by Sharon Tan
Ptolemy II by Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne, Public domain
Legend has it that the Greek pharaoh of Egypt, Ptolemy II, gathered 72 elders and isolated them individually in 72 rooms, with the instruction that they should translate the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) into Koine or common Greek. Miraculously, each translation produced was identical to the others!
The name Septuagint, from the word “seventy”, derives from this legend and is used to refer to translations of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek, which date from around the 3rd to the 2nd century BCE. Why was there a need for a Greek translation? To understand this, it is necessary to trace the changes in language use among the Jews over the centuries. Until the exiles of Israel and Judah (8th and 6th centuries BCE respectively), Hebrew was the main spoken language of the Jews, and the language of the scriptures. After the return from exile, the generations that had grown up in exile spoke Aramaic rather than Hebrew. Although the scriptures were still in Hebrew, many Aramaic translations existed to help the common people understand the scriptures.
The next language change happened when Alexander the Great marched his armies over the region in the 4th century BCE and launched the Hellenistic Age. The lingua franca of the region became Greek, and many Jewish communities spread across the region spoke Greek. Again, to enable the Jews to understand the scriptures, Greek translations were needed.
Why does this matter to us? Much of the early Christian church used Greek, the common language spoken across the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Many early Christian writers, such as Paul, quoted from the Septuagint when referring to the prophecies fulfilled by Christ, demonstrating that the early church obviously recognised it as scripture. The use of Greek also enabled the gospel to spread to the Gentiles and, eventually, to us. An important lesson learnt from this is that the Bible, the word of God, is meant to be understood by its readers. And this means that it must be available in a language they understand well.