Septuagint, part 4

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

VIII. Characteristics of the Version and Its Component Parts

Notwithstanding the uncertain state of the text, some general characteristics of the version are patent. It is clear that, like the Hebrew itself, it is not a single book, but a library. It is a series of versions and Greek compositions covering well-nigh 400 years, since it includes a few productions of the 2nd century AD; the bulk of the translations, however, fall within the first half of the period (Sirach, prologue).

1. Grouping of Septuagint Books on Internal Evidence

The translations may be grouped and their chronological order approximately determined from certain characteristics of their style. (1) We may inquire how a Hebrew word or phrase is rendered in different parts of the work. Diversity of renderings is not an infallible proof that different hands have been employed, since invariable uniformity in translation is difficult of attainment and indeed was not the aim of the Pentateuch translators, who seem rather to have studied variety of expression. If, however, a Hebrew word is consistently rendered by one Greek word in one portion and by another elsewhere, and if each of the two portions has other features peculiar to itself, it becomes highly probable that the two portions are the work of different schools. Among "test-words" which yield results of this kind are "servant" in "Moses the servant of the Lord," "Hosts" in "Lord of Hosts," "Philistines" (Swete, Introduction, 317; Thackeray, Grammar of the Old Testament, 7). (2) We may compare the Greek with that of dated documents of the Ptolemaic age. The translations were written in the koine or "common" Greek, most of them in the vernacular variety of it, during a period when this new cosmopolitan language was in the making; the abundant dated papyri enable us to trace some stages in its evolution. The Petrie and Hibeh papyri of the 3rd century BC afford the closest parallels to the Greek Pentateuch. The following century witnessed a considerable development or "degeneracy" in the language, of which traces may be found in the Greek of the prophetical books. Beside the vernacular Greek was the literary language of the "Atticistic" school which persistently struggled, with indifferent success, to recover the literary flavor of the old Greek masterpieces. This style is represented in the Septuagint by most of the original Greek writings and by the paraphrases of some of the "Writings." (3) We may compare the Greek books as translations, noting in which books license is allowed and which adhere strictly to the Hebrew. The general movement is in the direction of greater literalism; the later books show an increasing reverence for the letter of Scripture, resulting in the production of pedantically literal versions; the tendency culminated in the 2nd century AD in the barbarisms of Aquila. Some of the "Writings" were freely handled, because they had not yet obtained canonical rank at the time of translation. Investigation on these lines goes to show that the order of the translation was approximately that of the Hebrew Canon. The Greek Hexateuch may be placed in the 3rd century BC, the Prophets mainly in the 2nd century BC, the "Writings" mainly in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC.

(1) The Hexateuch. -- The Greek Pentateuch should undoubtedly be regarded as a unit: the Aristeas story may so far be credited. It is distinguished by a uniformly high level of the "common" vernacular style, combined with faithfulness to the Hebrew, rarely lapsing into literalism. It set the standard which later translators tried to imitate. The text was more securely established in this portion and substantial variant readings are comparatively few. The latter part of Exodus is an exception; the Hebrew had here not reached its final form in the 3rd century BC, and there is some reason for thinking that the version is not the work of the translator of the first half. In Deuteronomy a few new features in vocabulary appear (e.g. ekklesia; see Hort, Christian Ecclesia, 4 ff). The Greek version of Joshua forms a link between the Pentateuch and the later historical books. The text was not yet fixed, and variants are more abundant than in the Pentateuch. The earliest version, probably of selections only, appears from certain common features to have been nearly coeval with that of the Law.

(2) The "Latter" Prophets. -- There is little doubt that the next books to be translated were the Prophets in the narrower sense, and that Isaiah came first. The style of the Greek Isaiah has a close similarity, not wholly attributable to imitation, to that of the Pentateuch: a certain freedom of treatment connects it with the earlier translation period: it was known to the author of Wisdom (Isaiah 3:10 with Ottley's note). The translation shows "obvious signs of incompetence" (Swete), but the task was an exacting one. The local Egyptian coloring in the translation is interesting (R. R. Ottley, Book of Isaiah according to the Septuagint, 2 volumes, Greek text of A, translation and notes, Cambridge, 1904-6, with review in JTS, X, 299). Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Minor Prophets were probably translated en bloc or nearly so. The Palestinian Canon had now been enlarged by a second group of Scriptures and this stimulated a desire among Alexandrian Jews to possess the entire collection of the Prophets in Greek. The undertaking seems to have been a formal and quasi-official one, not a haphazard growth. For it has been ascertained that Jeremiah and Ezekiel were divided for translation purposes into two nearly equal parts; a change in the Greek style occurs at the junctures. In Jeremiah the break occurs in chapter 29 (Septuagint order); the clearest criterion of the two styles is the twofold rendering of "Thus saith the Lord." The last chapter (Jeremiah 52) is probably a later addition in the Greek. The translator of the second half of Jeremiah also translated the first half of Baruch (1:1-3:8); he was incompetent and his work, if our text may be relied on, affords flagrant examples of Greek words being selected to render words which he did not understand merely because of their similar sound. Ezekiel is similarly divided, but here the translator of the first half (chapters 1-27) undertook the difficult last quarter as well (chapters 40-48), the remainder being left to a second worker. An outstanding test is afforded by the renderings of the refrain, "They shall know that I am the Lord." The Greek version of "the twelve" shows no trace of a similar division; in its style it is closely akin to the first half of Ezekiel and is perhaps by the same hand (JTS, IV, 245, 398, 578). But this official version of the Prophets had probably been preceded by versions of short passages selected to be read on the festivals in the synagogues. Lectionary requirements occasioned the earliest versions of the Prophets, possibly of the Pentateuch as well. Two indications of this have been traced. There exists in four manuscripts a Greek version of the Psalm of Habakkuk (Habakkuk 3), a chapter which has been a Jewish lesson for Pentecost from the earliest times, independent of and apparently older than the Septuagint and made for synagogue use. Similarly in Ezekiel of the Septuagint there is a section of sixteen verses (36:24-38) with a style quite distinct from that of its context. This passage was also an early Christian lesson for Pentecost, and its lectionary use was inherited from Judaism. Here the Septuagint translators seem to have incorporated the older version, whereas in Habakkuk 3 they rejected it (JTS, XII, 191; IV, 407).

(3) Partial Version of the "Former" Prophets (1 Samuel--2 Kings). -- The Greek style indicates that the history of the monarchy was not all translated at once. Ulfilas is said to have omitted these books from the Gothic version as likely to inflame the military temper of his race; for another reason the Greek translators were at first content with a partial version. They omitted as unedifying the more disastrous portions, David's sin with the subsequent calamities of his reign and the later history of the divided monarchy culminating in the captivity. Probably the earliest versions embraced only (1) 1 R, (2) 2 R 1:1-11:1 (David's early reign), (3) 3 R 2:12-21:13 (Solomon and the beginning of the divided monarchy); the third book of "Reigns" opened with the accession of Solomon (as in Lucian's text), not at the point where 1 Kings opens. These earlier portions are written in a freer style than the rest of the Greek "Reigns," and the Hebrew original differed widely in places from that translated in the English Bible (JTS, VIII, 262).

(4) The "Writings." -- The Hagiographa at the end of the 2nd century BC were regarded as national literature. (Sirach, prologue "the other books of our fathers"), but not as canonical. The translators did not scruple to treat these with great freedom, undeterred by the prohibition against alteration of Scripture (Deuteronomy 4:2; 12:32). Free paraphrases of extracts were produced, sometimes with legendary additions. A partial version of Job (one-sixth being omitted) was among the first; Aristeas, the historian of the 2nd century BC, seems to have been acquainted with it (Freudenthal, Hellenistische Studien, 1875, 136). The translator was a student of the Greek poets; his version was probably produced for the general reader, not for the synagogues. Hatch's theory (Essays in Biblical Greek, 1889, 214) that his Hebrew text was shorter than ours and was expanded later is untenable; avoidance of anthropomorphisms explains some omissions, the reason for others is obscure. The first Greek narrative of the return from exile (1 Esdras) was probably a similar version of extracts only from Chronicles-Ezra-Nehemiah, grouped round a fable of non-Jewish origin, the story of the 3 youths at the court of Darius. The work is a fragment, the end being lost, and it has been contended by some critics that the version once embraced the whole of Chronicles-Ezra-Nehemiah (C. C. Torrey, Ezra Studies, Chicago, 1910). The Greek is obviously earlier than Esdras B and is of great value for the reconstruction of the Hebrew. The same translator appears from peculiarities of diction to have produced the earliest version of Daniel, treating it with similar freedom and incorporating extraneous matter (the Song of the Three Children, Susanna, Bel). The maximum of interpolation is reached in Esther, where the Greek additions make up two-thirds of the story. The Greek Proverbs (probably 1st century BC) includes many maxims not in the Hebrew; some of these appear to be derived from a lost Hebrew collection, others are of purely Greek origin. This translator also knew and imitated the Greek classics; the numerous fragments of iambic and hexameter verse in the translation cannot be accidental (JTS, XIII, 46). The Psalter is the one translation in this category in which liberties have not been taken; in Psalm 13 [14]:3 the extracts from other parts of Psalms and from Isaiah included in the B text must be an interpolation possibly made before St. Paul's time (Romans 3:13 ff), or else taken from Romans. The little Psalm 151 in the Septuagint, described in the title as an "autograph" work of David and as "outside the number," is clearly a late Greek production, perhaps an appendix added after the version was complete.

(5) The Latest Septuagint Translations. -- The latest versions included in the Septuagint are the productions of the Jewish translators of the 2nd century AD; some books may be rather earlier, the work of pioneers in the new school which advocated strict adherence to the Hebrew. The books of "Reigns" were now completed, by Theodotion, perhaps, or by one of his school; the later portions (2 R 11:2-3 R 2:11, David's downfall, and 3 R 22-4 R end, the downfall of the monarchy) are by one hand, as shown by peculiarities in style, e.g. "I am have with child" (2 R 11:5) = "I am with child," a use which is due to desire to distinguish the longer form of the pronoun 'anokhi ("I," also used for "I am") from the shorter 'ani. A complete version of Judges was now probably first made. In two cases the old paraphrastic versions were replaced. Theodotion's Daniel, as above stated, superseded in the Christian church the older version. A new and complete version of Chronicles-Ezra-Nehemiah was made (Esdras B), though the older version retained its place in the Greek Bible on account of the interesting legend imbedded in it; the new version is here again possibly the work of Theodotion; the numerous transliterations are characteristic of him (Torrey, Ezra Studies; theory had previously been advanced by Sir H. Howorth). In the Greek Ecclesiastes we have a specimen of Aquila's style (see McNeile's edition, Cambridge, 1904). Canticles is another late version.

2. General Characteristics

A marked feature of the whole translation is the scrupulous avoidance of anthropomorphisms and phrases derogatory to the divine transcendence. Thus Exodus 4:16, "Thou shalt be to him in things pertaining to God" (Hebrew "for" or "as God"); 15:3, "The Lord is a breaker of battles" (Hebrew "a Man of war"); 24:10, "They saw the place where the God of Israel stood" (Hebrew "they saw the God of Israel"); 24:11, "Of the elect of Israel not one perished and they were seen in the place of God" (Hebrew "Upon the nobles ... He laid not His hand, and they beheld God"). The comparison of God to a rock was consistently paraphrased as idolatrous, as was sometimes the comparison to the sun from fear of sun-worship (Psalms 83 [84]:12, "The Lord loves mercy and truth" for Hebrew "The Lord is a sun and shield"). "The sons of God" (Genesis 6:2) becomes "the angels of God." For minor liberties, e.g. slight amplifications, interpretation of difficult words, substitution of Greek for Hebrew coinage, translation of place-names, see Swete, Introduction, 323. Blunders in translation are not uncommon, but the difficulties which these pioneers had to face must be remembered, especially the paleographical character of the Hebrew originals. These were written on flimsy papyrus rolls, in a script probably in a transitional stage between the archaic and the later square characters; the words were not separated, and there were no vowel-points; two of the radicals (waw and yodh) were also frequently omitted. Add to this the absence at Alexandria, for parts at least of the Scriptures, of any sound tradition as to the meaning. On the other hand the vocalization adopted by the translators, e.g. in the proper names, is of great value in the history of early Semitic pronunciation. It must further be remembered that the Semitic language most familiar to them was not Hebrew but Aramaic, and some mistakes are due to Aramaic or even Arabic colloquialisms (Swete, Introduction, 319).

IX. Salient Differences between Greek and Hebrew Texts

Differences indicating a Hebrew original other than the Massoretic Text affect either the sequence or the subject-matter (compare Swete, Introduction, 231).

1. Sequence

The most extensive discrepancies in arrangement of materials occur in (1) Ex 35-39, the construction of the Tabernacle and the ornaments of its ministers, (2) 3 R 4-11, Solomon's reign, (3) Jeremiah (last half), (4) Proverbs (end). (1) In Exodus the Septuagint gives precedence to the priests' ornaments, which in the Hebrew follow the account of the Tabernacle, and omits altogether the altar of incense. The whole section describing the execution of the instructions given in the previous chapters in almost identical words is one of the latest portions of the Pentateuch and the text had clearly not been finally fixed in the 3rd century BC; the section was perhaps absent from the oldest Greek version. In Exodus 20:13-15 Codex B arranges three of the commandments in the Alexandrian order (7, 8, 6), attested in Philo and in the New Testament. (2) Deliberate rearrangement has taken place in the history of Solomon, and the Septuagint unquestionably preserves the older text. The narrative of the building of the Temple, like that of the Tabernacle, contains some of the clearest examples of editorial revision in the Massoretic Text (Wellhausen, Hist of Israel, 67, 280, etc.). At the end of 3 R the Septuagint places chapters 20 and 21 in their proper order; Massoretic Text reverses this, interposing the Naboth story in the connected account of the Syriac wars and justifying the change by a short preface. (3) In Jeremiah the chapter numbers differ from the middle of chapter 25 to the end of chapter 51, the historical appendix (chapter 52) concluding both texts. This is due to the different position assigned to a group of prophecies against the nations: The Septuagint places them in the center, the Massoretic Text at the end. The items in this group are also rearranged. The diversity in order is earlier than the Greek translation; see JTS, IV; 245. (4) The order of some groups of maxims at the end of Proverbs was not finally fixed at the time of the Greek translation; like Jeremiah's prophecies against the nations, these little groups seem to have circulated as late as the 2nd or 1st century BC as separate pamphlets. The Psalms numbers from 10 to 147 differ by one in the Septuagint and Massoretic Text, owing to discrepancies in the lines of demarcation between individual psalms.

2. Subject Matter

Excluding the end of Exodus, striking examples of divergence in the Pentateuch are few. The Septuagint alone preserves Cain's words to his brother, "Let us go into the field" (Genesis 4:8). The close of Moses' song appears in an expanded form in the Septuagint (Deuteronomy 32:43). Similarly Hannah's song in 1 R 2 (? originally a warrior's triumph-song) has been rendered more appropriate to the occasion by the substitution in verse 8c of words about the answer to prayer, and enlarged by the insertion of a passage from Jeremiah; the changes in both songs may be connected with their early use as canticles. In Joshua the larger amount of divergence suggests that this book did not share the peculiar sanctity of the Law. But the books of "Reigns" present the widest differences and the fullest scope for the textual critic. The Septuagint here proves the existence of two independent accounts of certain events. Sometimes it incorporates both, while the Massoretic Text rejects one of them; thus Septuagint gives (3 R 2:35a ff, 46a ff) a connected summary of events in Solomon's personal history; most of which appear elsewhere in a detached form, 3 R 12:24a-z is a second account of the dismemberment of the kingdom; 16:28a-h a second summary of Jehoshaphat's reign (compare 22:41 ff); 4 R 1:18a another summary of Joram's reign (compare 3:1 ff). Conversely in 1 R 17-18, the Massoretic Text has apparently preserved two contradictory accounts [?] of events in David's early history, while the Septuagint presents a shorter and consistent narrative (Swete, Intro, 245 f). An "addition" in the Septuagint of the highest interest appears in 3 R 8:53b, where a stanza is put into the mouth of Solomon at the Temple dedication, taken from "the Song-book" (probably the Book of Jashar); the Massoretic Text gives the stanza in an edited form earlier in the chapter (8:12 f); for the reconstruction of the original Hebrew see JTS, X, 439; XI, 518. The last line proves to be a title, "For the Sabbath--On Alamoth" (i.e. for sopranos), showing that the song was set to music for liturgical purposes. In Jeremiah, besides transpositions, the two texts differ widely in the way of excess and defect; the verdict of critics is mainly in favor of the priority of the Septuagint (Streane, Double Text of Jeremiah, 1896). For divergences in the "Writings" see VIII, above; for additional titles to the Psalms see Swete, Introduction, 250 f.


The most important works have been mentioned in the body of the article. See, further, the very full lists in Swete's Introduction and the bibliographies by Nestle in PRE 3, III, 1-24, and XXIII, 207-10 (1913); HDB, IV, 453-54.

H. St. J. Thackeray