What Is the Septuagint (and Why Does It Matter)?
by Jannes Smith
The Septuagint is the Old Greek version of the Bible. It includes translations of all the books found in the Hebrew (Old Testament) canon, and as such it is the first known Bible translation. It also includes the so-called Apocryphal or deuterocanonical books, some translated from Hebrew originals and others originally composed in Greek.
It's called the Septuagint after the Latin word for "seventy" (septuaginta). According to an old tradition (recounted in the Letter of Aristeas), the first five books of the Bible, known as the Pentateuch, were translated into Greek by about seventy elders sent to Egypt by the high priest Eleazar in Jerusalem at the request of King Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Alexandria, who wanted to add the Jewish Scriptures to his library. Although the story originally applied only to the Pentateuch, the tradition expanded to include the other books as well. In time, the entire Greek version came to be known as the Septuagint, or the version of "the Seventy," and is abbreviated with the Roman numeral LXX (70).
This account was later used by Christians to defend the inspiration of the Septuagint against Jewish rabbis who disparaged its disagreements with the Hebrew text. Most scholars today agree that while the Pentateuch was translated in Egypt in the mid-third century B.C.E., Aristeas's account is not authentic and postdates the translation by well over a century; it was probably written as propaganda to defend its authority. Yet there is some history in the tale: there was a large community of Jews living in Alexandria, and it is likely that the Pentateuch was translated for their benefit. The rest of the books followed gradually, probably over the course of several centuries.
One finds a range of translation styles in the books of the Septuagint, from very free to very literal. The identity of the various translators is not known, with one exception: according to its prologue, the book of Joshua ben Sira (known as Sirach or Ecclesiasticus) was translated by his grandson.
The Septuagint matters for many reasons. Its translators faced many of the same challenges and issues that today’s Bible translators do, so it forms an important resource for translation studies. It also helps us to understand how the Jews interpreted their Scriptures at an early stage. It translates a very early form of the Hebrew text and preserves important differences from surviving Hebrew manuscripts (notably the Masoretic Text). Furthermore, New Testament authors often quoted Old Testament passages from the Septuagint version, and their theological vocabulary—which via Latin became the vocabulary of Christian theology—often stems from the Septuagint. The Septuagint plus the New Testament became the Bible of Christianity and remains the version used in the Greek Orthodox Church. Its daughter versions have likewise been used over the centuries in the churches that used those languages. The Septuagint has fondly been called "Egypt's greatest gift to Western civilization."
Professor, Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary
Jannes Smith is professor of Old Testament studies at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Canada. He is the author of Translated Hallelujahs: A Linguistic and Exegetical Commentary on Select Septuagint Psalms (Leuven: Peeters, 2011).
Genuine; historically accurate.
The Hebrew designation for the book of Sirach, also known as Ecclesiasticus, a book of instruction and proverbs.
An authoritative collection of texts generally accepted as scripture.
Literally, "second canon"; refers to texts accepted by Catholics and Eastern Orthodox as sacred scripture, but not included in the Hebrew Bible. Not to be confused with Apocrypha, which include noncanonical works.
A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.
An early (second-century B.C.E.) Jewish document considered part of the Pseudepigrapha and dealing mostly with the circumstances and rationale for the creation of the Septuagint, a Hellenistic Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible.
Shorthand title for the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures fabled to have been completed by 70 translators (LXX is 70 rendered in roman numerals).
Textual documents, usually handwritten.
Relating to the Masoretes, a group of medieval scribes who preserved and transmitted the written Hebrew text of the Bible. Or, the Masoretic Text itself, an authoritative Hebrew text of the Hebrew Bible.
A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.
Also called the Hebrew Bible, those parts of the canon that are common to both Jews and Christians. The designation "Old Testament" places this part of the canon in relation to the New Testament, the part of the Bible canonical only to Christians. Because the term "Old Testament" assumes a distinctly Christian perspective, many scholars prefer to use the more neutral "Hebrew Bible," which derives from the fact that the texts of this part of the canon are written almost entirely in Hebrew.
Of or belonging to any of several branches of Christianity, especially from Eastern Europe and the Middle East, whose adherents trace their tradition back to the earliest Christian communities. Lowercase ("orthodox"), this term means conforming with the dominant, sanctioned ideas or belief system.
Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.
Writing, speech, or thought about the nature and behavior of God.