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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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Among the Greek versions of the Old Testament, says Mr. Horne, the Alexandrian or Septuagint is the most ancient and valuable, and was held in so much esteem both by the Jews as well as by the first Christians, as to be constantly read in the synagogues and churches. Hence it is uniformly cited by the early fathers, whether Greek or Latin; and from this version all the translations into other languages which were anciently approved by the Christian church were executed, with the exception of the Syriac; as the Arabic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Gothic, and old Italic or the Latin version in use before the time of Jerom; and to this day the Septuagint is exclusively read in the Greek and most other oriental churches. This version has derived its name either from the Jewish account of seventy-two persons having been employed to make it, or from its having received the approbation of the sanhedrim or great council of the Jews, which consisted of seventy, or, more correctly, of seventy-two persons. Much uncertainty, however, has prevailed concerning the real history of this ancient version; and while some have strenuously advocated its miraculous and Divine origin, other eminent philologists have laboured to prove that it must have been executed by several persons and at different times. According to one account, Ptolemy Philadelphus, king of Egypt, caused this translation to be made for the use of the library which he had founded at Alexandria at the request and with the advice of the celebrated Demetrius Phalereus, his principal librarian. For this purpose, it is reported, that he sent Aristeas and Andreas, two distinguished officers of his court, to Jerusalem, on an embassy to Eleazar, then high priest of the Jews, to request of the latter a copy of the Hebrew Scriptures, and that there might also be sent to him seventy-two persons, six chosen out of each of the twelve tribes, who were equally well skilled in the Hebrew and Greek languages. These learned men were accordingly shut up in the island of Pharos; where, having agreed in a translation of each period after a mutual conference, Demetrius wrote down their version as they dictated it to him; and thus, in the space of seventy-two days, the whole was accomplished. This relation is derived from a letter ascribed to Aristeas himself, the authenticity of which has been greatly disputed. If, as there is every reason to believe is the case, this piece is a forgery, it was made at a very early period; for it was in existence in the time of Josephus, who has made use of it in his Jewish Antiquities. The veracity of Aristeas's narrative was not questioned until the seventeenth or eighteenth century, at which time, indeed, Biblical criticism was, comparatively, in its infancy. Vives, Scaliger, Van Dale, Dr. Prideaux, and, above all, Dr. Hody, were the principal writers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who attacked the genuineness of the pretended narrative of Aristeas; and though it was ably vindicated by Bishop Walton, Isaac Vossius, Whiston, Brett, and other modern writers, the majority of the learned of our own time are fully agreed in considering it as fictitious. Philo, the Jew, who also notices the Septuagint version, was ignorant of most of the circumstances narrated by Aristeas; but he relates others which appear not less extraordinary.

According to him, Ptolemy Philadelphus sent to Palestine for some learned Jews, whose number he does not specify; and these, going over to the island of Pharos, there executed so many distinct versions, all of which so exactly and uniformly agreed in sense, phrases, and words, as proved them to have been not common interpreters, but men prophetically inspired and divinely directed, who had every word dictated to them by the Spirit of God throughout the entire translation. He adds, that an annual festival was celebrated by the Alexandrian Jews in the isle of Pharos, where the version was made, until his time, to preserve the memory of it, and to thank God for so great a benefit.

It is not a little remarkable that the Samaritans have traditions in favour of their version of the Pentateuch, equally extravagant with these preserved by the Jews. In the Samaritan chronicle of Abul Phatach, which was compiled in the fourteenth century from ancient and modern authors, both Hebrew and Arabic, there is a story to the following effect: that Ptolemy Philadelphus, in the tenth year of his reign, directed his attention to the difference subsisting between the Samaritans and Jews concerning the law, the former receiving only the Pentateuch, and rejecting every other work ascribed to the prophets by the Jews. In order to determine this difference, he commanded the two nations to send deputies to Alexandria. The Jews entrusted this mission to Osar, the Samaritans to Aaron, to whom several other associates were added. Separate apartments in a particular quarter of Alexandria were assigned to each of these strangers, who were prohibited from having any personal intercourse, and each of them had a Greek scribe to write his version. Thus were the law and other Scriptures translated by the Samaritans; whose version being most carefully examined, the king was convinced that their text was more complete than that of the Jews. Such is the narrative of Abul Phatach, divested, however, of numerous marvellous circumstances with which it has been decorated by the Samaritans, who are not surpassed, even by the Jews, in their partiality for idle legends.

A fact, buried under such a mass of fables as the translation of the Septuagint has been by the historians who have pretended to record it, necessarily loses all its historical character, which, indeed, we are fully justified in disregarding altogether. Although there is no doubt but that some truth is concealed under this load of fables, yet it is by no means an easy task to discern the truth from what is false: the following, however, is the result of our researches concerning this celebrated version:—

It is probable that the seventy interpreters, as they are called, executed their version of the Pentateuch during the joint reigns of Ptolemy Lagus and his son Philadelphus. The pseudo Aristeas, Josephus, Philo, and many other writers whom it were tedious to enumerate, relate that this version was made during the reign of Ptolemy II, or Philadelphus; Joseph Ben Gorion, however, among the rabbins, Theodoret, and many other Christian writers, refer its date to the time of Ptolemy Lagus. Now, these two traditions can be reconciled only by supposing the version to have been performed during the two years when Ptolemy Philadelphus shared the throne with his father; which date coincides with the third and fourth years of the hundred and twenty-third Olympiad, that is, about B.C. 286 and 285. Farther, this version was neither made by the command of Ptolemy, nor at the request nor under the superintendence of Demetrius Phalereus; but was voluntarily undertaken by the Jews for the use of their countrymen. It is well known, that, at the period above noticed, there was a great number of Jews settled in Egypt, particularly at Alexandria: these, being most strictly observant of the religious institutions and usages of their forefathers, had their sanhedrim or grand council composed of seventy or seventy-two members, and very numerous synagogues, in which the law was read to them on every Sabbath; and as the bulk of the common people were no longer acquainted with Biblical Hebrew, the Greek language alone being used in their ordinary intercourse, it became necessary to translate the Pentateuch into Greek for their use. This is a far more probable account of the origin of the Alexandrian version than the traditions above stated. If this translation had been made by public authority, it would unquestionably have been performed under the direction of the sanhedrim, who would have examined and perhaps corrected it, if it had been the work of a single individual, previously to giving it the stamp of their approbation, and introducing it into their synagogues. In either case the translation would probably be denominated the Septuagint, because the sanhedrim was composed of seventy or seventy-two members. It is even possible that the sanhedrim, in order to ascertain the fidelity of the work might have sent to Palestine for some learned men of whose assistance and advice they would have availed themselves in examining the version. This fact, if it could be proved, for it is offered as a mere conjecture, would account for the story of the king of Egypt's sending an embassy to Jerusalem: there is, however, one circumstance which proves that, in executing this translation, the synagogues were originally in contemplation, namely, that all the ancient writers unanimously concur in saying that the Pentateuch was first translated. The five books of Moses, indeed, were the only books read in the synagogues until the time of Antiochus Epiphanes, king of Syria; who having forbidden that practice in Palestine, the Jews evaded his commands by substituting for the Pentateuch the reading of the prophetic books. When, afterward, the Jews were delivered from the tyranny of the kings of Syria, they read the law and the prophets alternately in the synagogues; and the same custom was adopted by the Hellenistic or Graecising Jews.

But, whatever was the real number of the authors of the version, their introduction of Coptic words, such as οιφι αχι ρεμφαν , &c, as well as their rendering of ideas purely Hebrew altogether in the Egyptian manner, clearly prove that they were natives of Egypt. Thus, they express the creation of the world, not by the proper Greek word κτισις , but by γενεσις , a term employed by the philosophers of Alexandria to express the origin of the universe. The Hebrew word thummim, Exodus 28:30 , which signifies "perfections," they render αληθεια , truth. The difference of style also indicates the version to have been the work not of one but of several translators, and to have been executed at different times. The best qualified and most able among them was the translator of the Pentateuch, who was evidently master of both Greek and Hebrew: he has religiously followed the Hebrew text, and has in various instances introduced the most suitable and best chosen expressions. From the very close resemblance subsisting between the text of the Greek version, and the text of the Samaritan Pentateuch, Louis De Dieu, Selden, Whiston, Hassencamp, and Bauer, are of opinion that the author of the Alexandrian version made it from the Samaritan Pentateuch. And in proportion as these two correspond, the Greek differs from the Hebrew. This opinion is farther supported by the declarations of Origen and Jerom, that the translator found the venerable name of Jehovah, not in the letters in common use, but in very ancient characters; and also by the fact that those consonants in the Septuagint are frequently confounded together, the shapes of which are similar in the Samaritan, but not in the Hebrew, alphabet. This hypothesis, however ingenious and plausible, is by no means determinate; and what militates most against it is, the inveterate enmity subsisting between the Jews and Samaritans, added to the constant and unvarying testimony of antiquity, that the Greek version of the Pentateuch was executed by Jews. There is no other way by which to reconcile these conflicting opinions than by supposing either that the manuscript used by the Egyptian Jews approximated toward the letters and text of the Samaritan Pentateuch, or that the translators of the Septuagint made use of manuscripts written in ancient characters. Next to the Pentateuch, for ability and fidelity of execution, ranks the translation of the book of Proverbs, the author of which was well skilled in the two languages: Michaelis is of opinion that, of all the books of the Septuagint, the style of the Proverbs is the best, the translator having clothed the most ingenious thoughts in as neat and elegant language as was ever used by a Pythagorean sage, to express his philosophical maxims.

The Septuagint version, though originally made for the use of the Egyptian Jews, gradually acquired the highest authority among the Jews of Palestine, who were acquainted with the Greek language, and subsequently also among Christians: it appears, indeed, that the legend above confuted, of the translators having been divinely inspired, was invented in order that the LXX might be held in the greater estimation. Philo, the Jew, a native of Egypt, has evidently followed it in his allegorical expositions of the Mosaic law; and though Dr. Hody was of opinion that Josephus, who was a native of Palestine, corroborated his work on Jewish antiquities from the Hebrew text, yet Salmasius, Bochart, Bauer, and others, have shown that he has adhered to the Septuagint throughout that work. How extensively this version was in use among the Jews, appears from the solemn sanction given to it by the inspired writers of the New Testament, who have in very many passages quoted the Greek version of the Old Testament. Their example was followed by the earlier fathers and doctors of the church, who, with the exception of Origen and Jerom, were unacquainted with the Hebrew: notwithstanding their zeal for the word of God, they did not exert themselves to learn the original language of the sacred writings, but acquiesced in the Greek representation of them, judging it, no doubt, to be fully sufficient for all the purposes of their pious labours. The Greek Scriptures were the only Scriptures known to or valued by the Greeks.

This was the text commented on by Chrysostom and Theodoret; it was this which furnished topics to Athanasius, Nazianzen, and Basil. From this fountain the stream was derived to the Latin church, first by the Italic or Vulgate translation of the Scriptures, which was made from the Septuagint, and not from the Hebrew; and, secondly, by the study of the Greek fathers. It was by this borrowed light that the Latin fathers illumined the western hemisphere; and, when the age of Cyprian, Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory, successively passed away, this was the light put into the hands of the next dynasty of theologists, the schoolmen, who carried on the work of theological disquisition by the aid of this luminary, and none other. So that, either in Greek or in Latin, it was still the Septuagint Scriptures that were read, explained, and quoted as authority, for a period of fifteen hundred years.

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These files are public domain.
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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Septuagint'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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