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The Septuagint (also called the "LXX") is the Koine Greek (ancient Greek) version of the Old Testament. It was translated from the original Hebrew language Old Testament in stages between the 3rd and 1st centuries BC in the city of Alexandria in Egypt. At that time Koine Greek was the lingua franca (the language of communication, much like English is today) throughout the eastern Mediterranean area.

The word "septuaginta" means "seventy" in Latin and derives from a traditional folk legend that seventy Jewish scholars translated the Pentateuch (first five books of the Old Testament) from Hebrew into Greek for the ruler Ptolemy II Philadelphus in the third century before Christ.

The Septuagint includes some books, sometimes known as the apocrypha, that are not found in the Hebrew Old Testament. Protestant Bibles, following the accepted practice of the Jews, exclude the additional books. Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy however, include some of these books in Bibles.

The Septuagint was held in great respect in ancient times; Philo and Josephus ascribed divine inspiration to its authors. It also appears that often when the apostles quoted from the Scriptures, they were quoting from the septuagint.

Ancient LXX manuscripts

The oldest manuscripts of the LXX include 2nd century BC fragments of Leviticus and Deuteronomy (Rahlfs nos. 801, 819, and 957), and 1st century BC fragments of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and the Minor Prophets (Rahlfs nos. 802, 803, 805, 848, 942, and 943). Relatively complete manuscripts of the LXX however are much later and include the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus of the 4th century and the Codex Alexandrinus of the 5th century. The oldest complete Hebrew texts, the Masoretic text on the other hand date from the first half of the 10th century AD, although there are also many fragments of the Hebrew text that date to before Christ.

Comparing the LXX and the Hebrew Masoretic Text

There are a number of significant differences between the LXX and the Hebrew Masoretic text. The source of these differences has long been discussed by scholars. The most widely accepted view today is that the original Septuagint provided a reasonably accurate record of an early Semitic textual variant, now lost, that differed from ancestors of the Masoretic text.

Overall however the text of the LXX is in general close to that of the Masoretic. For example, Genesis 4:1-6 is identical in both the LXX and the Masoretic Text. Likewise, Genesis 4:8 to the end of the chapter is the same. There is only one noticeable difference in that chapter, at 4:7, to wit:

Genesis 4:7, LXX (NETS)
Genesis 4:7, Masoretic (NRSV)
If you offer correctly but do not divide correctly, have you not sinned? Be still; his recourse is to you, and you will rule over him. If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.

This instance illustrates the complexity of assessing differences between the LXX and the Masoretic Text. Despite the striking divergence of meaning here between the two, nearly identical consonantal Hebrew source texts can be reconstructed. The readily apparent semantic differences result from alternative strategies for interpreting the difficult verse and relate to differences in vowelization and punctuation of the consonantal text.

The differences between the LXX and the MT thus fall into four categories.

1. Different Hebrew sources for the MT and the LXX

Evidence of this can be found throughout the Old Testament. Most obvious are major differences in Jeremiah and Job, where the LXX is much shorter and chapters appear in different order than in the MT, and Esther where almost one third of the verses in the LXX text have no parallel in the MT.

2. Differences in interpretation stemming from the same Hebrew text

A good example is Genesis 4.7 shown above.

3. Differences as a result of idiomatic translation issues

In other words, a Hebrew idiom may not easily translate into Greek, thus some difference is intentionally or unintentionally imparted). For example, in Psalm 47:10 the MT reads "The shields of the earth belong to God". The LXX reads "To God are the mighty ones of the earth." The metaphor "shields" would not have made much sense to a Greek speaker; thus the words "mighty ones" are substituted in order to retain the original meaning.

4. Transmission changes in Hebrew or Greek due to copyist errors

Use of the LXX

In the 3rd century BC, most Jewish communities were located outside Israel in the Hellenistic world, where Greek was the lingua franca. It is believed that the LXX was produced because many Jews outside of Judea needed a Greek version of the scripture for use during synagogue readings.

Starting approximately in the 2nd century AD, several factors led most Jews to abandon use of the LXX. The earliest Gentile Christians of necessity used the LXX, as it was at the time the only Greek version of the Bible, and most, if not all, of these early non-Jewish Christians could not read Hebrew.

The early Christian Church used the Greek texts since Greek was a lingua franca of the Roman Empire at the time, and the language of the Church. In addition the Church Fathers tended to accept Philo's account of the LXX's miraculous and inspired origin. Furthermore, the New Testament writers, when citing the Jewish scriptures or when quoting Jesus doing so, freely used the Greek translation, implying that the Apostles and their followers considered it reliable.

When Jerome undertook the revision of the Old Latin translations of the Septuagint, he checked the Septuagint against the Hebrew texts that were then available. He came to believe that the Hebrew text better testified to Christ than the Septuagint. He broke with church tradition and translated most of the Old Testament of his Vulgate from Hebrew rather than Greek. His choice was severely criticized by Augustine, his contemporary; a flood of still less moderate criticism came from those who regarded Jerome as a forger. But with the passage of time, acceptance of Jerome's version gradually increased until it displaced the Old Latin translations of the Septuagint.



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