Septuagint: Greek translation of the Jewish Bible, made in the third century BCE for the Jews living in the Diaspora. The name means "translation by seventy men".

Ptolemy II Philadelphus. Bust from the Villa of the Papyri, Herculaneum
Ptolemy II Philadelphus. Bust from the Villa of the Papyri, Herculaneum

After the conquests of the Macedonian king Alexander the Great (336-323), the land of Israel became part of the empire of the Ptolemies, a Macedonian dynasty that ruled Egypt and the southern Levant. In the late fourth century, Jewish migration to the country along the Nile started, and in the third century, we find colonies of merchants and mercenaries in Alexandria and elsewhere. According to Philo, a Jewish author from the early first century CE, about a million Jews were living in Egypt. Most of them spoke Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic, and were in need of a translation of the Bible.

According to the Letter of Aristeas, a document maybe written in c.170 BCE, the initiative for this translation was not Jewish but Greek. King Ptolemy II Philadelphus (282-246) wanted to build a library that contained all the books in the world. The first librarian was Demetrius of Phalerum, who thought that such a collection ought to contain a translation of the Law of Moses. Consequently, he sent a letter to Eleazar, the high priest at Jerusalem, asking him to send seventy-two translators, six from every tribe.

Eleazar agreed and the king welcomed the translators with a banquet that lasted seven days. Finally, the men were brought to their quarters on a quiet island near Alexandria, and in seventy-two days, they completed the translation of the Law. They proceeded to translate the rest of the Jewish Bible (Prophets and Scriptures), and after the project had been completed, they returned to their homes, with royal gifts for Eleazar.

This is clearly a legend. Several details are historically inaccurate. For example, Demetrius of Phalerum was not involved in the establishment of the famous Alexandrian library. The author of the Letter of Aristeas puts this champion of Greek culture on the stage to show that Jews and non-Jews could live together in harmony. On the other hand, there is no reason to doubt that the Jewish Bible was translated in the first half of the third century BCE.

This translation is known from many medieval manuscripts, and two books that are even older: the Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus were written in the fourth century. In spite of the antiquity of these manuscripts, there are several problems.

We will discuss these questions below.

Was there one translation?

This question was asked for the first time by the German Altertumswissenschaftler of the nineteenth century and has been hotly debated ever since. Several scholars have stated that there was one single translation, and others have proposed that there were in fact several versions. There is one strong argument for the second position: the fact that there are divergences between the manuscripts.

Yet, it seems that the truth is somewhere in the middle. There was one single translation of the Law, but almost immediately, copyists started to make alterations. To a certain extent, this was a natural process (when a person has to copy a text, he will inevitably make mistakes); on the other hand, different Diasporic communities had different beliefs, which necessitated small adaptations. The other two parts of the Jewish Bible, Prophets and Scriptures, were translated by various people in the second century. The result might have become a big mess, but copyists usually checked other manuscripts, and several scholars (e.g., Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion) prepared critical editions. The result of their activities was a set of more or less controlled traditions of the text.

Why are there differences between the Septuagint and the Hebrew version of the Bible?

The Jewish Bible is written in Hebrew. When the Septuagint was made, most Jews in the land of Israel spoke Aramaic, a language that is closely related to Hebrew. They did not need a translation and kept reading and copying the Bible in the original language. This process continued until the printing press was discovered in the fifteenth century. The most important manuscript is the Codex Leningrad, which was written c.1000. The texts of this and other Hebrew manuscripts are called the Masoretic tradition.

Sometimes, there are differences between the Masoretic text and the Septuagint. For example, the Greek books of Daniel and Esther are considerably longer than the Hebrew equivalents. These texts were probably written in the second century, and it is likely that additions were made after the text had been translated into Greek. In the Hebrew version of Esther, God is not mentioned, and it is easy to see why a pious, Greek speaking Jew would have added a few lines.

Another explanation is that between c.100 BCE and c.200 CE, the Septuagint was, as we noted above, a set of more or less controlled traditions. The same can be said for the Hebrew version; the Dead Sea scrolls have shown that at the beginning of our era, there were several variant readings of the Biblical texts. After 200, new, critical editions were made of the Greek and Hebrew text, and the editors did not choose the same textual variants. This explains why there is no consensus on the number of days spent by Jonah in the big fish.

Are our manuscripts reliable, or must we assume that there are later interpolations?

In the early third century, the Christian scholar Origen (186-254) prepared a new, critical edition of the Bible, which became known as the Hexapla or Sixfold book. In six columns, it contained a Hebrew text; the same text in Greek script; the text of Aquila; the text of Symmachus; a reconstructed text of the original Septuagint; and the text of Theodotion. The Hexapla had 6,000 pages in 50 volumes, and is now lost. However, almost all ancient and medieval manuscripts of the Septuagint are based on Origen's reconstruction.

There are no indications that Origen deliberately tried to falsify the sacred texts, but he sometimes had to choose between variant readings. One example may illustrate this. The Gospel of Luke contains a list of Jesus' ancestors, of which the first part is identical to the genealogy of king David, who was, after all, among Jesus' ancestors. However, Luke's list contains two names that Origen did not find in the manuscripts of the Septuagint that he consulted. Being Christian, he accepted Luke's version.

Unfortunately, Luke was responsible for the two additional names - and not the source of the Septuagint. The evangelist had created a genealogical system in which everybody who was anybody belonged to a "seventh generation": e.g., Abraham to the 21st generation, David to the 35th, and Jesus to the 77th (details). So, we have to accept a minor error in Origen's Bible. No doubt there are other, unrecognized inaccuracies.

The result is that it is impossible to reconstruct the original version of the Septuagint. Because the Masoretic text has a similar editorial history, we must conclude that we cannot know the original wording of the books of the Jewish Bible. The texts of the Dead Sea scrolls are sometimes closer to the Masoretic tradition, and sometimes closer to the Septuagint; therefeore, they cannot be used to decide which version is better.

It should, however, be stressed that the differences are usually not very large. Although we are unable to reconstruct the precise wording of Law, Prophets and Scriptures in, say, 250 BCE, we can safely assume that it was more or less like the text of our present-day Bibles.


This page was created in 2001; last modified on 12 October 2020.