Greek vs Hebrew - The Bible's first ever translation

12/10/2020

Did you know that the earliest translation of the Torah to any language was made into Greek?

Following the conquests of Alexander the Great (336-323 BC), Greek had become the official language of Egypt, Syria and the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. Therefore it is not surprising that the very first translation of the Hebrew Bible was made into Greek. This project was an initiative of the Jewish community of Alexandria in Egypt, one of the richest and most prominent of the era, and was made in different stages, lasting a few hundred years. Analysis of the language proves that the Torah was translated in the middle of the third-century BCE. After the Torah, the other sacred books were translated over the next two centuries.

This Greek translation has been known since antiquity as the "Septuagint", from the Latin word septuaginta, meaning "70" (or in Hebrew Tirgum ha Shivʾim - or the "The Translation of the Seventy"). Its name originates from a legendary account of how seventy-two Jewish scholars (six scribes from each of the twelve tribes) were asked by the Hellenic Egyptian ruler Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-247 BCE) to translate the Hebrew Bible into Greek to be added to the Library of Alexandria, a work they completed in seventy-two days. According to one version of the legend, although the translators were kept in separate rooms, they all produced identical versions of the text, thus proving that their translation was directly inspired by God. The miraculous character of this story highlights the fact that some Jews consciously tried to present the Greek translation with as much authority as the original Hebrew. In fact, manuscripts of the Septuagint have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, confirming it was officially used among Jews at the time.

The oldest surviving manuscripts of the Septuagint include second-century BCE fragments of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Relatively-complete manuscripts of the Septuagint include the fourth-century CE Codex Vaticanus and the fifth-century Codex Alexandrinus. These are the oldest-surviving nearly-complete manuscripts of the Old Testament in any language. For comparison, the oldest complete Hebrew texts in existence date only from the 10th century.

The Septuagint has some peculiarities that distinguish it from the Hebrew cannon as well. Some of the books that are found in the Septuagint are not in the Hebrew one, and when they do match, the order does not always coincide. The Hebrew version has three divisions: the Torah (Law), the Neviʾim (Prophets), and the Ketuvim (Writings). The Septuagint on the other hand has four: Law, History, Poetry, and Prophets. And some books that are grouped apart in the Hebrew Bible are grouped together in the Septuagint.

Regardless of the actual role that Ptolemy II had in the translation, it helped fulfilling the need of scores of Jews living under the influence of the Hellenistic civilization, for many of whom knowledge of Hebrew was declining in favour of Greek. The Septuagint translation made the Jewish scriptures available also to the entire Greek-speaking world, a factor that determined it becoming the Old Testament version of the early Church. The first non-Jewish Christians used the Septuagint out of necessity, since most could not read Hebrew, and therefore it is frequently quoted in the New Testament instead of the original Hebrew text in order to locate the prophecies claimed to be fulfilled by Jesus. The adoption of the Septuagint by the early church, with all its Christological interpretation, was the main reason in its eventual rejection by the Jews. From that point onwards it was taken over by Christianity. The Septuagint text and not the original Hebrew, was the main basis for the Old Latin, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, Georgian, Slavonic, and part of the Arabic translations, and it has since been the standard version of the Old Testament in the Greek Orthodox Church.