Article: 6 Min

The History of the Septuagint and the Vulgate

by Bibles.net

Article: 6 Min

How Did We Get the Old Testament Canon?

by Bibles.net

You may have clicked on this article because the unfamiliar words “Septuagint” and “Vulgate” caught your eye. Hopefully, this article will make these words a bit more familiar to you.

Briefly, the Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. The Vulgate is the Latin translation of the whole Bible. We’d like to dive a bit into the history behind these important works.

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The History of The Septuagint

Centuries before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, a large number of Jewish communities lived outside of Palestine. In fact, at the time of Jesus’ birth, Jews remained scattered across the Roman Empire, inhabiting lands like Persia and Egypt. Nevertheless, these refugee Jewish communities never loosened ties with their historic religion from their Scriptures.

Following Alexander the Great’s (356-323 BC) victorious expeditions across the Mediterranean, these Jewish communities readily adopted Greek culture and immersed themselves in the Greek language.

This caused a problem: These Diaspora Jews suffered from language amnesia. They forgot the Hebrew language of their homeland, which sparked problems for them both in reading and understanding their Scriptures (the Old Testament).

In an effort to remedy this situation, they decided to translate their Hebrew Scriptures into Greek.

So around the third century BC, Jewish scholars gathered in a major Egyptian city (Alexandria) to translate their Hebrew Scriptures into Greek.

As the ancient legend records, seventy Jewish scholars met and worked independently from each other on their own translations. When they all finished translating the Old Testament, they praised God for his inspiration. As the story goes, every single one of them had the exact same translation!

Though the details of the story may have been exaggerated, we do know that a committed group of Jewish men translated a highly accurate rendition of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek.

This translation became known as the Septuagint, which comes from the Latin word for seventy.

Religious historian Justo L. González noted the significance of the Septuagint. He says, “It is the version of Scripture quoted by most New Testament authors, and it profoundly influenced the formation of early Christian vocabulary.”

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The History of the Vulgate

In AD 382, Pope Damasus I commissioned a priest and theologian named Jerome to render a better Latin translation of the Bible. The current Latin translation of the Bible (the Vetus Latina, or “Old Latin”) had a bad reputation for not being very accurate. As religious historian Fran van Liere remarked, it was known for, “paying too much attention to the literary qualities of its Latin.”

In other words, it was too much of a word-for-word translation. It was difficult for readers to understand the meaning of the text. Therefore, Jerome set out around AD 390 to render a Latin translation of the Bible that was both reliable and accurate.

Jerome chose to make a new translation of the Old Testament while working from a document called the proto-Masoretic text (Van Liere 87). The proto-Masoretic text was a Hebrew text. This meant that Jerome returned to the original language as the source and foundation for his Old Testament translations.

However, when he translated the New Testament, Jerome only revised the Latin New Testament. That is, when translating the four Gospels, he did not consult the Greek manuscripts, but rather “cleaned-up” the Latin from the Vetus Latina. He also never translated the rest of the New Testament (Van Liere 87). Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible became known in the sixteenth century as the “Vulgate” or “the common one.”

Though Jerome completed his translation in 405 AD, it only became widely used in the eighth or ninth century in Western Christendom (Van Liere 82). Gradually, people stopped copying the Vetus Latina.

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The Importance of the Septuagint and Vulgate

In this brief history of the Greek and Latin Bible, we see a common thread. That is, both translations had an indispensable purpose. The Septuagint made Scripture accessible to displaced Jews, and the Vulgate gave Latin readers a more accurate version of Scripture.

The Old Testament, for many, is a foreign document. Studying the Old Testament canon can help us to familiarize ourselves with this gift that is part of God’s Word. 

By Jesus’ time, the Hebrew “Scriptures” included all the books in our present-day Old Testament. We don’t know, however, exactly how these books were recognized as God’s Word and put into the canon.

Before considering one possible scenario, let’s look at the organizational differences between the Jewish Scriptures and the Christian Old Testament. While the content is exactly the same, the ordering of the biblical books is vastly different. Let’s look at the ordering of the Old Testament canon.

Ordering the Old Testament

The Christian Old Testament has 39 books ordered by book type: legal (5), historical (12), wisdom poetry (5), and prophetic (17). 

 Thus, the last book in the present-day Old Testament is the last prophet, Malachi.  

The Hebrew Scriptures take a different shape. The Hebrew Scriptures divide into 24 books, combining books like 1 and 2 Samuel into a single volume. This is also the case with 1 and 2 Chronicles, 1 and 2 Kings, as well as Ezra and Nehemiah. It also combines the last 12 prophetic books (commonly known as the Minor Prophets) into one. This 24-book collection is known as the Tanakh, which is an acronym for the three divisions: Torah (Law), Nevi’im (prophets), and Ketuvim (writings).

Because of this arrangement, the last book in the Hebrew Scriptures is Chronicles. 

In the New Testament, we see clear evidence of this threefold division, whenever we encounter the phrase “the Law and the Prophets” (e.g., Matthew 7:12; Romans 3:21). Jesus also specifically identifies these three divisions (Luke 24:44, where “Psalms” as the first book was commonly used to refer to the whole Writings). 

The Old Testament Canon’s Development

We have very little historical explanation for how exactly the books of the Hebrew Scripture came to be viewed as authoritative.  

Moses wrote the first portion of the Old Testament (Genesis to Deuteronomy) around 1500-1400 BC. Over the next millennium, many different people penned the rest of the Old Testament. These form two groups of books known as the Prophets and the Writings. But how did people know which of the Jewish writings were really God’s Word?

We find some evidence in the Old Testament itself (e.g., Exodus 24:3-7; Deuteronomy 31:26; 2 Kings 23:1-3; Nehemiah 8:1–9:38), some evidence in the New Testament as mentioned earlier, and some evidence from extra-biblical writings such as the works of the first-century Jewish historian Josephus. 

We also know that after Jerusalem’s destruction in AD 70 by the Romans, the Jews had a council at Jamnia in AD 90 to discuss, among other things, the canon. At this council, they “closed” the canon, determining the final list of which sacred writings, dated before Jesus, were truly God’s Word.  

F. F. Bruce, a Christian scholar, suggests the following:   

A common, and not unreasonable, account of the formation of the Old Testament canon is that it took shape in three stages, corresponding to the three divisions of the Hebrew Bible. The Law was first canonized (early in the period after the return from the Babylonian exile), the Prophets next (late in the third century BC). When these two collections were closed, everything else that was recognized as holy scripture had to go into the third division, the Writings, which remained open until the end of the first century AD, when it was ‘closed’ at Jamnia. (36)

Bruce notes that, although this is a popular view, there really is no solid evidence for it. We do know for a fact that the Jews debated about which books to include in the canon. For instance, they questioned both Esther and the Song of Songs because both books do not mention the name of God, and, at first glance, look to be non-religious. 

Other Jewish writings (the Apocrypha), written a few centuries before Jesus’ time, weren’t canonized by the Jews. Christians didn’t canonize them either, as Jesus never cited them as Scripture in the Gospels.

Reading the Old Testament

The Old Testament, like the New Testament, according to Christians, is a gift from God. Though it can feel difficult at times, we encourage you to read the whole Bible. Here at Bibles.net, we want to help you learn how to read the Bible for yourself.

Bibliography:

Bruce, F. F.. The Canon of Scripture. United States: InterVarsity Press, 1988.