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Judaism's Scripture into Greek

During the Diadochi wars (322-270 BCE), the Macedonian ruler in Egypt, Ptolemy, extended his empire to include Jerusalem. It was a struggle to be mentioned in the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament, with Ptolemy described as the "king of the South" (Daniel 11:5).

During Ptolemy's reign, many Jews moved to Egypt, especially to Alexandria. Some others settled in Asia Minor. What had been the Kingdom of Judah was in Greek called Judea. Ptolemy is described as having interfered in Judea's affairs more than had the Persians. His tax collectors were more prevalent, but he allowed the Jews the same freedom of worship and autonomy they had enjoyed under the Persians. The Jews in Palestine continued to be governed by their High Priest and Council of Elders, and most Jews continued to worship Yahweh.

But Jews were developing an interest in things Greek, and Greek was becoming the language of intellectuals and traders. In Alexandria, literate Jews were losing or had lost the ability to read Hebrew, and it was decided that that Hebrew scripture – the Torah or Five Books of Moses – should be translated into Greek.

The finished product was to be known as the Septuagint, (from the Latin septuaginta, "seventy", referring to the legendary seventy (or seventy-two) Jewish scholars said to have been appointed to do the work. Demonstrating their conviction that the Septuagint was the final word on Jewish history, the high priests in charge of the work proclaimed a curse upon any changes that might be made to it. Judaic doctrine would hold that the translators had worked independently of each other while producing the same result word for word – a miracle in keeping with the belief that these were the works guided by divine intervention.

The work began during the reign of Ptolemy II (285-246). He is said to have sponsored it. Judaic doctrine would hold that the translators had worked independently of each other while producing the same result word for word – a miracle in keeping with the belief that the books were the works of divine intervention. The high priests in charge of the work proclaimed a curse upon any changes that might be made to it.

However much they tried, the Greek that the translators produced was difficult for readers to understand. Because Jews from different areas used words differently and interpreted what they read differently, when the Septuagint was distributed to Jews outside of Alexandria it created confusion. The curse on changes was ignored. For the sake of clarification, new words were inserted to fit local meaning. And, in the decades to come, as the Septuagint was reproduced by hand, more changes would be made.

Eventually other writings would be added to the Septuagint: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Kings, Judges, Psalms, Ecclesiastes and Daniel. The last book of the Old Testament, the Book of Esther, would be translated into Greek around 77 BCE. And from the Septuagint more translations of what Christians would know as the Old Testament would be made: Latin versions, Coptic, Ethiopian, Armenian, Georgian and Slavonic versions.


CONTINUE READING: Hellenism and the Maccabean Rebellion

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