1902 Encyclopedia > Septuagint


SEPTUAGINT. The Septuagint (ol o, LXX.) or Alexandrian version of the Old Testament seems to be named from the legend of its composition by seventy, or more exactly seventy-two, translators. In the Letter of Aristeas (Aristaeus) this legend is recounted as follows. Demetrius Phalereus, keeper of the Alexandrian library, proposed to King Ptolemy II. Philadelphus to have a Greek translation of the Jewish law made for the library. The king con-sented and sent an embassy, of which the author of the letter was a member, to the high priest Eleazar at Jeru-salem asking him to send six ancient, worthy, and learned men from each of the twelve tribes to translate the law for him at Alexandria. Eleazar readily consented and sent the seventy-two men with a precious roll of the law. They were most honourably received at the court of Alexandria and conducted to the island (Pharus), that they might work undisturbed and isolated. When they had come to an agree-ment upon a section Demetrius wrote down their version ; the whole translation was finished in seventy-two days. The Jewish community of Alexandria was allowed to have a copy, and accepted the version officially,—indeed a curse was laid upon the introduction of any changes in it.

There is no question that this Letter is spurious.2 Aristeas is represented as a heathen, but the real writer must have been a Jew and no heathen. Aristeas is repre-sented as himself a member of the embassy to Eleazar; but the author of the Letter cannot have been a contemtorary of the events he records, else he would have known that Demetrius fell out of favour at the very beginning of the reign of Philadelphus, being said to have intrigued against his succession to the throne.:i Nor could a genuine honest witness have fallen into the absurd mistake of making delegates from Jerusalem the authors of the Alex-andrian version. The forgery, however, is a very early one. "There is not a court-title, an institution, a law, a magis-tracy, an office, a technical term, a formula, a peculiar phrase in this letter which is not found on papyri or in-scriptions and confirmed by them." That in itself would not necessarily imply a very early date for the piece; but what is decisive is that the author limits canonicity to the law and knows of no other holy book already translated into Greek. Further, what he tells about Judaea and Jeru-salem is throughout applicable to the period when the Ptolemies bore sway there and gives not the slightest sug-gestion of the immense changes that followed the conquest of Palestine by the Seleucids. Thus, too, it is probable that the Jewish philosopher Aristobulus, who lived under Pto-lemy Philometor(180-145), derived his account of the origin of the LXX. from this Letter, with which it corresponds. If now the Letter is so old, it is incredible that it should contain no elements derived from actual tradition as to the origin of the LXX., and we must try to separate these from the merely fabulous. To this end we must consider what is the main aim and object of the forgery. The chief thing in the Letter is the description of a seven days' symposium of the seventy translators at the Alexandrian court, during which each of them has a question to answer, and raises the admiration of the king for the wisdom produced among the Jews by their knowledge of the law. Further, very great weight is laid on the point that the LXX. is the official and authoritative Bible of the Hellenistic Jews, having been not only formally accepted by the synagogue at Alexandria but authorized by the high priest at Jerusalem and the seventy elders who are in fact its authors. Other matters receive no special emphasis, and the presumption is that what is said about them is not deliberate fiction and in part at least is true. Thus it has always been taken as a fact that the version originated at Alexandria, that the law was translated first, and that this took place in the time of Ptolemy II. On the other hand, it has been thought difficult to believe that the scholarly tastes of the Alexandrians, personified in Deme-trius Phalereus as the presiding genius of the Alexandrian library, could have furnished the stimulus to reduce the translation to writing. One can hardly call this intrinsic-ally improbable in view of the miscellaneous literary tastes of the court of the Ptolemies. But it has been thought much more likely that the Septuagint was written down to satisfy the religious needs of the Jews by a translated Torah, since in fact the version is fitted for Jews and could have been intelligible only to them, and indeed never came to be circulated and known outside of their circles. Here, however, we must distinguish between written and oral interpretation. If interpretation was needed in the syna-gogue service, it was an oral interpretation that was given It was not a natural thing for the Jews to write the trans lation,—indeed they had religious scruples against such a course. Only " Scripture " was to be written, and to put the contents of Scripture in writing in any other than the old holy form was deemed almost a profanation,—a feeling of which there is evidence in the Letter itself. It is well known how in Palestine the Targum was handed down orally for centuries before it was at last reduced to writing; and, if, on the contrary, at Alexandria a written version came into existence so early, it is far from improbable that this was due to some influence from without. That the work is purely Jewish in character is only what was in-evitable in any case. The translators were necessarily Jews and were necessarily and entirely guided by the living tradition which had its focus in the synagogal lessons. And hence it is easily understood that the version was ignored by the Greeks, who must have found it barbarous and unintelligible, but obtained speedy acceptance with the Jews, first in private use and at length also in the synagogue service.

The next direct evidence which we have as to the origin of the LXX. is the prologue to Ecclesiasticus, from which it appears that about 130 B.C. not only the law but "the prophets and the other books" were extant in Greek. With this it agrees that the most ancient relics of Jewish-Greek literature, preserved in the extracts made by Alex-ander Polyhistor (Eus., Prxp. Ev., ix.), all show acquaint-ance with the LXX. These later translations too were not made to meet the needs of the synagogue, but express a literary movement among the Hellenistic Jews, stimulated by the favourable reception given to the Greek Pentateuch, I which enabled the translators to count on finding an inter-ested public. If a translation was well received by reading I circles amongst the Jews, it gradually acquired public ac-knowledgment and was finally used also in the synagogue, so far as lessons from other books than the Pentateuch were used at all. But originally the translations were mere private enterprises, as appears from the prologue to Ecclesiasticus and the colophon to Esther. It appears also that it was long before the whole Septuagint was finished and treated as a complete work.

As the work of translation went on so gradually and new books were always added to the collection the compass of the Greek Bible came to be somewhat indefinite. The law always maintained its pre-eminence as the basis of the canon ; but the prophetic collection changed its as-pect by having various Hagiographa incorporated with it according to an arbitrary arrangement by subjects. The distinction made in Palestine between Hagiographa and Apocrypha was never properly established among the Hel-lenists. In some books the translators took the liberty to make considerable additions to the original, and these additions—e.g., those to Daniel—became a part of the Septuagint. Nevertheless learned Hellenists were quite well aware of the limits of the canon and respected them. Philo can be shown to have known the Apocrypha, but he never cites them, much less allegorizes them or uses them in proof of his tenets. And in some measure the widening of the Old Testament canon in the Septuagint must be laid to the account of Christians. As regards the character of the version, it is a first attempt, and so is memorable and worthy of respect, but at the same time displays all the weaknesses of a first attempt. Though the influence of contemporary ideas is sometimes perceptible, the Septuagint is no paraphrase, but in general closely follows the Hebrew, _—so closely indeed that we can hardly understand it with-out a process of retroversion, and that a true Greek could not have found any satisfaction in it. The same Greek word is forced to assume the whole range of senses which belongs in Semitic speech to the derivatives of a single root; a Hebrew expression which has various Greek equivalents according to the context is constantly rendered in one way ; the aorist, like the Hebrew perfect, is employed as an in-choative with a much wider range of application than is tolerated in classical Greek. At the same time, many passages are freely rendered and turned where there is no particular need to do so, and that even in books like the Prophetse Priores, in which the rendering is generally quite stiff. The literalness of the version is therefore due not to scrupulousness but to want of skill, and probably in part also to accommodation to a kind of Jewish Greek jargon which had already developed in the mouths of the people and was really Hebrew or Aramaic in disguise. This Jewish dialect in turn found its standard in the Septuagint.

As the version is the work of many hands, it is naturally not of uniform character throughout all its parts,—indeed considerable varieties of character sometimes appear in one and the same book. The older constituents of the canon have an unmistakable family likeness as contrasted with the later books ; this one may see by comparing Kings with Chronicles or Isaiah and Jeremiah with Daniel. The Pentateuch is considered to be particularly well done and Isaiah to be particularly unhappy. Some of the Hagio-grapha (Ecclesiastes, Canticles, Chronicles) are reproduced with verbal closeness; others, on the contrary (Job, Esdras, Esther, Daniel), are marked by a very free treatment of the text, or even by considerable additions. It is not, how-ever, always easy to tell whether a Septuagint addition is entirely duo to the translator or belongs to the original text, which lay before him in a recension divergent from the Massoretic. The chief impulse in recent times to thorough investigation of the character of the several parts of the Septuagint was given by Lagarde in his Anmerkungen zur griechischen Uebersetzung cler Proverbien, Leipsic, 1863.

The Septuagint came into general use with the Grecian Jews even in the synagogue. Philo and Josephus use it, and so do the New Testament writers. But very early small corrections seem to have been introduced, especially by such Palestinians as had occasion to use the LXX., in consequence partly of divergent interpretation, partly of differences of text or of pronunciation (particularly of proper names) The Old Testament passages cited by authors of the first century of the Christian era, especially those in the Apo-calypse, show many such variations from the Septuagint, and, curiously enough, these often correspond with the later versions (particularly with Theodotion), so that the latter seem to rest on a fixed tradition. Corrections in the pro-nunciation of proper names so as to come closer to the Massoretic pronunciation are especially frequent in Jose-phus. Finally a reaction against the use of the Septuagint set in among the Jews after the destruction of the temple, —a movement which was connected with the strict defini-tion of the canon and the fixing of an authoritative text by the rabbins of Palestine. But long usage had made it impossible for the Jews to do without a Gireek Bible, and to meet this want a new version was prepared corre-sponding accurately with the canon and text of the Phari-sees. This was the version of Aquila, which took the place of the Septuagint in the synagogues, and long con-tinued in use there.1 A little later other translations were made by Jews or Jewish Christians, which also followed the official Jewish canon and text, but were not such slavish reproductions as Aquila's version ; two of these were Greek (Theodotion, Symmachus) and one Syriac (Peshito).
Corpus Juris Civ., Nov. cxlvi.

Meantime the Greek and Latin Christians kept to the old version, which now became the official Bible of the catholic church. Yet here also, in process of time, a certain distrust of the Septuagint began to be felt, as its divergence from the Jewish text was observed through comparison of the younger versions based on that text, or came into notice through the frequent discussions be' tween Jews and Christians as to the Messianic prophecies.

On the whole the Christians were disposed to charge the Jews with falsifying their Scriptures out of hatred to Christianity,—a charge which has left its echoes even in the Koran. But some less prejudiced scholars did not share this current view, and went so far in the other direction as simply to identify the Jewish text with the authentic original. Thus they fell into the mistake of holding that the later Jewish text was that from which the Septuagint translators worked, and by which their work was to be tested and measured. On these critical principles Origen prepared his famous Hexapla, in which he placed alongside of the Septuagint, in six parallel columns, the three younger versions and the Hebrew text in Hebrew and in Greek characters. The Septuagint text he corrected after the younger versions, marking the additions of the LXX. with a prefixed obelus (—, -r), as a sign that they should be deleted, and supplying omis-sions, generally from Theodotion, with a prefixed asterisk (*). The end of the passage to which the obelus or asterisk applied was marked with a metobelus (o<). The same signs were used for various readings, the read-ing of the LXX. being obelized, and the variant, from another version corresponding to the Hebrew text, follow-ing it with an asterisk. It was only in simpler cases, however, that this plan could be carried through without making the text quite unreadable; the more complicated variations were either tacitly corrected or left untouched, the reader being left to judge of them by comparing the parallel columns. Origen made most change in the proper names, which he emended in conformity with the Jewish pronunciation of the period, and in the order of the text, which, to preserve the parallelism in the columns, he made to follow the Hebrew.
Origen's critical labours had a very great influence in shaping the text of the Septuagint, though in quite another direction than he designed. Even before his time the Septuagint was largely contaminated by admixture from the other versions, but such alterations now began to be made systematically. Thus he intensified a mischief which to be sure had begun before him, and even before the labours of Aquila, Theodotion, and Symmachus. The most significant evidence of this contamination of the text lies in the conflate readings, where the same Hebrew words are translated twice, or sometimes even thrice, or where two Hebrew readings of the same passage are represented, sometimes by simple juxtaposition of renderings that differ but slightly, at other times by a complicating inter-lacing of very different forms of the Greek. These con-flate readings, however, in which the true reading survives along with the false, are the least fatal corruptions; in many cases the genuine text has disappeared altogether before the correction, as can be t.eei by comparing different MSS. A faithful picture of the corruption of the text of the Septuagint as it has come down to us is given in the apparatus to the great Oxford edition of Holmes and Parsons (5 vols., Oxford, 1798-1827).

Not long after Origen there arose almost contemporane-ously three recensions of the Septuagint, which became established in three regions of the Greek Church. " Alex-andria et iEgyptus in Septuaginta suis Hesychium laudat auctorem, Constantinopolis usque Antiochiam Luciani martyris exemplaria probat, mediae inter has provinciae Palestinae codices legunt, quos ab Origene elaboratos Eusebius et Pamphilus vulgaverunt: totusque orbis hac inter se trifaria varietate compugnat," says Jerome in the Prsef. in Paralip. ad Chromatium. According to this the text of Eusebius is that of Origen, i.e., a separate edition of the fifth column of the Hexapla, which contained the Septuagint with asterisks and obeli. The text of Hesychius has not yet been identified with certainty ; that of Lucian is, according to Field and Lagarde, most probably given in Codd. Holmes., 19, 82, 93, 108, and another series of MSS. for the prophets. It is by no means the case, however, that all our MSS. can be arranged in three families ; many belong to none of the three recensions, and among these are such important codices as the Alexandrian (A) and the Vatican (B).
The divergences of the LXX. from the Hebrew are particularly great in the books of Samuel and Kings, also in the prophets, especially in Ezekiel, and still more in Jeremiah, and finally also in Job and Proverbs. In Jeremiah the differences extend to the order of the chapters in the second half of the book, and therefore have always attracted special attention. In Proverbs too the individual proverbs are differently arranged in the LXX., and similar differences can be traced in the versions of Ecclesiasticus. In the Pentateuch there are considerable variations only in the last part of Exodus. The text of the genuine Septuagint is generally shorter than the Massoretic text.

The chief editions of the Septuagint are—(1) the Complutensis, 1514-17 ; (2) the Aldine, 1516 ; (3) the Sixtine, 1587 ; (4) the first Oxford edition by Grabe, 1707-20 ; (5) the second Oxford edition by Holmes and Parsons, 1798-1827 ; (6) Lagarde's edition of Lucian, vol. i, Gottingen, 1883.

The LXX. is of great importance in more than one respect: it is probably the oldest translation of consider-able extent that ever was written, and at any rate it is the starting-point for the history of Jewish interpretation and the Jewish view of Scripture. And from this its im-portance as a document of exegetical tradition, especially in lexical matters, may be easily understood. It was in great part composed before the close of the canon—nay, before some of the Hagiographa were written—and in it alone are preserved a number of important ancient Jewish books that were not admitted into the canon. As the book wdiich created or at least codified the dialect of Bib-lical Greek, it is also the key to the New Testament and all the literature connected with it. But its chief value lies in the fact that it is the only independent witness for the text of the Old Testament which we have to compare with the Massoretic text. Now it may seem that the critical value of the LXX. is greatly impaired, if not entirely cancelled, by the corrupt state of the text. If we have not the version itself in authentic form we cannot reconstruct with certainty the Hebrew text from which it was made, and so cannot get at various readings which can be confidently confronted with the Massoretic text; and it may be a long time before we possess a satisfactory edition of the genuine Septuagint. But fortunately in this case sound results in detail must precede and net follow the establishment of a text sound throughout. The value cf a Septuagint reading must be separately deter-mined in each particular case, and the proof that a read-ing is good is simply that it necessarily carries us back to a Hebrew variant, and cannot be explained by looseness of translation. It is therefore our business to collect as many Greek passages as possible which point to a various

reading in the Hebrew text of the translators as compared with the Massoretic text. And for this we must not confine ourselves to one recension but use all recensions that our MSS. offer. For, though one recension may be better than another, none of them has been exempt from the influences under which the genuine Septuagint was brought into conformity with the received Hebrew text, and those influenced have affected each recension in a different way, and even differently in the different books. In this process, as indeed in all textual criticism, much of course must be dependent on individual judgment. But that it should be so appears to have been the design of providence, which has permitted the Old Testament text to reach us in a form that is often so corrupt as to sin against both the laws of logic and of grammar—of rhetorical and poetical form. (j. WE.)


Edited by S. Schard (Frankfort, 1610), by Havereamp (in his Josephus), and by M. Schmidt (in Merx's Archiv, 1868). Clomp. Lum-broso, in the Transactions of the Turin Academy, 1869.
" Scaliger, In Eus. Chron, animadv., No. 1734 ; H. Hody, De Bibli-orum Textibus Originalibus.
6. Lumbroso, Recherches sur VEcon. Pol. de I'Egypte sows les La,gides (Turin, 1870), p. xiii.
Clem. Alex., Strom., i. p. 342, ed. Sylb.; Euseb., Preep. Ev., ix. 6, p. 410 sq. ; comp. Valckenaer, Diatribe de Aristdbulo, Leyden, 1806, reprinted in Gaisford's ed. of the Proip. Ev.
fi Tn what is told of the authors Theopompus and Theodectes, who ventured to insert certain things out of the law in their profane works.

Hermippus Callimachius, ap. Diog.^ Laert., v. 78.

Corpus Juris Civ., Nov. cxlvi.

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