What Does “70” Have to Do with the Greek Old Testament?

The Greek Old Testament is commonly referred to as the Septuagint (from the Latin word for 70) or as the LXX. But why 70?
The answer to this question lies in the legendary account of the circumstances surrounding the first Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible.

The story begins with the Letter of Aristeas. Most scholars believe this letter was written not in the third century B.C.E as a firsthand account of the translation process, but rather as a second century B.C.E. defense of the translation.

Is it acceptable to read Holy Scripture in a language other than Hebrew? This was the question of the day. Aristeas says, “Yes,” and he grounds his answer in the extraordinary circumstances that occasioned the translation. Aristeas’ story forms the substance of our understanding of the origin of the Septuagint, but the legend, according to Jobes and Silva, grew over time. The following summarizes their telling of how the legend developed.

2nd Century B.C.E.

Aristeas explains that the translation process was initiated by the Egyptian king Ptolemy. He wanted to add a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible to the great library in Alexandria. Ptolemy had his librarian request that translators and manuscripts be sent from Jerusalem. The high priest in Jerusalem agreed and sent 6 men from each of the 12 tribes of Israel to Alexandria. So, according to Aristeas, there were 72 translators who worked on the first Greek translation, which encompassed just the first 5 books of the Hebrew Bible. The 72 translators worked for 72 days, and their work was such a success that the Jews asked the librarian to provide them a copy for use in their communities. A curse was pronounced upon anyone who tampered with their perfect translation.

The number which arises from Aristeas’ story, then, is 72. So, why 70?

1st Century C.E.

Jobes and Silva comment, “Writers subsequent to the Letter of Aristeas add little information of substance” (36). With respect to the circumstances surrounding the original translation, Aristeas is our man. But our question is why LXX (70)? The answer to that question comes later, as the legend develops.

Philo was a prominent Jewish philosopher who lived in the first century. According to him, the translators worked independently of each other, yet produced the exact same translation. This is quite a leap forward. Not even two people working independently of each other would produce exactly the same translation, much less 72. Therefore, as the logic goes, God must have intervened. Philo taught that the LXX was divinely inspired just like the Hebrew original.

2nd Century C.E.

In Sefer Tora 1.8, a rabbinic writing found in the Babylonian Talmud, the number 70 first appears. Jobes and Silva consider Sefer Tora‘s 70 yet another attempt to justify the translation. There were 70 elders who went up Mt. Sinai with Moses (Exodus 24:1-2, 9-11), and God appointed 70 elders to receive a share of the Holy Spirit along with Moses, in order that they might faithfully govern the people (Numbers 11:10-25). So, the detail that there were 70 translators of the 5 books of Moses ties the Greek Old Testament into this tradition of divine inspiration.

The Greek Old Testament is referred to as the Septuagint or LXX in light of this tradition. 70 refers to the supposed number of translators involved in the original translation of the Pentateuch. According to Jobes and Silva, by the middle of the second century, “the seventy” (οι εβδομηκοντα) can be found in the writings of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Eusebius, and Chrysostom, who used the term to refer to the entire Greek Old Testament.

Re: “Septuagint”

The word “Septuagint” is quite slippery. In their first chapter Jobes and Silva note a few different ways the word is used and provide a little etymology:

  • “Septuagint” came into English from the Latin word Septuaginta (“seventy”), a shortened form of the title Interpretatio septuaginta virorum (“The Translation of the Seventy Men”).
  • The Latin title arose from the Greek phrase οἱ ἑβδομηκοντα (“the seventy”)
  • Therefore we refer to the Septuagint with the roman numerals LXX as shorthand.
  • In its most general sense “Septuagint” refers to any or all Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible. Something like the way we use “English Bible” without reference to a particular translation. E.g. > When doing Old Testament exegesis the Septuagint is relevant.
  • More narrowly it can refer to a particular printed edition of the Greek Old Testament. E.g. > “Get your NA27, your BHS and your Septuagint and meet me at Starbucks.” With this sentence  I would be referring either to the edition edited by Rahlf and Hanhard or one of the Göttingen volumes.
  • Even more narrowly it can be used by scholars to distinguish the oldest translation of the Pentateuch from (1) other later translations of biblical books or (2) revisions of the Greek text. — A little explanation — The Pentateuch was translated into Greek sometime during the middle of the third century B.C.E. This is where it all started. Throughout the next couple centuries the rest of the books of the Hebrew Bible were translated and all these translations were revised. Some reserve “Septuagint” for the the original translation of the Pentateuch and refer to the original translation of the other books as “Old Greek,” referring the the whole Greek Old Testament  with the abbreviation “LXX/OG.” The revisions of all these translations are called “recensions.” E.g. > “In your paper you should compare and contrast the translation techniques evident in the text of the Septuagint with the translation techniques evident in the Greek text of Proverbs.”
Therefore when you see the word “Septuagint,” you have to pay attention to the context in which it is being used. On this site it is safe to assume, unless explicitly stated otherwise, that “Septuagint” is being used in the general sense (the first bullet under “usage” above).

Why Study the Septuagint?

This is a summary of the reasons laid out by Jobes and Silva in their introductory chapter:
For anyone interested in history:

  • The Septuagint was the first translation made of any literary work of a size comparable to the Hebrew Bible. “It marks a milestone in human culture.”
  • More manuscripts of the Greek Old Testament (nearly 2,000) survive than of any other Greek text from antiquity (except the New Testament, of which there are, including fragments, about 5,000). The fact that Septuagint manuscripts outnumber witnesses to Homer’s Illiad (650) nearly 3:1 is a powerful witness to its historical significance.

For students of the Hebrew Bible, the Hebrew language, and Greek:

  • The Septuagint was the first translation made of the Hebrew Bible, and therefore is a very early witness to its Vorlage.
  • It is a major source of information concerning the Greek language in the Hellenistic period.
  • Those interested in text criticism and the tendencies of scribes will find in the manuscripts of the Septuagint an enormous amount of material for study.
  • It provides a unique opportunity for comparing translation Greek (the biblical books) to composition Greek (the apocryphal books).
  • Provides information concerning the history of interpretation of the Hebrew Bible. Certain passages are given a particular political or religious spin (e.g. Isaiah 65:11).

For New Testament students:

  • The Septuagint (1) provided some of the vocabulary that the NT author’s drew upon, (2) was used by NT authors to draw the mind of their readers to specific passages of the Hebrew Bible, and (3) is frequently quoted (rather than the Hebrew Bible) by NT authors. Therefore “the Septuagint provides essential, but often overlooked, theological links that would have been familiar to Christians of the first century, but are not so obvious in the Hebrew version.”

For theologians:

  • The doctrines of orthodox Christianity were hammered out with appeals to an Old Testament written in Greek rather than Hebrew. The Septuagint was the Bible of early Christian writers.