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Why Should You Care About the Septuagint?

“Septuagint Day” was Feb. 8, as declared by the International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies
Only a tiny fraction of the population has any clue what the Septuagint is, but we need to change that.

The Septuagint is an early Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, probably begun in the early third century B.C. and finished sometime during the next hundred years. It had its origin in Alexandria, Egypt, where Greek-speaking Jews who no longer knew Hebrew wanted greater access to their Scriptures.

An old tradition called the “Letter of Aristeas” claims that the librarian of the great library in Alexandria persuaded the king of Egypt (probably Ptolemy II Philadelphius) to request that scholars from Jerusalem should come to Alexandria and translate the Hebrew Bible into Greek.

The king complied, according to the letter, and sent lavish gifts to temple leaders in Jerusalem, who chose six scholars from each of the 12 tribes (i.e., 72 in all) to Alexandria. There, after entertaining the king with their wisdom, the scholars reportedly completed their task in 72 days, to the delight of all. 

The Letter of Aristeas appears designed to promote the Septuagint as superior to the Hebrew text, and much of it is no doubt fictional, but it is the earliest tradition we have regarding the origin of the Septuagint, and it accounts for the translation’s name, as well.

Over time, the number of scholars was rounded off from 72 to 70 and used as the title for the work: “Septuagint” is the Latin word for the number 70. In scholarly abbreviation, the Septuagint is routinely denoted by the Roman numerals LXX.

Of course, the story is actually more complex. It’s not as if there’s one single version of the LXX because it also underwent changes in different places and is preserved in different versions. And the term refers not just to the initial translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, but also to the collection of Scriptures later adopted by the Catholic Church, including the books written in Greek known as the Apocrypha, which are regarded as Scritpure by Catholics, but not Protestants.

 

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By now you are asking, “Why should I care about any of this?”

Here are a few reasons: 

1.    The Septuagint is one of the oldest witnesses to at least one stream of tradition for the Hebrew text.

2.    The Septuagint was translated from a Hebrew text preserved in Egypt, which diverges from the Hebrew text used in Babylon and Jerusalem at a number of points. In some cases, the LXX has clearly amplified the earlier Hebrew text (as with the addition of several prayers to the Book of Esther, which has no mention of God in the Hebrew version). In other cases, however, the LXX may preserve a tradition closer to the original.

3.    The Greek translation was more commonly used by New Testament writers, so when they quoted from the Old Testament, they typically quoted (and then, often loosely) from the LXX. This is why, for example, Matthew 1:23 quotes Isaiah 7:14 as “Behold, a virgin shall conceive,” when the Hebrew text refers only to a young woman (‘almanah), not specifically a virgin. The LXX translation used the word parthenos, however, a Greek word that means “virgin.” New Testament students should be aware of these things.

4.    The Septuagint had a great deal of influence on Jerome’s fourth-century Latin translation of the Bible, which came to be called the Vulgate and became the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church – and hence, of virtually all of Christendom – for more than a thousand years.

5.    The Vulgate strongly influenced the translation of the King James Version of the Bible (published in 1611), now celebrating its 400th birthday. (For other reasons why the LXX is worth studying, see Tyler Williams’ comments at his Codex blog.)

The point of all this is to note that the Bibles many of us grew up with are heavily influenced by an early Greek translation that diverged at many points from the Scriptures preserved in the Hebrew tradition. It’s an important gear in the complex machinery that brought us the Bibles we read and study today and thus worth our consideration. 

Tony Cartledge is associate professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School and contributing editor to Baptists Today, where he blogs.