Introduction to the Septuagint

In its most general sense, the term "Septuagint" refers to the Old Testament as rendered into Greek. The term and its abbreviation into Latin as "LXX" derives from the Latin word for "seventy." The number seventy has been associated for millennia with Greek renderings of Old Testament books owing to a tale recounted in an ancient document (ca. 200's BCE) known as the "Letter of Aristeas." This document describes how a certain King Ptolemy who ruled in Alexandria desired that the books of Hebrew Law should be included in the great library there. To this end, he commissioned a group of Jewish scholars—6 from each tribe, thus making the number 72—to translate from Hebrew the desired books. The account goes on to describe how the work of the translators was miraculously completed in 72 days—thus, the association of the number 70 with the Greek translation of Hebrew holy books.

The above description of the LXX represents what could be called a "pre-critical" understanding: a memorable legendary account becomes attached to a not too precisely defined grouping of sacred literature and this informal conception achieves a wide currency. This sort of understanding, while it might not reflect advances made in the "critical" phases of LXX studies, is still extant today. Non-specialists or even specialists from other related fields of study (e.g., theology or church history) may still hold to this conception of the Septuagint. For these people the term "Septuagint" could be used to designate any ancient Greek translation of any biblical book. It can also be applied to the canon as a whole: some speak of the Septuagint as the "Bible" of St. Paul or of the early Church.

Recent study of the LXX has complicated the picture for specialists though. The use of the Letter of Aristeas as a reliable source for historical reconstruction has been called into question, for one thing. The discovery of a fairly wide range of textual witnesses to ancient Greek translations of Hebrew biblical books has raised the question of whether there was a single authoritative translation in ancient times such as the Letter of Aristeas postulates. And it certainly seems quite clear to many that the Greek translation(s) that was/were produced went through long and sometimes extensive processes of revision that may have gone on until as late as the 3rd or 4th centuries CE. It becomes difficult in light of this realization to think of the Greek OT books we now possess as going back as far as the time of the Ptolemies of Egypt, much less as maintaining the original character with which a given translator of those times might have imbued them.

Then there is the issue of the biblical canon. It is somewhat erroneous to think of the Septuagint as the "Greek Old Testament" when there is not a very strict correspondence between it and the range of books found in the Jewish canon. Indeed, those LXX codices which contain a complete or partially complete Old Testamental segment include many works probably composed originally in Greek rather than Hebrew (e.g., Wisdom of Solomon, 3 Maccabees). Added to this there are currently Churches—such as the Eastern Orthodox—whose Bible contains a section corresponding in large part to the OT portion of these ancient codices. The question of the Septuagint's canon then, is not a strictly historical one: it has a contemporary significance as well. Thus, it can be held as true in the technical sense to state that the Septuagint is the Greek Old Testament—if one intends by this to say that it is the Old Testament of the modern-day Greek Orthodox Church, whose Bible contains an OT portion made up of these ancient (and anciently revised) translations and compositions. But this is likely not what most of us in the West mean when we speak of the Septuagint as the "Greek Old Testament."

For these reasons, use of the term "Septuagint" must be qualified in scholarly circles. To what, exactly, should it refer? That question has not been totally settled. One possible way to legitimately use the term is according to its popular usage: i.e., to take it to refer to any ancient translation into Greek of a book presently found in the Hebrew canon or any book also found in the present-day Eastern Orthodox canon (or, incidentally, among the "apocryphal writings" of Roman Catholic Bibles). The further question often pursued by scholars concerning the nature of the original translation, before it underwent revision, then demands another terminology: if "Septuagint" is taken as the more general term, thus potentially signifying even diverging translations or revisions of the same book, then how is the text as it left the hand of the translator to be designated? One possible terminological convention is to call the conjectural, unrevised text by the name "Old Greek" ("OG").

At present, there is an ongoing project involving sorting out the manuscript traditions of Septuagint books and attempting to restore the unrevised Greek translations. This project is called the "Göttingen Unternehmen" (roughly "The Göttingen Undertaking") after the city in Germany where it is centered. They publish each LXX book in a separate volume with an introduction to the manuscript tradition. The restored text is provided in the body of each volume. It is accompanied by an extensive critical apparatus giving alternate or variant readings from manuscripts or translations not accepted into the restored text. To date they have published approximately one half of the Septuagint in this manner.

These very cursory remarks on the Septuagint and its field of study are intended to provide a framework for the following FAQ's. Many links will be found among the answers which will provide further background on the text(s) and the related field of study. The list of questions is intended to be expanded with the usage of the associated discussion list. Submission of pertinent links and relevant questions to the moderators for posting here is encouraged.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What are some of the basic works in the field of LXX studies?
A: 3 key works in English are: H. B. Swete's (ca 1900) "Introduction to the Old Testament in Greek"; Sidney Jellicoe's "The Septuagint and Modern Study"; and Emmanuel Tov's "The Text-Critical Use of the Septuagint in Biblical Research."

Q: Are there any bibliographies of works written on the LXX?
A: There are 2: the older (1973) "Classified Bibliography of the Septuagint" compiled by Brock, Fritsch and Jellicoe; and the more recent (1995) "Bibliography of the Septuagint" organized by Cecile Dogniez.

Q: Are there modern editions of the LXX?
A: Yes, several. The most widely used is that produced by Rahlfs ("Septuaginta; Id Est, Vetus Testamentum Graece Iuxta Lxx Interpretes"). Another widely circulating parallel Greek/English edition is "The Septuagint version of the Old Testament, with an English translation, and with various readings and critical notes; [and] The Apocrypha; Greek and English in parallel columns" sometimes called the "Bagster edition" after the name of the publisher. The other two Septuagint editions--the "Larger Cambridge Septuagint" and the "Septuaginta: Vetus Testamentum Graecum / auctoritate Academiae Litterarum Gottingensis editum"--are only partially completed. The completion of the former seems unlikely since nothing has been done on it for several decades: the Göttingen project seems to have supplanted it.


Under Construction

James Miller

Back to Septuagint and Old Greek Studies Discussion List

Updated 9/1/99