HEBREW TEXT: The Septuagint

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Edward D. Andrews
EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored ninety-two books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

The Septuagint is the common term for the Old Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. The word means “seventy” and is frequently shortened by using the Roman numeral LXX, which is a reference to the tradition 72 Jewish translators (rounded off), who are alleged to have produced a version in the time of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-246 B.C.E.). The first five books of Moses being done around 280 B.C.E., with the rest being completed by 150 B.C.E.  As a result, the name Septuagint came to denote the complete Hebrew Scriptures translated into Greek.

Acts 8:26-38 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch

26 But an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip saying, “Get up and go south to the road that descends from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a desert road.) 27 And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure; who had come to worship in Jerusalem, 28 and he was returning and sitting in his chariot, and was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” 30 So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this:

“He was led as a sheep to slaughter
and like a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he opens not his mouth.
33 In his humiliation was taken away.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”[1]

34 And the eunuch answered Philip and said, “I beg you, of whom does the prophet say this? Of himself or of someone else?” 35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture he declared to him the good news about Jesus. 36 And as they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?[2] 38 And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him.

The Reading Culture of Early Christianity From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts 400,000 Textual Variants 02 4th ed. MISREPRESENTING JESUS

The Eunuch court official was an influential man, who was in charge of the treasury of the queen of Ethiopia and to whom Philip preached. He was a proselyte [convert] to the Jewish religion who had come to Jerusalem to worship God. He had been reading aloud from the scroll of Isaiah (53:7-8 as our English Bible has it sectioned), and was puzzled as to who it was referring to; however, Philip explained the text, and the Eunuch was moved to the point of being baptized. The Eunuch was not reading from the Hebrew Old Testament; rather he was reading from the Greek translation, known as the Greek Septuagint. This work was very instrumental to both Jews and Christians in the Greek-speaking world in which they lived.

What contributed to the Hebrew Old Testament being translated into Greek and when and how did it occur? What was the need that brought the Septuagint about? How has it affected the Bible throughout these last 2,200 years? What impact does the Septuagint still have for the translator today?


Fragment of a SeptuagintThe Greek-Speaking Jews and the Septuagint

In 332 B.C.E., Alexander the Great had just finished destroying the Phoenician city of Tyre, and was now entering Egypt, but was received as a great deliverer, not as a conqueror. It was here that he would found the city of Alexandria, bringing mankind one of the great learning centers of all time in the ancient world. The result of Alexander’s conquering much of the then known world was the spread of Greek culture and the Greek language. Alexander himself spoke Attic Greek, which was the dialect that spread throughout the territories that he conquered. As the Attic dialect spread, it interacted with other Greek dialects, as well as the local languages, resulting in what we call Koine Greek or common Greek spreading throughout this vast realm.

By the time of the third century B.C.E., Alexandria had a large population of Jews. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and exiled its people to Babylon centuries before. Many Jews had fled to Egypt at the time of the destruction. The returning Jews in 537, were scattered throughout southern Palestine, migrating to Alexandria after it was founded. The need of a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures arose out of the necessity for the Jews in their worship services and education within the Jewish community of Alexandria.

Many of the Jews in Alexandria could no longer understand the Hebrew language, with others simply letting it grow out of practice. Most could only speak the common Greek of the Mediterranean world. However, they remained Jews in custom and culture and wanted to be able to understand the Scriptures that affected their everyday lives and worship. Therefore, the time was right for the production of the first translation of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Aristobulus of Paneas (c. 160 B.C.E.) wrote that the Hebrew law was translated into Greek, being completed during the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus (285-246 B.C.E.). We cannot be certain as to what Aristobulus meant by the term “Hebrew law.” Some have suggested that it encompassed only the Mosaic Law, the first five books of the Bible while others suggested that it was the entire Hebrew Scriptures.


Beginning of the Letter of Aristeas to Philocrates. Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 11th century.

Letter of Aristeas

This Greek writing is allegedly a letter written by Aristeas, who was a high official in the court of Ptolemy II in Alexandria. It was sent to Jerusalem in order to secure a copy of the Jewish Law together with a group of seventy-two scholars who would translate the Law from Hebrew to Greek. The recipient is Philocrates, about whom nothing is said except that he was a brother of Aristeas. The alleged purpose of the book is to tell the story of the translation of the Septuagint.

The book contains a delightful story. Demetrius of Phalerum, head of the great library in Alexandria, suggests to the king that a translation be made of the Hebrew Law. The king writes to the high priest Eleazar in Jerusalem requesting him to send seventy-two scribes to perform the work of translation. He sends rich gifts for the temple in Jerusalem. The story includes a description of the Holy City. Eleazar delivers an apologetic for the Law. When the translators come to Alexandria, they are feted in a series of royal banquets. The king plies the scribes with philosophical questions, and they answer with amazing wisdom. Then they are taken to the island of Pharos in the harbor of Alexandria where they set to work. Demetrius compares their work every day and writes down a consensus. They complete the work in seventy-two days. It is then read to the Jews, who laud it. When it is read to the king, he is greatly impressed and expresses wonder as to why it has not been mentioned in earlier Greek literature. Demetrius says that earlier authors were divinely restrained from mentioning it. Finally, the translators are sent home bearing rich gifts.

It is obvious that this beautiful story is fictional, although it has a core of reliable information. Aristeas and Philocrates are not known in other historical literature. Furthermore, the Letter of Aristeas itself reflects a knowledge and usage of the LXX. The work also bears obvious unhistorical traits. For example, an Egyptian king would not attribute his throne to the Jewish God (37). The author, however, seems to be thoroughly familiar with the technical and official language of the court and of Alexandrian life and customs.

The purpose of the book is fairly obvious. It is a piece of Hellenistic Jewish apologetic writing designed to commend the Jewish religion and law to the Gentile world. The book emphasizes the honors showered on the seventy by the Greek king. High praise is accorded to Jewish wisdom by heathen philosophers. It explains the failure of Greek historians and poets to mention the Jewish law. The apology of Eleazar on the inner meaning of the law tries to interpret in meaningful categories the Jewish distinction between clean and unclean things. The Jews are said to worship the same god as the Greeks but under a different name. Zeus is really the same as God (16).

The book is really not a true letter but belongs to the genre that may be called belles lettres. It falls in the Greek literary and artistic traditions rather than in the Semitic pattern. This governs its purpose, which is not to impart sound historical information but to produce a general ethical effect. The book is therefore far more important as a reflection of Jewish life and culture in the 2nd cent B.C. than as an account of the formation of the LXX. Thus very little attention is actually given to the work done on the LXX. We know that in the 2nd cent. B.C., before anti-Semitism had raised its head, a large colony of Jews lived in Alexandria, and the work reflects the fact that they were enthusiastically embracing Hellenistic culture, social usages, literary forms, and philosophical beliefs so far as they did not directly oppose their central religious tenets.

The date of the book is an almost insoluble problem. Scholars date it variously from 200 b.c. to 63 b.c. Perhaps an estimate of about 100 b.c. will suffice. While some scholars think that the LXX involved a protracted development, this letter may reflect the fact that at some time an official translation was made.[3]

Useful in the First Century

The Septuagint was put to use at great length by Greek-speaking Jews both prior to and throughout first-century Christianity. Just after Jesus ascension, at Pentecost 33 C.E., almost a million Jews customarily gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover and Festival of Weeks, coming from such places as the districts of Asia, Egypt, Libya, Rome, and Crete, places that spoke Greek. There is little doubt that these were using the Septuagint in their services. (Acts 2:9-11) As a result, the Septuagint played a major role in spreading the Gospel message in the Jewish and proselyte communities. For example, we can look to Stephen.[4]

Acts 6:8-10 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

8 And Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people. But some men from what was called the Synagogue of the Freedmen, both Cyrenians and Alexandrians and some from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. 10 But they were not able to withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.


In his defense, Stephen gave a long history of the Israelite people, and at one point he said,

Acts 7:12-14 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

12 But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our fathers the first time. 13 On the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and the family of Joseph became known to Pharaoh. 14 And Joseph sent and summoned Jacob his father and all his kindred, seventy-five persons in all.

This account comes from Genesis chapter 46, verse 27, which reads, “All the persons of the house of Jacob who came into Egypt were seventy.” The Hebrew Old Testament reads seventy, but it is the Septuagint that reads seventy-five. Therefore, Stephen was referencing the Septuagint in his defense before the synagogue of the Freedmen.

The Apostle Paul traveled about 10,282 miles on his missionary tours,[5] which brought him into contact with Gentiles, who feared the God of the Bible and the devout Greeks who worshiped God. (Acts 13:16, 26; 17:4) These became worshipers or fearers of God because they had access to the Septuagint. The Apostle Paul used the Septuagint quite often in his ministry, and his letters.–Genesis 22:18; Galatians 3:8

The Greek New Testament contains about 320 direct quotations, as well as a combined 890 quotations and paraphrases from the Hebrew Old Testament. Most of these are from the Septuagint. Therefore, those Septuagint quotes and paraphrases became a part of the inspired Greek New Testament. Jesus had said, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) He had also foretold, “this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world.” (Matt 24:14) For this to take place, it had to be translated into other languages, to reach the people earth wide.

The Reading Culture of Early Christianity The Reading Culture of Early Christianity The Reading Culture of Early Christianity

Still Beneficial Today

The Septuagint’s great purpose today is the light that it sheds on textual variants that crept into the Hebrew Old Testament text, as it was being copied throughout the centuries. An example of this can be found in Genesis 4:8, which reads,

Genesis 4:8 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

 8 Cain said to Abel his brother. “Let us go out into the field.”[6] And it came about when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.

The portion “let us go out to the field” is not in the tenth century C.E. Hebrew manuscripts. However, it is found in the earlier Septuagint manuscripts, as well as the Samaritan Pentateuch,[7] the Peshitta,[8] and the Vulgate.[9] First, the Hebrew that is used to introduce speech [yomer, “to say something”] is in the Hebrew text, “Cain Spoke.” However, no speech follows in the Hebrew text. Many scholars argue that these words were in the original Hebrew text, but were omitted accidentally very early. Second, a few others, on the other hand, claim that the Hebrew that is used to introduce speech [yomer, “to say something”] is used in three other passages, with nothing being said. Therefore, they maintain that the more difficult and shorter reading is original, which would mean that the Greek translators added the words to complete the meaning. This book supports the first textual argument, along with the majority of scholars. Herein, we see how the Septuagint can help in identifying textual errors that may have crept into the Hebrew text over centuries of copying.

The text of the LXX is largely close to that of the Masoretes and Vulgate. For instance, Genesis 4:1-6 is identical in both the LXX, Vulgate and the Masoretic Text. Similarly, Genesis 4:8 to the end of the chapter is the same. There is only one visible difference in that chapter, at 4:7

The Epistle to the Hebrews The Epistle to the Hebrews The Epistle to the Hebrews
Genesis 4:7, LXX and English Translation (NETS) Genesis 4:7, Masoretic and English Translation from MT (Judaica Press) Genesis 4:7, Latin Vulgate and English Translation (Douay-Rheims)
οὐκ ἐὰν ὀρθῶς προσενέγκῃς, ὀρθῶς δὲ μὴ διέλῃς, ἥμαρτες; ἡσύχασον· πρὸς σὲ ἡ ἀποστροφὴ αὐτοῦ, καὶ σὺ ἄρξεις αὐτοῦ. הֲלוֹא אִם תֵּיטִיב שְׂאֵת וְאִם לֹא תֵיטִיב לַפֶּתַח חַטָּאת רֹבֵץ וְאֵלֶיךָ תְּשׁוּקָתוֹ וְאַתָּה תִּמְשָׁל בּוֹ: nonne si bene egeris recipes sin autem male statim in foribus peccatum aderit sed sub te erit appetitus eius et tu dominaberis illius
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. Is it not so that if you improve, it will be forgiven you? If you do not improve, however, at the entrance, sin is lying, and to you is its longing, but you can rule over it. If thou do well, shalt thou not receive? but if ill, shall not sin forthwith be present at the door? but the lust thereof shall be under thee, and thou shalt have dominion over it.
400,000 Textual Variants 02 400,000 Textual Variants 02 400,000 Textual Variants 02

However, the Hebrew text is the foundation and most trustworthy text. Thus, it is used to correct the Septuagint text as well. It is by the comparison of the Hebrew manuscripts, and the many early versions that we discover any textual errors, and establish the original reading. This can give us confidence that we are reading the Word of God. Old Testament textual scholar, Paul D. Wegner writes,

The job of the textual critic is very similar to that of a detective searching for clues as to the original reading of the text. It is reminiscent of the master detective Sherlock Holmes who could determine a number of characteristics of the suspect from the slightest of clues left at the crime scene. In our case, the “crime scene” is the biblical text, and often we have far fewer clues to work from than we would like. Yet the job of the textual critic is extremely important, for we are trying to determine the exact reading of a text in order to know what God has said and expects from us.[10]

We have complete copies of the Septuagint that go back to the fourth century C.E., and many other fragments that date much earlier. Some of these do contain the divine name, Jehovah (JHVH/YHWH). This is represented in the Hebrew text with what is known as the Tetragrammaton.[11]  What these copyists have done is to substitute the divine name or Tetragrammaton with the Greek words for “God” and “Lord.” However, with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, were the discovery of a leather fragment scroll that contained the minor prophets (Hosea through Malachi), written in Greek. These have been dated to the time between 50 B.C.E. and 50 C.E. In these Greek Old Testament texts were the Tetragrammaton. Thus, in the earlier Septuagint version, they retained the divine name.


JHVH_01 (1) LXXP. Fouad Inv. 266 renders the divine name by the Tetragrammaton written in square Hebrew characters in the following places: De 18:5, 5, 7, 15, 16;  19:8, 14;  20:4, 13, 18;  21:1, 8;  23:5;  24:4, 9;  25:15, 16;  26:2, 7, 8, 14;  27:2, 3, 7, 10, 15;  28:1, 1, 7, 8, 9, 13, 61, 62, 64, 65;  29:4, 10, 20, 29;  30:9, 20;  31:3, 26, 27, 29;  32:3, 6, 19. (first century B.C.E.)

JHVH_02 (2) LXXVTS 10a renders the divine name by the Tetragrammaton written in ancient Hebrew characters in the following places: Jon 4:2; Mic 1:1, 3;  4:4, 5, 7;  5:4, 4; Hab 2:14, 16, 20;  3:9; Zep 1:3, 14;  2:10; Zec 1:3, 3, 4;  3:5, 6, 7. (end of the first century C.E.)

(3) LXXIEJ 12 renders the divine name by the Tetragrammaton written in ancient Hebrew characters in Jon 3:3. (end of the first century C.E.)

JHVH_04 (4) LXXVTS 10b renders the divine name by the Tetragrammaton written in ancient Hebrew characters in the following places: Zec 8:20; 9:1, 1, 4. (middle of the first century C.E.)

JHVH_05 (5) 4Q LXX Levb renders the divine name in Greek letters ? (IAO) in Le 3:12; 4:27. (first century B.C.E.)

JHVH_06 (6) LXXP. Oxy. VII.1007 renders the divine name by abbreviating the Tetragrammaton in the form of a double Yohdh in Ge 2:8, 18. (third century C.E.)

JHVH_07 (7) AqBurkitt renders the divine name by the Tetragrammaton written in ancient Hebrew characters in the following places: 1Ki 20:13, 13, 14; 2Ki 23:12, 16, 21, 23, 25, 26, 27. (end of the fifth century or the beginning of the sixth century C.E.)


JHVH_08 (8) AqTaylor renders the divine name by the Tetragrammaton written in ancient Hebrew characters (??) in the following places: Ps 91:2, 9;  92:1, 4, 5, 8, 9;  96:7, 7, 8, 9, 10, 13;  97:1, 5, 9, 10, 12;  102:15, 16, 19, 21;  103:1, 2, 6, 8. (after the middle of the fifth century C.E., but not later than the beginning of the sixth century C.E.)

JHVH_09 (9) SymP. Vindob. G. 39777 renders the divine name by the Tetragrammaton written in archaic Hebrew characters in the following places: Ps 69:13, 30, 31. (fourth century C.E.)

JHVH_10 (10) Ambrosian O 39 sup. renders the divine name by the Tetragrammaton written in square Hebrew characters (??) in all five columns in the following places: Ps 18:30, 31, 41, 46;  28:6, 7, 8;  29:1, 1, 2, 2, 3, 3;  30:1, 2, 4, 7, 8, 10, 10, 12;  31:1, 5, 6, 9, 21, 23, 23, 24;  32:10, 11;  35:1, 22, 24, 27;  36:Sup, 5;  46:7, 8, 11;  89:49 (in columns 1, 2 and 4),  51, 52. (end of the ninth century C.E.)

The year 1971 brought us the release for publication of Papyrus Fouad 266, which is a copy of the Pentateuch in the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, also a Septuagint version. It is a papyrus manuscript in scroll form. The manuscript has been assigned palaeographically to the second or first century B.C.E. The manuscript has survived in a fragmentary condition. The divine name is preserved here as well.

See Also Did Jesus Speak Greek or Quote the Septuagint?

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[1] A quotation from Isaiah 53:7–8

[2] P45, 74 א AB C 33 81 614 vg syrp, h copsa, bo eth omit vs 37; E, many minuscules, itgig, h vgmss syrh with * copG67 arm, And Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he replied, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”

[3] G. E. Ladd, “Pseudepigrapha,” ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979–1988), 1041.

[4] “The first Christian martyr; foremost of those chosen to bring peace to the quarreling church (Acts 6:1–7) and so mighty in the Scriptures that his Jewish opponents in debate could not refute him (Acts 6:10) as he argued that Jesus was the Messiah. Saul of Tarsus heard Stephen’s speech to the Jewish Sanhedrin accusing the Jewish leaders of rejecting God’s way as their forefathers had (Acts 6:12–7:53). Saul held the clothes of those who stoned Stephen to death; he saw him die a victorious death.” (Brand, Draper and Archie 2003, p. 1534)

[5] Stanford University recently unveiled ORBIS, a site that lets you calculate the time and cost required to travel by road or ship around the Roman world in A.D. 200. (University 2012)

[6] Genesis 4:8: SP LXX It Syr inserts these bracketed words; Vg, “Let us go outdoors”; MT omits; some MSS and editions have an interval here.

[7] This version only encompasses the first five books, and is really a transliteration of the Hebrew text into Samaritan script, developed from the ancient Hebrew script.

[8] The Syriac version of the Bible, written around the 4th century.

[9] A Latin version of the Bible, produced by Saint Jerome in the 4th century.

[10] Paul D. Wegner, A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible: Its History, Methods & Results (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 22-23.

[11] Hebrew name for God: a four-letter Hebrew name for God revealed to Moses, usually written JHVH or YHWH (Exodus 3:13-14). Judaism of Jesus’ day, in their traditions, regarded this name as too sacred to be pronounced. Jesus said of such traditions, “thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.” (Mark 7:13)

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