The Septuagint is the most ancient translation of the Old Testament into Greek. The translators were likely Jews of the dispersion, living in Alexandria, Egypt.
The beginning of the Jewish presence in Egypt is difficult to date precisely. There may have been a Jewish colony there as early as the tenth century BC, when Shishak (Shashanq) invaded Palestine and took treasures from the temple and the king's palace (2 Chronicles 12.1-8). But certainly a number of Jews lived in Egypt after the murder of Gedaliah (~586 BC), when "the captains of the forces set out and went to Egypt; for they were afraid of the Chaldeans" (2 Kings 25-26). Jeremiah, Baruch, and the princesses also went into Egypt at that time, though Jeremiah prophecied that they would all "perish by the sword and by famine, until not one is left" (Jeremiah 43.6, 44.27). One expects, on the basis of that prophecy, that this was not the beginning of a permanent settlement. A lasting Jewish presence in Egypt can, however, be definitely dated from the the time of the founding of the city of Alexandria in 332 BC, when Alexander the Great granted them citizenship.
In time, the Jews in Alexandria lost familiarity with Hebrew, and spoke Greek instead. It was natural, then, that they would require a translation of the scriptures into Greek for public worship in the synagogues and for private study. An account of the translation of the Septuagint is told in The Letter of Aristeas, which claims that Demetrius Phalereus, who ran the royal library in Alexandria, urged the king (Philadelphus (285-247 BC)) to obtain a copy of the Jewish law for the library. Philadelphus sent a deputation to the high priest Eleazar in Jerusalem, and the result was that seventy-two elders arrived in Egypt with a copy of the Hebrew law written on rolls of skins in golden letters. They were given accommodations on the island of Pharos, and completed their translation in seventy-two days. The same basic account is given in Aristobulus, Philo, and Josephus.
Even if the account given in the Letter of Aristeas is inaccurate, it seems clear that the Hebrew Old Testament was available in Greek in Alexandria before the birth of Christ. As Christianity began to spread, the Septuagint was used with persuasive effect by Christian apologists - so well, in fact, that in time the Jews of the dispersion replaced it with newer works. For instance, a proselyte to Judaism named Aquila completed a extremely literal translation of the Old Testament into Greek about the year 128. Other translations were made by Theodotion of Ephesus and a certain Symmachus, called an Ebionite, also in the second century.
The most ancient manuscripts of the complete (or nearly complete) Septuagint are known as Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, and Alexandrinus. Vaticanus and Sinaiticus have been dated to the mid-fourth century, and Alexandrinus to the fifth.
Based on an earlier Hebrew original, the Septuagint departs from the Masoretic text* frequently. "The book of Jeremiah is noteworthy," for instance, "in that the present Hebrew text differs substantially from the Greek version (the Septuagint) in both content and order. Thus the Septuagint omits several passages (e.g., 33.14-26) and combines the oracles against foreign nations into a single section following 25.14, though in a different order. In addition, there are many smaller differences from verse to verse. Remarkably, among the portions of the text of Jeremiah in Hebrew that are found among the Dead Sea Scrolls are not only those that reflect the standard Hebrew text but also those that reflect the text tradition represented by the Septuagint. It is likely, then, that these two text traditions represent the contrasting editorial work on the book of Jeremiah that took place in Egypt (the Septuagint tradition) and in Palestine or Babylon (the traditional Hebrew text)." [Introduction to the book of Jeremiah, The New Oxford Annotated Bible, page 960.] Around the end of the first century, the Hebrew text was standardized to a form nearly identical with the modern Masoretic text. Variant readings, such as those represented in the Septuagint, were no longer transmitted in the Hebrew language.
* The Masoretic text is the source from which modern translations into English are made. While the oldest complete manuscripts of the Septuagint date from the fourth century, the oldest complete Hebrew Old Testament, the Leningrad Codex, was copied in ~ 1008 A.D. Modern English translations of the Old Testament rely primarily on the Leningrad Codex as published in the Hebraica Stuttgartensia. For examples of Septuagint departures from the Masoretic text supported by the Dead Sea Scrolls, see the appendix.
Another contrast between the Septuagint and the modern Hebrew Old Testament involves the canon of scripture. The Septuagint includes several books and sections of books absent from the modern Hebrew text: 1 Esdras; Tobit; Judith; 1-3 Maccabees; the Wisdom of Solomon; the Wisdom of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus); Baruch; the Epistle of Jeremiah; The Song of the Three Children; Daniel and Susanna; Daniel, Bel and the Dragon; Additions to the Book of Esther; Psalm 151; and the Prayer of Manasseh. The difference in content has been explained in various ways. Perhaps the most straightforward account is that the Jews of Alexandria had a relatively broad canon, which was generally adopted by the Christians as they employed the Septuagint as their Old Testament. The Jews of Palestine, when they established their canon around the turn of the first century at the council of Jamnia, may have been reiterating the position that had been more or less settled in Palestine for some time - though some books just made (Esther, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon, and Ezekiel, for instance) or missed (Sirach) the cut. The conflict with Christians may have served as a catalyst to push the Jews of the dispersion into the Palestinian camp. This article - concerned with the text of the books within the Hebrew canon - will not address the controversy surrounding the Old Testament canon in any depth.
From the time of Jerome (early fifth century), Old Testament translations to the vernacular in the West have used the Hebrew as the primary source - the Septuagint has been relegated to a secondary role. (Incidentally, some are under the mistaken impression - given by misleading language in the preface to the 1899 edition - that the Douay Old Testament was translated from a Latin text based on the Septuagint. Unfortunately, Jerome's Vulgate - apart from the Psalms and the books then available only in Greek - by and large follows the Hebrew text.) It is hoped that the reader will reconsider the wisdom of this course of action, given the clear preference the New Testament displays for Septuagint readings. Fortunately, a new English translation of the Septuagint is being prepared for publication in 2004.
This article comprises two main
sections. The first deals with the early Churchís use of the Septuagint
- particularly their sense that the Hebrew text was unreliable. It
begins with the discussion between Jerome and Augustine regarding the formerís
decision to craft his Latin translation from the available Hebrew text,
rather than from the Septuagint. It is from Jeromeís fateful choice
that the West derives its tradition of favoring the Hebrew to the Greek.
The second part of this article provides a detailed comparison of the New
Testament quotations from the Old. These were made to assess the
extent to which the New Testament authors depended on the Septuagint instead
of the Hebrew text. Conclusions are given in the The Septuagint in
the New Testament.