Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Importance of the Septuagint by William Oesterley 1914

The Septuagint by William Oscar Emil Oesterley

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One of the results of the Hellenistic Movement, the importance of which cannot be exaggerated, was the Graeco-Jewish literature to which it gave birth. It is impossible to deal here with the whole mass of that literature, even in the most cursory manner, nor is this necessary for our present purpose. We must restrict ourselves in this section to a brief mention of what Schurer calls "the foundation of all Judaeo-Hellenistic culture," namely, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, which was the special possession of the Jews of the Dispersion.

The name of this Greek Version of the Bible owes its origin to the legend contained in the so-called Letter of Aristeas, in which an account is given of how Ptolemy II (Philadelphus) desired to have a Greek translation of the Hebrew Book of the Law (i.e., the Pentateuch), and sent to Eleazar, the high-priest in Jerusalem, asking him to send competent scholars to Alexandria who would be able to undertake the task of translation. The high-priest, the account continues, readily responded to this request, and despatched seventy-two learned Jews, each of the twelve tribes being represented by six of them. Ptolemy received them with great honour on their arrival in Alexandria, and entertained them hospitably during the whole of their sojourn. The seventy-two went into retirement to the island of Pharos, opposite Alexandria, where they laboured at the translation. This took seventy-two days; the translation was then delivered to the king, who thereupon ordered the books to be placed in the royal library. The translators, after having been presented with rich gifts, returned to Judaea. This is the legend to which the name Septuagint ("Seventy") owes its origin, a name which has clung to it in spite of its being now generally recognized that the Letter of Aristeas is unhistorical so far as this story is concerned. Who the translators of the Hebrew Bible into Greek were is not known. That the various parts of the Septuagint were not only translated by different authors, but also belong to different ages, is certain. It is quite probable that, so far as the Pentateuch is concerned, the Letter of Aristeas contains a true tradition in ascribing its translation into Greek to about B.C. 280. As to the rest of the books, though the evidence is fragmentary, it may be safely stated that most of them, if not all, were translated before the beginning of the Christian era. Ryle has shown that there is evidence for believing that Philo (about B.C. 20-a.d. 50) utilized all the books of the Greek Old Testament, with the exception of Esther, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs and Daniel.

This great product of Hellenistic influence upon the Jews is seen to be all the more significant when it is realized that in the fifth century B.C. the Aramaic language, as the recently found Elephantine" papyri show, was the language spoken by the Jews of Egypt; and not only was this the ordinarily spoken language, but it was also that in which literary works were written. Yet in the course of not much more than a century this was displaced by Greek; and even in the synagogues Greek was the language used. For some time, no doubt, though apparently not for very long, the Hebrew Scriptures were translated by word of mouth into Aramaic in the synagogues of the Dispersion; but when this language fell into disuse Greek had to be used; and ultimately it was found necessary to have the Scriptures themselves in Greek.

So far as we are here concerned, the great importance of the Greek Old Testament lies in the fact that it has given us the books of the Apocrypha. Some, such as the books of the Maccabees, continue the record of the nation's history; others are expansions of canonical books, such as the Prayer of Manasses, the Additions to Daniel, Baruch and the Epistle of Jeremy, and the Rest of Esther; while Ecclesiasticus and the Book of Wisdom are additions to the Wisdom Literature of the Jews.

As regards the importance and far-reaching influence of the Septuagint, we cannot do better than quote the words in which Deissmann has so succinctly, and yet so adequately, expressed this: "Take the Septuagint in your hand, and you have before you the book that was the Bible of the Jews of the Dispersion and of the proselytes from the heathen; the Bible of Philo the philosopher, Paul the Apostle, and the earliest Christian missions; the Bible of the whole Greek-speaking Christian world; the mother of influential daughter-versions; the mother of the Greek New Testament."

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