It was some six decades after the death of Alexander the Great and more than two centuries before the birth of Christ.
One of the world’s greatest libraries—ever—was seeking new titles. It already had more than two hundred thousand of them, but there was one glaring omission: the Torah of the Hebrews. And the king of Alexandria badly wanted it. His orders to his librarian essentially amounted to: spare no expense in getting it.
So begins the epic story of the Septuagint, the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into ancient Greek, as told in the ancient letter of Aristeas, supposedly a royal court official, to his brother.
Today, translating ancient texts sounds like a thing that would excite balding and bespeckled scholars burrowed deep bowels of libraries. In other words: not the stuff of legend. But, as recounted by Aristeas, the story of how the Torah was translated into ancient Greek becomes just that.
The task of finding translators took on all the trappings of an international diplomatic mission. An official letter was dispatched to the Jewish high priest requesting translators, and an embassy was appointed to meet them in Jerusalem and escort them back to the land of the pharaohs. The mission took on social and political ramifications: at the time there were, according to Aristeas’ account, some one hundred thousand Jewish captives in Egypt—taken from Israel by the previous king of Egypt. (This is not to be confused with the Exodus. We’re talking the period after the conquests of Alexander the Great.)
When the obvious contradiction between his reverence for Jewish the law and the continuing captivity of Jewish slaves was pointed out to him, the king promptly freed them, according to Aristeas (who conveniently takes credit for proposing the emancipation).
Meanwhile, several gifts were prepared for the diplomats to take to the Jewish high priest. These included a solid gold table embossed with precious stones and embellished with a crystal and amber center—“which produced an incomparable impression on the beholders,” according to Aristeas.
Seventy two elders—six from each of the twelve tribes—were to be selected for the work of translation. Hence the name Septuagint, which is taken from (ironically enough) the Latin word for seventy. (The Septuagint is often referred to as the LXX, the Roman numerals for 70.)
The embassy returned with the 72 translators. Upon their arrival they were greeted more like royal dignitaries rather than Scripture scholars, as told by Aristeas. The king received them immediately, rather than wait the traditional five to thirty days. In meeting them he told them their arrival would become a national holiday. Naturally, a seven-day marathon of feasting ensued, in which each of the elders was asked a question by the king in order to ascertain their wisdom and knowledge, so Aristeas’ story goes.
Then the elders were taken to the island of Pharos to begin their work. Had they looked up from their windows they might have seen one of the seven wonders of the ancient world under construction—the Lighthouse of Alexandria. Whether they realized it or not, they were to produce one of the great literary wonders of the ancient world. As Aristeas describes it,
There he assembled them in a house, which had been built upon the sea-shore, of great beauty and in a secluded situation, and invited them to carry out the work of translation, since everything that they needed for the purpose was placed at their disposal. So they set to work comparing their several results and making them agree, and whatever they agreed upon was suitably copied out under the direction of Demetrius [the royal librarian]. And the session lasted until the ninth hour; after this they were set free to minister to their physical needs. Everything they wanted was furnished for them on a lavish scale.
Aristeas’ version has the 72 translators acting as a committee. But the Talmud, a Jewish rabbinical guide to the Torah (itself a valued tool of biblical interpretation today), suggests there was a mystical dimension to the process of translation. According to the Talmud version, the 72 elders were assigned to separate rooms without being told what they were supposed to be doing. Then the king himself went into each room, telling the elder present to copy out the Torah by memory in Greek. So they did. And when the translations were compared, they were identical.
The story of Aristeas doesn’t have much credibility in the scholarly world. (Not to mention the Talmud’s mystical account.) And perhaps understandably so: his account is riddled with elements of the fabulous. It’s now even doubted that Aristeas was the real author. But there does seem to be a consensus that there is a kernel of truth to all this—and that is that sometime around 282 BC the Torah was actually translated in ancient Greek in Alexandria, Egypt.
And there’s no doubt that the Septuagint when fully completed (the rest of the books took longer than the 72 days recorded by Aristeas, modern scholars say), it was a monumental achievement of literature and linguistics. As two scholars have put it, “Because the Septuagint was the first translation made of the Hebrew Bible (or of any literary work of comparable size) into another language, it marks a milestone in human culture. Any knowledge of the ancient world would be incomplete without understanding the significance of the Septuagint and the history that brought it into existence” (Karen Jobes and Moisés Silva in Invitation to the Septuagint, 19).
The Septuagint was also deeply influential in the early Church. Rendered in Greek, the Old Testament resonated with the Greco-Roman Christian culture in a way that the Hebrew might not have.
Take Exodus 3:14 where God, speaking out of the burning bush, tells Moses, “I am Who I am.” In the Greek this becomes egō eimi ho ōn—I am He Who is. In the Greek, ōn is related to ontos, a word we could translate as being. Suddenly this verse takes on a whole new set of connotations than the original Hebrew and we begin to see the seed of the later patristic (as well as medieval) conception of God as being itself.
Another intriguing case is the end of Isaiah 7:9. A more literal translation of the Hebrew might be something like what the New American Bible has: Unless your faith is firm, you shall not be firm! But the Septuagint tweaks this in a way that has big ramifications for its meaning. In English the Septuagint version would read: Unless you believe, you will not understand. This verse has immediate and profound implications for the understanding of the relationship between faith and reason. St. Augustine grasped this and it became a motto for his theology.
The reverence that Church Fathers like Augustine had for the Septuagint is hard to overstate.
Writing in his classic work, On Christian Doctrine, Augustine points to the harmony among the 72 translators evidence of the special authority of the Septuagint. In the City of God, he goes so far as to even suggest the Septuagint itself is inspired: “For the same Spirit who was in the prophets when they spoke these things was also in the seventy men when they translated them, so that assuredly they could also say something else, just as if the prophet himself had said both, because it would be the same Spirit who said both.”
Agree or not with Augustine, there’s no question the Septuagint does—and should have—a special authority for us today. For one thing, it’s the oldest version of the Old Testament we have—predating the earliest version of the Hebrew text we have (known as the Masoretic text). The Septuagint is also the version that the New Testament writers used most often when quoting from the Old Testament. According to one scholarly count (cited here), the Septuagint is cited 340 times and the Hebrew text just 33.
It’s something to keep in mind when we remember that the Septuagint is the source for so-called apocryphal books that are included in the version of Old Testament that we Catholics use.