A Brief History of the Bible - 2
>From a Christian point of view, the most significant of the Greek
translations of the Old Testament is what is called the Septuagint (Latin
for "Seventy" and often abbreviated to "LXX"). This is traditionally
credited to the initiative of Ptolemy Philadelphus (285-246 BC) who wanted a
translation of the Hebrew Law for his library at Alexandria. He is said to
have engaged 70, or more exactly 72, translators for this work - hence the
They seem to have translated only the Torah, or Law - that is, Genesis,
Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The tradition grew, as
traditions do, in the telling. It was said that all 72 translators were
miraculously inspired to produce exactly the same translation. Furthermore
the title LXX came to be applied to a much more extensive work than simply
The LXX, as we now have it, differs in many respects from the Hebrew Bible:
1. The Books are arranged in a different order. The threefold division
observed in the Hebrew Bible, "Law" "Prophets" and "Writings", is abandoned.
2. The text of some of the books differs considerably from that of the
Hebrew. "The original LXX of Job is about one-sixth shorter than the
Hebrew; there are several interesting passages in the LXX of 1 Kings that
are not in the Hebrew; and there are considerable differences in order
between the Hebrew and the LXX in Jeremiah" (ODCC).
3. There are more books in the LXX than in the Hebrew. At least one of
these, Ecclesiasticus, is a translation of a Hebrew original, now lost;
others - Wisdom, Judith, Tobit, Baruch - seem not to be translations at all,
but original compositions in Greek.
The early Christian Church inherited the LXX, and this, rather than the
Hebrew scriptures, was its Bible. The New Testament, which is written
entirely in Greek, usually quotes from the LXX. A famous instance is
Matthew 1:23, "Behold, a virgin shall conceive", where virgin ("parthenos")
is the Greek word, the Hebrew word meaning simply "young woman." The early
Fathers almost all regarded the LXX as the norm, and few before Jerome took
much interest in the Hebrew.
The one exception was Origen (185-254), about whom we must say a word. He
produced his Hexapla, or sixfold version of the Old Testament.
In the first column was the Hebrew text.
In the second column was the Hebrew text, transliterated into Greek characters.
In the third column was the Greek version of Aquila, a native of Sinope in
Pontus, who lived under Hadrian (117-38). He was converted to Christianity
but excommunicated for dabbling in astrology, so he became a Jew. He
learned Hebrew and rabbinic exegesis from the rabbis. He produced a new
Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures to replace the LXX, which had lost
favour with the Jewish community because it had been taken up so
enthusiastically by the Christians. Aquila's version was painfully literal,
staying faithful to the Hebrew idiom at the expense of any attempt at good
In the fourth column was the Greek version of Symmachus, who lived in the
later 2nd century AD. His version is freer, less literal and more readable
than that of Aquila, but for that very reason is of less value for textual
In the fifth column was Origen's critical text of the LXX (referred to
hereafter as the 'hexaplaric' text of the LXX).
In the sixth column was the Greek version of Theodotion, also of the 2nd
century. His version has much in common with the LXX and may be regarded as
a revision rather than an independent translation. It has special value for
the study of Job and Jeremiah, where it was used by Origen to supply many
gaps in the LXX text, while for Daniel from the 4th century onwards the
Church used it in preference to the LXX.
For certain sections of the OT, up to three further versions were added,
making at times a total of nine columns.
We shall go on to look at some of the principal surviving MSS of the Greek
Bible, then at the various kinds of texts - "Byzantine", "Alexandrian",
"Western" etc. - that they exhibit, before looking at the process of
translation into Latin.