Current Interest: The Septuagint

Current Interest: The Septuagint

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Definition

The Septuagint is the name of the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible also known as the LXX. The Hebrew Bible, translated into the Greek language, with a Latin title. Certainly, the Septuagint is a testimony to the religious, cultural, and political background of the world surrounding the early church, as the source language, target language and title bear witness. Simply put then, the Septuagint is the ancient Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures. 

However, as it is with most things, the simple definition can require pages of explanation and qualification. Only a few may be necessary here. First, the term Septuagint, which is derived from the legend of its translation being accomplished by 72 (70) translators, originally designated the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures also known as the Pentateuch or Torah. Only later did it include the rest of what Christians refer to as the Old Testament. 

This leads to a further qualification. The Septuagint eventually came to contain more than what is included in the Hebrew Bible. Namely, in addition to the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible (39 Protestant cannon) the Septuagint includes some of the writings that have been lumped together into a group of writings known as the Old Testament Apocrypha.

Finally, the Septuagint is not the only Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures. Other Greek Bibles existed some time after the Septuagint’s translation. Some are considered revisions of the Septuagint, such as the so called kaige revisions and may not reflect an original translation. These translations were known by the names of the men from whom they originate; Theodotion, Aquila, and Symmachus are examples of other Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible. Origin’s Hexapla is a significant work from the 3rd century, which is helpful for comparing these translations. The Hexapla is a single volume which parallels these translations and revisions along with the Septuagint and two Hebrew texts.

Dating and Origin

The dating of the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek is usually said to begin around the 3rd century BCE in Alexandria Egypt. This date rests between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE and the apparent dating of The Letter of Aristeas in the late 100s BCE. The reason these two points in time are important is because Alexander marks the spread of Greek language and culture into the wider world where the Septuagint was written. Additionally, The Letter of Aristeas is the first mention we have of the Septuagint and probably where its name originates since The Letter of Aristeas attributes the work of translation to 72 Jewish scholars later rounded down to 70 or LXX. 

As far as I know there are four ancient accounts that retell the story of the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek—Aristeas, Aristobulus, Philo, and Josephus. The first account, mentioned previously, is recorded in the 2nd century BCE document known as the Letter of Aristeas. According to Aristeas the Egyptian King Ptolemy II Philadelphus wanted to gather together all the books of the world into his library in Alexandria. Of course it would be necessary to translate the Hebrew Bible into Greek if it was to be included. So, according to Aristeas, 72 Jewish scholars completed the work of translation in 72 days on the island of Pharos. Similarly, we have other ancient accounts of the origin of the Septuagint. For example the Alexandrian Jewish Scholar Philo taking from Aristeas’ tradition amps up the story by suggesting that the translation of the Septuagint was a kind of miracle since in his version of the story each translator produced an exact word for word translation of the same texts. Philo seems to imply that the Septuagint is an authoritative text on level with the Hebrew original. 

It should be remembered that these accounts of the origins of the Septuagint concern the translation of the Pentateuch. The other books of the Hebrew Bible were translated some time after this and possibly in other locations like Palestine. Therefore, the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek cannot be said to have a fixed date but was a continuous process. Additionally, the five books of the Pentateuch can be shown to be translated at roughly the same time in the 3rd century BCE. The remaining books of the Septuagint were translated at various times until as late as the 2nd century CE.

Significance

Since there are a variety of ancient translations of the Bible into various languages, what makes the Septuagint of special interest for the church today? I have at least three reasons that the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures should be of interest to students of both the Old and New Testaments. To begin, the Septuagint was the Bible of the first Christians. The Septuagint was not simply one translation among others in the first century. It was the Bible that was quoted and used in the life of the communities of the early church. Some went so far as to consider it an inspired text, just as Philo of Alexandria did. 

Another reason is that the Septuagint can help modern interpreters understand how the New Testament authors appropriated the Old Testament and give us insight into their quotations and allusions to Israel’s Scriptures. This is important since interpreters of the New Testament ought to consider how the New Testament authors understood, used, and applied the story of Israel as recorded in the Scriptures. 

Finally, the Septuagint may serve as a window into other textual traditions of the Hebrew Bible. Most of our current English translations of the Hebrew Bible are based upon what is known as the Masoretic text. Although the Hebrew text of Israel’s Scriptures was available at the time of the Septuagint's translation, the Masoretic text which is the base of our modern translations emerged as the prominent tradition at a later point. The earliest manuscripts of the Masoretic tradition date to the 10th and 11th centuries CE. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Masoretic text as been shown to preserve only one of a variety of textual traditions. In many places the Septuagint provides a better alternative for translation. 

One example to sum up the significance of the Septuagint might solidify its importance. Consider Paul’s quotation of the Septuagint text of Deuteronomy 32:43 in Romans 15:11. In the midst of a string of quotations running through verses 9-12, Paul includes the phrase, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles.” (Rom 15:11 NRSV). This phrase is only found in the Septuagint version of Deuteronomy and seems to bear significant theological weight as Paul is urging the church to understand that the inclusion of Gentiles into the people of God is grounded in Israel’s Scriptures. 

This is by no means an authoritative summary of what the Septuagint is and why it is important. With that said, I hope that for those who want to learn more will turn to more qualified writers and significant resources. Here are a few below.  

Written by Dan Marino

A New English Translation of the Septuagint

Invitation to the Septuagint

When God Spoke Greek

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