Perhaps you have heard a preacher make reference to it; maybe you have seen it mentioned in the notes of your Bible: the Septuagint. The Septuagint is often brought up and discussed and yet many people are unfamiliar with what it is. The Septuagint is the “catch-all” term to describe the “original” Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament along with apocryphal books of both Hebrew and Greek origin (books written by uninspired authors that provide historical descriptions or attempt to teach lessons through story or wisdom). Let us consider some basic facts about the Septuagint.
The term “Septuagint” comes from the Latin for “seventy” (hence the abbreviation LXX, the Latin numerals for seventy), underscoring the belief that the Pentateuch, or the first five books of the Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), were translated by seventy-two Jewish scholars (which is near seventy) commissioned by Ptolemy II Philadelphus, Macedonian king of Egypt, in the third century BCE (as told in the pseudepigraphal Letter of Aristeas). This translation of the Torah was the “original” Septuagint. Over the next two hundred years, the rest of the Old Testament was translated into Greek; by whom and precisely when and where we do not know. The “Septuagint” as we know it was codified sometime after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.
Yet one should not believe in the idea of a truly unified and coherent “Septuagint,” as if it were the work of one man or a group of men at one time. It is believed that the current “Septuagint” involves an Old Greek text (OG), the “original” Septuagint, if you will, along with different later recensions, or adaptations, of the text. One that has recently been identified is called the kaige recension, based on the consistent translation of the Hebrew gam by kai ge. Later recensions are called by the ones making the revisions, all from the second century CE: Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion. The recensions tend to bring the Greek text more in line with the by then commonly received Hebrew text, called the Masoretic Text (MT). In around 235 CE, Origen, a Christian scholar in Alexandria, came out with the Hexapla, a book of six columns comparing the Hebrew text, the Hebrew transliterated into Greek, the Septuagint text (with editing marks), and the three main recensions. Origen’s “fifth column,” the LXX text, would eventually come to be the preferred text for the Christian community. In the early fourth century Lucian of Antioch edited the recension which underlay the textus receptus (“received text”) of the Septuagint throughout the medieval period.
The Septuagint is a marvelous work. Few works in the ancient world were translated; most books were left in their original language since the work of translation involves so much necessary change from the source language to the target language. On the other hand, there was a sizable Jewish community, especially in Alexandria in Egypt, who were much more proficient at Greek than they were in Hebrew. The OT was translated both for their benefit and also to assist the Gentile world in understanding, and perhaps converting to, early Judaism.
The Septuagint gained great prominence in the first century CE when it began to be used by the new Christian community. While it seems evident that Jesus of Nazareth spoke mostly Aramaic, the Apostles wrote in Greek, as did the Gospel writers. While some New Testament authors will occasionally make their own translations of the Hebrew Masoretic Text, most of the citations of the Old Testament in the New Testament come from the Septuagint. Since the Septuagint was the Old Testament for the early Christians, it remained authoritative for many Christians, and is still used as the “official” Old Testament of the Greek Orthodox church. When Jerome prepared his Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, and used the Hebrew Masoretic Text as the base text for the Old Testament, and not the Septuagint, many derided him for doing so, since the Septuagint was good enough for Jesus and the Apostles!
As the Septuagint gained prominence among the Christians, it lost importance within the Jewish community. Since many of the arguments used by the Christians involved variations between the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint, the Jews believed their text to be superior and considered the Septuagint to be quite inferior. The Septuagint was preserved by the Christians, while the Masoretic Text was preserved by the Jews.
The Septuagint, therefore, is the Greek translation of the Old Testament. It was translated long before Jesus and the Apostles and served two purposes, allowing Jews of the Diaspora to understand their Scriptures in the Greek of their common life and to provide the opportunity for Greek-speaking Gentiles to come to a better understanding of YHWH, God of Israel, the Creator. It is used as an ancient witness to the Old Testament text, and at many points preserves readings that are likely more accurate to the original text than the MT. It was the Old Testament used by the early Christians, and is often quoted in the New Testament. Let us appreciate the insight and understanding we gain from the Septuagint, and seek to understand the Scriptures so as to be profitable servants of God!
Ethan R. Longhenry