The Jewish Origin of the Septuagint

The Jewish Origin of the Septuagint
By
James Scott Trimm

The origin of the Septuagint is well known. Flavious Josephus records that Ptolemy Philadelphus (around 250 B.C.E.), entered into negotiations with the Jewish High Priest, to obtain a Greek translation of the Torah for the Library of Alexandria.  Ptolemy agreed to release many Jewish prisoners in exchange for the book. The Jewish authorities chose seventy-two translators, to produce a Greek translator of the Torah. (Josephus; Antiquities 12:2).

Although the Greek Septuagint (named after the Greek for “seventy”) was initially only a translation of the Torah, by no later than 150 B.C.E. the rest of the Tanak had been included as well, since at that time the grandson of Ben Sirach, in his prologue to his Greek translation of his grandfather’s “Wisdom of Ben Sirach”, briefly compares the Hebrew and Greek versions of “the law itself, the prophecies, and the rest of the books”.

The Greek Septuagint is actually very important because it is the earliest known translation of the Tanak into another language, and preserves a Greek translation of a Hebrew text of the Tanak, that existed in the third century C.E. (in the case of the Torah; the second century in the case of the Prophets and the Writings).  It was not composed by Christians.

While Singer generally accuses Christians of having created the Septuagint in order to alter the text and imbed altered verses to support their arguments into it, in fact exactly the opposite is true.

The Septuagint was the standard Tanak to the large Jewish Community that was thriving in Egypt well before the first Century.

The Tanak records that a large Jewish population took refuge in Egypt after the destruction of Judah in 597 BCE, and the subsequent assassination of the Jewish governor, Gedaliah. (2 Kings 25:22-24, Jeremiah 40:6-8) The Jewish population had fled to Moab, Ammon, Edom and in other countries but returned to Judah upon the appointment of Gedaliah as a Jewish governer. (Jeremiah 40:11-12) However, before long Gedaliah was assassinated, and many sought refuge in Egypt. (2 Kings 25:26, Jeremiah 43:5-7).

According to Josephus, when Alexander was dead and his government had been divided among his generals, Ptolemy, the son of Lagus, by treachery seized Jerusalem, and took away many Jewish captives to Egypt and settled them there. (Josephus, Ant. 12:1:1)

His successor, Ptolemy Philadelphus, restored to freedom 120,000 Jews who had been kept in slavery at the instance of Aristeus, one of his most intimate friends. He also dedicated many gifts to the Jewish God, and showed great friendship to the Jews in his reign. (Josephus, Ant. 12:2:1-15).

The center of the Jewish community in Egypt was the great center of Alexandria, and this became one of the largest Jewish communities of the world during the Second Temple Era.  It is this community whom the letters prefacing 2nd Maccabees is addressed.

The Jewish community at Alexandria had a grand synagogue, which is described in the Talmud as one of the great glories of the Jewish people:

It has been taught, R. Judah stated, He who has not seen the double colonnade of Alexandria in Egypt has never seen the glory of Israel. It was said that it was like a huge basilica, one colonnade within the other, and it sometimes held twice the number of people that went forth from Egypt. There were in it seventy-one cathedras of gold, corresponding to the seventy-one members of the Great Sanhedrin, not one of them containing less than twenty-one talents of gold, and a wooden platform in the middle upon which the attendant of the Synagogue stood with a scarf in his hand. When the time came to answer Amen, he waved his scarf and all the congregation duly responded. They moreover did not occupy their seats promiscuously, but goldsmiths sat separately, silversmiths separately, blacksmiths separately, metalworkers separately and weavers separately, so that when a poor man entered the place he recognized the members of his craft and on applying to that quarter obtained a livelihood for himself and for the members of his family.
(b.Sukkot 51b)

Relations between the community in Alexandria and the community in Judea were very good.  The Talmud records that the sages of Judea once consulted with experts from Alexandria on the baking of showbread and on the making of incense for the Temple (b.Yoma 38a).

The Alexandrian Jewish Community was Hellenistic and used the Greek Septuagint as their primary text of the Scriptures.   These were not like the Hellenists of the Maccabean period who abandoned Torah for Paganism, but like Stephen (Acts 7) and the Hellenists in Acts 6. These Hellenists were Greek speaking Jews who remained Torah Observant (at least in there own understanding) while accepting Greek culture.  They were very much like American Jews today who embrace American culture, use English Scriptures as their primary texts and write commentaries in English, but retain their Jewish identity.

With the exception of a a few fragments from others, the writings of only one Alexandrian scholar have survived, those of Philo.  Philo was an Alexandrian Jew who was born nearly 20 years before Yeshua and died around 20 years after his death. Philo wrote commentary, primarily on the Torah, which was highly midrashic.  Philo interpreted the texts in an allegorical manner, finding in them philosophic symbolism.  Philo saw the commandments of the Torah as pregnant with deep symbolic truths, which he sought to express in his commentaries.  However Philo was very clear that the Torah still retains its literal meaning and he emphasized the importance of Torah observance.

Sadly, the grand Jewish community of Alexandria was completely annihilated by Trajan in the wake of the Jewish uprising in 116 CE.   But it is important to remember that in the Second Temple Era the Jewish Community of Alexandria was as important as the Jewish communities in Judea and in Babylon, and their tradition survives in the writings of Philo of Alexandria, their primary spokesman of the first century and the Septuagint was their standard Tanak.

At one time differences between the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint were taken to be the result of bad translation.  However since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls the new approach has been to recognize that the Septuagint often represents an alternate underlying Hebrew text that differed from the Masoretic Text.   Among the Dead Sea Scrolls are many biblical manuscripts dating back to a time prior to the first century. These manuscripts give us a sample of the wide variety of textual readings from the pre-Masoretic period. The Dead Sea Scroll biblical manuscripts vary widely, as to text-type. For example two copies of Isaiah found in cave one, agree very closely with the Masoretic Text, while a Hebrew copy of 1Samuel found in cave four has many important agreements with the Greek LXX (Septuagint), against the Masoretic Text.

The Septuagin was the Standard Jewish Greek text of the Tanak that came to be adopted by Christians, and it is Rabbinic Judaism that created its own Greek text in the second Cenury.  As we read in Old Testament Textual Criticism: A Practical Introduction, By Ellis R Brotzman:

“In time the Septuagint came to be adopted by the Christian churches.  Since it was often used in debates between Christians and Jews, it came to be viewed with suspicion by the latter.  This led, in the course of the second century A.D., to the production of three rival Greek versions that each bore a different relationship to the original Septuagint.”
(Old Testament Textual Criticism: A Practical Introduction, By Ellis R Brotzman; pp. 74-75)

So while the anti-missionaries accuse believers in Yeshua as Messiah of having altered the text and fabricated the Septuagint as a Greek text made to agree with their claims, the truth is much to the contrary.  It was in fact Rabbinic Jews who fabricated revised Greek versions intentionally revised to counter Septuagint based arguments being made by believers in Yeshua in their ongoing debates with them.

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