The Septuagint: God's Blessing on Translation

by Debra E. Anderson

"We affirm and avow, that the very meanest translation of the Bible in English, set forth by men of our profession, ... containeth the Word of God, nay, is the Word of God. As the King's Speech which he uttered in Parliament, being translated into French, Dutch, Italian, and Latin, is still the King's Speech, though it be not interpreted by every translator with the like grace, nor peradventure so fitly for phrase, nor so expressly for sense, everywhere. ... No cause therefore why the Word translated should be denied to be the Word."1

What the translators of the Authorised Version stated in answer to those who opposed their work of translating the Bible into English, they and many throughout the centuries have also recognised regarding translations into other languages: that the Word of God in translation is still the Word of God. This was true of the Authorised Version; it was also true of one of the first translations of the Old Testament ever done, the Greek Septuagint.

The Old Testament

The people of God under the Old Covenant spoke Hebrew, and God moved His chosen men to write His Word in the Old Testament in Hebrew (and, in a very few verses, Aramaic). For many centuries this was sufficient for His people; they could read the Law and teach it to their children as the Lord commanded (Deuteronomy 6). The ancient language of the Patriarchs served the people well, and they continued to use it to their advantage for many centuries.

But their sin changed this. The people abandoned the God of their Scriptures and served idols; they failed to keep the Sabbaths as commanded in the Law. In order to punish the people, bring them back to the Lord and give the land its Sabbath rest (2 Chronicles 36.21), the Lord sent the people into exile, into the lands of the heathen Assyrians and Babylonians. The northern tribes of Israel never returned, and only a remnant of the southern tribes of Judah was restored to the land.

Judah's seventy years of exile brought about numerous changes amongst the people. No longer did they abandon the true God and disobey His Law so overtly. But at the same time, they were no longer the separated Hebrew people they had once been. Many had taken foreign wives and sired children who were not taught the language of their fathers (Nehemiah 13.23, 24). Many chose to stay in the countries to which they had been exiled, where they lost the ability to read Hebrew.

Between 336-324 BC, Alexander the Great, king of Macedon, conquered much of what was then the known world. In addition to being a great military conqueror, he was also a cultural conqueror, bringing with him into his new territories Greek culture and language. Alexandria, Egypt, became the seat of his Hellenistic culture. A considerable number of Jews, particularly those of Alexandria, accepted Greek as their language, with many never learning the language of their fathers. To Jews both outside of Israel and in, the Hebrew Scriptures had become a closed book. Even the tradition of passing the Scriptures orally from parent to child was in danger of being lost. The people would need the Scriptures in their own language if they were to continue in the faith.

"More Jews lived outside of Palestine than in it. Communities of Jews could be found in Alexandria (Egypt), Antioch (Syria), Asia Minor, Greece, and Italy. Very few of them spoke Hebrew or even read it. Their language was Greek, the lingua franca of the Mediterranean world."2

In addition, the Old Testament was a closed book to those outside the Jewish nation. God wanted His people to be "a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation" (Exodus 19.6), unto whom the peoples of the nations could flee for salvation. The Scriptures being in Hebrew only made this more difficult, particularly as the coming of the One who would be the Light to the Gentiles drew nearer.

The Septuagint

The problem of the lack of Scriptures was solved c. 250 BC with the appearance of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, a translation known for millennia as the Septuagint.

"This is the translation of the Seventy interpreters, commonly so called, which prepared the way for our Saviour among the Gentiles by written preaching, as Saint John Baptist did among the Jews by vocal. ... the Greek tongue was well known and made familiar to most inhabitants in Asia, by reason of the conquest that there the Grecians had made, as also by the colonies, which thither they had sent. For the same causes also it was well understood in many places of Europe, yea, and of Africa too. Therefore the word of God being set forth in Greek, becometh hereby like a candle set upon a candlestick, which giveth light to all that are in the house, or like a proclamation sounded forth in the market-place, which most men presently take knowledge of; and therefore that language was fittest to contain the Scriptures, both for the first preachers of the Gospel to appeal unto for witness, and for the learners also of those times to make search and trial by."3

The history of the translation of the Septuagint is shrouded in myth and legend. According to Aristeas, a 2nd-century BC Hellenistic Jew, Ptolemy Philadelphus set up his court in Alexandria and set about expanding the library there to include as many works as possible. The president of the library, Demetrius, told the king about the Books of the Law of the Jews, and urged the king to have these translated into Greek and added to the library. According to this account, Philadelphus sent for seventy-two Hebrew scholars, six from each tribe of Israel, to undertake the work. He secluded these men on the island of Phares, where each worked separately on his own translation, without consultation with one another. According to the legend, when they came together to compare their work, the seventy-two copies proved to be identical.

This story, while highly unlikely, convinced many that the Septuagint had a supernatural quality which helped gain its acceptance for several hundred years, until the time of Jerome some four hundred years after Christ. Some of the Jewish Talmudists claimed inspiration for the Septuagint, stating that God inspired the hearts of each translator.4

"At some time during the second and third centuries B.C., the Hebrew Bible (i.e., the Old Testament) was translated into Greek. No one is precisely sure of the history of the Septuagint, but in the synagogues of Greek-speaking Jews, it attained a wide acceptance long before the birth of Christ. One might suppose that the Jews would have resisted a translation from Hebrew to Greek, either rejecting it as disrespectful, or looking down on it as an inferior shadow of the real Hebrew Bible. But surprisingly the new translation was revered as much as the Hebrew. The Septuagint was thought of as the Bible itself."5

Jesus,6 the apostles and the New Testament writers also accepted the Septuagint,7 using it in conjunction with the Hebrew.

The Septuagint version having been current for about three centuries before the time when the books of the New Testament .were written, it is not surprising that the Apostles should have used it more often than not in making citations from the Old Testament. They used it as an honestly-made version in pretty general use at the time when they wrote. They did not on every occasion give an authoritative translation of each passage de novo, but they used what was already familiar to the ears of converted Hellenists, when it was sufficiently accurate to suit the matter in hand."8

With this the translators of the Authorised Version agree.

"The translation of the Seventy dissenteth from the original in many places, neither doth it come near it for perspicuity, gravity, majesty; yet which of the Apostles did condemn it? Condemn it? Nay, they used it, ... which they would not have done, nor by their example of using it, so grace and commend it to the Church, if it had been unworthy the appellation and name of the Word of God."9

Perhaps one of the most important instances of the New Testament writers' use of the Septuagint is Matthew 1.23, in which the Gospel writer quotes Isaiah 7.14. The Hebrew word almah, argued by some in our day to indicate a young woman of marriageable age but one not necessarily a virgin, is translated in the Septuagint as parthenos. This Greek word means virgin, indicating that the Jewish translators before the time of Christ understood the prophecy correctly. Other Jews after the advent of the Christian era translated the word into Greek as neanis, 'young woman', in order to distance the prophecy from fulfilment in Jesus. Matthew quotes the Septuagint, applying it to Jesus.

Other New Testament writers also used the clear translation from the Septuagint in their writings. In Hebrews 1.6 is a quotation from Psalm 97.7. The Old Testament passage speaks of the "graven images", "idols" and "gods". The final word in Hebrew is elohim (gods); the Septuagint renders this aggeloi (angels). The book of Hebrews takes the Septuagint rendering and incorporates it, in which is urged that "all the angels of God" worship Jesus.

For the Church Fathers, the Septuagint was not only the Old Testament they used in their study, writing and preaching, it was the one they used when translating the Old Testament into Latin. In time it came to be considered the inspired Old Testament, even above the Hebrew. Justin Martyr believed that in instances in which the Hebrew and Greek differed, the Septuagint was the correct text and that the Jews had "altogether taken away many Scriptures from the translations effected by those seventy elders".10 Most Fathers quoted from the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew when the two differed. Irenaeus relates the Aristeas story, and states that "The Scriptures were acknowledged as truly divine ... interpreted [translated] by the inspiration of God".11 Clement of Alexandria said that "it was not alien to the inspiration of God, who gave the prophecy, also to produce the translation, and make it as it were Greek prophecy",12 and based his claim that Amos the prophet was the father of Isaiah upon the identical spelling of Amos and Amoz in the Greek.13

It was not until the end of the 4th century AD that the ancient Church finally began to relinquish its attachment to the Septuagint. Other Old Testament translations were made into Greek, primarily those of Aquila, Symmachus and Theodotion. These three men, believed to be Judaizers, produced editions which displayed their heretical tendencies. The growing number of translations moved Origen to compare the editions, producing a polyglot Bible, the Hexapla, comprised of editions of the Hebrew, the Septuagint and several of the other Greek translations, which exhibited the differences between them.

Jerome for many years had translated the Old Testament from the Septuagint into Latin. In the latter part of the century, however, he recognised the differences between the Greek Septuagint and the Hebrew, and began making translations of the Hebrew books, primarily for the benefit and use of his friends. "Jerome was often criticised for using the Hebrew text rather than the Septuagint as the basis for his translation, but he rightly argued that the Septuagint was not inspired and that a better translation could be made from the Hebrew, the original language of the Old Testament."14 In time his translation, the Vulgate, grew in importance and became the accepted Latin version.

For a thousand years, the Vulgate was the prominent version used by the Western Church. But God moved the Reformers to turn their attention back to the Bible in the original languages. Even at that, the Reformers -- as the Jews in exile had done -recognised the need for people to have the Scriptures in a language they could understand. Thus, men such as Luther and Tyndale used the original language texts as the bases for their work. The translators of the Authorised Version wrote,

"How shall men meditate in that which they cannot understand? How shall they understand that which is kept close in an unknown tongue? as it is written, Except I know the power of the voice, I shall be to him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian to me. The Apostle excepteth no tongue; not Hebrew the ancientest, not Greek the most copious, not Latin the finest. ... Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the holy place ... "15

Thus, the Scriptures, translated from the original languages, became available to people throughout Europe.

The Septuagint Today

Today the Hebrew text of the Old Testament is available to people around the world. The Hebrew translated into a multitude of languages has made the Old Testament accessible to millions. Greek readers have the Old Testament in their own language, which is more readily understood than the antiquated form of Greek found in the Septuagint. Thus, many question the need for the Septuagint today.

However, the Septuagint continues to fill a place, particularly in Bible translation. The Hebrew of the Old Testament, while beautiful in its phrasing and form, is not always clear. The Septuagint, having been translated without anti-Christian bias and without the warping of modern liberal or neo-orthodox theology, provides an edition of the Old Testament which predates the earliest available Hebrew manuscript. Thus, although inferior to the Hebrew text, on occasion the Septuagint is a helpful aid in translation and Old Testament study.

More beneficial to the average Christian is the acknowledgement that our Saviour and His closest disciples used a translation of the Scriptures. We can rest in the knowledge that it is not necessary to read Greek and Hebrew in order to have access to the Word of God.

It pleased God to bless the Septuagint, and His people through it; even so He has been pleased to provide His Word in a variety of other translations and languages to His people throughout the centuries throughout the world. May He continue to do so, until that day in which His Word reaches its final fulfilment!

________

Endnotes:

  • 1 The Translators to the Reader: Being a Reprint of the Original Preface to the Authorized Version of 1611 (London, England: the Trinitarian Bible Society, 1911, 1998), p. 20.
    It would be a most interesting debate, but must remain a matter of conjecture, whether the Authorised Version translators would have taken the same view of the plethora of translations and editions of the Scripture which abound today. Many such translations are based on altogether less sound textual and translational principles than those to which those men adhered and are, therefore, in the view of this Society, unworthy of the designation of the Word of God.
  • 2 Jakob van Bruggen, The Future of the Bible (Nashville, TN, USA: Thomas Nelson Inc., Publishers, 1978), p. 37.
  • 3 Translators to the Reader, p. 13.
  • 4 BT Megilla 9a, Sof 35.
  • 5 van Bruggen, pp. 37-8.
  • 6 One example of Jesus' use of the Septuagint is found in His refutation of the Devil in Matthew 4.4. The Hebrew in Deuteronomy 8.3 has "mouth of the LORD"; the Septuagint has "mouth of God". It is this latter that Jesus quotes.
  • 7 This is not to say that Jesus or the New Testament writers considered the Septuagint to be inspired as the Hebrew was, or that we should. Only what the writers actually quoted in their canonical writings can be considered inspired, and that only because they quoted it.
  • 8 Lancelot C. L. Brenton, "Introduction" to The Septuagint with Apocrypha: Greek and English (Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1986, 1992), p. iv.
  • 9 Translators to the Reader, p. 21.
  • 10 Justin, Dialogue with Trypho, ch. 71.
  • 11 Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.21.2.
  • 12 Clement, The Miscellanies, 2.22.
  • 13 Ibid., 1.21.
  • 14 Diana Severance, "The Feisty Jerome: His Bible Legacy Lasted Over 1,000 Years", Glimpses Issue #57 [http://www.gospelcom.net/chi/glimpses/fiftyseven.html], 1994.
  • 15 Translators to the Reader, p. 12.

This article was originally published in the Quarterly Record no. 545, October to December 1998.

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