A Bible Translation That Changed the World
When God’s Prophet Moses Began Writing The Bible Over 3,500 Years Ago, Just One Small Nation Could Read It. (Deuteronomy 7:7) That Was So Because The Scriptures Were Available Only In That Nation’s Original Hebrew Tongue. However, That Would Change In Time.
THE spread of the Bible’s message and its positive influence throughout the centuries are in no small measure the result of its first translation—the Septuagint. Why was it made? And can it rightly be said that this was a Bible that changed the world?
An Inspired Translation?
After their exile in Babylon during the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E., many Jews remained outside the land of ancient Israel and Judah. For the Jews born in exile, Hebrew became a second language. By the third century B.C.E., there was a Jewish community in Alexandria, Egypt—a major cultural center of the Grecian Empire. Those Jews saw the value of translating the Sacred Scriptures into Greek, which was then their mother tongue.
Up to that time, the Bible’s inspired message had been recorded in Hebrew, with small portions in closely related Aramaic. Would expressing the Word of God in a different language diminish the powerful effects of divine inspiration, perhaps even leading to wrong interpretations? Could the Jews, who had been entrusted with the inspired Word, allow themselves to risk perverting that message through translation?—Psalm 147:19, 20; Romans 3:1, 2.
These sensitive issues caused apprehension. Yet, concern that Jews would no longer understand God’s Word finally outweighed all other considerations. A decision was made to prepare a Greek translation of the Torah—the first five books of the Bible, penned by Moses. The actual translation process is shrouded in legend. According to the Letter of Aristeas, the Egyptian ruler Ptolemy II (285-246 B.C.E.) wanted a copy of the Pentateuch (or, Torah) translated into Greek for his royal library. He commissioned 72 Jewish scholars, who came to Egypt from Israel and completed the translation in 72 days. This translation was then read to the Jewish community, who declared it both beautiful and accurate. Later embellishments of this story claimed that each translator was placed in a separate room, and yet their translations were identical, letter for letter. Because of the tradition about 72 translators, this Greek Bible translation came to be known as the Septuagint, based on a Latin word meaning “Seventy.”
Most present-day scholars agree that the Letter of Aristeas is an apocryphal writing. They also believe that the initiative for translation came, not from Ptolemy II, but from the leaders of the Alexandrian Jewish community. But the writings of the Jewish Alexandrian philosopher Philo and the Jewish historian Josephus as well as the Talmud all display a general belief among first-century Jews that the Septuagint was inspired to the same degree as the original Scriptures. Such traditions no doubt resulted from an effort to make the Septuagint acceptable to the Jewish community worldwide.
Although the initial translation involved only the five books of Moses, the name Septuagint came to refer to the entire Hebrew Scriptures translated into Greek. The remaining books were translated over the next hundred years or so. Rather than being a coordinated effort, the production of the entire Septuagint was a piecemeal accomplishment. The translators differed in their abilities and knowledge of Hebrew. Most books were translated literally, sometimes to the extreme, while other translations were quite free. A few exist in both long and short versions. By the end of the second century B.C.E., all the books of the Hebrew Scriptures could be read in Greek. Despite inconsistent results, the effect of translating the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek went far beyond what the translators could have expected.
Japheth in the Tents of Shem?
In discussing the Septuagint, the Talmud quotes Genesis 9:27: “Let . . . Japheth . . . reside in the tents of Shem.” (Megillah 9b, Babylonian Talmud) The Talmud figuratively implies that through the beauty of the Greek language of the Septuagint, Japheth (the father of Javan, from whom the Greeks descended) dwelt in the tents of Shem (the forefather of the nation of Israel). However, it could also be said that through the Septuagint, Shem dwelt in the tents of Japheth. How so?
After the conquests of Alexander the Great, in the latter part of the fourth century B.C.E., an intense effort was made to spread Greek language and culture throughout the conquered lands. This policy was called Hellenization. The Jews felt themselves under constant cultural assault. If Greek culture and philosophy prevailed, the very religion of the Jews would be undermined. What could stem the tide of this assault?
Regarding one possible motive of the Jews in translating the Septuagint, Jewish Bible translator Max Margolis comments: “If we may at all lay the scheme at the door of the Jewish community, another motive will have played into it, namely, to open up the Jewish Law to the inspection of the Gentile population and to convince the world that the Jews possessed a culture which rivalled the wisdom of Hellas [Greece].” Making the Hebrew Scriptures available to the Greek-speaking world may therefore have been both a form of self-defense and a counterattack.
Alexander’s policy of Hellenization had made Greek the international language of the world. Even when his realm was overrun by the Romans, common (or, Koine) Greek remained the language of trade and communication among nations. Whether this resulted from a deliberate effort or was a natural development, the Septuagint version of the Hebrew Scriptures quickly found its way into the homes and hearts of many non-Jews previously unacquainted with God and the Law of the Jews. The results were astonishing.
Proselytes and God-Fearers
By the first century C.E., Philo could write that the “beauty and dignity of the legislation of Moses is honoured not among the Jews only, but also by all other nations.” Regarding Jews living outside Palestine in the first century, Jewish historian Joseph Klausner says: “It is hard to believe that all these millions of Jews had assembled themselves by emigration from little Palestine alone. One is forced to say that this great increase came also from the reception of male and female proselytes in large numbers.”
However, these impressive points do not tell the whole story. Author Shaye J. D. Cohen, professor of Jewish history, states: “Many gentiles, both men and women, converted to Judaism during the last centuries B.C.E. and the first two centuries C.E. Even more numerous, however, were those gentiles who accepted certain aspects of Judaism but did not convert to it.” Both Klausner and Cohen refer to these nonconverts as God-fearers, an expression that appears frequently in Greek literature of the period.
What is the difference between a proselyte and a God-fearer? Proselytes were full converts, considered Jews in every sense because they accepted the God of Israel (rejecting all other gods), underwent circumcision, and joined themselves to the nation of Israel. In contrast, Cohen says regarding God-fearers: “Although these gentiles observed any number of Jewish practices and venerated in one form or another the God of the Jews, they did not see themselves as Jews and were not seen by others as Jews.” Klausner describes them as “standing in a middle position,” for they accepted Judaism and “observed a part of its customs, but . . . did not become complete Jews.”
Perhaps some became interested in God because of discussions with Jews engaged in missionary activity or by observing how they were different in conduct, custom, and behavior. Yet, the Septuagint was the main tool assisting these God-fearers to learn about Jehovah God. While there is no way to know the exact number of first-century God-fearers, the Septuagint unquestionably spread some knowledge about God throughout the Roman Empire. By means of the Septuagint, important groundwork was also being laid.
The Septuagint Helped to Prepare the Way
The Septuagint figured prominently in spreading the message of Christianity. Many Greek-speaking Jews were among those present at the founding of the Christian congregation at Pentecost 33 C.E. Proselytes were also among those who became Christ’s disciples at that early stage. (Acts 2:5-11; 6:1-6; 8:26-38) Since the inspired writings of Jesus’ apostles and other early disciples were intended for as wide an audience as possible, they were recorded in Greek.a Therefore, many quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures appearing in the Christian Greek Scriptures were based on the Septuagint.
Others besides natural Jews and proselytes were ready to accept the Kingdom message. The Gentile Cornelius was “a devout man and one fearing God together with all his household, and he made many gifts of mercy to the people and made supplication to God continually.” In 36 C.E., Cornelius, his family, and others who assembled at his home were the first Gentiles baptized as Christ’s followers. (Acts 10:1, 2, 24, 44-48; compare Luke 7:2-10.) When the apostle Paul traveled throughout Asia Minor and Greece, he preached to many Gentiles who already feared God as well as to “Greeks who worshiped God.” (Acts 13:16, 26; 17:4) Why were Cornelius and those other Gentiles ready to accept the good news? The Septuagint had helped to prepare the way. One scholar surmises that the Septuagint “is a book of such critical significance that apart from it both Christendom and the western culture would be inconceivable.”
The Septuagint Loses Its “Inspiration”
The extensive use of the Septuagint eventually caused a backlash among the Jews. In discussions with Christians, for example, the Jews claimed that the Septuagint was a mistranslation. By the second century C.E., the Jewish community had completely turned its back on the translation that it had once praised as inspired. The rabbis rejected the legend of the 72 translators, stating: “It happened once that five elders wrote the Torah for King Ptolemy in Greek, and that day was as ominous for Israel as the day on which the golden calf was made, since the Torah could not be accurately translated.” To ensure stricter agreement with rabbinic views, the rabbis authorized a new translation into Greek. It was carried out in the second century C.E. by a Jewish proselyte named Aquila, a disciple of the rabbi Akiba.
The Septuagint ceased to be used by Jews, but it became the standard “Old Testament” of the emerging Catholic Church until it was superseded by Jerome’s Latin Vulgate. Although a translation can never take the place of the original, the Septuagint played an important role in spreading knowledge about Jehovah God and his Kingdom by means of Jesus Christ. Truly, the Septuagint is a Bible translation that changed the world.
a The Gospel of Matthew may have been written first in Hebrew, with a version in Greek provided thereafter.
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The “Septuagint” was understood by many people to whom Paul preached
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Courtesy of Israel Antiquities Authority