TranslationThe Most Important Bible Translation You’ve Never Heard of Used by the Apostles and the early church, the Greek translations of the Old Testament may be the most important ever. William A. RossNovember 15, 2021 ShareFacebookTwitterLinkedInPrint Level It’s difficult to overstate the importance of the Septuagint for the textual history of Scripture in both Hebrew and Greek and in both the Old and New Testament. It constituted a major part of the textual environment of second temple Judaism and early Christianity both in terms of number of copies and in the influence of those copies on other writers and scribes. Like most important things, the Septuagint is also complicated. It is notoriously difficult to define and has been the object of steady and strident debate since its inception right up to the present. The complexity explains why, even now, there is still no complete critical scholarly edition of the entire corpus. More than just establishing the text of the Septuagint itself, specialists continue to grapple with numerous parallel questions related, for example, to postclassical Greek, diaspora Judaism, and the history of Ptolemaic Egypt, among other areas. This article will briefly introduce the Septuagint, beginning with the matter of origins before looking at translation style, textual development, and various ways in which the Septuagint weighs upon other areas of biblical scholarship. Approaching Definition and Origins It is helpful to keep in mind that—although one can purchase a physical or electronic copy today—in antiquity, the Septuagint was not actually one thing that existed as a distinct physical entity. In fact, it can be helpful to think of the term “Septuagint” as a catch-all label for a broad area of research in biblical texts and languages. But perhaps we can be a bit more specific. Thinking About a Definition The term “Septuagint” is typically used to refer to a collection of ancient translations of the Hebrew Bible along with other texts usually called the Apocrypha. At a basic level, the term “Septuagint” is typically used to refer to a collection of ancient translations of the Hebrew Bible along with various other Jewish Greek texts that are now usually called the Apocrypha. The latter include writings such as Tobit, 1 Esdras, and Sirach, some of which were translations while others were originally written in Greek by Jewish authors. There are certainly worthy questions wrapped up with the Apocrypha—particularly related to the question of canon—but this article will focus instead upon the Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible. It is important to notice that the word “translations” in the last sentence is plural. It is all too easy to conceptualize the Septuagint as a standalone, single-volume hardback produced in its entirety by a single translation committee working with a shared philosophy, much like in the case of modern Bible translations. But doing so, intentionally or not, is a serious mistake. The variegated corpus of Greek texts (and their textual traditions) that make up what we now call the Septuagint were translated by different people, in different locations, at different times, for different purposes, often with different Hebrew texts, and in many cases more than once for a particular book. At no point in antiquity, that we know of, was there any term used to identify those texts as a unified corpus distinct from the Hebrew “scriptures” (graphai, γραφαί) in general. Pinning down the details of each of those factors and considering how they affected the Bible’s production and development are ongoing tasks of Septuagint scholarship today. Thinking About Origins That being said, there is some consensus as to the origins of the earliest translation initiative. Scholars agree that the Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy) was the first part of the Hebrew Bible translated into Greek by Jews living in Hellenistic Egypt, probably in the middle or early part of the third century BC. Consensus on this point has become possible in part thanks to Patristic testimony, but even more so owing to scholarship that has managed to date the linguistic features of the Greek Pentateuch to that period. Scholars are far less agreed about why the Greek Pentateuch was produced in the first place. To be sure, the centrality of the Pentateuch in Jewish life can explain why it was the first portion translated. An equally obvious factor was that, by the third century, the Jewish community in Egypt was fully Greek-speaking, and so naturally had a need for their Scripture in the language they used in everyday life, including their religious life. It may have been in Jewish liturgical practice that the earliest translation from Hebrew occurred orally, gradually leading to certain generally accepted practices that were used later in the written versions. Translation itself was certainly not an unusual part of life in the multilingual context of Hellenistic Egypt, and there is good evidence that those who produced the Greek Pentateuch were either professional translators in the Ptolemaic administration themselves or consulted with those who were. Although the main impetus for translating the Hebrew Bible was probably internal to the Jewish community, it is very possible that some external motivation also helped. One ancient account of external motivation appears in the Letter of Aristeas, a second-century document framed as an eyewitness account of why and how the Jews had produced the Greek Pentateuch. The Letter is now widely regarded as fictitious (and rightly so), but some scholars do find parts of the story credible. Any official government involvement in the project was probably not as grand as the royal invitation and fanfare portrayed in the Letter of Aristeas. But, given the kind of status the Jews enjoyed in Hellenistic society, Ptolemaic sponsorship of the translation project of some sort is possible, even if it was indirect. Aside from the Pentateuch, there is little certainty as to when the rest of the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek. Scholars generally recognize that most of the Historical Books and the Prophets, along with the Psalms, were translated by the mid-second century BC (see the Prologue to Sirach). Other books like Ecclesiastes, however, may not have been translated at all until well after the turn of the era. Translation Styles and Development To attempt to describe the translation style of the Septuagint as a whole is similar to trying to describe the climate of the entire North American continent. Saying anything useful really depends on what part you are looking at. Even so, to press the metaphor, there are some regions of the Septuagint that can be grouped together given the similarity of translational climate. We can identify three. Three Main Translation Styles First, scholars agree that the style of the Greek Pentateuch set a benchmark for later translation activity. As a general rule, the translation is conventional Greek that matches each Hebrew word in order. Not infrequently, however, a translator departed from Hebrew word order in favor of maintaining Greek conventions. But occasionally, representing the Hebrew source text was more important, though it is not always clear why. The translators were native Greek speakers with a standard Hellenistic education and clear familiarity with the Hebrew Bible. So it’s rarely appropriate to attribute translation choices that seem odd to us to some lack of competency in Greek or familiarity with Scripture on the part of the translators. Numerous factors were involved simultaneously. The result in the Greek Pentateuch was an eclectic translation that was unpretentious but not without formality, creativity, and the occasional literary flair. The details of that style set a standard to which many later translators aspired, for example, in the Psalms and the Minor Prophets, and even in non-translated Jewish Greek works like Ezekiel the Tragedian. Not all translators followed the tradition of the Greek Pentateuch. As early as the second century BC, another, more paraphrastic style emerged that was much less concerned to represent each Hebrew word in order with a close Greek equivalent. Books translated in this style include Job, Proverbs, and Isaiah, and their texts often differ from what we find in the Masoretic Text (MT) tradition of the Hebrew Bible known today. Related The opening of Numbers in the Yonah Pentateuch (14th c.), showing its ornate micrography. BL Add MS 21160. Public domain The Extraordinary Hebrew Text behind Your English BibleThe Masoretic Text is the fruit of the genius of Jewish textual scholars who codified the pronunciation of the Hebrew text. Kim Phillips Shifts in word order and even relocation, omission, or addition of entire sentences are not uncommon, making it difficult to know whether the translator was working from a text like the MT and going his own way or translating basically word-for-word but with a Hebrew text different from anything we now know. A third translation style also appeared, at least by the first century BC, with somewhat reversed tendencies that strove instead to represent every Hebrew word in order even more stringently than in the Greek Pentateuch. This tradition seems to have been part of a revision movement in which existing translations were modified in certain ways. Despite the more exacting approach, even this translation tradition was not entirely devoid of Greek linguistic style, and in time some books like Lamentations and Ruth were not revised with this mindset but actually translated that way from the start. The Transmission and Development of the Corpus Because the Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible emerged gradually over three centuries rather than all at once, the copying and transmission of the written texts themselves influenced the production of later books as misunderstanding or disagreement occurred. Of course, as texts were used and copied over time, unintentional changes appeared in the Greek manuscript traditions. These variants were introduced in several ways that will be familiar to those acquainted with New Testament textual criticism. Inadvertently skipping over part of the text in the copying process (known as parablepsis) occurred, as did simple misreading or mishearing, among other unwitting missteps. Get new articles and updates in your inbox. Leave this field empty if you're human: More significantly for the Septuagint corpus, however, are the intentional textual changes that occurred over time. This phenomenon was noted already as part of a translation style that grew out of textual revision often oriented towards a (proto-Masoretic) Hebrew text, the rationale for which is not always obvious. Some revision occurred at the level of wording. When that happened, the resulting text may or may not have differed significantly from the old Greek version, depending on how that original version itself was translated. The Old Greek version of Daniel was fairly paraphrastic, so its later revision involved substantial reworking. But the Old Greek version of Judges was closer to the style of the Greek Pentateuch, so its later revision was not nearly as thoroughgoing. Other kinds of intentional revision involved broader changes in what might be called textual shape. In these cases, existing translations were expanded, abridged, or rearranged at a discourse level with minimal or even no reference to any known Hebrew source text. The book of Esther is a good example of this phenomenon, with two Greek versions that differ from each other, yet both contain six chapters additional to those found in the MT. Apart from the revisions already mentioned, the Greek tradition of Daniel also has significant additions compared with the MT. In these cases, at least, the additions to Esther and Daniel are now grouped with the Apocrypha. The Importance of the Septuagint Dr. Ross’s new book offers a beginner’s guide to the Septuagint and its importance. To be sure, much more detail about the Septuagint could be (and elsewhere has been) spelled out. But it is more helpful at this point instead to broaden the scope and consider the importance of the Septuagint for biblical scholarship as a whole. In keeping with the theme of the aims of this website and its institute, one of the major ways in which the Septuagint is of paramount importance is in establishing the text of Scripture. As already noted, one particularly important aspect of that discussion is the matter of Old Testament canon. For some time, there has been a tendency to situate the Apocrypha within a purported “Septuagint canon” that was larger and later informed the books found in Christian codices like Vaticanus. The issues involved are complex, but this approach is at odds with ancient testimony and lists (e.g., Josephus, Against Apion 1.37–42), none of which seem to recognize a canon broader than that of the Hebrew Bible. Of course, in addition to informing the boundaries of the Old Testament, the Septuagint is also of paramount importance for establishing the text itself. Attentive Bible readers may have noticed the marginal comments or footnotes at various points stating that a modern translation of the Hebrew Bible has in fact adopted something from the Septuagint. At 1 Samuel 1:24, for example, modern translations like the ESV and NIV follow the Septuagint and Dead Sea Scrolls in the main text so that Hannah takes young Samuel to the house of the Lord with a “three-year-old bull.” The footnotes alert the reader to the MT’s reading which has Hannah take “three bulls” instead. The Septuagint reading certainly makes better sense with the next verse. In such cases, the Septuagint is judged by various means to have preserved a better reading. Making that judgment can be very difficult and involves something of an interpretive circle: Does the Septuagint differ from the MT at a particular point because the translator’s source text said something different there, or because the translator chose on that occasion not to represent his source text word for word? To arrive at an answer, we must have some understanding of how a given translator usually approaches his task. But, of course, to know what to expect of a translator assumes we can derive that expectation from a comparison of the Greek and Hebrew texts as we have them. These are difficult issues to settle and require great skill. Last but certainly not least, the Septuagint also influenced the authors of the New Testament, who themselves read and knew Scripture in Greek (and often in Hebrew as well). As already noted, we should avoid thinking that the Septuagint existed in a way that Paul, for example, could have taken it off his shelf to look up a passage as he wrote. There was no “it”—no “Septuagint pew Bible” in any simplistic way. There was Scripture, preserved in better or worse forms, in Greek. For that reason, the textual, linguistic, and even theological implications of the Septuagint for New Testament studies constitute a dense and important scholarly field of research. For example, there is ongoing debate within Septuagint scholarship as to the prevalence of theological tendencies manifested in the Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible themselves. The textual, linguistic, and even theological implications of the Septuagint for New Testament studies constitute an important field of research. The same can be said about the nature and meaning of innumerable features of the language of the Septuagint. But, aside from grappling with such issues directly, New Testament scholars have the added complexity of asking whether and how the New Testament authors themselves might have read and understood the Greek versions of the Hebrew Bible, and what kind of influence that might have had—in textual form or vocabulary choice, for example—upon their interpretive posture and scriptural reasoning. Conclusion It should be clear by this point that the Septuagint is a broad and complex area of study. We should avoid oversimplifying it as we think about the textual history of the Bible, lest we come to unwarranted conclusions. Yet even so, with some guidance understanding, the Septuagint is not beyond the grasp of the typical person in the pew who wants to know more about the origins of Scripture. Alongside the Text & Canon Institute website, good resources exist to help people do just that. William A. Ross Will Ross (PhD, University of Cambridge) is assistant professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC. He is coeditor of the T&T Clark Handbook for Septuagint Research and of Septuaginta: A Reader’s Edition. Ross blogs regularly about the Septuagint and its many related topics at Septuaginta&c.