Godssecret's Weblog

The Septuagint, How the Bible was revealed to the Nations
February 25, 2010, 9:14 am
Filed under: Torah

The Septuagint is the oldest of several ancient translations of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, lingua franca of the eastern Mediterranean Basin from the time of Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE).

The Septuagint was held in great respect in ancient times; Philo and Josephus ascribed divine inspiration to its authors.

In a second attempt to translate the Torah into Greek (after an unsuccessful attempt 61 years earlier), the ruling Greek-Egyptian emperor Ptolemy II Philadelphus who was a bibliophile, heard from his librarian, Demetrius, that the Jewish Bible was worth translating for the king’s archives. The king wrote to the High Priest in Jerusalem, asking him to send scholars who would be able to translate the Pentateuch into Greek. The High Priest sent 72 wise men, he gathered 72 Jewish Torah sages, had them sequestered in 72 separate rooms, and ordered them to each produce a translation. The Greek king was worried they might falsify something, so he made seventy two Sages sit in separate cubicles, so that each one would write an independent version., whom the king lodged in a building on the island of Pharos, near Alexandria. On the 8th of Tevet of the year 3515 from creation (246 BCE) they produced 72 corresponding translations. Miraculously, their translations were identical to each other, even when it came to delicate passages which could easily be misconstrued. In 13 places the sages used creative license in their translations so that there could be no misunderstanding of the meaning of the text. The result of the miraculous identical translations gave the Book the name  “toafos of a re’em” Hebrew which translates  as “the glory of a unicorn.”  This Greek rendition became known as the Septuagint, “of the seventy”

The later Jewish sages commented that the day the Torah was translated into Greek “was as difficult for the Jewish people as the day when the Golden Calf was made, because the Torah cannot really be translated.” The Sages were worried about a false translation of the Torah. In a sense, that is exactly what the Golden Calf was: a false translation of spirituality. The people wanted something spiritual which would be here, in our lower world.

Despite this undisguised miracle, the Talmud teaches that when the sages completed their translation, on the 8th day of the month of Tevet, darkness descended upon the world and remained for 3 days, a tragedy commemorated by the fast of the 10th of Tevet (which also commemorates the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem that resulted in the destruction of the First Temple). It was like the sun became lost behind the pall of darkness, the brilliance of the Torah had become eclipsed to all those who would now depend upon its rendering in a foreign language, with all its levels of depth and meaning lost. The Torah had become “like a lion in cage,” no longer the king of the beasts striking fear into all who heard its roar, now behind bars and stripped of its freedom and power; so too had the Septuagint reduced the Torah to just another cultural document.

However, ultimately the translation of the Torah into Greek had a positive effect: it communicated the Oneness of G-d to all nations. It was because of the Septuagint translation that the rest of the world became aware of the culture of the Jews and, according to Philo (Life of Moses 2:7), the Jews of Alexandria held an annual celebration on the island of Pharos on the anniversary of the completion of the Septuagint.

The Early Christian Church used the Greek texts since Greek was a lingua franca of the Roman Empire at the time, and the language of the Greco-Roman Church (Aramai)cwas the language of Syriac Christianity, which used the Targums). In addition the Church Fathers tended to accept Philo’s account of the LXX’s miraculous and inspired origin. Furthermore, the New Testament writers, when citing the Jewish scriptures or when quoting Jesus doing so, freely used the Greek translation, implying that Jesus, his Apostles and their followers considered it reliable.

Its interesting to note that in the Talmud its written ‘R. Judah said: When our teachers permitted Greek, they permitted it only for a scroll of the Torah’. This was on account of the incident related in connection with King Ptolemy, as it has been taught: ‘It is related of King Ptolemy that he brought together seventy-two elders and placed them in seventy-two [separate] rooms, without telling them why he had brought them together, and he went in to each one of them and said to him, Translate for me the Torah of Moses your master. God then prompted each one of them and they all conceived the same idea and wrote them for him.

Furthermore, we see corroboration of this from the works of Flavius Josephus, in his preface to Antiquities of the Jews.

I found, therefore, that the second of the Ptolemies was a king who was extraordinarily diligent in what concerned learning, and the collection of books; that he was also peculiarly ambitious to procure a translation of our law, and of the constitution of our government therein contained, into the Greek tongue. Now Eleazar the high priest, one not inferior to any other of that dignity among us, did not envy the forenamed king the participation of that advantage, which otherwise he would for certain have denied him, but that he knew the custom of our nation was, to hinder nothing of what we esteemed ourselves from being communicated to others. Accordingly, I thought it became me both to imitate the generosity of our high priest, and to suppose there might even now be many lovers of learning like the king; for he did not obtain all our writings at that time; but those who were sent to Alexandria as interpreters, gave him only the books of the law, while there were a vast number of other matters in our sacred books. They, indeed, contain in them the history of five thousand years; in which time happened many strange accidents, many chances of war, and great actions of the commanders, and mutations of the form of our government. Upon the whole, a man that will peruse this history, may principally learn from it, that all events succeed well, even to an incredible degree, and the reward of felicity is proposed by G-d; but then it is to those that follow his will, and do not venture to break his excellent laws: and that so far as men any way apostatize from the accurate observation of them, what was practical before becomes impracticable and whatsoever they set about as a good thing, is converted into an incurable calamity.

So, we see, the Septuagint, as it was in its original form, was only a translation of only the Torah for a specific reason, and that reason is that the Sages would not allow the Prophets and Writings to be translated at that time.  Often you find Christian apologists and missionaries pointing to the Prophets and the Writings in the Septuagint, saying “don’t you see? This is how the rabbis translated it into Greek!”

Those portions of the LXX were translated incorrectly deceptively by Christians to advance Christian theology.There are many examples of this. The most well known is

“Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel,” (Isaiah 7:14).

Here the word for “virgin” in Hebrew is “alma” this means maiden, not virgin.

The word in Hebrew for virgin is “Betulah”.

2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Thanks for your comments on the Septuagint as a translation of the Hebrew Bible. The history of the Septuagint is grossly simplified by many; many think “it” was translated in 250BC and that is the version we have today! This is so untrue. Josephus is clear that only the Torah was translated into Hebrew initially. More translations followed over centuries. The LXX we have today is taken from very late codices such as Vaticanus or Septuagint. There is no unbroken between those times, whereas with the Dead Sea Scrolls we can demonstrate just how reliably the Massoretic Text has been copied for the past 2000 years.

Comment by Hebrew Scholar

Hebrew Scholar,

Did you mean to say this: “Josephus is clar that only the Torah was translated into the GREEK initially,” and NOT , “. . . only the Torah was translated into Hebrew initially.”?

My name is Mike and I was just doing some research on the Old Greek Septuagint and to what degree the Jews used the Greek LXX throughout the Roman Empire from about 200BC to 100AD/200AD.

Mike Karoules

Comment by Mike Karoules

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