Yesterday was International Septuagint Day. The International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies chose February 8 for this recognition because in 533 C.E. Emporer Justinian issued a ruling allowing synagogues in the Roman Empire to read their scriptures in any language they chose, including Greek. Confusion abounds about the “Septuagint” and the meaning of its existence, but increased attention to this textual tradition points toward some ways that the study of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is converging on some important issues.
First, some background is in order. The name “Septuagint” derives from a legend about seventy or seventy-two Jewish scholars in ancient Alexandria translating the Torah into Greek. The story was great public relations for the idea of translating the Hebrew Scriptures (Tanak) into Greek, because by the end of first century of the Common Era, the full canon seems to have been translated and in wide use. It was a boon to the early Christian church, which had adopted these texts and was rapidly becoming a Gentile, Greek-speaking group. Nevertheless, naming the entire process of translating Jewish Scriptures into Greek “the Septuagint” generates some difficulties. We have evidence of three different Greek translations of the Tanak within Judaism (Symmachus, Theodotian, and Aquila), but the evidence of exists only in second and third hand fragments and quotations of Origen’s Hexapla, a third century six-column Bible that included all three. The most direct and thorough evidence of the Greek tradition lies in three nearly complete Greek Christian Bibles from the fifth and sixth centuries. These include not only the books of the Christian New Testament, but also various books from Second Temple Judaism not included in the Tanak, such as those commonly labeled “Apocrypha,” some of which were originally written in Greek. There are no known manuscripts of the Greek tradition that come from Judaism. So, what do we mean when we say “Septuagint?” Its common usage refers to the entire practice of producing ancient Jewish writings in Greek, which makes the term almost useless in current scholarship attempting to deal with texts in a precise manner. There are those of us who would like to restrict the term to mean the Greek Christian Bibles of the early Middle Ages, while using “Old Greek” to refer to earlier texts, particularly the Jewish ones, but this feels like swimming against the tide. Using a term in a way different from the way most people understand it is rarely successful. Still, that this has become a significant issue is a positive sign for biblical studies. If you are interested in the development of the Greek Bible, the excellent recent book by Timothy Michael Law (When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible) provides a great resource.
The importance of recent attention to the “Septuagint” lies in what it reveals about the history of the Bible (another word that has no precise meaning). The production of the Bible in its many forms is a process that had no beginning and has no end. There is no original and there is no final form. The activities that generate and sustain the tradition include reciting, singing, writing, editing, copying, translating, interpreting, and more. The many activities have always been overlapping. Perhaps the simplest example of this is that the book of Genesis had been translated into Greek (and maybe even Aramaic too) before the book of Daniel was even written. We are always interpreting a process as much as we are a text, and so we need a complex web of methods to interpret a complex tradition.