By Elysia McColley
Imagine that your family’s ancestry is Scottish, but you have lived your entire life in the United States. You only speak English, and the English that you speak is a different dialect than the English that many Scots speak. You decide one day that you want to connect more with your heritage, so you and your family take a trip to Scotland.
When you arrive, you are surprised to realize that in addition to different dialects of English, there are ancient Scottish languages, including different dialects of Scots and Scottish Gaelic. You discover that your ancestors spoke one of these Scottish dialects and even left behind some writings, which you are eager to read. The problem is that you don’t speak the same language as your ancestors.
The solution is simple: you get a translator. If you want to be really precise, you get two translators and compare the translated texts that they produce.
The earliest known translation of the Old Testament from its original Hebrew was completed in about 250 BCE, and it was known as the Septuagint. Much of the Mediterranean, including Judea, had come under the influence of Greece and then Rome; with the Jewish diaspora following the exile, many Jews lived outside of Judea and spoke Greek rather than Hebrew. Similar to the above example of an American of Scottish descent, these Jews wanted to be able to read and understand their scriptures. The solution was that a group of scribes translated the Bible from Hebrew into Greek in the text we know as the Septuagint.
The fact that the Old Testament was translated from Hebrew into Greek does not mean that it was corrupted or changed. Rather, it means that the text became preserved in two languages instead of one, so the text was actually preserved better than it would have been otherwise.
Granted, there were some small variations between the Septuagint and the Hebrew Old Testament. Those variations are to be expected, given the immense size of the Old Testament and the number of scribes who worked on the translation (tradition holds that there were 72, but that number is likely very conservative). Jewish scribes recognized these inconsistencies and worked to correct them; however, they don’t affect the overall meaning of the text.
By the fourth century AD, Greek was no longer the predominant language throughout the Mediterranean. In 382, a theologian named Jerome used the Septuagint to create a translation of the Old Testament in the common language, Latin, in a text that came to be known as the Vulgate (from the word “vulgar,” which means “common”). Meanwhile, the Septuagint was also used to translate the Old Testament into the Egyptian language of Coptic as early was 200AD. This means that the entire text of the Old Testament was preserved in a minimum of four languages.
Jerome’s Vulgate was used by the Roman Catholic Church throughout the Middle Ages, while other churches, such as the Greek Orthodox, held onto the Septuagint. Christians in Egypt, Palestine, and other “Middle Eastern” countries relied on the Coptic translation and other translations that were probably derived from the Coptic text.
Because of the Christian use of the Septuagint, many Jews stopped using it and went back to using the original Hebrew text. They preserved the text in its original language so well that today, over 99% of the content between the Hebrew and the translated texts is virtually identical.
That accuracy is so high that you would be hard-pressed to get your Scottish translators to do a better job regarding your ancestors’ writings.