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The Ecole Glossary


The Septuagint

The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Jewish Bible in widespread use by the end of the II Century BCE. The name means Seventy after the committee of 70 or 72 translators traditionally said to have produced it in Alexandria in the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus (285-246 BCE). Legend has each translator working independently, and miraculously producing an identical version; modern scholars argue from textual evidence that several hands can be identified, sometimes even in single books, and that the work was done over many decades at several locations.

The LXX (as the Septuagint is usually abbreviated) was immensely popular among Hellenized and diaspora Jews and gave non-Jews their first glimpse of the "Hebrew wisdom". For early Christians, very few of whom could read Hebrew, the LXX essentially was the Old Testament; thirty-three of the thirty-seven Old Testament quotations in the New are taken directly from the LXX. These included a number of instances in which the LXX reading differs greatly from that of the Masoretes (the now-standard Hebrew version), most notably "virgin" instead of "young woman" at Isaiah 7:14. Later Christian writers also relied on LXX-specific readings, such as "they have pierced my hands and feet" instead of the certainly less natural-sounding "like a lion are my hands and feet" at Psalm 22:16.

Because of its use by Christians as a source of proof-texts, and probably for other reasons as well, the LXX was eventually abandoned by the Jewish community, in spite of a previous tendency to consider it of supernatural origin. Talmudic tradition states that the LXX is both divinely inspired and full of errors; the errors were providentially introduced to keep the Gentiles from understanding too much! Even so, according to some rabbinincal authors, mysteries were revealed to the profane, and the day the translation was finished should be kept as a day of mourning.

Christian writers were also aware of the discrepencies between the LXX and the proto-Masoretic Hebrew text advocated by the rabbis after the destruction of the Temple. They explained them either by claiming either that the Jews had altered their own Scriptures, or less frequently by arguing that the LXX had indeed changed the text, but under divine guidance. Thus there was a story that Symeon, one of the 70, was instructed by an angel to translate almah as "virgin" against his own scholarly judgement; the same Symeon was said to have lived for hundreds of years and to have been the elder who received the infant Jesus in the Temple [Luke 2:25-35].

Modern scholarship suggests a less sinister but more radical explanation of the textual differences than claiming that either text was deliberately changed. Archæological discoveries, notably the Qumran scrolls, show that in the I Century CE (and no doubt earlier) several different Hebrew versions of the Bible were in use among Jews, even at a single location like Qumran. Thus the Dead Sea Scrolls include an essentially Masoretic version of Isaiah, but also a version of Jeremiah which is much closer to the LXX but written in Hebrew. Thus it seems likely that the translators of the LXX chose, or perhaps only had access to, a particular set of Hebrew manuscripts which formed the basis of their translation, while the Masoretes and their predecessors used a significantly different group of manuscripts to edit into a standard Hebrew text.

Apart from the theologically famous differences already mentioned, most of the numerous differences between the two versions at the single word level are quite minor, often involving either numerical data (such as the lifespans of the antediluvian patriarchs -- hence the discrepency between the Jewish and Eastern Orthodox creation dates) or words which in the Masoretic text are incomprehensible in context and in the LXX are replaced by others which make the passage more readable. (Whether these represent places where the 70 had access to an "uncorrupted" Hebrew original or whether the translators merely guessed what the passage "must surely mean", as is quite often done by modern Bible translators, is a matter of debate.)

More significant is the LXX's significantly different structure of many books, especially of Jeremiah in which the chapters are arranged in a quite different order. (An annoyance for those tracing Biblical references is the fact that in the LXX and Latin Vulgate, most but not all of the Psalms are assigned numbers one digit different from those in the Masoretic text and the English Bible, because Hebrew Ps. 9 and 10 are joined together and Hebrew Ps. 147 is split into two. There are also other irregularities in numbering the psalms, especially 113-116.)

Most dramatically of all, the LXX includes a much larger canon of Scripture than the Masoretic version. All of the "deuterocanonical" books usually excluded from Protestant Bibles or relegated to an appendix called Apocrypha are included in the LXX (a slightly larger group of such books than even the one used by the Roman Catholic Church). In addition, many individual books contain added material, especially Daniel.

As the Old Testament quoted by the Gospels and the Greek Church Fathers, the LXX had an essentially official status in the early Christian world. This status was reduced in the West after the V Century by the publication of Jerome's Vulgate, which drew extensively on the Masoretic text whenever there appeared to be no theological consequences, but continued unchanged in the Christian East. The Ethiopic, Church Slavonic, and other Eastern Christian versions of the Old Testament are based largely or solely on the LXX, and the stories about its divinely inspired origin are a part of Orthodox tradition.

The most famous rendition of these stories is in the Letter of Aristeas. Supposedly written by a Ptolemaic government official, it tells the story of the translation of the Bible (with fewer miracles than many other versions) almost in passing; the bulk of the text is composed of wise advice for kings delivered at a banquet given by the Emperor for the translators. Each translator gives one wise saying, in the manner of Hellenistic Jewish wisdom literature. Jerusalem and Judæa are depicted in glowing terms as a sort of Atlantis-like Republic of Wisdom surrounding the glorious Temple of the One God.

There were, however, other Greek Old Testaments.

Around 128, Aquila, a pupil of Rabbi Akiba, published an extremely literal (almost unreadable) translation of the proto-Masoretic text in which a particular Hebrew word was always represented by the same Greek word regardless of context. This translation was often used by Christian Biblical scholars like Origen and St. Jerome as an aid in understanding the Hebrew, although it also seems to have been written expressly for use in arguments against Christians, having been comissioned for this purpose by rabbinical leaders. This version is lost except for a few fragments.

Theodotion of Ephesus wrote an extremely important translation which has a very odd history. Theodotion, who evidently was not a Jew but rather a member of the Ebionite Christian heresy (which kept kosher dietary laws), lived in the II Century. His translation, however, is seemingly "quoted" in Heb. 11:33 and several times in Revelations! This strongly suggests that Theodotion's version was based upon either a lost Greek translation which competed with the LXX or upon a "revised" LXX. Amazingly, Theodotion's version of Daniel is the one officially accepted by the Church and usually printed in modern editions of the LXX; the original LXX version survives in only three manuscripts. The oddities connected with Theodotion's version and its use by the Church were remarked upon already by the Fathers, specifically by St. Jerome, who could offer no definitive explanation.

Late in the II Century, another member of the Ebionite sect, Symmachus, produced a loose Greek translation, almost a paraphrase. Other Greek versions already lost in the early Christian era were rediscovered not in modern times but by the ancients: the early Christian scholar Origen published a manuscript of Job, Psalms, Song of Songs, and the Minor Prophets which someone had found in a jar near Jericho in the reign of Caracalla, and another Greek version of Psalms and some other books found accidentally in Asia Minor.

Norman H. Redington


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