The Hebrew Scriptures of the Jews were translated into Koine Greek roughly around 250 BCE–100 CE. Who translated them into Greek, and where they were translated, is not known with certainty, but there are some interesting speculative answers to these questions. This article looks at the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament, and possible answers as to when, where, and why it was produced, and by whom.
The letter of Aristeas
The letter of Aristeas claims to provide some of these answers. The truthfulness of many of the statements made in the letter are contested by scholars—most regard the letter as a work of fiction—but it is authentically ancient, having been written in the second century BCE, and at least some points may be correct.
Aristeas was certainly a Jew, but he wrote his letter pseudonymously under the guise of a pagan Greek in the court of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285–246 BCE). Aristeas claimed that the Greek translation of the Hebrew Law (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) was ordered by Philadelphus, that it might be included in the renowned royal library of Alexandria. Certainly, Philadelphus would have been able to fund the translation work. He had previously gathered other “scholars in the museum and library who all enjoyed a royal stipend.” (Honigman 2003:102) So it is plausible, though not at all certain, that Philadelphus ordered and funded the translation of Law.
According to Aristeas, Philadelphus petitioned the help of the Jewish High Priest Eleazar. He asked Eleazar for six Hebrew scholars from each of the twelve tribes of Israel—seventy-two men in all—to be sent from Jerusalem to Alexandria. The term “Septuagint” which has been given to this translation is derived from the Latin septuaginta which means ‘seventy’, even though seventy-two translators were said to have been involved. (The Septuagint is typically abbreviated as LXX, the Roman numerals for seventy.)
Following on from Aristeas, the Jewish philosophers Aristobulus and Philo, the Jewish historian Josephus, and several early Christian writers also refer to the Seventy. The great majority of these early references occur in Christian writings, rather than in Jewish writings. Even the comments of Aristobulus about the LXX come to us only as fragments recorded in the Christian writings of Eusebius (263–339 CE). The early Christians had a keen interest in the LXX.
Aristeas’ letter continues with the information that the seventy-two translators were taken to an island by the librarian of the Alexandrian Library, and that the translation was completed in seventy-two days. The translators were richly rewarded for their work and were able to take copies of their work with them. While the veracity of Aristeas’ story is doubtful, because of anachronisms and inaccuracies, the later additions to this story are even more dubious.
Brenton (1844) wrote about some of these additions.
Some said that each translator was shut into a separate cell, and that all by divine inspiration made their versions word for word alike; others said that there were two in each cell, accompanied by an amanuensis; but at all events miracle and direct inspiration were supposed to be connected with the translation . . .
The precise motives behind the writing of Aristeas’ letter are debated, but the references to the translation of the LXX within the letter, as well as the later additions to the story, were probably concocted so that the Jews would have confidence in the divine authority of the LXX.
Scholars typically believe that the letter of Aristeas was written as some sort of Jewish propaganda. Ernst Würthwein (1995:52), for example, writes,
The letter of Aristeas was not written by a heathen courtier as it professes, but by a Jew who praises the wisdom of the Law of his people through the lips of a heathen king. The writer did not live in the days of Ptolemy Philadelphus, but more than a century later. Further, the Jewish Law was not translated to satisfy the curiosity of a royal patron of the arts, but because the Egyptian Jews no longer understood Hebrew and were in need of just such a translation. And finally, the translators were not Palestinian Jews, but members of the Alexandria Diaspora for whom Greek was the language of everyday life.
Why was the Septuagint Produced?
According to Würthwein, and many others, the Greek translation was done simply because most Jewish people living in Alexandria could not understand the Hebrew Scriptures. This seems to be the obvious answer as to why the LXX was produced, but there are several other suggestions as to why the Septuagint was produced.
The translation of the first five books of the Greek Bible is very literal. This literalness has caused Albert Pietersma to suggest that the Greek translation was produced as an educational aid to assist Diaspora Jews who were weak in the Hebrew language: with the LXX they could read the Hebrew scripture alongside the Greek. Other scholars, such as Henry St John Thackeray, proposed that the LXX was produced primarily for liturgical purposes. Still others suggest that it was produced for apologetic purposes or proselytizing purposes. And the idea remains that Philadelphus wanted a Greek version of the Hebrew Law for his library.
The first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, known as the Law or the Pentateuch, were the first to be translated into Greek. These five books are regarded by the Jewish people as the most important books of the Scriptures. They were probably translated in the third century BCE. The remaining books were translated later, in several stages, in unknown locations, and completed by the first part of the first century BCE. (Peters 1996:1094) These other books show later styles of Koine Greek, and the translations may have been undertaken by various Jewish communities in the Diaspora.
Who translated the Septuagint?
The variation in the Greek throughout the LXX rules out the possibility that it was translated by a single translator, or by a group of translators working closely together. “[S]ome books show that the translators were by no means competent to the task, while others, on the contrary, exhibit on the whole a careful translation.” (Brenton 1844) Even within some individual books, the translation is uneven in style and expertise indicating that two or three translators worked on different sections of the one book.
In the case of the Pentateuch, however, it seems that each book was the work of a single translator (or groups of translators working together), but no two books were the work of the same translator(s). (Würthwein 1995:53) Some Greek translations of the other books of the Hebrew Bible, such as the translations of Job and Daniel, are quite free. In some books there are omissions. For example, “Jeremiah lacks 2700 words that are found in the Hebrew.” (Würthwein 1995:53) In other books there are additions, even whole new sections.
As well as differences in style and ability, the translators reveal their different theological, social and political interests. (Jobes/ De Silva 2000:22) On their theological interests, Brenton (1844) writes,
[I]t must be remembered that the translators were Jews, full of traditional thoughts of their own as to the meaning of Scripture; and thus nothing short of a miracle could have prevented them from infusing into their version the thoughts which were current in their own minds. They could only translate passages as they themselves understood them.
The LXX thus “provides valuable information about how the Hebrew Bible was understood and interpreted at the time the translators were working …” (Jobes/ De Silva 2000:22)
Developments in the Septuagint
As well as the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint contains several early Jewish writings. These apocryphal (or deuterocanonical) works, most of which were originally written in Greek, 1-4 Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, 1 Esdras, Wisdom, Sirach and the Psalms of Solomon, as well as additions to Esther, to Jeremiah, and to Daniel.
Numerous copies of sections of the Septuagint were produced by scribes, and by the first century CE, copies had spread throughout the Diaspora. More papyri of the LXX survive than those of any other ancient Greek text except the New Testament. The oldest surviving fragments date to the second century BCE. Nearly 2,000 complete and fragmentary manuscripts of papyri, uncial codices, and minuscules survive. (Jobes/De Silva 2000:20)
The use of the Septuagint was widespread. As well as being used by Diaspora Jews, the LXX was used in Israel, especially by Hellenist Jews. The LXX was also used by the apostles; the New Testament writers quote the LXX as many as 300 times. (Jobes/De Silva 2000:24)
Image: The front side of P.Mich.inv. 5554. (Source: Wikimedia) These fragments come from P. VI of the Chester Beatty Collection of papyri. P. VI is a codex manuscript of Numbers and Deuteronomy, consisting of around 50 partial leaves out of 108 and many very small fragments. P. VI is dated to the first half of the 2nd century CE. (P. Fouad 266 and P. Rylands 458 are older papyri fragments of Deuteronomy, dating to the 2nd century BCE.)
Various Texts of the Septuagint
Three new Greek translations were produced in the second century CE. Aquila, a Jew or Jewish proselyte from Pontus and a student of the famous Rabbi Akiba, made a scrupulously literal translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek in around 130 CE. Two of his aims were to oppose the authority of the LXX and to contradict certain verses in the LXX that the Christians were using to support their claim that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah. After Aquila, Symmachus, either an Ebionite Christian or a Samaritan convert to Judaism, produced a better, more comprehensible, Greek translation in around 180 CE. Theodotion, an Ebionite Christian, produced a third translation, mostly based on existing versions of the LXX. Origen (184/185–253/254) used these three translations in his Hexapla.
Origen’s monumental Hexapla “comprised six thousand folios in fifty volumes.” (Würthwein 1995:59) It consisted of six versions of the Old Testament in six columns side by side. The first column was of the Hebrew; the second was of Hebrew transliterated with Greek letters; the third was Aquila’s recension; the fourth was Symmachus’s recension; the fifth column was a recension of the LXX with interpolations and scribal sigla to show where it differed from the Hebrew; the sixth column was Theodotion’s recension.
Lucian (240-312), an elder of the church at Antioch, and Hesychius, an Egyptian bishop, went on to make their own recensions.
Jerome (Praef. in Paralipp.; compare Adv. Ruf., ii.27) states that in the 4th century three recensions circulated in different parts of the Christian world: “Alexandria and Egypt in their Septuagint acclaim Hesychius as their authority, the region from Constantinople to Antioch approves the copies of Lucian the martyr, the intermediate Palestinian provinces read the manuscripts which were promulgated by Eusebius and Pamphilus on the basis of Origen’s labors, and the whole world is divided between these three varieties of text.” (Thackeray 1915)
The Lucian and Hesychius versions of the Septuagint are still used in the Eastern Orthodox Church; their traditional belief is that the LXX is authentic, divinely-inspired Scripture.
The translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek was a remarkable achievement of Hellenist Jews, and it marked a milestone of human culture. The influence of the Septuagint on Judaism in the Diaspora, and in Israel, and its subsequent impact on early Christianity, makes the Septuagint important in biblical studies today. Because of its influence and impact, there has been a keen interest in the LXX from biblical scholars in recent decades.
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 While Aristeas is a pseudonym, I will refer to the author of the Letter of Aristeas by this name.
 The number seventy (and seventy-two) has significance in the Bible (Exodus 24:1, 9; Numbers 11:16ff cf Luke 10:1, 17). Also, there were seventy members of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish Council.)
 In the second century CE, Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Trypho 68:6-7), Irenaeus (Against Heresies 3.21.2-3) and Tertullian (Apology 18.5-9) were among the first Christians to continue the story of Philadelphus and the seventy, or seventy-two, translators by giving abbreviated versions of Aristeas’ account of the origin of the LXX.
 Albert Pietersma is a co-editor of the New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS) published by Oxford University Press in 2007.
 In The Life of Moses 2.38-40 (VII), Philo mentions the practicality of the LXX as an aid in learning Greek or Chaldean. (Philo refers to the original language of the Old Testament as Chaldean rather than Hebrew.)
 The names of the first five books of the Old Testament in English are derived from the Greek: Genesis, Exodos, Leuitikon, Arithmoi (Numbers), Deuteronomion.
 A current project undertaken by the Göttingen Unternehmen aims to reconstruct the “oldest reachable text” of the Septuagint. (Update: This project has stalled due to lack of funding.)
This diagram by Luke Newman (source: Wikimedia) shows the relationship between the various ancient manuscripts of the Old Testament, according to the Encyclopaedia Biblica. Dotted pale blue lines indicate texts which were used to correct the main source.
The isolated letters are standard sigla designating particularly significant manuscripts:
א [aleph] = Codex Sinaiticus
A = Codex Alexandrinus
B = Codex Vaticanus
Q = Codex Marchalianus
In addition, the standard abbreviations:
MT = Masoretic Text
LXX = the original version of the Septuagint
Pseudo-Aristeas, The Letter Of Aristeas, R.H. Charles (Ed) (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1913)
http://www.ccel.org/c/charles/otpseudepig/aristeas.htm (Accessed April-May 2013)
Brenton, Lancelot Charles Lee, An Historical Account of the Septuagint Version of the Old Testament, according to the Vatican Text, (London: Samuel Bagster, 1844)
http://www.bible-researcher.com/brenton1.html (accessed April 2013)
Dines, Jennifer M., The Septuagint (London: T&T Clark, 2004)
Honigman, Sylvie, The Septuagint and Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria (London: Routledge, 2005)
Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 21. Translated by Alexander Roberts and William Rambaut. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.
http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103321.htm (Acessed May 2013)
Jobes, Karen and Moises De Silva, An Introduction to the Septuagint, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academics, 2000)
Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, chapters 55-68. Translated by Marcus Dods and George Reith. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.
http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/01285.htm (Accessed May, 2013)
Marcos, Natalio Fernandez, The Septuagint in Context: Introduction to the Greek Version of the Bible, (Brill Academic, 2001)
Peters, Melvin K. H., “Septuagint”, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol 5, Ed. David Noel Freeman et al, (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1996, ©1992), 1093-1104
Philo, The Life of Moses, Book 2, C. D. Yonge (transl.)
http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/text/philo/book25.html (Accessed May 2013)
Pietersma, Albert, “A New Paradigm for Addressing Old Questions: The Relevance of the Interlinear Model for the Study of the Septuagint,” Bible and Computer. Johann Cook (ed) (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2002), 337-364. (From the Stellenbosch AIBI-6 Conference. Proceedings of the Association Internationale Bible et Informatique “From Alpha to Byte”. University of Stellenbosch 17-21 July, 2000.)
http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~pietersm/ (Accessed 5.5.13)
Thackeray, H. St John, “The Septuagint” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
http://www.bible-researcher.com/thackeray.lxx.html (Accessed May 2013)
Wasserstein, Abraham and David J. Wasserstein, The Legend of the Septuagint: From Classical Antiquity to Today, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006)
Würthwein, Ernst, trans. Errol F. Rhodes, The Text of the Old Testament: An Introduction to the Biblica Hebraica, Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1995)
Göttingen Septuaginta-Unternehmen Website
https://adw-goe.de/en/research/completed-research-projects/akademienprogramm/septuaginta-unternehmen/ (Accessed May 2013)
Postscript: December 28 2021
These paragraphs written by Trevor Evans, professor at Macquarie University, are a useful summary on the Septuagint and its language. I’ve had the pleasure of being a student in several of Dr Evans’s classes. These paragraphs were in a handout for the January 2022 summer school on Septuagint Greek.
[The Septuagint] is a body of texts mostly translated from original Hebrew and in some segments Aramaic compositions, supplemented by some original Greek works. It was produced over a period of up to four hundred years, from the third century BCE (when the Greek translation of the Pentateuch was probably made) down to as late as the second century CE. As an assemblage of texts composed by various individuals in various ways, and probably in a variety of speech communities, it amounts to a highly complex specimen of Koine Greek. From a linguistic perspective we have to be careful to avoid treating the corpus as if it is a single, unified compilation. Even the Pentateuch, a relatively homogeneous segment, is generally taken to be the work of five different translators.
The Septuagint is one of our most extensive surviving samples of Koine prose. We have reached a point where a series of detailed analyses, especially by scholars of the ‘Sydney School’ of Septuagint-language studies, have demonstrated that the linguistic evidence of the corpus can no longer be hived off and ignored, as it long was, on the grounds that its translation Greek has been heavily influenced by the source languages (or even—in the extreme and now outmoded form of the argument—that it represents a special Jewish ‘dialect’ of Greek). On the contrary, once the nature and extent of the Hebrew or Aramaic influence have been isolated these texts can potentially reveal a very large amount of valuable information about the Greek of their period. In the early twenty-first century the nature of Septuagint Greek is attracting intense interest and burgeoning afresh as a focus of study. We can anticipate many established ideas about Septuagint language to be challenged as a result, with important implications for numerous facets of our understanding of Koine Greek in general.