The Septuagint: The First of the Bible Translations
Over the centuries, God’s Word has penetrated many nations and cultures through translations that have made it available to people in their native languages. The Septuagint, from the Latin word septuaginta that means “seventy,” has the distinction of being the first and oldest Bible translation, though not all of the Old Testament was translated at once.
The Septuagint’s history began with Alexander the Great. In 331 B.C., Alexander renamed an Egyptian town located along the Mediterranean Sea after himself: Alexandria. The city became a chief center for Hellenism (eclectic Greek culture) and housed the largest Jewish community in the world at that time.
However, within two or three generations, these Jewish people had forgotten their Hebrew language and spoke primarily Greek. Thus they needed the Hebrew Scriptures in Greek. They also wanted to contribute their Jewish religious knowledge to the Royal Library and museum of Alexandria.
Jewish legend alleges that in the 3rd century B.C., 72 (some say 70) respected elders of Israel were brought to Alexandria to translate the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) into Greek. God then prompted, or inspired, them; and they all accurately wrote the Scripture (cf. Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah 9a–9b).
In the following century or so, other parts of the Old Testament were translated, along with certain apocryphal books. The term Apocrypha, meaning “hidden,” refers to a collection of noncanonical, Judaic books supposedly written around the same time as the Septuagint.
Sound scholars believe New Testament writers used the Septuagint because more than 150 Old Testament quotations in the New Testament come directly from it. When compared to the early Hebrew Masoretic text, and later to the Dead Sea Scrolls, only slight variations are found. And these variations do not call into question any area of the infallibility of God’s Word.
An area the Septuagint has clarified is Messianic prophecy. A classic example concerns the controversy over Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.”
There are some who like to hoot and holler over the word virgin, saying the Hebrew word used in the verse, almah, does not mean a literal “virgin.” They argue that Isaiah simply used a Hebrew word that typically meant a normal “young woman” who would give birth; therefore, no notion of a virgin birth was intended.
However, the Septuagint’s Jewish translators who lived before Christ was born, specifically chose the Greek word parthenos, which means an “inviolate virgin.”
The apostle Matthew used the same Greek word in the New Testament: “So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which is translated, ‘God with us’” (Mt. 1:22–23).
The Septuagint should settle the question of what Isaiah meant when he wrote, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive.”
Like any translation, the Septuagint has its issues. But as Scripture says, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isa. 40:8). The Septuagint proves the truth of that verse and can help us appreciate the reliability of the Bible.