The History of the Septuagint; Terminology

THE SEPTUAGINT, derived from the Latin word for "seventy," can be a confusing term, since ideally it refers to the third-century BCE Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, executed in Alexandria, Egypt. But the full story behind the translation and the various stages, amplifications, and modifications to the collection we now call the Septuagint is complicated.

The earliest, and best known, source for the story of the Septuagint is the Letter of Aristeas, a lengthy document that recalls how Ptolemy (Philadelphus II [285–247 BCE]), desiring to augment his library in Alexandria, Egypt, commissioned a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. Ptolemy wrote to the chief priest, Eleazar, in Jerusalem, and arranged for six translators from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. The seventy-two (altered in a few later versions to seventy or seventy-five) translators arrived in Egypt to Ptolemy's gracious hospitality, and translated the Torah (also called the Pentateuch: the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures) in seventy-two days. Opinions as to when this occurred differ, ranging from 282 to about 250 BCE.

Philo of Alexandria (fl. 1st c CE) confirms that only the Torah was commissioned to be translated, and some modern scholars have concurred, noting a kind of consistency in the translation style of the Greek Penteteuch. Over the course of the three centuries following Ptolemy's project, however, other books of the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek. It is not altogether clear which book was translated when, and in what locale. It seems that sometimes a Hebrew book was translated more than once, or that a particular Greek translation was revised. In other cases, a work was composed afresh in Greek, yet was included in subsequent collections of the Scriptures. By observing technical terms and translation styles, by comparing the Greek versions to the Dead Sea Scrolls, and by comparing them to Hellenistic literature, scholars are in the process of stitching together an elusive history of the translations that eventually found their way into collections.

By Philo's time the memory of the seventy-two translators was vibrant, an important part of Jewish life in Alexandria (Philo, Life of Moses 2.25–44). Pilgrims, both Jews and Gentiles, celebrated a yearly festival on the island where they conducted their work. The celebrity of the Septuagint and its translators remained strong in Christianity. The earliest Christian references to the translation, from the mid-second century (SS Justin Martyr and Irenaeus), credit the entire Old Testament in Greek, whether originally written in Hebrew or not, to the seventy-two. Thus Christians conflated the Septuagint with their Old Testament canon (a canon that included the so-called apocrypha). For their part, Jewish rabbis, particularly Pharisees, reacted to the Christian appropriation of the Septuagint by producing fresh translations of their Scriptures (e.g., Aquila, in 128 CE, or Symmachus in the late 2d c. CE), and discouraging the use of the Septuagint. By the second century Christian and Jewish leaders had cemented their position on the form and character of the Scriptures. By and large, Christians held to the peculiar, prophetic character of their Septuagint, and Jews rejected it.

In the third century, the great Christian scholar, Origen (184/85–254/55), keenly interested in the textual differences between the Hebrew and the Greek, set out to arrange the Church's Old Testament in six columns: (1) the Hebrew, (2) a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew, (3) Aquila's translation, (4) Symmachus's translation, (5) the Septuagint (LXX), and (6) Theodotion. The volumes were compiled in Caesarea, probably between 230 and 240 CE, a project funded by Origen's patron. The resultant work, called the Hexapla ("six-fold"), was massive, and has perished except for fragments. Origen was a very careful scholar, but he did not observe modern editorial conventions. His version of the LXX draws from several different manuscript families and embraces readings that bring the text closer to the Hebrew text of his day. Thus, this fifth LXX column, while establishing the first "standardized text" of the Christian Church, created problems for modern scholars who would seek to recover a pre-Christian version of the LXX.

Further recensions of the Greek text in the fourth century are attested. Hesychius (fl. 3/4th c.) is said to have created a recension for the Church in Egypt; Lucian (d. 312 CE), in Antioch. Some scholars posit other recensions from this period. Thus, we find some Greek Church Fathers quoting the same Old Testament texts, but in very different forms. There is no indication, however, that this troubled Church leadership. The insistence on letter-for-letter, word-for-word accuracy in the Scriptures was a feature that was not to emerge in Christian thought for many centuries, and only then after a similar insistence appeared in Judaism and Islam. As far as most early Christians were concerned, any Greek version of the Old Testament read in the Church merited the term Septuagint.

Wherever Christianity spread, translations of the Hebrew Scriptures were made based on the LXX. Thus, it became the basis for translations made into Arabic, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopic, Georgian, Old Latin, and Old Church Slavonic. (It was not the basis either for the Syriac version [known as the Peshitta], which is a pre-Christian translation based directly upon the Hebrew; the LXX is also not the basis for St. Jerome's Latin translation, which, like the Peshitta, is based on the Hebrew.)

Modern scholars, sifting through this very interesting and elusive history, have attempted to create editions of the Septuagint that reflect as early a text as possible. Rahlfs's edition of the LXX (1935) is semi-critical, utilizing what he believed to be the chief manuscripts. Brooke, McLean, and Thackeray's partial edition (1906–40) sought a more critical approach. The Göttingen edition of the LXX (1931–), now mostly complete, is the most critical edition of the LXX, taking into account over 120 manuscripts, many languages, and a multitude of patristic quotations. Modern Biblical scholars accept the Göttingen as the standard edition, but the ease and accessibility of Rahlfs's edition has made it a popular alternative. Bear in mind, all these editions are eclectic, thoughtful attempts to reconstruct the earliest version of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible.

The term Septuagint could refer to any historical stage of the Greek translation of the Old Testament. A strict, purist use of Septuagint would allow the term to be used only of the earliest, (probably) unrecoverable translation of the Pentateuch made by the Jewish scholars around 282 BCE. Some refer to this earliest stage as the "Old Greek," but with some confusion, since this suggests that the term Septuagint should be applied only to texts with no connection to the legend of the seventy-two. For the purposes of this website, I use Septuagint to refer to the entire tradition of Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, and not to any single text or phase.

The Shape of the Septuagint

The style of translation in the Septuagint varies from book to book. In some cases (e.g., Ecclesiastes), the Greek translation is very literal, almost wooden. In other cases (e.g., Proverbs), it is more periphrastic. The quality and kind of translation must be assessed book by book.

Oftentimes the LXX reflects a Hebrew text different from the standard, Masoretic text (MT) of the 9th c. CE. A number of books feature striking differences between the LXX and MT. For instance:

Scholars offer different explanations for these differences, but the consensus is that in many places the LXX reflects a very early Hebrew text no longer available to us. It is often difficult to say categorically how much, or exactly where, the LXX should correct the MT. This may frustrate readers who would prefer a clear-cut account of the transmission of the Hebrew text, since close study of the LXX tends to raise more questions than answers. Nevertheless, this much seems certain: the MT changed over time, and the LXX is a crucial witness to this process.

Some of the differences between the LXX and MT crop up in the New Testament (NT), which draws extensively, but not exclusively, from the LXX. The meaning of the theological vocabulary of the NT is interlocked with that of the LXX, especially in the Pauline writings, and the peculiarities of the LXX are readily apparent in NT quotations. Notable is LXX Isaiah 7.14, which promises that a virgin (Greek: parthenos) will be with child. MT Isaiah 7.14 reports her merely as a "woman" (Heb: almah). Thus the argument behind Matthew 1.23, which cites this verse as a prophecy of Jesus Christ, makes sense only in light of the LXX and first-century overtones to the Greek word. This example, and others like it, prompted early Christians to attribute to the LXX a special status, so as to safeguard the authority of the NT. Thus the differences between the LXX and MT were important factors in the distinct directions Judaism and Christianity took in late antiquity.

Although a factor for division, the LXX also constitutes common ground, since it bears witness to the way Greek-speaking Jews before the Christian era read and interpreted the Hebrew Scriptures. The vocabulary and concepts of the LXX permeated early Christianity, a testament to its Jewish character.

Further reading

This website is intended to be a resource not just to students and scholars of the LXX, but a point of initiation for those who are completely new. Pages dealing with texts and translations provide access to digital and print editions of the LXX, both in the Greek and in translation. Tools and resources provide a guide to key reference works, scholarly societies, and graduate school programs. The page on secondary literature, particularly the introductory section, links to helpful online articles for further study.

The best information on the LXX is not on the web but in books. Of special help to beginners would be Jobes and Silva, Invitation to the Septuagint || (see review) or Fernández Marcos, The Septuagint in Context: Introduction to the Greek Versions of the Bible ||. Also clear and concise is Peters's article, "Septuagint," in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, s.v. A blurb of several of these books can be found here.

The most readily-available English translation of the Septuagint is Brenton's, made in the 19th c. Two major English translations are in circulation: the NETS, a scholarly translation (2007)|, and the Orthodox Study Bible, an ecclesiastical translation (2008)|. Find these and other translations through the Septuagint Finder.