Classics by Commission: A (very) Brief History of the Septuagint

Book as Revelation

From its inception the Septuagint was the result of an idée fixe, the Ptolemaic obsession with collecting and monopolizing the extant knowledge of the oikumene: the known civilized world. The problem with the Torah or Pentateuch, however, was that it wasn’t written in a language the scholars of Alexandria’s famous library could understand; it was written in Hebrew.

Granite Head of Ptolemy II, Philadelphus in Egyptian style.
Cameo depiction of Ptolemy II and his Queen Arsinoe II.

Desirous of the acquisition, however, Ptolemy II decided to launch an ambitious project to translate the holy books of the Judeans into excellent 3nd century BC Greek. Sequestering 72 Hebrew scribes on the island of Pharos (of lighthouse fame) Ptolemy demanded that the scribes each individually translate the 5 books into Greek, with the intent to then compare the translations in an effort to divine the most accurate. According to legend, by a miraculous coincidence, all the translations corresponded exactly to one another and thus must have been the revealed word of the Hebrew god.

A drawing of the Pharos of Alexandria by German archaeologist Prof. H. Thiersch (1909).

It is no wonder, then, that this book became remarkably influential, having been given both a divine as well as a royal seal of approval. The Septuagint is still famous and influential to this day, and it may have been the only version of the Hebrew scriptures that was known to many famous philosophers and theologians of antiquity, including Philo of Alexandria, one of the first thinkers to combine Semitic religion with Platonic philosophy.

Imaginative illustration of Philo made in 1584 by the French portrait artist André Thevet.

The Septuagint was also one of the first books to be printed in Greek after the introduction of moveable type. One example is kept at the Stanford library in Southern California. This particular edition is an incunable, printed in Milan in September of 1481. According to the library notes this book was published as a collaborative effort by the printer Bonus Accursius and the Italian scholar and grammarian of Greek, Johannes Crastonis. The binding is clearly modern, being attributed to 19th century binder Roger De Coverly. The library notes record the following:

“The earliest book of the Bible to be printed in Greek. A liturgical Psalter; the LXX. text, with a Latin translation … the appended canticles include the Magnificat and the Benedictus–the earliest portions of the N.T. to be printed in Greek.”–Darlow & Moule, 4590.

The date and location of the printing are derived from the colophon, illustrated below. All images are downloaded from the Stanford library which has made scans of the entire work available.

Front Cover.
Final page with colophon.
Sample pages showing Greek with Latin translation.
Inside front cover showing notation and library markings.


British and Foreign Bible Society. Library., Darlow, T. H. (Thomas Herbert)., Moule, H. F. (Horace Frederick). (19031911). Historical catalogue of the printed editions of Holy Scripture in the library of the British and Foreign Bible Society. London: Bible House.

Manning, J. Gilbert. (2010). The Last Pharaohs : Egypt Under the Ptolemies, 305-30 BC. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s