The “Septuagint”​—Useful in the Past and the Present

AN INFLUENTIAL man from Ethiopia was journeying homeward from Jerusalem. While traveling along a desert road in his chariot, he was reading aloud from a religious scroll. The explanation of the words he read had such an impact on him that his life changed from that time on. (Acts 8:26-38) The man had been reading Isaiah 53:7, 8 from the very first translation of the Bible​—the Greek Septuagint. This work has played  such an important role in the spreading of the Bible’s message throughout the centuries that it has been called a Bible translation that changed the world.

When and under what circumstances was the Septuagint prepared? Why was there a need for such a translation? How useful has it proved to be over the centuries? What, if anything, can the Septuagint teach us today?

Made for the Greek-Speaking Jews

In 332 B.C.E. when Alexander the Great marched into Egypt after destroying the Phoenician city of Tyre, he was greeted as a deliverer. There he founded the city of Alexandria, a center of learning in the ancient world. Desiring to spread Greek culture to people living in the conquered lands, Alexander introduced common Greek (Koine) throughout his vast realm.

In the third century B.C.E., Alexandria came to have a large population of Jews. Many Jews who after the Babylonian exile had been living in scattered colonies outside Palestine migrated to Alexandria. How well did these Jews know the Hebrew language? McClintock and Strong’s Cyclopedia states: “It is well known that after the Jews returned from the captivity of Babylon, having lost in great measure the familiar knowledge of the ancient Hebrew, the readings from the books of Moses in the synagogues of Palestine were explained to them in the Chaldaic tongue . . . The Jews of Alexandria had probably still less knowledge of Hebrew; their familiar language was Alexandrian Greek.” Evidently, in Alexandria the climate was right for a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek.

Aristobulus, a Jew who lived in the second century B.C.E., wrote that a version of the Hebrew law was translated into Greek and was completed during the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus (285-246 B.C.E.). Opinions vary as to what Aristobulus meant by the “law.” Some think that he was referring merely to the Pentateuch, while others say that he may have had in mind the entire Hebrew Scriptures.

In any case, tradition has it that about 72 Jewish scholars were involved in that first written translation of the Scriptures from Hebrew into Greek. Later, the round figure 70 began to be used. Hence, the version was called the Septuagint, meaning “70,” and is designated LXX, the Roman numeral for 70. By the end of the second century B.C.E., all books of the Hebrew Scriptures could be read in Greek. Thus, the name Septuagint came to refer to the entire Hebrew Scriptures translated into Greek.

Useful in the First Century

The Septuagint was used extensively by Greek-speaking Jews prior to and during the time of Jesus Christ and his apostles. Many of the Jews and proselytes who gathered in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost 33 C.E. were from the district of Asia, Egypt, Libya, Rome, and Crete​—areas in which people spoke Greek. No doubt, they customarily read from the Septuagint. (Acts 2:9-11) Thus, this version proved to be influential in spreading the good news in the first century.

For example, when speaking with men from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and Asia, the disciple Stephen said: “Joseph sent out and called Jacob his father and all his relatives from that place [Canaan], to the number of seventy-five souls.” (Acts 6:8-10; 7:12-14) The Hebrew text in Genesis chapter 46 says that the number of Joseph’s relatives was seventy. But the Septuagint uses the number seventy-five. Apparently, Stephen quoted from the Septuagint.​Genesis 46:20, 26, 27, footnote.

As the apostle Paul traveled throughout Asia Minor and Greece during his second and third missionary tours, he preached to many Gentiles who feared God and to “Greeks who  worshiped God.” (Acts 13:16, 26; 17:4) These people had come to fear God or to worship him because they had gained some knowledge of him from the Septuagint. In preaching to these Greek-speaking people, Paul often quoted or paraphrased portions of that translation.​—Genesis 22:18, footnote; Galatians 3:8.

The Christian Greek Scriptures contain some 320 direct quotations and a combined total of perhaps 890 quotations and references from the Hebrew Scriptures. Most of these are based on the Septuagint. As a result, the quotations taken from that translation and not from the Hebrew manuscripts became part of the inspired Christian Greek Scriptures. What a significant fact this was! Jesus had foretold that the good news of the Kingdom would be preached in all the inhabited earth. (Matthew 24:14) To accomplish this, Jehovah would allow his inspired Word to be translated into the various languages read by people worldwide.

Useful Today

The Septuagint remains valuable today and is used to help uncover copyists’ errors that might have crept into Hebrew manuscripts copied at a later date. For example, the account at Genesis 4:8 reads: “After that Cain said to Abel his brother: [‘Let us go over into the field.’] So it came about that while they were in the field Cain proceeded to assault Abel his brother and kill him.”

The bracketed clause “let us go over into the field” is not found in Hebrew manuscripts dating from the tenth century C.E. However, it is included in older Septuagint manuscripts and in a few other early references. The Hebrew text has the word that usually introduces speech, but no words follow. What could have happened? Genesis 4:8 contains two consecutive clauses that end with the expression “in(to) the field.” McClintock and Strong’s Cyclopedia suggests: “The Hebrew transcriber’s eye was probably misled by the [same] word . . . terminating both the clauses.” Thus the transcriber may have skipped over the earlier instance of the clause ending with the expression “into the field.” Clearly, the Septuagint, as well as other older extant manuscripts, can be useful in identifying errors in later copies of the Hebrew text.

On the other hand, copies of the Septuagint are also subject to error, and at times the Hebrew text is referred to in correcting the Greek. Thus, comparing the Hebrew manuscripts with the Greek and with other language translations results in finding translation errors as well as copyists’ mistakes and assures us of an accurate rendering of God’s Word.

Complete copies of the Septuagint existing today date from as far back as the fourth century C.E. Such manuscripts and later copies do not contain the divine name, Jehovah, represented in Hebrew by the Tetragrammaton (YHWH). These copies have substituted the Greek words for “God” and “Lord” wherever the Tetragrammaton occurred in the Hebrew text. However, a discovery in Palestine some 50 years ago shed light on this matter. A team exploring caves near the west shore of the Dead Sea uncovered fragments from an ancient leather scroll of the 12 prophets (Hosea through Malachi) written in Greek. These writings were dated between 50 B.C.E. and 50 C.E. In these earlier fragments, the Tetragrammaton had not been replaced by the Greek words for “God” and “Lord.” Hence, the use of the divine name in the early Septuagint version of the Scriptures was confirmed.

The year 1971 saw the release for publication of fragments of an ancient papyrus scroll (Fouad 266 papyri). What did these portions of the Septuagint, dating back to the second or first century B.C.E., reveal? The divine  name was preserved in them also. These early fragments of the Septuagint provide strong evidence that Jesus and his first-century disciples knew and used God’s name.

Today, the Bible is the most widely translated book in history. Over 90 percent of the human family have access to at least part of it in their own language. We are particularly grateful for an accurate modern-language translation, the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, now available in whole or in part in over 40 languages. The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures​—With References contains hundreds of footnote references to the Septuagint and to other ancient manuscripts. Indeed, the Septuagint continues to be of interest and value to Bible students in our day.

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The disciple Philip explained a passage that was read from the “Septuagint”

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The apostle Paul often quoted from the “Septuagint”