The Septuagint

The term Septuagint is commonly used today to refer to the Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures, the books that are called the “Old Testament” in Christian terminology. Scholars who specialize in Septuagint studies point out, however, that in a more technical sense the word Septuagint refers only to the Greek translation of the Pentateuch. Uncertainties about the history of the process of translation are responsible for the variation in meaning of the term.

It is generally agreed that the Pentateuch (Genesis–Deuteronomy) was translated in Egypt early during the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285/282–246 b.c.), possibly around 280 if one can rely on the testimony of the church fathers. The books in the Prophets and Writings were translated later, certainly most of them by 130 b.c. as is indicated by the Prologue to the Greek translation of Sirach(Ecclesiasticus). Questions arise about the date of translation of each of the books in the collection known as Megilloth (Ruth, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, and Esther). Some of these may have been first translated after 100 b.c.

To complicate matters further, long before all the books had been translated, revisions were already being made of existing translations. The process of making systematic, thoroughgoing revisions (called recensions) continued from possibly 200 b.c. through a.d. 200. The precise line of demarcation between original translations and revisions in this body of texts has not yet been clearly established. Scholars are still working to prepare editions of these translations based on careful study of all available evidence in Greek manuscripts, citations by church fathers, and early daughter translations.

The Motivation for the Translation

What motivated the translation of the Septuagint continues to be debated. Five major hypotheses have been advanced: (1) A generation of Greek-speaking Jews in the Hellenistic period begun by the conquest of Alexander the Great (333–323 b.c.) required Greek Scriptures for their religious life and liturgy and/or (2) for the education of their young. (3) The translation was required as a legal document or (4) as cultural heritage for the royal library being assembled in Alexandria. (5) Aristarchus’s new edition of Homer around 150 b.c. employed textual criticism to produce an authoritative text, and this served as an incentive and a model to produce an authoritative text of the Bible for Alexandrian Jews (hence early revisions and The Letter of Aristeas).

The Origin of the Septuagint

A document known as The Letter of Aristeas purports to relate the story of the origin of the Greek Pentateuch. This document is actually a propaganda piece, written in 150–100 b.c. to authenticate the Greek version in the face of criticisms circulating at that time—criticisms to the effect that the Greek translation did not adequately reflect the Hebrew text current in Palestine.

The name Septuagint comes from septuaginta, the Latin word for “70.” (The common abbreviation for the Septuagint is lxx, the Roman numeral for 70.) According to Aristeas, there were 72 translators. The number 70 is an adaptation of 72 based on models like the 70 Elders at Sinai, the 70 Judges who assisted Moses, the 70 Elders of the Sanhedrin, etc. Likely there were just five translators for the Pentateuch, as rabbinic versions of the story indicate (Aboth of Rabbi Nathan 37; Soferim 1.7). While church fathers like Justin Martyr (c. a.d. 135) refer to the 70 translators, the earliest use of the term Septuagint as a reference to the translation itself is found in Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History (c. a.d.303).

Different Translation Approaches within the Septuagint

In both ancient and modern times, different approaches to the task of translation have been adopted. Each language employs its words as a code to “cut up” and represent the “pie” of reality. The code of one language may overlap with that of another in multiple ways or perhaps not at all in some aspects. Just as light may be refracted as a continuum of colors on a spectrum, so translations may be characterized as a continuum on a spectrum from highly literal (sometimes called formal equivalence) to functional equivalence (also called dynamic equivalence).

At one end of the spectrum translations can be woodenly literal, simply translating item for item, word for word, even copying the word order of the original language in ways that make the translation sound unnatural. The code of the receptor language is conformed as closely as possible to that of the source language. Then further along the spectrum are “essentially literal” translations that seek to render the meaning of each word in the original but to do so in contextually sensitive ways and to produce a readable, natural-sounding translation. Functional equivalence, at the other end of the spectrum, is dynamic, idiomatic, idea for idea or “thought for thought,” so to speak. The code of the receptorlanguage (even when it differs significantly from the original language) is followed as closely as possible to maximize effective communication and understanding for the audience.

Thus different notions of fidelity in transmitting the Word of God motivate the different ends of the spectrum. When the codes of source and target languages overlap in multiple ways, often more than one correct translation of an expression is possible. For example, if the source language specifies a relationship of possession between the nouns “Mary” and “purse,” there are a number of right ways to say this: “Mary’s purse,” “the purse of Mary,” “the purse that belongs to Mary,” “the purse that Mary has,” etc. The books in the Greek Pentateuch as well as those in the Prophets and Writings vary widely within this spectrum of types of translation. Some are literal in the extreme; others are more idiomatic and represent various gradations of functional equivalence.

Genesis and Exodus in the Septuagint range from essentially literal to fairly dynamic translations, while Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are quite literal. The translator of the book of Job abbreviated many of the long, windy speeches for his Hellenistic readership so that the book is one-sixth shorter in Greek. The translator of Proverbs rearranged the material to enhance the figure of Solomon. Other books, such as Esther and Daniel, have additions to them. The Septuagint version of Jeremiah for some reason differs significantly from the Hebrew text in both arrangement and text. Most of the books, however, reflect the same Hebrew text preserved in the Masoretic text.

The differences between the Septuagint and the later standard Hebrew text (the Masoretic text) are due to a number of factors. In some cases, the translators were using a Hebrew parent text that differs somewhat from the Masoretic text. In most cases, differences are due simply to a different way of reading the same text or understanding the grammar and meaning of words.

The Septuagint quickly became popular among the Jews of the Diaspora for whom Greek was the familiar spoken language. When the Christian church began to spread beyond Jewish borders, they adopted the Septuagint as their ordinary Bible, with minor modifications (while still recognizing that it was a translation). For example, the book of Daniel in the Septuagint was considered so deficient by the Christian church that they rejected it, and in its place used a later Greek translation attributed to Theodotion.

Many of the quotations of the OT in the NT are from the Septuagint, or even early revisions of it, and as a result differ from the Masoretic text. The differences range from superficial to significant. Sometimes the “quotations” are not actually quotations in a modern sense but are the NT author’s modification and adaptation of the Septuagint wording to apply to a new circumstance (see, e.g., Acts 4:11, borrowing words from Ps. 118:22; and 2 Cor. 6:18a, borrowing from 2 Sam. 7:14). At other times the NT authors correct the Septuagint reading, bringing it closer to the Hebrew (e.g., 1 Cor. 14:21, using Isa. 28:11–12;Eph. 4:30, using Isa. 63:10).

Differences due to copyist errors in textual transmission and variations in translation do not in any way weaken the strong claim made by Jesus and the apostles concerning the inspiration and accuracy of the Scriptures. They affirmed the divine authority both of the OT itself and of their own writings as they at various times used and adapted both the Masoretic text and some of the readings found in copies of the Septuagint. The differences and variations in the texts were there in Jesus’ time just as they are today. No doubt in many cases the NT authors were aware of the differences but were able to use them for their own purposes. This does not imply that they thought the Septuagint always represented the wording of the documents as originally written, but only that they affirmed the truthfulness of the words they quoted or adapted to the new context of their own writing.

Revisions of the Septuagint

Before the end of the first century a.d., Jews were reacting against the use of the Septuagint, partly because it did not reflect current rabbinic teaching and partly because of Christian apologetics based on the Septuagint, not only where it was accurate but even sometimes where it had faulty renderings. Therefore, the Jews produced a number of revisions of the Septuagint to make it conform to the Hebrew text more closely. The most important of these were by Theodotion (50 b.c.a.d. 50; literal), Aquila (c.a.d. 120; extremely literalistic), and Symmachus (c. 180; dynamic). Almost all later translations of the OT (Old Latin, Syro-Hexapla, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Arabic, Gothic, Old Georgian, Old Slavic) were made from the Septuagint rather than directly from the Hebrew. (But the Syriac Peshitta version and the Latin Vulgate made extensive use of a Hebrew text, and the Samaritan Pentateuch was itself a Hebrew text.)

Christian codices (plural of “codex,” which is an early kind of book consisting of bound sheaves of handwritten pages) of the Bible from the fourth/fifth century a.d. contain additional books beyond the 39 books of the OT and 27 books of the NT. Some of these additional books are translations of Hebrew originals, but most were originally written in Greek. These books represent Jewish literature written between 300 b.c. and a.d. 100 and were called the Apocrypha by Jerome. (See The Apocrypha.) Some have mistakenly thought that these books were included by Alexandrian Jews in their canon. Yet Judaism in Alexandria was not independent of Palestinian Judaism, as even Aristeas reveals.

Not all of the books of the Apocrypha were originally composed in Greek or even in Egypt. Moreover, 1 Maccabees, one of the books of the Apocrypha, acknowledged that inspiration had ceased (1 Macc. 4:46; 9:27; 14:41) before it was written. The prologue to Sirach (c. 130 b.c.) does not seem to include the Apocrypha as Scripture, and Philo, who ought to be a key source of information on Alexandria, does not quote the Apocrypha. Nor did he write commentaries on these books, even though he wrote on all the books in the Hebrew canon. Since the extant manuscripts of the Septuagint are of Christian, not Jewish, origin and are copies made 500 years after the original translations, the great uncial codices (early codices written entirely with capital letters called “uncials”) cannot be guides as to what was canonical in Alexandria in the third century b.c. The books of the Apocrypha were not considered inspired by either Jews or Christians, but were popular reading among both groups.

The Importance of the Septuagint

The Septuagint is important for many reasons. First, the Septuagint represents an extremely early text of the OT. Our oldest complete manuscripts of the Hebrew OT date to c. a.d. 1000, and even the portions of the OT found in the Dead Sea Scrolls date from around 200 b.c. to a.d. 68. But the Septuagint translation of the Pentateuch was done in the third century b.c. To the extent that we can use it to determine the Hebrew text from which it was translated, we have a much older testimony to the text of the OT. (On the other hand, the Hebrew Masoretic text is the result of an extremely careful process of copying and transmission and often represents a more accurate preservation of the original wording than that found in the Septuagint, although this can be decided only on a case-by-case basis. At times the Septuagint better preserves the more original wording.) And in spite of some variations, the Septuagint usually shows the same text later preserved in the Masoretic text. Since the Septuagint predates the Dead Sea Scrolls and is complete while they are fragmentary, it is more important than the Dead Sea Scrolls as a textual witness.

Second, the Greek OT, as a translation, gives us an extremely early understanding of difficult points of grammar in the Hebrew text and the meanings of Hebrew words otherwise unknown to us.

Third, since all translation involves interpretation, the Greek OT is, in effect, the earliest commentary on the Hebrew text.

Fourth, since the Greek OT was produced between the end of the OT and the beginning of the NT, it represents a key witness to the thought and worldview of Second Temple Judaism (c. 516 b.c.a.d. 70).

Fifth, the Greek translation was often used by the apostles when quoting the OT in the NT and was adopted early on as the ordinary Bible of the Christian church. Understanding the language of the Greek OT is key to understanding the Greek of the NT. The Septuagint affected the language of the apostles just as the kjv has influenced the vocabulary of Christians in our time. Such influence is especially evident in the writings of Luke, who contributed more to the NT than Paul in amount of text. For example, in the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10) Jesus asks who was a neighbor to the man who fell among thieves. An expert in the Torah answers, “the one who did ‘mercy’ with him.” The expression is as strange in Greek as in English, but comes by way of the Septuagint from the expression in Hebrew for performing acts of kindness that demonstrate and fulfill covenant loyalty and love.

Finally, the history of the Greek Old Testament bears witness to debates over approaches to translation and to the problem of variations in the text of the Bible at the time of Jesus. This can shed some light on debates over similar topics today.

For these reasons, the study of the Greek OT can be of great value to the church today.

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