Friday, February 4, 2011

Bible Basics, Day 7: The Septuagint

Pharos by Salvador Dali
The Septuagint
     This lesson will be less "inspired" and more "historical", as we dig a little deeper into the history of the texts of the Old Testament and find out how the differences between the Catholic and Protestant Bibles arose.  I hope this history won't be too dry!

I.  The Legend of the Seventy

Ancient synagogue at Sardis
 While we think of ancient Jews as living mainly in the area that is today occupied by Israel, they were in fact scattered about with sizable populations in many other countries.  These faithful Jews were called the "Diaspora"--that is, the dispersed (or the "Dispersion").  They lived in Jewish communities centered around synagogues thoroughout the civilized world, although they were required to travel to Jerusalem annually for the Passover celebration.  Most of them, as well as just about everyone else, spoke the common international trade language of the day--Greek (just as many people around the world today conduct business in English, even though it may not be their native language).  Since the days of Alexander the Great, Greek had been the lingua franca (common tongue) of the entire eastern Mediterranean basin and also of the eastern nations, being used almost as far east as the Indus River. 
So the uniquely Jewish vision of one mighty Creator God along with the Hebrew Scriptures were spread about the known world.  God was preparing the soil of the Gentile nations to receive the seed of the Word of God!

Ptolemy II Philadelphus
     Around the year 250 B.C., the Greek King of Egypt, Ptolemy II, commanded Jewish scholars to translated the Hebrew texts of the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings into Greek so that anyone could read them.  According to legend, either seventy or seventy-two scholars were locked up in  separate rooms.  Some legends say they were locked up in the Pharos lighthouse that guarded the harbor of Alexandria.  There, they each sat down to translate the sacred writings, and when they were finished--lo and behold!  A miracle!  Every one of them had produced the exact same translation!  Well, according to legend, anyway!  The fact is that these writings were translated around the time of  Ptolemy II (whether at his direct command or not, we have no idea) and that a group of scholars, probably working in Alexandria, completed the translation, most likely intended for the great library in Alexandria. We do not know how long it took them, possibly as long as a hundred years! Personally, I like the legend better!  This translation is called "The Septuagint" (which means "seventy" in Greek), often denoted by the Roman numerals LXX, after the "seventy" who produced it.  It was the most wide-spread and well-known of all the Hebrew canons, and it was used both in the land of Judea and throughout the ancient world.

The Pharos was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. One of the tallest structures of the ancient world, with a height estimated to have been between 393 and 450 ft., it guarded the harbor entrance to Alexandria for over 1500 years. It was completed in the reign of Ptolemy II (which may be why it enters into the legend of the translation of the Septuagint).  It sustained a lot of damage during two earthquakes in the 14th century, but portions of it stood until 1480,  when it was finally destroyed by conquering armies.

II.  The Septuagint and the Early Church Fathers

     The Septuagint version of the Old Testament was the version usually quoted by the writers of the New Testament and by the early Church Fathers.  In using the Septuagint, they were most likely following the lead of Jesus, whose quotes of the Old Testament mainly follow the Septuagint translation.
Codex Sinaiticus (Septuagint)
     The Septuagint included seven books that the Pharisees did not recognize as inspired. These seven books were excluded from the Hebrew Scriptures sometime near the end of the first century, or even a little later.  They are the books known as the "deutero-canonical" books, sometimes called the "Apocrypha":  Judith, Tobit, Wisdom, Baruch, Sirach (also called Ecclesiasticus, not to be confused with Ecclesiastes), 1 and 2 Maccabees.  Portions of Daniel and Esther not found in the Hebrew Scriptures  today were also part of the Septuagint.

III. Why the Catholic and Protestant Bibles are Different

     Once we learn about the Septuagint and the differing Hebrew canons, we can understand how differences between Catholic and Protestant Bibles arose.  Here's what happened, step by step:

1.  The Septuagint was the version used by Christ and the Apostles, and by the Fathers of the Church.
2.  The Christian canon which was finalized at Carthage was based on the Septuagint and included ALL of the Old Testament books that were in the Septuagint.  Therefore, the "deutero-canonical" books were part of the inspired canon as decreed by the authority of the Catholic Church (which, as we saw in this lesson on the canon, is really the authority of the Holy Spirit Himself acting through the Church Christ founded).  
3.  Much later on in history, in the year 1517, Martin Luther begins to question Church authority and to point out problems he sees in the Church.  Unfortunately, difficulties which should have prompted only reform in the Church lead to a split which widens and deepens into a permanent divide between Protestants and Catholics.
4.  Martin Luther not only challenges Church teaching, but also calls into question the authority of the Church to set the canon.  He objects to some of the books of the Bible because they contradict his personal theological opinions. For example, 2 Maccabees specifically mentions prayers for the dead--not a popular idea with Luther!
5.  Martin Luther decides to use the Hebrew (Masoretic) canon, which was actually set after the time of Christ and does not include any of the seven deuterocanonical books or the portions of Daniel and Esther that were in the Septuagint and also in the Catholic canon.
6.  Martin Luther tries to remove James and possibly other New Testament books, but people object to this effort and all the New Testament books remain in the Protestant Bible.

Main Altar, St. Peter's Basilica
The Catholic Bible contains the entire written Word of God, confirmed by the Holy Spirit through the Church which Christ established.  Holy Mother Church, under the guidance of her living Magisterium, preserves, protects, interprets, and proclaims the Bible with authority and certainty, both yesterday, today, and tomorrow.  

1.  You are probably familiar with the New Testament, but you may want to just thumb through it to get an idea of the books contained in it.
2.  Read Luke 1:1-4, Matthew 28:16-20, and 1 John 4:13.  List the reasons these verses give for the writing of the New Testament.
3.  Think about the preciousness of the gift of the Bible.  Not all people have a Bible, or the ability to read it.  Many Jews and Christians have sacrificed their lives throughout the course of history to defend and guard this sacred Book.  How can you show reverence to the Word of God?  Share with us here ways that you in your family reverence the Bible.  Here's one thing we do:  if a Bible falls on the floor, we immediately picked it up and kiss it.

Main Idea:  The Catholic Church based her canon on the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible; later Protestants removed seven books and a little more from the authorized Old Testament canon.  

Next lesson:  The New Testament
(and a reminder: this is just a quick overview, we will be coming back to the individual books of the Bible in our next series...which is only a few more posts away!)

Do you wonder why I am posting this material using such a large text? I realized that many of the Moms among us are probably reading these posts with a baby or toddler in their laps, and it can be pretty tough to see the little font sizes if you are 4 feet from the screen so that your baby doesn't play with your a little accommodation for Moms!  They deserve it!


  1. First off, I love large print--and not because there's a baby wobbling on my lap!

    Caroline, you have a gift for teaching. Everything is laid out clearly, in a way that makes sense and is easy to comprehend.

    And finally, I've become a follower:)

  2. And I love seeing your smiling face over there on my sidebar! Take care and God bless you today and always, my dear friend and sister!

    Oh, yeah, if Greece is out, maybe SF would be possible? Relive our youth?? Napa Valley????