Many years ago, scholars thought that the Greek language was a “specialized” language that was in place for the New Testament alone. More recent scholarship has dismissed this theory in favor of the idea that New Testament Greek was the common everyday language used by the average Joe of the day. What swayed scholars in this direction was the uncovering of tens of thousands of papyri written in Greek that discussed everyday Greek life during those years. The term “Koine” (common) is applied to the Greek of the New Testament, because that Greek was, in fact, the “common” language of the people during that period of time. The term is used in contrast to what scholars consider “classical” Greek of the Greek homeland proper in which genre many of the classical Greek works are written.
The fact that New Testament Greek is not a specialized sort of Greek, but the common every day kind of Greek that folks used during that time, stems from the conquests of Alexander the Great. As Alexander moved through, conquering the various countries of his day, he took along with him as the official state language, Greek. He also made a great effort to “hellenize” (convert to Greek culture) those countries that he conquered. By the time the Romans took over the Greek empire, the Greek culture had thoroughly saturated Alexander’s conquered world. Greek remained the most popular language of the day, though Latin became the language of law under the Roman empire.
In the midst of this Greek cultural revolution, some Hebrew speaking scholars made a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. This translation of the Old Testament was called the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX). It testifies as to how popular the Greek language was that the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek. Tradition states that the translation was done in the city of Alexandria by seventy-two scholars from the country of Israel sometime around 250 B.C. Most modern day historians, however, doubt the reliability of this story, favoring a view that has the translation being accomplished in various Jewish synagogues and then compiled sometime before 130 B.C. Regardless the time of accomplishment, the entire work was in broad circulation well before the time of Christ. Many Jewish communities outside of Palestine (and some within) used the work as their primary text in studying the Old Testament because their knowledge of Hebrew had grown diminished from living in the Gentile world for so long.
There are several reasons why the Septuagint is valuable to the Greek student today.
- First of all, it gives the Greek student an additional source of reference in order to evaluate grammar and vocabulary in the Koine Greek language, particularly in regard to religious terminology. Much of the religious terminology of the New Testament was used in the Septuagint in translating the Old Testament.
- Second, the New Testament writers often quote from the Septuagint when citing Old Testament scriptures. One such quotation is found in Hebrews 1:6. The quote, “Let all the angels of God worship Him,” is not found in a translation of the Hebrew (and most will not find it in their English Bibles today), but it is, however, found in the Septuagint.
- Third, many ancient Latin versions of the Old Testament relied heavily (if not entirely) upon the Septuagint. The King James Version favors the Latin translation in several Old Testament passages. This means that the Septuagint does have some influence upon one of the predominant English translations of our time. While purists may not appreciate this, there is something to be said for the knowledge of the ancients who translated this work from Hebrew into Greek. They were much closer to the language of Hebrew as spoken by the Hebrews than we and likely had resources to do the translation that we do not.
- Finally, the Septuagint is helpful in studying the Old Testament. I often look to the Septuagint to help clarify difficult passages. The Greek of the Septuagint can also help give us a better idea of how New Testament Christians would have read and evaluated the Old Testament.
The Septuagint is a valuable document in the study of both the Old and New Testaments. Today, the Septuagint continues to serve as the official Old Testament of the Greek Orthodox Church. We can gain a greater understanding of Greek through studying it, but more importantly, it can aid us in understanding New Testament Christianity. From time to time, in these articles, I will refer to the Septuagint (as I have already done) to clarify or illustrate the meaning of certain Greek words or grammar. I hope that you can use this article as reference when considering those studies.
(If you would like to have a Greek copy of the Septuagint, or if you would like an English translation, both may be found as part of the free online Bible program, http://www.onlinebible.net.)