A General Overview of the Textual History of the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament, pt. 2

What is the Septuagint?

This is a tricky one, but I think a fun one. Sometime in the third century BCE, someone decided that the Hebrew scriptures, at least the texts that ultimately became scripture and some others, should be translated into Greek. The legend goes that they were translated for the library of Alexandria at the behest of the Ptolemaic king of Egypt. He wanted a copy of every book in the world for his library. That, of course, would include the Hebrew scriptures of the Jewish community in Alexandria. For them to be understandable to the contemporary audience, they need to be translated into Greek. Thus, experts would be needed to translate the Hebrew texts into Greek. The legend continues that 70 (actually 72, i.e., six from each of the twelve “tribes of Israel”) men would translate the scriptures. Christian recensions of this legend recount that the 72 men translated for 72 days and – miraculously – all produced an identical Greek translation of the Hebrew text. The number 70 (in Greek) became the name for this translation: the Septuagint. (Cf. the most accurate adjective for all of the major-party candidates for president of the USA in the 2020 election: Septuagenarian.)

Obviously, not every element in this story can be regarded as historical. Additionally, not every element of the story is clearly defined. For example, it seems improbable that the whole of the scriptures was translated at once. It even seems unlikely that the first translation included the whole of the Torah, called “Pentateuch” in Greek, i.e., the first five books of the Bible, traditionally called the books of Moses. So, is there anything in the legend that is believable or trustworthy?

Linguistic analysis of the oldest (reconstructed) translations suggests that Egypt from about the third century BCE seems a likely historical circumstance for the beginning of the translation. However, the process of translating the Hebrew scriptures was ongoing and certainly not undertaken at only one time. It continued for centuries and even included revisions of older translations. It is questionable whether the translation of the Hebrew scriptures was initiated at the monarch’s behest. The historical circumstances permit it, at least. Perhaps it was initiated because of the construction of the library of Alexandria, making the monarch at least indirectly responsible. Alexandria was home to a large Jewish community at the time, so it seems likely that they might have initiated it in accord with the Zeitgeist. Another matter remains unclear: namely what the first translated text was, of what it consisted. That still remains a problem. Likely candidates are Genesis and Deuteronomy. And that brings us to another problem, to what does the term “Septuagint” refer?

The term’s original referent was to the initial translation of the Torah, i.e., the Pentateuch. Over time, the term lost some of its specificity and referred to the Greek translation of the whole of the Hebrew scriptures. Most use the term today to cover basically everything biblical in Greek that isn’t the New Testament. Due to the loss of specificity and clarity, scholars in the field have since begun to distinguish the terms they use. “Septuagint” can still basically refer to anything Greek and biblical that is not the New Testament. When referring to the original translation of a specific text or book, they now prefer the term “Old Greek”. This is necessary since some Greek translations, maybe all of them, have been revised and some, probably all, have been corrupted over the course of their transmission.

The corruption is easy to explain: when people copy texts, errors creep in. Texts are misread. Handwriting becomes illegible and difficult to read and copy. Copyist’s eyes skip over words and lines. Words get copied twice and so on.

More complicated are the revisions of the text. This occurs in limited contexts, on the one hand. That is, some superficial conscientious changes creep in to the text. Several reasons for this are readily recognizable: replacing one word with a more understandable or contemporary word, removing something that is ideological problematic (at least from the translator’s or editor’s perspective), avoiding difficulty in a text, revising towards internal or external consistency within a body of works, and so on. The Old Greek, as far is it has been reconstructed to date, has many such revisions throughout its text. (One should not overstate this, though; taken on a whole probably 98% of the Old Greek’s text reflects a Hebrew text consistent with the Masoretic Text, at least in books that do not have markedly distinct Greek versions like Exodus, Samuel, Kings, and Jeremiah.)

On the other hand, several of these revisions, present even essentially new translations of the Hebrew into Greek. Such broad revisions are historically documented with distinct monikers even from Antiquity. One such larger school of revision was only identified in Modernity. Ironically, it is probably the oldest revision that we now recognize. Some of these revisions occurred within Jewish circles, while others were undertaking by Christians. To the terminology: in general, scholars refer to these larger, distinct revisions as “recensions” and identify most of them with the names of specific individuals with whom they have historically been associated. Here’s a graphic that I made to describe the relationship of these various recensions to the Old Greek, to the Hebrew, and to each other for one of the more complicated cases in the Bible’s textual history: Samuel and Kings.

Overview of the general textual history of Samuel and Kings

This graphic reflects a few different points. The black line along the top represents the development of the Hebrew parent text with the boxes representing distinct phases or versions of that text. The red material all reflects Greek translations or revisions of the Greek text from the first Greek translation of the Hebrew (i.e., “the Old Greek”). The dotted red lines reflect postulated influence or development from one Greek version to another. The distance between the red and black lines represents the proximity of the versions to one another. That is, the closer a red version is to the black line, the more closely it reflects its Hebrew parent text. For example, generally, the Old Greek of Kings seems to be good translation Greek, that is, Greek that is obviously a translation and not a compositional Greek. It generally follows the strictures of good Greek grammar and would have been cogent for native Greek speakers, if somewhat curious in its phrasing and syntax. The kaige elements of Kings are much closer to the Hebrew text and often reflect elements of the Hebrew that are superfluous or even damaging to the Greek. An example will hopefully suffice: Hebrew has two words for the first-person singular pronoun “I”, אנכי and אני. These two terms, one longer than the other by one consonant/syllable, are semantically identical. They bear no distinction on the understanding of a text. However, the kaige translator(s) distinguished between these two terms in Greek, translating the short form with ἐγώ (“I”) and the long form with ἐγώ ειμι (“I am”), even when it was followed by a finite verb and therefore incomprehensible in Greek. (That would be like the difference between “I go” and “I am go” in English; the first makes sense, the second does not.)

But why is all of this in a discussion about the Septuagint? Well, with time, the term “Septuagint” changed from referring to the Greek translation of the Torah (i.e., “the Pentateuch”), to the Greek translation of each book in the Hebrew canon, to basically everything biblical in Greek, but not the New Testament (which is, of course, also in Greek), including all of the different versions and recensions of the Greek text. What is more, these versions were known, at least some of them, in Antiquity and were recognized as distinct. Origen collected and collated different versions in a monumental text-critical project called the “Hexapla”. There, he transmitted no fewer than four Greek versions of the Bible: his version of the “Old Greek” (wherever he had gotten that from) and the recensions of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion. It also included a column with the Hebrew text as well as a column with a transliteration of the Hebrew with Greek letters. In the preface to his translation of Chronicles, Jerome mentions three Greek recensions known to him, including those of Origen and Lucian.

So, the recognition of different versions of the Bible is something that even the ancients were aware of. The idea that the biblical text never changed with time or was identical in every case is a modern idea, actually a reaction to Darwinism in its most vociferous forms and, therefore, quite recent – from the perspective of ancient Near Eastern literature. None of these various Greek versions is identical to another. And none of them is identical to the Hebrew text we know from the Medieval manuscripts of the Masoretic tradition or other known Hebrew manuscripts (such as the Dead Sea Scrolls). The moral of this particular post, however, remains within the confines of the Greek text: be careful when people tell you about “the Septuagint”. Find out what that means to them, to what they are referring. The odds are, they haven’t thought much about it. The Septuagint is an unknown quantity to us. The best that we have are some manuscripts that agree across the vast majority of their text (although not necessarily in the same way for every book in what became the canon), as well as academically recreated, modern postulates based on these manuscripts (in addition to principles the editors may in some instances apply to the text).

In conclusion then, the question at the outset: What is the Septuagint? Well, it depends on whom you ask. Sorry about that.

Leave a comment


  1. The first paragraph sounds like you are Indiana Jones, explaining to the U.S. government the story of the Septuagint before they send you on a mission to find it before the Nazis do, and I mean that in the best way possible.

  1. Translation of 3 Reigns 1:1-4 (1 Kings 1:1-4 LXX) | Jonathan Robker: Exegete, Critic, Cook

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