By April 14, 2008 0 Comments Read More →

How the Septuagint Differs, Biblical Archaeology Review, Jun 1976.

Ptolemy IIIn a fascinating article, Pere Pierre Benoit of the École Biblique et Archéologique Française in Jerusalem, raises anew the question whether the Septuagint translation of the Bible is divinely inspired. Whether or not one agrees with Pere Benoit that it is, his careful discussion of some differences between the Septuagint and the Hebrew text is illuminating and instructive.

According to a legend preserved in the so-called Letter of Aristeas (no one knows who actually wrote it), the Septuagint translation of the Bible was commissioned by Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt so that he would have a copy of the Jewish lawbook for his famous library in Alexandria. To secure the cooperation of Eleazer, the Jewish high priest in Jerusalem, Ptolemy set free the many Jews who had been sold into slavery by Ptolemy’s father after his military campaign in Palestine in 312 B.C. In gratitude, Eleazer the high priest sent 72 elders from Jerusalem (six from each tribe) to Alexandria, where they were royally entertained and finally secluded on an island to undertake their work. In 72 days of joint labor they completed the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. The translation was accepted and sanctified by the Jewish community, and any changes were officially forbidden. Ptolemy then sent the translators home with costly gifts. Thus, Aristeas.

According to Philo, a Jewish philosopher who lived at the turn of the era, the Jewish translators worked independently; by divine inspiration, however, they produced identical translations. The legend has also been embellished in other ancient sources which recite how the translators were shut up in separate cells in strictest seclusion, yet produced the same translation.
From these legends, the translation takes its name, although the reference in Latin is to seventy translators rather than seventy-two. In modern scholarly writings, the translation is referred to simply as LXX.

Turning from legend to fact, the Septuagint is a Jewish translation of the third century B.C., made for diaspora Jews in Egypt whose language was Greek and who no longer understood Hebrew. It is the first known translation of the Bible. Later, the early Christian Church adopted the Septuagint as divinely inspired and this version became the basis of the Latin translation known as the Vulgate. The Septuagint contains a number of books which are not in the Hebrew Bible (or Masoretic text as it is called by scholars), but based on their inclusion in the Septuagint, these books were also included in the Latin Vulgate. That is why such books as Judith, II Maccabees, The Wisdom of Solomon and Ben Sira, are considered canonical by the Roman Catholic Church although they are not included in the Hebrew Bible. Once the Septuagint was adopted by the Christian Church, it was denounced by contemporaneous Jews. Although originally a Jewish translation, the Septuagint has been preserved only in Christian sources.

Pere Benoit considers anew whether the Septuagint is a divinely inspired translation because certain New Testament doctrines find support in the Septuagint translation but not in the original Hebrew. As Pere Benoit states, “There are indeed cases where the New Testament authors really do claim to base an essential doctrine of the new faith on a Septuagint text which they accept as scriptural and yet whose meaning differs substantially from that of the Hebrew.”

For example, in the first chapter of the Gospel according to St. Mark, an angel comes to Joseph in a dream, telling him that his betrothed Mary is with child, conceived of the Holy Spirit, that she will bear a son who will save his people from their sins. “All this took place,” the Evangelist tells us, “to fulfill what the Lord had spoken to the prophet (Isaiah)- ‘Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel’ (which means, God with us)” (Mark 1-22–23). The passage which Mark quotes is Isaiah 7-14 as it appears in the Septuagint, rather than in the Hebrew Bible. The difference in this passage from Isaiah between the Septuagint and the Hebrew Bible is explained by Pere Benoit-

“The thought of the Evangelist is not in doubt- for him the oracle of the prophet (Isaiah) foretells that very virginal conception the story of which he has just told. And indeed the text of the Septuagint which he quotes and which contains the word parthenos (i.e., virgin) fully justifies his line of argument. But does the same apply to the Hebrew text? It is common knowledge that the term ’almah (the Hebrew word) does not mean specifically a ‘virgin’. For that, Hebrew has a special word, bethulah. The word ’almah designates a girl who is marriageable but not yet married, hence normally a virgin, although this qualification is not expressly asserted.

“When, therefore, Isaiah adopts this term in announcing the birth of the Messiah, Emmanuel, he does not describe that birth as of itself miraculous; it can be understood to mean that a girl will conceive in the usual way of the union of husband and wife. If he had wanted specifically to assert that the birth was virginal he would have used the word bethulah. He did not do so, and it seems that the point of (Isaiah’s) prophecy must be sought elsewhere.

But the Septuagint did make the distinction- they chose the term parthenos, instead of neanis which is what they normally use to translate ’almah. This translation certainly adds something to the original, and the additional significance has been consecrated by the use made of it by the Gospel and the tradition of the Church. Finally, the Jewish translators Aquila, Symmachus and Theodotion (each of whom also translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek) were not wrong from a purely philological point of view when they preferred neanis as a literal translation of ’almah in Isaiah 7-14.”
Another example in which the New Testament quotes the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew original occurs in both Acts 3-25 and Galatians 3-8. In both these passages, Genesis 12-3 is quoted in the Septuagintal form to prove that all the nations of the earth, i.e., the Gentiles, are to share in the blessing received by Abraham, by becoming his spiritual descendants through their faith. As Père Benoit notes, “Quite certainly this meaning can be drawn from the Septuagint text- ‘In thee (or in thy seed) all the earth shall be blessed’.”

“But,” says Père Benoit, “this does not seem to have been the meaning of the Hebrew original.” The Hebrew original indicates that the verb is not passive (“shall be blessed”), as the Septuagint translates it, but reflexive- “By thee, all the nations of the earth will bless themselves.” Père Benoit continues- “The primitive (original Hebrew) meaning therefore appears to be that the name of Abraham will be so great and so blessed by God that it will be used as a typical example. People will say, even among the Gentiles, ‘May you be blessed like Abraham!’” This meaning of the Hebrew original is clearly reflected in the New English Bible translation which renders Genesis 22-18 as follows- “All nations on earth shall pray to be blessed as your descendants are blessed.”
One final example- Both Peter (Acts 2-25–31) and Paul (Acts 13-35–37) use Psalm 16-10 as an argument to prove the resurrection of Jesus. In this Psalm, says Benoit, the psalmist “is proud, and with good reason, of his resistance to idolatrous cults (vv. 1–4) and of his loyalty to Yahweh in whom he finds all his happiness (5–8), and feels assured that God on his side will prolong this happy intimacy (9–11).”

Verse 10 in the Hebrew reads-

“Thou wilt not abandon me to Sheol

Nor suffer thy faithful servant to see the pit” (Heb- sahat).

Sheol is the netherworld, the abode of the dead. The “pit” is here used as a parallel to Sheol. As Père Benoit tells us, “The assurance that the speaker will not descend into Sheol cannot be taken literally since this would involve an exemption from death which is impossible- it must therefore be understood as a hyperbole, found often enough elsewhere, expressing the hope of a long life.”
However, the Septuagint translates “pit” (sahat) as “corruption” (Gr- diaphthora). As Père Benoit states, “The doctrine of the resurrection (is) clearly suggested by the word diaphthora, which they (the Septuagint translators) substitute (it can hardly be called translating) for the word sahat- God will not allow his holy one to see corruption; that is to say, God’s way of sparing the psalmist the quasi-annihilation of Sheol will be to bring him to everlasting life beside Himself, in his own actual body.”

For Père Benoit, “it looks as though we have here a fresh accession of doctrine, recorded by the Septuagint and to be explained by the progress of Revelation made since the original Hebrew was written … We may well wonder then whether such an accession, in which the New Testament writers clearly see the expression of the mind of God, can have been the work merely of human translators left to their own resources or whether it is not more fitting to recognize that the Holy Spirit himself presided over this substantial modification in the transmission of Scripture.”

This, of course, is a theological question, but the differences between the Hebrew text and the Septuagint help to explain why the Septuagint was adopted by early Christianity and rejected by contemporaneous Jews. These variations also illustrate why a word here and there can make such a difference between the two versions.

(For further details, see Pierre Benoit, Jesus and the Gospel (New York- The Seabury Press 1973), Vol. 1, pp. 1–10.)

Posted in: Hellenistic Period

Post a Comment