In the course of discussion regarding the Old Testament, the Septuagint is often brought up and discussed, and yet many people are unfamiliar with what it is. The Septuagint is the "catch-all" term to describe the "original" Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament along with apocryphal books of both Hebrew and Greek origin (books written by uninspired authors that provide historical descriptions or attempt to teach lessons through story or wisdom).
The term "Septuagint" comes from the Latin for "seventy" (hence the abbreviation LXX), underscoring the belief that the Pentateuch, or the first five books of the Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), were translated by seventy-two Jewish scholars (which is near seventy) commissioned by Ptolemy II Philadelphus, Macedonian king of Egypt, in the third century BCE. That was the "original" Septuagint. Over the next two hundred years, the rest of the Old Testament was translated into Greek-- by whom and precisely when and where we do not know. The "Septuagint" as we know it was codified sometime after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.
Yet one should not believe in the idea of a truly unified and coherent "Septuagint," as if it were the work of one man or a group of men at one time. It is believed that the current "Septuagint" involves an Old Greek text (OG), the "original" Septuagint, if you will, along with different later recensions, or adaptations, of the text. One that has recently been identified is called the kaige recension, based on the consistent translation of the Hebrew gam by kai ge. There is also believed to be a "Lucianic" recension/revision, believed to be the work of one Lucian. Later recensions are called by the ones making the revisions-- Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion. The recensions tend to bring the Greek text more in line with the by then commonly received Hebrew text, called the Masoretic Text (MT). Finally, in around 235 CE, Origen, a Christian scholar in Alexandria, came out with the Hexapla, a book of six columns comparing the Hebrew text, the Hebrew transliterated into Greek, the Septuagint text (with editing marks), and the three main recensions. Origen's "fifth column," the LXX text, would eventually come to be the preferred text for the Christian community.
The Septuagint is a marvelous work. Few works in the ancient world were translated; most books were left in their original language since the work of translation involves so much necessary change from the source language to the target language. On the other hand, there was a sizable Jewish community, especially in Alexandria in Egypt, who were much more proficient at Greek than they were in Hebrew. The OT was translated both for their benefit and also to assist the Gentile world in understanding-- and perhaps converting to-- early Judaism.
The Septuagint gained great prominence in the first century CE when it began to be used by the new Christian community. While it seems evident that Jesus of Nazareth spoke mostly Aramaic, the Apostles wrote in Greek, as did the Gospel writers. While some New Testament authors will occasionally make their own translations of the Hebrew MT, most of the citations of the Old Testament in the New Testament come from the Septuagint. Since the Septuagint was the Old Testament for the early Christians, it remained authoritative for many Christians, and is still used as the "official" Old Testament of the Greek Orthodox church. When Jerome prepared his Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, and used the Hebrew MT as the base text for the OT, and not the LXX, many derided him for doing so, since the LXX was good enough for Jesus and the Apostles!
As the Septuagint gained prominence among the Christians, it lost importance within the Jewish community. Since many of the arguments used by the Christians involved variations between the Hebrew MT and Greek LXX, the Jews believed their MT to be superior and considered the LXX to be quite inferior. The LXX was preserved by the Christians, while the MT was preserved by the Jews.
The differences between the Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT) and the Greek Septuagint (LXX) are many, and the reasons are many. We have to remember that the Greek translators did not have the benefit of textual studies, dictionaries, and grammars like we have today. Furthermore, the original Hebrew texts from which they were translating, called the Vorlage, did not have spaces between words, and many letters looked like other letters (and that goes for both the Phoenician script and the Aramaic square script, the two different scripts used to write Hebrew in the latter centuries BCE). Many of the differences between the MT and the LXX, therefore, are based in translator error: he misread the manuscript, skipped a line or repeated a line, confused letters, did not understand what the Hebrew word meant, and so on and so forth. Sometimes, however, the differences (called variants) are based in the fact that the Hebrew texts that the Greek translators were using-- that Vorlage-- were not exactly the same as the MT. Therefore, it is highly likely that the LXX preserves a reading of a text that may be more ancient and accurate than the MT at times.
The value of the LXX is a highly disputed issue. There are some, especially among the Greek Orthodox, who believe that the LXX is the superior and thus more accurate rendering of the Old Testament than the MT. The Jewish view, and the prevailing view among scholars for many years, was the opposite: the LXX was quite inferior to the MT, and the MT should always be trusted over the LXX.
It cannot be doubted that the Septuagint is, in many places, a highly flawed translation. The many mistakes in translation make it quite difficult to argue that the translators were inspired in their translation. The readings that the New Testament preserve we can recognize to be inspired on the basis of their use by the Apostles who are directed by the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 1-2) and not on the basis of the Septuagint itself.
Yet, as the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls near Qumran have demonstrated, the Septuagint does have value as a reflection of its Vorlage. We must explain the history of the Old Testament text in order to make sense of these matters.
Many are familiar with at least the general story of the New Testament texts: we have discovered thousands of copies of portions of the New Testament in Greek and many copies of the greater part or even the whole of the New Testament, with some fragments dating as far back as 175 CE. Since all evidence points to the New Testament having been originally composed in Greek, this Greek evidence is held as primary. But we also do have many copies of early translations of the New Testament into Coptic, Armenian, Syriac, and Latin, among other languages, and the evidence from those translations is also cited in the critical editions of the New Testament.
The story of the Old Testament, however, is much more complicated. The Old Testament was written between 1450 and 420 BCE. As we indicated earlier, the OT was translated into Greek some time between 300 and 0 BCE. The first Syriac and Latin translations of the Old Testament were made in the second through fourth centuries CE, and those translations were standardized in the the Syriac Peshitta in the second century CE and the Latin Vulgate in the late fourth century CE.
For a long time, the oldest Hebrew copies we had in existence dated to the 10th century CE. That is almost 1400 years after the Old Testament was completed! On the other hand, we had copies of the Greek, Syriac, and Latin translations that were older than those Hebrew texts!
That changed when the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. The Dead Sea Scrolls represent the books maintained by a sectarian group that lived from around the late second century BCE to around 70 CE. The texts dated from that period, and many of them were copies of various books of the Old Testament.
It had already been postulated that the original Hebrew text(s) from which the Septuagint was translated-- the Vorlage of the Septuagint-- were different from the Hebrew MT in many places, and that the Vorlage of the Septuagint was likely more faithful to the original in many of those instances than the MT. The Syriac Peshitta's Vorlage seemed to be extremely similar to the MT but differing in some points. The MT seems to be behind most of the Latin Vulgate, but the Old Latin Psalter, translated long before Jerome, seemed to preserve some variants that indicated that its Vorlage differed in many points from the MT in Psalms.
The Dead Sea Scrolls have proven the theory that the Vorlage of the Septuagint was different-- and superior-- to the MT in many places, since the DSS agreed with the LXX against the MT in many places (it should also be noted that the DSS agree with the MT against the LXX in many places, also). The Septuagint gained prominence very quickly in the general scholastic community on the basis of these findings.
Nevertheless, it remains very difficult to ascertain when the LXX is (a) really preserving a variant Hebrew reading, since the difference could be due to the translator making a mistake, intentionally smoothing out or clarifying the text, or engaging in some other translation technique, and then (b) that the variant Hebrew reading makes better sense and is more authentic to the original Hebrew than the MT. Many times scholars will make likely retroversions of the LXX back into what is believed to be the "original" Hebrew-- some of these, no doubt, do represent improvements to the text, but others may be misdirected. Regardless, when you see notes in your Old Testament that the Gk/LXX (Greek/Septuagint), Lat/Vulg (Latin/Vulgate), and/or Syr (Syriac Peshitta) read one way, and the MT (Hebrew) reads another way, these are times when the variants preserved in the translations are used by the translators either as notes for you to know the differences or to explain why their translation is diverging from the MT.
The Septuagint, therefore, is the Greek translation of the Old Testament. It is used as an ancient witness to the Old Testament text, and at many points preserves readings that are likely more accurate to the original text than the MT. It was the Old Testament used by the early Christians, and is often quoted in the New Testament. Nevertheless, the Septuagint has many mistakes and additions based in the ignorance or style of the translators, and there is little confidence to believe that the Holy Spirit inspired the translation as a whole. For those engaging in deep study of the Old Testament, it is profitable to consider the Septuagint while recognizing its limitations. We hope that this has helped you to better understand the Septuagint and its place in Biblical studies!