The very first translation of the Hebrew Bible was made into Greek, probably as early as the third century BC. This, the so-called Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, is traditionally dated to the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt (285-246 BC).
It is commonly called the ‘Septuagint’ version (from the Latin for ‘seventy’) because according to the traditional account of its origin, preserved in the so-called Letter of Aristeas, it had seventy-two translators. This letter tells how King Ptolemy II commissioned the royal librarian, Demetrius of Phaleron, to collect by purchase or by copying all the books in the world. He wrote a letter to Eleazar, the high priest at Jerusalem, requesting six elders of each tribe, in total seventy-two men, of exemplary life and learned in the Torah, to translate it into Greek.
On arrival at Alexandria, the translators were greeted by the king and given a sumptuous banquet. They were then closeted in a secluded house on the island of Pharos close to the seashore, where the celebrated 110 m. high lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, had just been finished.
According to the Letter of Aristeas, the translation, made under the direction of Demetrius, was completed in seventy-two days. When the Alexandrian Jewish community assembled to hear a reading of the new version, the translators and Demetrius received lavish praise, and a curse was pronounced on anyone who should alter the text by addition, transposition or omission. The work was then read to the king who, according to the Letter of Aristeas, marveled at the mind of the lawgiver. The translators were then sent back to Jerusalem, endowed with gifts for themselves and the high priest Eleazar.
Later generations embellished the story. Philo of Alexandria, writing in the first century AD, says that each of the seventy-two translators were shut in a separate cell, and miraculously all the texts were said to agree exactly with one another, thus proving that their version was directly inspired by God.
The Significance of the Septuagint
The significance of the Septuagint translation can hardly be overestimated. Following the conquests of Alexander the Great (336-323 BC), Greek became the official language of Egypt, Syria and the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. The Septuagint translation made the Hebrew scriptures available both to the Jews who no longer spoke their ancestral language and to the entire Greek-speaking world. The Septuagint was later to become the Bible of the Greek-speaking early Church, and is frequently quoted in the New Testament.
It was the adoption of the Septuagint by the early Church that was the biggest factor in its eventual abandonment by the Jews. The Septuagint’s use of parthenos, meaning ‘virgin’ in Isaiah 7:14 to describe the mother of the promised son Immanuel, was used by Matthew 1:23 as evidence for Jesus’ virgin birth.
Like any translation the Septuagint has its limitations, but it was the first translation of any part of the Hebrew Bible into another language, so its place in world history is assured. Furthermore, its use as the version of the Old Testament most frequently used by the writers of the New Testament only serves to further enhance its significance.