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What is the Septuagint and why is it important?

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The Greek translation of the Old Testament has a unique history and was highly favored by early Christians.

Roughly 200 years before the birth of Jesus, a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures was developed that became widely accepted as a legitimate (even inspired) translation.

Tradition relates how King Ptolemy II of Egypt established a vast library at Alexandria. Yet, it wasn’t complete, and he wanted to have a copy of the Hebrew scriptures in it. Ptolemy then sent representatives to Jerusalem and invited Jewish elders to prepare a new Greek translation of the text. Seventy-two elders, six from each of the 12 tribes of Israel, arrived in Egypt to fulfill the request.

They were led to the solitary island of Pharos, where at the end of 72 days, their work was completed. King Ptolemy was pleased at the result and placed it in his library.

Another tradition adds that the translators were all put in separate rooms and told to produce their own separate text. When the task was completed the translators compared them all and it was discovered that each one was miraculously identical to the others.

The result later became known as the Septuagint (from the Greek word for 70) and was especially popular among Greek-speaking Jews during the centuries that followed. Many of these Jews converted to Christianity, and as a result the Septuagint became a primary source for the Gospel writers and many other early Christians. A few centuries later when formulating the official canon of Scripture, the Catholic Church looked to the Septuagint to discern which books to retain.

While the above story of the Septuagint’s formation is regarded by modern biblical scholars as a legend with no real historical basis, the location and time-frame of the translation is generally regarded as true.

According to the Catholic Encyclopediait is most likely that “Alexandrian Jews, making use of the translated Pentateuch in their liturgical reunions, should desire to read the remaining books also and hence should gradually have translated all of them into Greek, which had become their maternal language; this would be so much the more likely as their knowledge of Hebrew was diminishing daily.”

Whatever the origin of the Greek text, its ancient character is still highly valued, and biblical translators will often consult the Septuagint to better understand a particular passage.

*Update: This article has been updated to remove partial inaccuracies.

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