The following essay is published in recognition of International LXX Day, celebrated yearly on February 8, and is also a part of our long-form essay series here on theLAB. LXX day was a week ago today, but you can celebrate it today with this essay on its origin, and check out the great list of LXX resources at the end.
“It is one of the most painful deficiencies of Biblical study at the present day that the reading of the Septuagint has been pushed into the background, while its exegesis has been scarcely even begun.” — Adolf Deissmann, The Philology of the Greek Bible
The best way to begin an essay on the Septuagint is with the statement that “there is really no such thing as the Septuagint.”1
According to Emanuel Tov, the question, “What is the Septuagint?” “refers to such matters as the nature of the individual translation units, their place of origin, the relation between the translation units, the nature of Greek Scripture as a whole, and the possible development of the translation enterprise.”2
Certainly, the study of the Septuagint, or LXX, is a complex and multi-disciplinary enterprise that requires definition before it is to be undertaken at all.
Adding to the difficulty, the nomenclature associated with the Septuagint varies between scholars. The term “Septuagint” originally referred to the number of translators, not to any of the Greek translation(s).3
To further complicate things, the seventy (two) translators only produced the Pentateuch in Greek, as far as we know, while the rest of the Hebrew Bible was edited and revised anonymously over at least the next 300. Hence, titles meant to distinguish between the various stages in translation include, “Pentateuch-only, Old Greek, Ur-Septuagint, Original Septuagint, Proto-Septuagint, Codex Alexandrinus (A) and Codex Vaticanus (B) LXXA, LXXB, LXXAB,”4
so scholars are divided if not uncertain about a working definition. Still, an acceptable understanding can be stated thus: the LXX includes the books of the Hebrew Scriptures translated into Greek from the Hebrew, including additions made to some of those books and some other, apocryphal books mostly written originally in Greek.5
In the following section, we use LXX to refer to the translation of the Pentateuch specifically.
The origin of the Septuagint
Prehistory of the Translation Work
An understanding of the situation in Alexandria, Egypt in the 3rd century BC is foundational to comprehending the origin of the LXX.6
There was a concentration of Jews living in Alexandria, Egypt in the few hundred years before Christ. In Egypt a knowledge of Greek was not a mere luxury but a necessity of daily life.7
For Barclay, the production of the LXX exemplifies the rapidity of Hellenization of Alexandrian Jews; the Hebrew Scriptures “looked disappointingly ‘barbaic’ from their Hellenizing perspective.”8
The repercussions for Jewish religious life were significant, especially since much of the Jewish population had lost their Hebrew.9
Bickerman reveals the implications regarding Judaism’s liturgical worship style:
It is most likely that in the Alexandrian synagogue a dragoman standing beside the reader translated the lesson into Greek. . . . under the conditions of book making in antiquity, it would be a fantastic waste of money and labor to translate, copy and recopy the whole Pentateuch in order to provide help for an occasional oral translation of isolated passages of the Torah.10
Bickerman has argued that the LXX may have been birthed in Jewish centres of learning in Egypt through such oral translation.11 Translation into Greek was a common phenomenon in Hellenistic Egypt.12 Aristobulus, the first known Jewish philosopher, wrote that “older partial translations had already been read by Pythagoras and Plato”13
thereby giving credence to the idea that the LXX was not the first attempt made at translating the Hebrew into Greek, highlighting the demand for translation work in the diaspora.14 The situation at Alexandria was unique in that it provided the ideal scenario in which to introduce a translation of the Hebrew scriptures, especially of the most liturgically and socially significant portions of the Hebrew scriptures. Still, consensus on any one theory of origin has proven elusive. Herewith, we touch upon two related but distinct questions: what motivated the translation and in what textual form would the translation have originated?
Theories of Origin: Motives
The needs of the diaspora for an understandable translation of their scriptures is just one of the many factors leading to the origin of the LXX. Various theories of origin have sought to pinpoint the main reason for its production. Five of these are worth brief consideration at this point.
The Letter of Aristeas
for the origin of the LXX, is included among the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha and was probably written around 150-100 BC.17 The letter contains a description of the circumstances surrounding the origin of the LXX, along with other irrelevant information. Demetrius, the chief librarian of Ptolemy II (285-247 BC), suggested to the king that he add the Jewish Law to his famous and expansive collection of books.18 The king had assigned Demetrius the task of collecting all the known books in the world, and Demetrius thought that a copy of the Law of the Jews should be included. The king was persuaded, and envoys headed to Palestine. Seventy-two translators were sent by the high priest in Jerusalem to Ptolemy along with Torah scrolls from the Temple. After a fruitful meeting with the king, the translators were escorted off to comfortable quarters on an island. Seventy-two days later the translators emerged with their work, which was completely without error and in total agreement. The Jewish people in the area rejoiced and accepted it as divine scripture, and the translators were sent home bearing gifts.19
Scholars have pointed out various problems with Aristeas’ account. Demetrius, the chief librarian, had been banished two years before the events, although Swete thinks he may have still influenced the decision prior to his departure.20
Importantly, why would a Greek monarch care about undertaking the first great translation work in history on behalf of a minority group under his dominion? In light of this and other questions, many scholars today believe that Aristeas is extremely unreliable,21 due to historical inaccuracies and the apologetic nature of the letter.22
Responses to the charges of inaccuracy and unreliability have been answered in a number of ways. First, it is evident that Ptolemy wished to include in the royal library at Alexandria copies of all the books known to the world.23 Second, there was good reason for him to translate the Jewish law into a language he could read, since “the Torah was the sole written source of the law of his subjects in Judaea and the sole authority on their history.”24 Third, there were historical consequences for the translation work done in Alexandria. According to Philo, “the completion of the work of the LXX was celebrated at Alexandria down to his own time by a yearly festival.”25
Swete relates that “the main features of the story were believed by the literary Jews of Alexandria, and even at the Court, more than a century and a half before the Christian era and within a century of the date assigned by Aristeas to the translation of the Law.”26
Although there are strong arguments in favor of attributing various levels of historical reliability to Aristeas, the evidence should be secondary to a primary reliance upon the LXX itself. Tov’s approach to the letter’s witness serves as a good example. He begins with internal evidence in the actual text of the LXX,27
and then considers evidence from Aristeas and other external sources.28
The motivation for diaspora Jews to have the scriptures in their vernacular was strong. Dell’Acqua emphasizes the influence of oral translation practice in the ANE as proof. According to her, “Since its very beginnings, Judaism has felt the need to translate the Scriptures for liturgical and instructional purposes, to communicate the content of the text which formed a reference for the lives of the Israelites across language barriers. The situations that arose from the Babylonian exile on, required the practice of Targum.”29
Metzger also sees value in the needs of the Jewish community as an impetus for the translation, stating both liturgical and educational demands.31 A blend of both educational and liturgical purposes was the most likely motivation, since the two were interdependent in ancient Jewish life.32
Collins, however, sharply disputes the theory of Jewish demand. She agrees that the Jews in Alexandria had lost their Hebrew, but this fact is “essentially irrelevant” to the issue.33
In her opinion, the Jews were strongly opposed to the idea of a translation, but the persistence of the Greeks won the day. Even though later traditions attributed divine stature to the Greek text, the initial purpose of the translation was not religiously driven: it was simply a pagan king’s desire to add one more book to his library in Alexandria.34 Although Collins’ research is thorough and her arguments persuasive, her theory has not held sway amongst LXX scholars.
Theories of Origin: The Form of the Text
The shape in which the original translation of the Septuagint took form, is another debated issue. Were there more versions circulating prior to the establishment of the text as we now have it, or did the Septuagint originate in one version?
Kahle’s Revision Theory
Kahle agreed with most scholars that the translation of the Pentateuch originated in Alexandria but that the historicity of Aristeas was flawed. He was unique, however, in positing that the work done in Alexandria was not a translation, but a revision of a previous work.35
In fact, Kahle included the rest of the Hebrew canon as part of this revision process, believing that it predated Aristeas. In his mind, the letter was an attempt to establish one version above other competing translations.36
Kahle believed that the primary goal of LXX studies was not to establish the Hebrew Vorlage, but to find the original Greek versions that preceded the Christian “standard” LXX.37
The problem with Kahle’s theory is that it fails to answer the question of why Aristeas didn’t simply write an apology for the earlier “standard edition”38 of the Law. Most damaging to his theory was the discovery of manuscripts at Qumran which “contained in Hebrew many of the distinctive Septuagint readings that up until that time had been preserved only in Greek.”39
The argument for the existence of a Hebrew Vorlage thereafter held far too much weight for any scholar to seriously hold to Kahle’s theory.40
Additionally, no evidence for any underlying or competing early Greek versions have ever been discovered.
In the 1900’s Paul Lagarde set the course for all subsequent LXX scholarship with his emphasis on discovering the single-origin initial translation, what he called the “Proto-Septuagint” or “Ur-Septuagint.”41
His principles were first published in a work on the Greek translation of Proverbs in 1863.42
These principles drive much of the Septuagint work being done today. They are as follows: 1) know each translator’s particular approach; 2) hold free translation as superior to literal; 3) the evidence for a Hebrew original is preferred to the MT.43
His theories have been adjusted somewhat since his death, but his principles remain “the working assumption for most specialists.”44
Tov’s Modified Approach
Emanuel Tov has taken a middle ground in response to Kahle and Lagarde. He sees a process of origination for the LXX composed of four steps:
1) the original translation;
2) a multitude of textual traditions arose due to corrections back to the Hebrew inserted in the corpus of individual scrolls;
3) textual stabilization in the first two centuries AD due to preferences among textual traditions;
4) the rise of new textual groups and corruption of others due to the revisions of Origen and Lucian in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD.45
Tov’s theory seems logical enough, but there are at least two main problems with his assumptions.46 First, he must answer why the original Greek translation was in need of corrections and why it was so different from the underlying Hebrew to require editing. Second, his view assumes uniformity between the underlying Hebrew texts used for the original translation. As Peters points out, the likelihood of variations in the Vorlage, whether in agreement with the MT or not, eliminates the need for distinction between Tov’s first two steps, so that “the position is not a median position at all but rather a refinement of the Lagardian hypothesis.”47 Tov has therefore managed to further establish the principles of Lagarde while bringing greater sagacity to study of the Septuagint.
The five theories above each have their strong points, but their conclusions are not individually comprehensive. The best understanding of the origin of the LXX is one that incorporates all of the diversity of the unique situation in Alexandria. The combination of political, academic, cultural and religious factors all contributed to the creation of the LXX. Indeed, the multi-causal origins of the translation cannot be emphasized enough! At the very least, the translation of the Pentateuch in the third century BC owes its production to a multitude of dynamics that convened at one time and place and whose influence is felt even today.
I would like to publicly thank Marieke Dhont for her many contributions to this paper.
The following LXX resources are worth consideration for your Logos library:
- Lexham Analytical Lexicon to the Septuagint: H.B. Swete Edition
- Swete, H. B., The Old Testament in Greek according to the Septuagint
- Conybeare, F. C., Grammar of Septuagint Greek
- Ottley, Richard R., A Handbook to the Septuagint
- Aitken, James K., T&T Clark Companion to the Septuagint
- Müller, Mogens, The First Bible of the Church: A Plea for the Septuagint
- Hengel, Martin, The Septuagint as Christian Scripture: Its Prehistory and the Problem of its Canon
- Dines, Jennifer, The Septuagint
- Thackeray, Henry, A Grammar of the Old Testament in Greek according to the Septuagint
Unsure of the value of Logos Bible Software for study of the LXX? Check out this video explaining the Septuagint Manuscript Explorer:
Note: This article was originally published on the Logos Academic Blog on February 8, 2018.
- Karen H. Jobes and Moisés Silva, Invitation to the Septuagint (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000), 30.
- Emanuel Tov, “Reflections on the Septuagint with Special Attention Paid to the Post-Pentateuchal Translations,” in Die Septuaginta – Texte, Theologien, Einflusse, ed. Wolfgang Kraus and Martin Karrer, 3–22 (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), 3.
- See the chapter by Peter J. Williams, “The Bible, the Septuagint, and the Apocrypha: A Consideration of their Singularity,” in Studies on the Text and Versions of the Hebrew Bible in Honour of Robert Gordon, ed. Geoffrey Khan and Diana Lipton, 169-80 (New York: Brill, 2012).
- Melvin K. H. Peters, “Septuagint,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David N. Freedman, et al, 5:1093-1104 (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 5:1093.
- Peters, 5:1093. Karen Jobes, though conceding to a more general definition for “LXX,” provides a further nuanced example: “Septuagint technically refers only to the oldest Greek version of the Pentateuch, though it became customary to extend the term to the oldest Greek version of the rest of the OT canon as well, to distinguish it from the later versions of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion.” See Karen H. Jobes, “When God Spoke Greek: The Place of the Greek Bible in Evangelical Scholarship,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 16, no. 2 (2006): 220.
- Although traditional scholarship has maintained the provenance of Alexandria for the origin of the LXX, there is no reason why we shouldn’t consider other locations within Egypt, where learning, study, and translation were pursued. James Aitken of Cambridge University just gave a paper at the Oxford Centre of Hebrew and Jewish Studies titled, “The LXX translators in an Egyptian setting (apud Alexandriam),” considering this very thing. See also Jennifer M. Dines, The Septuagint: Understanding the Bible and its World (New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 42.
- Henry Barclay Swete, An Introduction to the Old Testament in Greek, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1914), 8. It is important to note that modern translation studies prefer to emphasize cultural power dynamics over the traditional view of a people’s diminishing understanding of the language. For more on the issue of power dynamics, see the following: Translation, Power, Subversion (ed. Román Alvarez and Carmen-Africa Vidal; Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 1996); Even-Zohar, Itamar. “The Position of Translated Literature Within the Literary Polysystem.” Poetics Today 11 (1990): 45–51; Hermans, Theo, ed. The Manipulation of Literature: Studies in Literary Translation. London: Croom Helm, 1985. On the issue of power dynamics directly related to LXX studies, see Dhont, Marieke. “Towards a Comprehensive Explanation for the Linguistic Diversity of the Septuagint and Jewish-Greek Literature” (forthcoming in Vetus Testamentum).
- John M. G. Barclay, Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora: From Alexander to Trajan (323 BCE – 117 CE) (Berkley: University of California Press, 1996), 30-31.
- Bruce M. Metzger, “Important Early Translations of the Bible,” Bibliotheca Sacra 150, no. 597 (Jan 1993): 36.
- E. J. Bickerman, Studies in Jewish and Christian History: A New Edition in English Including The God of the Maccabees, 2 vols. (New York: Brill, 2007), 1:168.
- E. J. Bickerman, Studies in Jewish and Christian History: A New Edition in English Including The God of the Maccabees, 2 vols. (New York: Brill, 2007), 1:168.
- See James K. Aitken, “The Septuagint and Egyptian Translation Methods,” in XV Congress of the International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies. Munich 2013 (ed. Martin Meiser and Michaël N. van der Meer; SBLSCS 64; Atlanta, Ga.: SBL, 2016), 269–94.
- Martin Hengel, The Septuagint as Christian Scripture: Its Prehistory and the Problem of its Canon (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 75. See Eusebius, P.E. 13.12.1.
- Swete, 1, questions the existence of prior versions in Greek, noting, “So long as the Hebrew race maintained its isolation, no occasion arose for the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into a foreign tongue. . . . this isolation continued until the age of Alexander; it is therefore improbable that any Greek version of the Scriptures existed there before that era.”
- For a good analysis of the issues surrounding the letter, see “The Dating of Pseudo-Aristeas,” in Bickerman, 1:108-33. B. G. E. Wright, The Letter of Aristeas: ‘Aristeas to Philocrates’ or ‘On the Translation of the Law of the Jews’ (CEJL; Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015).
- R. J. H. Shutt, “Letter of Aristeas,” in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 2 vols., ed. James H. Charlesworth, (New York: Doubleday, 1985), 2:7.
- Shutt, 8.
- Bickerman, 1:169, explains that “Ptolemy II was interested in books as he was in exotic animals. By hook or by crook he gathered manuscripts.”
- The full account is given in Shutt, 7-35.
- See Peters, 5:1097. According to Swete, 19, Demetrius “for many years had been a trusted adviser of the first Ptolemy; and it is not unlikely that the project of translating the Jewish Law was discussed between him and the royal founder of the Alexandrian library, and that the work was really due to his suggestion, though his words did not bear fruit until after his death.”
- See Ben Wright’s 2015 commentary in CEJL for a succinct overview of the matter.
- Jobes, Invitation, 34. Cf. Dines, 30-33.
- Metzger, 37.
- Bickerman, 1:169-70. See also Hengel, 75.
- Swete, 13. Heinrich Graetz attests to the historical reality of the festival, but shows how the reaction in Palestine was not so positive: “Presented in a new garb [namely, Greek], Judaism itself appeared to the pious Judaeans estranged and profaned. Consequently the day that was celebrated as a festival by the Judaeans in Egypt was considered by their brethren in Judaea as a day of national calamity, . . . numbered among their fasts.” See Heingrich Graetz, History of the Jews, 6 vols. (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1891), 1:512.
- Swete, 13.
- Emanuel Tov draws three conclusions from the internal evidence of the LXX: 1) Jewish translators most likely worked on the Pentateuch, and while the exegesis of the other books exhibits ‘Jewishness,’ the Jewish origin is uncertain; 2) vocabulary in the Pentateuch demonstrates its origin in Egypt; 3) variety in vocabulary reveals the work of numerous translators. See Emanuel Tov, “The Septuagint,” in Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, ed. Martin Jan Mulder (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1988), 164.
- Tov, “Septuagint,” 164-65. Tov describes other sources including Epiphanius, who in his treatise On Measures and Weights (4th c. AD) embellished the story in Aristeas further. According to Epiphanius, the entire Hebrew Bible was translated by 36 pairs of elders whose work was in complete agreement.
- Anna Passoni Dell’Acqua, “Translating as a Means of Interpreting: The Septuagint and Translation in Ptolemaic Egypt,” in Die Septuaginta – Texte, Theologien, Einflusse, ed. Wolfgang Kraus and Martin Karrer (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), 323.
- Swete, 20.
- Metzger, 38. He writes that the LXX “arose from the liturgical and educational needs of the large Jewish community in Alexandria, many of whom had forgotten their Hebrew or let it grow rusty and spoke only the common Greek of the Mediterranean world. But they remained Jews and wanted to understand the ancient Scriptures, on which their faith and life depended.”
- According to Dines, 44, “A distinctive institution in Egyptian Jewish life was the proseuche, or ‘[place of] prayer.’ . . . The proseuche was the prototype of the synagogue and seems to have been a distinctively Egyptian-Jewish development. It is likely to have provided a venue both for non-sacrificial worship and for study . . . though the earliest explicit descriptions come only in Philo and Josephus.”
- Nina L. Collins, The Library in Alexandria and the Bible in Greek (New York: Brill, 2000), 178.
- Collins, 179.
- Sidney Jellicoe, The Septuagint and Modern Study (Oxford: Clarendon, 1968), 59.
- Jobes, Invitation, 36.
- Jellicoe, 61.
- Jellicoe, 61.
- Leonard Greenspoon, “At the Beginning: The Septuagint as a Jewish Bible Translation,” in Translation is Required: The Septuagint in Retrospect and Prospect, ed. Robert J. V. Hiebert (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010), 162; emphasis added.
- According to Tov, the discovery of the Qumran scrolls in 1947 “provided welcome support for the correctness of an approach that had been an integral part of scholarship for more than three centuries, namely, the reconstruction of details in the Vorlage of the LXX by way of retroversion.” See Emanuel Tov, “The Qumran Hebrew Texts and the Septuagint – an Overview,” in Die Septuaginta – Entstehung, Sprache, Geschichte, ed. Siegried Kreuzer, Martin Meiser and Marcus Sigismund (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012), 4.
- Jobes, Invitation, 35-36.
- Jobes, Invitation, 244.
- Peters, 1095, relates that Lagarde’s disciple, Rahfls, carried on his mentor’s Proto-Septuagint work admirably. In addition to his publication in 1935 of the most popular LXX edition to date, he inspired the establishment of the Göttingen Septuaginta-Unternehmen, an organization that is currently engaged in producing the most carefully constructed and critically demanding eclectic editions of the LXX according to the principles set forth by Lagarde.
- Jobes, Invitation, 36.
- Emanuel Tov, The Text-Critical Use of the Septuagint in Biblical Research (Jerusalem: Simor Ltd., 1981), 42.
- Peters, 5:1097.