ANCIENT CIVILIZATIONS           home | history

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 Old Testament's Book of Daniel, 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. Under Ptolemy, those staying in Judah — Judea in Greek — enjoyed the same freedom of worship that had been enjoyed under the Persians. But Ptolemy is described as having interfered more in Judea's affairs than had the Persians, and his tax collectors were more prevalent. The Jews of Judea were governed by their High Priest and Council of Elders, and most Jews continued to worship their god Jehovah (Yahweh). But Jews were developing an interest in things Greek, and many were using the Greek language, the language of tradesmen. 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-two elders each man supposedly of exemplary character and learned in the Torah.

The work began during the reign of Ptolemy II (285-246). He is said to have sponsored it. The translators were put on the little island of Pharos (with a famous lighthouse) in the harbor in front of Alexandria. Judaic doctrine would hold that the translators worked independently of each other while producing the same result word for word — a miracle matching 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 to read. 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 what would be called the Old Testament: the books of 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.

Britannica describes the Septuagint as "the earliest extant Greek translation of the Old Testament from the original Hebrew." Britannica adds that "St. Jerome used the Septuagint to begin his translation of the Vulgate Old Testament in 382 ce."

CONTINUE READING: Hellenism and the Maccabean Rebellion

to the top | home

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.