The Greek World of the Old Testament

The Greek World of the Old Testament

One of the interesting things about the Septuagint is the ‘world’ in which it was created.

Completed over the course of the third, second, and first centuries B.C., the Septuagint (or LXX) is a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. Beginning with Christ and the apostles (in the books of the New Testament), the Septuagint became the dominant and even primary text of the Old Testament for the Christian Church. Due to military conquests of Alexander the Great, most of Europe, Africa, Asia Minor, and the Middle East was a Hellenized and Greek-speaking world by the end of the fourth century (B.C.). Even in the days of the Roman Empire—and well through the Middle Ages—the Greek language was the language of the known world.

Despite the use of Latin in the western parts of the Empire—and in the city of Rome itself—Pelikan notes:

[T]he Latin satirist Juvenal bitterly referred to the city as ‘Greek-struck Rome.’1

He also mentions that speaking Greek was once considered “fashionable” in the lifetime of both Cicero and Vergil (second-to-first century B.C.).

In a bitter-sweet fulfilment of the warnings of their own prophets, the Jewish people had been scattered throughout this world of the Gentiles by the time Alexander was laid to rest. Jerusalem was now a city with only a marginal population of Jewish people, and the language of their fathers—outside of the scribes and priesthood—was all but forgotten. At this time, Alexandria had blossomed into not only the cultural and philosophical capital of the world, but also as a home to more Jewish citizens than the rest of the diaspora combined.

Of Alexandria, Pelikan writes:

Not only was Alexandria a commercial and cultural center rivaling Rome itself, though politically Rome remained the capital city, and an intellectual and philosophical center matching Athens or even eventually overshadowing it, but it became in some ways as important for world Judaism as the Holy City of Jerusalem, which it also quite certainly exceeded in size of Jewish population . . . Within the Jewish quarter (or third), which was increasingly Greek-speaking, the struggle to remain authentically Jewish and to ‘sing a song of the Lord on alien soil’ was combined with the need to explain and defend the faith to Gentile outsiders, who were also Greek-speaking.2

Given this context, it is no surprise that both Alexander and the Jewish people would wish to see the sacred texts translated into Greek. The Hebrew language was going through a significant transition, along with the rise of Aramaic among the Palestinian Jews. But for the world at large, Greek was the common tongue.

In the latter half of the first century, the apostle Paul writes a letter to his young disciple Timothy. He speaks of scriptures known to him from his youth, which would have been—at this time—the Alexandrian Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint). When Jesus reads from Isaiah in a synagogue, he reads from the version known to the seventy translators (regardless of what language he was speaking). When the apostles began to preach and teach the Gospel message—a message about the Messiah of Israel, and ultimately of the whole world—they wrote and spoke in Greek, the language of the world. It’s possible that a few of the New Testament books were originally penned in Aramaic (such as Matthew and Hebrews), but they were soon translated into Greek for distribution throughout the Greek-speaking Empire.

The providence of God was at work not only the translation of the Old Testament scriptures into Greek, but also in the inspiration of the New Testament scriptures in the same language. By having the sacred writings of God’s people in a language known throughout the Empire, the world was poised to both easily receive and understand the Gospel.

And language is about more than communication. Alongside the Greek understanding of words is the Greek understanding of understanding—that is, philosophy. The translation and explanation of Christian theology was immanently linked with the well-known ideas of Greek philosophers by the end of the first century.

The Church did not shy away from this, but in fact used it to her advantage. When John writes to a Greek-speaking audience in his Gospel, he knew about the Stoic concept of ‘Logos’—then dropping the ‘bombshell’ news that this eternal Logos is the Son of God who was crucified, buried, and raised for our salvation.

It was within this Greek-speaking world that the scriptures were composed, brought together, and preserved. It was within this Greek-speaking world that the Church spread from one corner of the earth to the other. As time passed on, new languages and cultures were incorporated into the Body of Christ, and their own distinctives were glorified with the rest.

A foundational tenet of the Orthodox Church is to bring the message of Christ to every nation in their own language, and this has continued down through the centuries. On the flipside, it continues to be a great scandal and failure where this has not taken place.

While the Septuagint is not the only place to learn about God’s old covenant people—there are other Greek translations and Hebrew manuscripts more than worthy of careful study—“it definitely must be the first place [we] look” (Pelikan, p. 66).

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Whose Bible Is It?, p. 51
  2. ibid., p. 56

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