The Origin of the World’s First Biblical Translation: The Septuagint

Every Apocryphal Story Has  a Germ of Historical Truth

According to an apocryphal legend,[1] Egyptian King Ptolemy Philadelphus (who ruled 285-246 B.C.E.) sent a delegation to a high priest named Eleazar in Jerusalem, who  organized  a group of 72 scribes  to write a new translation of the Bible for the city of  Alexandria.[2] These men purportedly translated the Hebrew Pentateuch into Greek in only seventy-two days.

A Jewish philosopher named Aristeas, records how the scribes felt inspired and arrived at a synchronous translation. Philo of Alexandria also claims that each of the translators, working under divine inspiration, arrived at identical phraseology as though dictated by an invisible prompter (Moses, 302).

Historians know that this apocryphal tale does not represent the composition of the Septuagint that we have today. Rather, it was composed over a sustained period of time from approximately the  middle of  2nd B.C.E. to the 1st century C.E. In any event, the name “Septuagint,” actually derives from the Latin septuāgintā, “seventy” (from the traditional number of its translators) : septem, seven; see sept in Indo-European roots + –gintā, ten times; see dek in Indo-European roots]. [3]

Sleuthing One of the World’s Great Mysteries

Scholars and lay-people often wonder what inspired the first translation of the Bible? Why was the first translation of the Bible written in Greek? What was the motivation of the early translators of  the Bible? What did they hope to achieve?  The real story behind the Septuagint almost reads like a good detective novel.

Actually, there were many practical reasons why the Alexandrian Jews embarked on this most ambitious literary project. First and foremost, the Septuagint made it easier to educate a generation of Jews who had partially forgotten their ancestral language after having settled in Egypt. Alexandria rapidly became known as the Athens of the Ancient Near East. In fact, by many accounts, Alexandria rivaled Athens in brilliance.

Established by Jewish merchants at the time of Alexander, Alexandria became the world’s first cosmopolitan city–comparable to what Paris now is in Europe. The world’s very first university was built in Alexandria; libraries containing the works of many great Greek thinkers and other famous non-Greek thinkers found a home in a society that was remarkably tolerant of different ethnic groups. Alexandria was proto-modern in a way that was unique.

The Commonalities Between Jewish and Greek Cultures

Obviously, the Greeks and Jews of Alexandria realized that both of their cultures had much in common. Greeks believed they had a chosen vocation to spread Hellenistic culture throughout the world; the Greeks were “chosen” by the gods to achieve this task. The Jews also believed that they have a chosen divine destiny to spread ethical monotheism throughout the world. Obviously, the Greeks were very curious about the Jews and their traditions. A new translation of their works made a lot of sense.

Practical Reasons for Writing the Septuagint

For the Jews who lived in Alexandria, Greek was for these Jews much like what English is today for American Jews, the “lingua franca.” Greek was the language of commerce which made communication in the diplomatic and business world possible. Jewish masses forgot how to speak in Hebrew.

Recognizing that without a translation of the Torah in Greek, the Alexandrian Jewish community would further assimilate, something had to be done.  A Greek translation would make the Torah service at the synagogue more meaningful and relevant. With such a translation, the Alexandrian Jews now had a key to understanding their own religious heritage. The Septuagint also served as a guide for everyday instructional usage.

The Unexpected Consequences of the Septuagint’s Translation

There were other compelling reasons for advocating such a translation. Jewish translators hoped that the Septuagint would promote a greater tolerance towards the Alexandrian Jewish community. To some degree, it succeeded; to some degree this plan backfired. While many of the Greeks admired the wisdom portions of the Bible, some readers became alarmed after they read about the exploits of the Jew’s ancestor, Jacob, who deceived both his blind dying father and his older brother. To some degree, the Septuagint might have created anti-Semitism. Enemies of the Jews, like Apion, probably said,”Look at these dishonest Jews! It’s no wonder why they are so deceitful–they get it honestly. Just read their book about their ancestors!”

The Modern Historical Appreciation of the Septuagint

Modern scholars view the Septuagint as a treasure house of information. The Septuagint is historically important because it is  the parent text that inspired other translations of the Bible, e.g., Coptic, Ethiopic, Old Latin, Arabic, and Armenian, to name a few. Furthermore, one cannot understand fully the world of the Apocrypha and much of the Pseudepigrapha until one is familiar with the general concerns and content of the Greek Bible. From the perspective of textual criticism, the Septuagint, along with the materials from Qumran, the Samaritan Pentateuch, and to some extent the Targum literature, provide the textual tapestry against which the Masoretic textual (MT) tradition must properly be viewed, weighed and interpreted – especially with questions concerning the MT that are not easily discernible to the reader’s eye.

The Study of Textual Criticism and the Septuagint

The Septuagint differs from the Masoretic Text of the Tanakh in many important ways.  Significantly, there are more books in the Septuagint, than there are in the Hebrew Tanakh. The threefold division into the Pentateuch, the Prophets, and the Writings is abandoned. Writers of the Septuagint included other books dealing with the sequence of law, history, wisdom literature, and prophets.  Some of the books not included in the Hebrew canon are Greek translations of Hebrew originals (Tobit, 1 Maccabees, and Ecclesiasticus, also known as The Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach), and others are of Greek composition (Wisdom of Solomon; 2, 3, and 4 Maccabees; and others).[4] Generally speaking, those books that had a Greek translation were deliberately left out of the biblical canon; unfortunately, The Wisdom of Sirach got left out despite its popularity among the Rabbis.  The real reason why Sirach got left out is for another study we shall examine at a future time.

The Birth of a Philosophical Biblical Translation

Historically, the Septuagint not only provided the populace with a readable translation of the Torah, it also rewrote numerous passages in a strenuous effort to banish all anthropomorphism, which were inconsistent with the translators’ ideas of the Divine.  It set a new tone for how to re-examine and reinterpret biblical language. Instead of reading a text literally, the biblical translators taught their generation how to read the text metaphorically–this was no small achievement.

Centuries later, the Aramaic translation of the Torah that was written by Onkelos, followed the template found in the Septuagint.  Many (but not all) of the Sages admired Onkelos’ effort in purging biblical language from the dangers embedded in anthropomorphism. Given the status of Onkelos’ great translation in rabbinical circles, it is safe to assume that many of the early rabbis in the first two centuries had a much more sophisticated grasp of theological subtleties than is commonly presumed.

Yet despite their similarities between these two great translations, there were broad differences separating Onkelos and the Septuagint. Onkelos eschews the use of anthropomorphism because of objective, theological and dogmatic reasons. In contrast,  the translators of the Septuagint were more concerned with subjective,  philosophical and apologetic reasons. The Greek world was already moving away from the mythic tradition of Homer, the Alexandrian communities were determined to preserve the essence of the Bible and not let it become a philosophical anachronism. To achieve this, they softened the the crudeness of biblical language in order to meet a new contemporary sensibility.

Both the writers of the Septuagint and Onkelos felt that the words of Scripture could be paraphrased, and if need be even modified, so as to eliminate any possible theological  misunderstandings in an effort to make the sacred text intelligible.

The Grand Vision of the Septuagint’s Translators

More than anything else the Alexandrian Jewish leaders wanted to portray an image of Judaism that did not suffer from parochialism. These men possessed a global-minded vision of Judaism as an international faith that could attract the best minds of the Hellenistic and pagan worlds. They believed that as a universal faith, Judaism could unite all the families of humankind. In fact, many Greeks came to embrace Judaism as their new faith. If you examine many of the rabbinic names in the First Century C.E., there are quite a number of Greek sounding names, e.g., Antigonous or Onkelos–attesting to the fact that Judaism expanded its growth in the days of Late Antiquity. Indeed, the Septuagint explains one of the main reasons why this was so.


[1] For a listing of sources which record the legend, see the Antiquities of the Jews (XII, ii, 1). Philo’s account of the origin of the Septuagint (On Moses, 2.25B44) ; Eusebius, Praep. Ev., XIII, 12,664b. The Letter of Aristeas (‘ 302). The most recent English translation is by R. J. H. Shutt in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 2, ed. J. H. Charlesworth (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985), 7B34.

[2] Other ancient sources mention 70 or 5.

[3] America Heritage Dictionary, 2008 Edition.

[4] Apart from these additional books, the Septuagint also differs from the Hebrew Bible in the supplemental matter contained in certain books that are common to both. The Greek form of the Book of Esther, which in Hebrew contains 163 verses, is increased by the insertion of six sections embracing an additional 107 verses. The Book of Daniel receives three supplements; in the English Apocrypha of the King James Version these are called the History of Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, and the Song of the Three Holy Children. On the other hand, in the Septuagint the Book of Job is about one-sixth shorter than the Hebrew text, and the Book of Jeremiah lacks about one-eighth of the material in the Hebrew text. In both of these cases it may well be that the translators were working with a sharply different Hebrew text from what later became the traditional Masoretic text.

3 thoughts on “The Origin of the World’s First Biblical Translation: The Septuagint

  1. Yochanan Lavie says:

    I heard the translators took their time, at which point the king said: “Step to it, gents!” Hence it became the Septuagint. (/humor).

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