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The Septuagint and its role in the birth and spread of Christianity

By ucyow3c, on 22 January 2015

pencil-iconWritten by Wenqing Peng, UCL Arts & Humanitites PhD student

Painting of Jesus

Credit: James Shepard.

The Septuagint, or the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, plays a crucial role in the spread of Christianity into a world religion, from its roots as a minor Jewish sect. Dr. Aleksander Gomola (Jagiellonian University) presented a range of illustrations of the nuances in translation that influenced the writers of the New Testament and the subsequent direction of Christianity itself.

In the first part of the talk, Dr Gomola examined the legend and fact of the Septuagint (LXX): a koine Greek version of the Hebrew Bible. The legend of the translation is found in the pseudepigraphic Letter of Aristeas to his brother Philocrates in the 2nd century BCE, which elaborated on the invitation by Ptolemy II Philadephus to 72 Jewish scholars to translate the first five books of the Hebrew Bible into Greek for the Library of Alexandria, and how they accomplished this feat in 72 days.

Dr Gomola then explained the significance of the relation between the LXX and Greek thought: the LXX revised the hierarchy of the Greek classics and the writings of Jewish patriarchs and prophets.

He also referred to the views of key thinkers of the time, including Aristobulus of Paneas and Justin the Martyr. Justin’s argument that “what is old is true rather the new” goes some way to explain the canonised position of the LXX.

The Septuagint, like any act of translation, is not a wholly accurate rendering of the original Hebrew text; it contains many changes of meaning as well as simple translation errors. The translation presented several characteristics such as the reduction of polysemic meanings of Hebrew terms, and shifts between very literal and loose translations. Modern translators attempt to justify any slight deviation from the original text. This also applies to the translators of the LXX. Dr Gomola cited the translators’ prologue to the Book of Sirach: “Please be patient… what was originally written in Hebrew does not have exactly the same sense in another language.”

What impressed me most was the second part of the talk, in which Dr Gomola presented examples of how citations from the Septuagint were employed by the Christian authors of the New Testament, and discussed the function of the Septuagint in the transformation of Christianity from a Jewish sect into the religion embedded in the context of Western culture. One example was the word ‘Shalom’ in the original text, partially rendered as ‘eirene’ (peace) in the LXX. Dr Gomola demonstrated the theological consequences of the translators’ choices and the reduction of anthropomorphic or primitive depictions of God.

Dr Gomola then moved on to the most crucial part of his lecture: the LXX as the driving force of early Christianity. Who was Jesus to the early Christians? First, to early Christianity, Jesus was the Messiah; second, the majority of biblical quotations or references in the New Testament come from the LXX; third, all New Testament books are written in koine Greek like the LXX; fourth, as an accessible and understandable text (unlike the Hebrew Bible known only by Jews), the LXX invests divine authority in Christianity for a wide readership.

Considering the errors or differences in the translation, how should we judge the role of the LXX? Dr Gomola believes that the current Hebrew text of the Bible was a Masoretic text and that the LXX might be a witness of earlier variants of Hebrew texts. In order to support this view, he listed some early Christian thinkers and their discrepancies of the LXX. For example, Origen believed that the differences between the LXX and the Hebrew Bible were intended by God to present the richness of his revelation. Augustine of Hippo said that the obfuscations in language prevented mankind from becoming conceited in comprehension.

Even for those who have little knowledge of the translation of the Bible, or who come from different cultural and religious contexts such as Buddhism or, in my case, Confucianism, Dr Gomola presented a lens for us to examine the readily apparent semantic differences resulting from different strategies for interpreting the complex biblical verses on a linguistic level, and also to delve into the driving force of translation in the development of Christianity.

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