a Greek translation of the Old Testament?
Hebrew ceased to be a spoken language as early as the exilic or post-exilic period (cf. Neh 13.24), and Aramaic became the lingua franca of the Jewish people. With the rise of Alexander the Great and the Greek empires, the Jews in the diaspora were Hellenized, and for some Jews, especially those living in Ptolemaic Egypt, Greek became the primary language. Thus, it became necessary for the Scriptures to be translated into Greek.
It is important, therefore, to remember that the Septuagint is first and foremost a translation. One of the key areas of study for Septuagint scholars today is the method of translation adopted by scribes. For example, did the translator of a given Old Testament book take a more literal approach or an approach closer to dynamic equivalence?
Scholars agree that some books are literal translations and others are paraphrases, much like the Living Bible. Given that Greek manuscripts are the earliest witnesses to the Hebrew Old Testament, a more literal manuscript can be helpful for textual criticism. The non-literal translations, however, may shed light on the theology, philosophy, or religious practices of the Jewish faith in the late Second Temple period.
The Septuagint helps us better understand the New Testament
A Greek scholar once remarked, “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.” Hyperbole notwithstanding, few would dispute the broader point: the Septuagint is an invaluable resource for Christians interested in the New Testament (NT).
There are some obvious ways in which the Septuagint has influenced the New Testament. For example, the title for Jesus in the NT, “Christ” [Christos], is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Mashiach, “Anointed One,” in the Septuagint. Words we are all familiar with, such as “glory” [doxa], “Lord” [kurios], and “gospel” [euangelion], derive special meaning from the LXX.
One of the most important areas of study relating to the Septuagint is the use of the OT in the NT. The reason for this is that most of the direct citations of the OT in the NT match the Septuagint, not the Hebrew Bible (or Masoretic Text [MT]). There are approximately 300 OT passages that are directly quoted or strongly alluded to in the NT.
In most of these cases, the NT writers did not cite the OT text word-for-word but paraphrased the OT texts using Jewish exegetical techniques. However, in cases where the OT is cited word-for-word, the NT writers quote the Septuagint over the MT approximately 75 percent of the time (according to some scholars, that percentage climbs to over 90 percent, depending on how one defines “citation”).
This raises several important questions. Did the NT authors cite the Septuagint to make a particular theological point that could only be made from the Greek translation? Or is the apparent preference for the Septuagint simply a matter of using the translation of the OT that corresponds to the language in which the biblical author was writing? This would be like how modern preachers cite the ESV or NIV translation in a sermon, irrespective of the translational nuances and exegetical differences.
Hebrew: “Behold, the young woman [‘almah] shall conceive.”
Septuagint: “Behold, the virgin [parthenos] shall conceive.”
Matthew 1.23: “Behold, the virgin [parthenos] shall conceive.”
Matthew cites the Septuagint (not the Hebrew) word for word, which suggests that the language of the virgin birth of Jesus is derived, in part, from the Septuagint.
Of course, each text must be studied independently and carefully, but the preponderance of Septuagint citations in the NT and key theological terms demand that we take the Septuagint seriously.
The Septuagint helps us better understand Jewish theology
The Septuagint also sheds light on the theology and worship practices of the Jewish people in the Second Temple period (the period leading up to New Testament times).
For example, in the Septuagint version of the Pentateuch, the Hebrew word for the altar [mizbeah] is rendered by thysiasterion when referring to the Jewish altar but by bomos when speaking of pagan altars. This shows that the translators may have had a theological motive—they wanted to distinguish between Jewish and non-Jewish practices.
Scholars disagree on the extent to which theological interpretations occur in the Septuagint, especially where the Greek translation diverges significantly from the Hebrew Bible. Some have argued that the translator’s primary purpose was to translate the Scriptures and make them accessible and intelligible for his audience, similar, perhaps, to how a modern-day Bible translator might approach his or her task.
Others have maintained that the translator’s job was more theological or exegetically motivated, to reinterpret and actualize the Scriptures for his immediate community and with reference to contemporary circumstances and events.
An example that illustrates this debate is the Greek translation of the Servant Song in Isaiah 53:10, which is noticeably different from the MT:
MT: “Yet it was YHWH’s will to crush him, to cause him to suffer.”
LXX: “And the Lord desires to cleanse him from his blow.”
Why did the Septuagint translator render the Hebrew word “crush” by the Greek word “cleanse”? One scholar suggests that the translator is lessening the suffering of the Servant in order to avoid associating YHWH with a “demonic” action.
Another theory is the translator did not know the meaning of this relatively rare word, and that “cleanse” is simply a mistranslation or an educated guess. A third possibility is that the translator was looking at a Hebrew text that presented a different word here.
Perhaps you can see why Septuagint scholars love digging into this translation!
The Connection between the Septuagint and the Hebrew Old Testament
One issue for scholars is the fact that there are differences between the Septuagint and the Hebrew Bible in every book of the Old Testament. Most of these differences are negligible, but some are quite significant, involving entire paragraphs, if not chapters, of a particular biblical book.
For instance, large differences are discernible in the genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11; there are significant pluses and minuses (phrases or verses that are added or omitted) in most of the books of the Old Testament, but especially in Numbers, Joshua, Samuel, and Kings. Major chronological and editorial structures are transposed in Samuel and Kings. The Septuagint Psalter adds an extra Psalm (Psalm 151), and the Septuagint copy of the book of Jeremiah is significantly shorter (1/8th) than the Hebrew. And lastly, the books of Daniel and Esther have significant sections added to the Greek versions.
Determining the earliest or “original” text is a complex process fraught with challenges. Nevertheless, scholars engaged in textual criticism record and analyze the differences between Greek and Hebrew manuscripts (among others). They reckon these differences with the various stages of the Old Testament books in order to determine the reliability of and relationship between manuscripts.
These studies have been incorporated into the critical editions of the Hebrew Bible (e.g., BHS, BHQ, HUBP) and the Greek Bible (Cambridge or Göttingen Septuagint) and have sometimes influenced our modern translations.
When modern translators work on an English translation these texts are used to determine the best translations of the Old Testament books. There is much work yet to be done.
The importance of the Septuagint cannot be emphasized enough. It sheds much-needed light on important words and theological concepts in both the Old and New Testaments. It helps us understand better the religious and political context in which Jesus and the New Testament authors lived; it has helped scholars determine which manuscripts are most reliable, which in turn leads to reliable translations of the Old Testament; and it gives us greater insight into the church fathers, who often quoted the Septuagint over the Hebrew Bible. So, although I would not recommend selling everything you have, I say with Hitzig, “Go buy a Septuagint!”