According to legend, in the 3rd Century BC, King Ptolemy II of Egypt commissioned a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. Seventy-two of the best Jewish scholars were gathered together in the capitol city of Alexandria and they miraculously translated the whole thing in exactly seventy-two days. From the number of scholars and the time in which they did this remarkable work came the name of the translation: Septuagint, or "Seventy".
Actually, the work seems to have been developed between the 3rd and 1st Centuries, and some of the later additions were books not recognized by Jewish scholars as canonical.
At the time the translation was made, Alexandria was a major center of Judaism. Many Jews lived outside of Judea and spoke Hebrew rarely if ever. Even inside Judea, Greek was a common trade language. A translation of Scriptures into the lingua franca of the day made sense.
The early Christian Church used the Septuagint out of convenience, since many of their Gentile converts were Greek or spoke Greek; and hardly any of them beyond the first wave of believers knew any Hebrew. When the writers of the Gospels, or the Apostolic Letters quoted from God's Word, they invariably used the Septuagint.
Around the 2nd Century AD, the Jews stopped using the Septuagint themselves. This might be because the translation had become associated with the Christians, or it could be because the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 by the Romans forced many Jews to flee eastward where Aramaic was spoken more than Greek.
The early Christian Church followed the opinion of Jewish scholars Philo of Alexandria and Josephus that the Septuagint was divinely inspired, but later scholars questioned its reliability. There are certain differences between the Septuagint and the Hebrew Masoretic Text of the same period. Most of these differences are trivial; some are subtle, but a few are significant. Perhaps the most famous of these is Isaiah 7:14 "…Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." In the Masoretic Text, the verse refers to "a young woman"; but in the Septuagint she is called "a virgin." St. Matthew, writing his Gospel in Greek, was more familiar with the Septuagint version and identified this prophecy with Christ1.
Game and Story Use
- A plot could involve a group of scholars translating a holy book. Perhaps nerfarious forces want to alter the outcome of the translation.
- Or perhaps a group of zealots feel that the translation is a desecration of the holy text. Can the PCs stop them?
- More prosaically, a translation of a major text can be used to mark an epochal moment in a religion as it spreads to a new group of believers - or is democratised by translation into the vernacular.
- Of course the potential for idiomatic failures and dodgy translation leading to schisms in the faith cannot be ruled out…