The Septuagint

The Septuagint (LXX) is the name commonly given in the West to the Koine Greek Alexandrine text of the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh/Old Testament) produced some time between the third to first century BC. The Septuagint Bible includes additional books of the old Jewish canon beyond those contained in the Hebrew Bible, including the books of the Maccabees, much beloved and revered by Jews today. These additional books were composed in Greek with small portions in Aramaic, and in most cases only the Greek version has survived to the present. The Septuagint is the oldest and most important complete version of the Old Testament and predates the Hebrew, or Masoretic, text by as much as 1,000 years (see below).

(Some targums paraphrasing the Bible in the Aramaic common to Babylonia were also made around the same time.)

Naming and designation

The Septuagint derives its name (derived from Latin septuaginta, seventy, hence the abbreviation LXX) from a legendary account in the Letter of Aristeas of how seventy-two Jewish scholars were asked by the Egyptian pharaoh Ptolemy II Philadelphus in the 3rd century BCE to translate the Torah for inclusion in the Library of Alexandria. In a later version of that legend narrated by Philo of Alexandria, although the translators were kept in separate chambers, they all produced identical versions of the text in seventy-two days. Although this story is widely viewed as implausible today, it underlines the fact that some ancient Jews wished to present the translation as authoritative. A version of this legend is found in the Talmud, which identifies fifteen specific unusual translations made by the scholars. Only two of these translations are found in the extant LXX.

The names "Septuagint" and "LXX" are of later Latin origin and are not used in Greek; the usual Greek name for the translation is "kata tous ebdomekonta" (according to the seventy).

The LXX is not the only Greek text nor is it the oldest. However, only portions and fragments of the earlier versions survive, and so "Septuagint" in common parlance has come to mean any version in Greek. Although these earlier version were the ones used by the early Christian church and are the basis for translations into other languages such as Gothic (ca 380), it is the Septuagint which is the basis for translations that Orthodox churches use today. A reconstruction of the original text of the Old Testament that Christ and his disciples knew in Greek has not yet been attempted.

Dating and critical scholarship

Modern scholarship holds that the LXX was translated and composed over the course of the 3rd through 1st centuries BC(E), beginning with the Torah.

The oldest witnesses to the LXX include 2nd century BC fragments of Leviticus and Deuteronomy (Rahlfs nos. 801, 819, and 957), and 1st century BC fragments of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and the Minor Prophets (Rahlfs nos. 802, 803, 805, 848, 942, and 943). Relatively complete manuscripts of the LXX include the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus of the 4th century AD/CE and the Codex Alexandrinus of the 5th century. These are indeed the oldest surviving nearly-complete manuscripts of the Old Testament in any language; the oldest extant complete Hebrew texts date much later, from around 1000.

The sources of the many differences between the Septuagint and the Masoretic text have long been debated by scholars. One extreme view was that the Septuagint provides a reasonably accurate record of an early Semitic textual variant, now lost, that differed from the Masoretic text. The other extreme, favored by Jewish religious scholars, was that the differences were primarily due to intentional or accidental corruption of the Septuagint since its original translation from the Masoretic text. Modern scholars follow a path between these two views. The discovery of many fragments in the Dead Sea scrolls that agree with the Septuagint rather than the Masoretic proved that many of the variants in Greek were also present in early Semitic editions.

On the other hand, there were known episodes of Jewish revisions and recensions in both Greek and Semitic dialects, the most famous of which include those by Aquila (AD 128), a student of Rabbi Akiva. Origin (235), and other early Church fathers discussed the differences and attempted to preserve the original reading of the Greek. Origen a Christian theologian in Alexandria completed a comprehensive synopsis of each ancient version side-by-side, but his work is now almost completely lost.

These issues notwithstanding, the text of the LXX is in general close to that of the Masoretic. For example, Genesis 4:1-6 is identical in both LXX and Masoretic texts. Likewise, Genesis 4:8 to the end of the chapter is the same. There is only one substantial difference in that chapter, at 4:7, to wit:

Genesis 4:7, LXX (Brenton)
Genesis 4:7, Masoretic (Artscroll)
Hast thou not sinned if thou hast brought it rightly, but not rightly divided it? Be still, to thee shall be his submission, and thou shalt rule over him. Surely, if you improve yourself, you will be forgiven. But if you do not improve yourself, sin rests at the door. Its desire is toward you, yet you can conquer it.

Use of the Septuagint

Jewish use

Jewish attitudes toward translations of their scriptures developed with time. By the 2nd century BC, it was often necessary for the readings in the synagogues to be interpreted in Babylonian Aramaic, producing the need for the targumim, though one Talmud writer forbids their use except for foreigners. A later Talmudic injunction by Rabbi Simon ben Gamaliel said that Greek was the only language into which the Torah could be accurately translated. The Septuagint found widespread use in the Hellenistic world, even in Jerusalem, which had become a rather cosmopolitan city and associated with many vibrant Jewish communities. Both Philo and Josephus show the influence of the Greek version in their citations of Jewish scripture.

Several factors finally led most Jews to abandon the Greek, including the fact that Greek scribes were not subject to Jewish technical rules of scribal interpretation; that Christians favoured the LXX; and the gradual decline of the Greek language among Jews after most of them fled from the Greek-speaking Roman Empire into the Aramaic-speaking Persian Empire when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. Instead, Hebrew/Aramaic manuscripts compiled by the Masoretes, or authoritative Aramaic translations such as that of Onkelos, of Rabbi Yonasan ben Uziel, and Targum Yerushalmi, were preferred. The LXX translation began to lose official sanction after differences between it and the Hebrew scriptures were discovered. This contributed to the growing renunciation of Hellenization among Jews. All these factors combined and the Jewish people adopted the Masoretic text, except for works such as the Maccabees.

Ethiopian Jews are the only Jewish community today who still accept the Septuagint (minus Ecclesiasticus).

Christian use

The Early Christian Church, however, continued to use the Greek, since it had always been the language of the Church and because the prophetic passages clearly pointed to Jesus as the Christ in the Septuagint version, whereas the same passages were ambiguous or absent in the Hebrew. When Jerome started preparation of a new Vulgate translation of the Bible into Latin, he started with the Septuagint, checking it against the newer Hebrew Masoretic Text, he discovered many significant differences. Encouraged by his Jewish friends who provided him the Masoretic with their insistence of its perfect accuracy, Jerome at last broke with all church tradition to translate the Old Testament not from the age-old Greek but from his new find, the Masoretic. The Psalms in the Masoretic differ particularly from the Septuagint, although the Latin Mass still used the Psalms from the older Greek versions. Indeed, all the other early Christian translations of the Old Testament were done from the Greek version and Church fathers such as Origen remarked on how Jewish religionists differed in both the interpretation of the Old Testament and how over time the Jewish text grew different from the Christian in wording.

The writers of the New Testament, also written in Greek, quoted from the old Greek versions exclusively. This is significant since the new Masoretic text prominently diverged in those passages which prophesied Christ. Thus even when Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian and other translations from the Greek appeared, Greek versions continued to be used by the Greek-speaking portion of the Christian Church. The Eastern Orthodox Church still prefers to use LXX as the basis for translating the Old Testament into other languages, and the Greek Orthodox Church (which has no need for translation) continues to use it in its liturgy even today. Many modern Catholic translations of the Bible, while using the Masoretic text as their basis, employ the Septuagint to decide between different possible translations of the newer Hebrew text whenever the latter is unclear, undeniably corrupt, or ambiguous.

Recent Aramaic findings among the Dead Sea Scrolls read most closely with the LXX, and not with the Masoretic text. For example Deuteronomy 32:8-9, both the LXX and the Aramaic agree that the patron of the people of Jacob is lower in status than the Most High. This suggests that the older LXX may be more accurate than the newer Masoretic text which was given to Jerome.

Language of the Septuagint

The Greek of the Septuagint shows many Semiticisms, or idioms and phrases based on Semitic dialects, and the grammatical phenomenon known as attraction is common there. Some parts of it have been described as "Hebrew in Greek words". However, other sections show an ignorance of Hebrew idiom, so that the literal translation provided makes little sense. The translation in the Pentateuch is very close to the Hebrew, while some other books, such as the book of Daniel, are very un-Hebrew-like. Ecclesiastes is more Semitic, while Isaiah is more Greek. This is cited as near-certain evidence that the translation was in fact made by several different redactors.

Books of the Septuagint

The vast majority of the Septuagint coincides with the Jewish Tanakh, although the order does not always coincide with the modern ordering of the books, which was settled some time before AD 200.

A few books are differently named. Thus the Books of Samuel and the Books of Kings stand under the name of the four Books of Kingdoms (Βασιλειῶν), and the Books of Chronicles are called Paraleipomenon (Παραλειπομένων—things left out).

More significant are the books that do not occur in the Tanakh. These are generally accepted by the Orthodox as scripture, though 4 Maccabees is very often relegated to an appendix. Since there are various editions of the Septuagint, however, there are slightly different canons in the various Orthodox jurisdictions. Catholics accept seven of these books, and the additions to Daniel and Esther. Protestants generally regard them as apocryphal. The "neutral" name for these additions, and the name favored by Catholics, Orthodox, and most modern researchers, is deuterocanonical books. (See Books of the Bible for a comparison of canons.)

The additional books in most editions of the Septuagint are 1 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom of Sirach, Baruch, Letter of Jeremiah (considered by Catholics as part of Baruch), additions to Daniel (The Prayer of Azariah, Song of the Three Children, Susanna and Bel and the Dragon), additions to Esther, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, 3 Maccabees, 4 Maccabees, Psalm 151, and Odes (including the Prayer of Manasseh).

Translations of the Septuagint

The Septuagint has been translated most notable is Brenton's English Translation of the Septuagint. More recently, Brenton's translation has been used as the inspiration for a modern-language version, by Paul Esposito, The Apostles' Bible. The Orthodox Jewish group Artscroll have also undertaken translation of the Septuagint.

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