How the Septuagint was originally received by the Jews

torahFrom the Jewish Encyclopedia article on “Hellenism

Greek Versions of the Bible.

The Hellenistic Jewish literature is the best evidence of the influence exercised by Greek thought upon the “people of the book.” The first urgent need of the Hellenistic Jews in Alexandria was a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible.

The strange legends which are connected with the origin of this translation, and which go back to the Letter of Aristeas, are discussed under Aristeas and Bible; it is sufficient to say that the whole translation was probably completed by the middle of the second century B.C. It was highly esteemed by the Hellenistic Jews. Philo (“De Vita Moysis,” ii., § 67) calls the translators not merely ἑρμηνεῖς [translators], but ίεροφάνται καὶ προφῆται [priests and prophets], who partook of the spirit of Moses. Even the prejudiced Palestinian teachers accepted it and praised the beauty of the Greek language (Soṭah vii. 3; Meg. i. 9). They permitted girls to study it, and declared it to be the only language into which the Torah might be translated (Yer. i. 1).

The Jews called themselves Palestinians in religion, but Hellenes in language (Philo, “De Congressu Quærendæ Erud.” § 8), and the terms ἡμεῐς (“we”) and Ἑβραῖοι (“the Hebrews”) were contrasted (idem, “De Confusione Linguarum,” § 26). The real Hellenes, however, could not understand the Greek of this Bible, for it was intermixed with many Hebrew expressions, and entirely new meanings were at times given to Greek phrases.

On the other hand, Judaism could not appreciate for any length of time the treasure it had acquired in the Greek Bible, and the preservation of the Septuagint is due to the Christian Church, which was first founded among Greek-speaking peoples. The mother church [Israel] did not altogether give up the Greek translation of the Bible; it merely attempted to prevent the Christians from forging a weapon from it.

After the second century it sought to replace the Septuagint with more correct translations. Aquila, a Jewish proselyte, endeavored to put an end to all quarrels with the Christians by slavishly following the original Hebrew in his new translation; Theodotion, following the Septuagint, sought to revise it by means of a thorough collation with the original.

As it became evident that the controversy could not be ended in this way, the Jews ceased to dispute with the Christians concerning the true religion, and forbade the study of Greek. They declared that the day on which the Bible had been translated into Greek was as fateful as that on which the golden calf had been worshiped (Soferim i.); that at the time when this translation was made darkness had come upon Egypt for three days (Ta’an. 50b); and they appointed the 8th of Ṭebet as a fast-day in atonement for that offense. Not only was the study of the Greek Bible forbidden, but also the study of the Greek language and literature in general. After the war with Titus no Jew was allowed to permit his son to learn Greek (Soṭah ix. 14); the Palestinian teachers unhesitatingly sacrificed general culture in order to save their religion.

Hellenistic literature, however, was for the time being too great an intellectual factor to be entirely set aside in the Diaspora. No strong line of demarcation was drawn between the sacred books originally written in Hebrew and those written in Greek; because the former also were available only in Greek translations. Greek versions of various sacred books were accepted, such as the Greek Book of Ezra; as were also the Greek additions to Ezra and to the books of Esther and Daniel, the Prayer of Manasses, the pseudepigraphic Book of Baruch, and the Epistle of Jeremiah.

The Jews outside of Palestine were so different from the peoples among whom they lived that they were bound to attract attention. The Jewish customs were strange to outsiders, and their religious observances provoked the derision of the Greeks, who gave expression to their views in satiric allusions to Jewish history, or even in malicious fabrications.

It was especially in Egypt that the Jews found many enemies in Greek-writing literati. Foremost among these was the Egyptian priest Manetho, at the time of Ptolemy II., Philadelphus (285-247 B.C.), who wrote a history of Egypt in Greek in which he repeats the fables current concerning the Jews. Josephus (“Contra Ap.” ii., §§ 14, 36) and Eusebius (“Hist. Eccl.” ix. 19) mention as an opponent of the Jews a certain Apollonius Molo. Fragments from the work of a certain Lysimachus dealing with the Exodus are mentioned by Josephus (ib. i, §§ 34-35), likewise a fragment by Cheremon (ib. i, §§ 32-33), an Egyptian priest as well as a Stoic philosopher, who also dealt, in his “Egyptian History,” with the same subject. The most interesting, many-sided, and untrustworthy of all the opponents of the Jews in Alexandria was Apion, whose attacks were repelled by Josephus in the tract cited above.

Author: Father Silouan Thompson

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