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.

Classics as Source: Edward Gibbon’s Library

Books as Inspiration

Edward Gibbon is perhaps one of the best known historians to ever write in the English language, and this more than 200 years after his death. Though many of his conclusions have been challenged, his methodology was surprisingly contemporary and he is sometimes considered the forbear of modern scientific historicism. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says of his magisterial six volume Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

Its breadth of treatment, large perspectives, meticulous accuracy, and its author’s mastery of style are among its principal merits.

Cross & Livingston, 2005, “Gibbon, Edward”

Gibbon was, given his erudition, not unsurprisingly, an avid reader and book collector as well as historical innovator. According to the Oxford Companion to the Book “Gibbon called his library ‘the foundation of my works, and the best comfort of my life’” (Caines, 2011). That a catalog of Gibbon’s library still exists and is available through HathiTrust is truly intriguing and unexpected.

Portrait of Gibbon reproduced in Keynes (1980)
Written on the Back of actual playing cards were Gibbon’s own card files. Keynes (1980).
One of Gibbon’s Book Plates. Keynes (1980)

It should be noted as well, that numerous private letters of Gibbon’s have also been published and provide insight into Gibbon’s opinions concerning matters contemporary to him, such as the American revolution, as well as treating of his scholarly interests and personal matters. To hear the insights of a learned man on the important matters of his day are always of interest and provide new ways of viewing historical events.

For example, in one excerpt from a letter written in 1778, at the height of the American War of Independence Gibbon writes to a friend:

No news from America, yet there are people, large ones too, who talk of conquering it next summer with the help of 20,000 Russians. I fancy you are better satisfied with private than public War. The Lisbon Packet in coming home met about forty of our privateers.

Gibbon & Gibbon. (1907: 220).

In another letter form 1791 Gibbon touches on British colonialism in India.

I know not what to say at present of India bonds — do they not Sink? Our affairs in that Country seem in a very ticklish situation. At all events consult with Darrel, he has knowledge of that sort and is a real friend. Yet I am almost ashamed to complain of some stagnation of interest, when I am witness to the natural and acquired philosophy of so many French, who are reduced from riches, not to indigence, but to absolute want and beggary.

Gibbon & Gibbon. (1907: 403).

Cains, Michael (2010). “Gibbon, Edward.” In The Oxford Companion to the Book. : Oxford University Press.

Cross, F., & Livingstone, E. (Eds.) (2005). “Gibbon, Edward.” In The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. : Oxford University Press.

Gibbon, E. (1961). Gibbon’s decline and fall of the Roman Empire. London: J.M. Dent .

Gibbon, E., & Gibbon, B. Ernle. (1907). Private letters of Edward Gibbon, 1753-1794. [S.l.]: New York, Fred de Fau.

Keynes, G. (1980). The library of Edward Gibbon: a catalogue. 2d ed. Godalming: St. Paul’s Bibliographies.