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Larry Perkins Ph.D.

The First Major Translation Project in History –
the Challenge of Cultural Change

It was the beginning of the third century before Christ. Alexander the Great had died and his empire divided among four generals. Greek language and culture swept through the lands of the Eastern Mediterranean, including Palestine. Large numbers of Jewish people were relocating to the emerging metropolis of Alexandria in Egypt. Caught up in all of this change and ferment Jewish people living in Egypt adopted the Greek language and were losing their ability to read and understand Hebrew, the language in which their sacred scriptures were written. Alexandria was an intellectual centre, containing one of the great libraries in antiquity. The king of Egypt at that time desired to include every major writing in this collection. When he heard about the Hebrew scriptures, he wanted a copy (at least this is how the story emerges in later writers) and mandated the librarian to have a translation made and placed in his collection.

Probably the convergence of various factors stimulated the first major translation project in human history – the translation of the five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) from Hebrew into Greek. The impact of this project still affects us today because the names we use to describe these books in our Bibles reflect the Greek names, not the Hebrew names.

This translation project has had influence far beyond the imagination of those who initiated it and actually did it. For example, this translation or later revisions of it was used by the New Testament writers as the biblical text they tended to quote in their letters and Gospels. As the Apostles led the church to implement the Great Commission beyond the borders of Palestine, they used the Greek translation of the Old Testament as their primary scriptures. When Paul talks to Timothy about the scriptures he has known “from infancy” (2 Timothy 3:15), he is probably referring to the Greek translation of the Old Testament because Timothy was a product of the Jewish dispersion in Asia Minor.

When Christians today find themselves living in new cultural situations, translation of the scriptures into the language of that culture becomes a primary means, if not a necessity, for establishing a living church.

One of the more significant decisions made by the translators was the selection of the word LORD to translate God’s proper name Yahweh (Jehovah). In the New Testament Jesus is also described by this same term, i.e. the Lord Jesus Christ. On several occasions where the New Testament writer is quoting from an Old Testament text that describes Yahweh’s (the LORD’s) activity, the context makes it clear that the “Lord Jesus Christ” is in fact being identified as Yahweh. Paul’s message in Romans 10:9-13 blends references from Isaiah 28:16 and Joel 2:32 with the confession that “Jesus is Lord.” However, the “LORD” in Isaiah 28 and Joel 2 is Yahweh, but the “Lord” in Romans 10 is Jesus. The implications for the deity of Jesus are considerable.

When Christians today find themselves living in new cultural situations, translation of the scriptures into the language of that culture becomes a primary means, if not a necessity, for establishing a living church. The initiative taken three centuries before Jesus came continues to serve as a model for contemporary Bible translation. The issues those Jewish translators encountered remain the same issues modern Christians face as they seek to contextualize the Gospel without changing it.

The Septuagint Institute at ACTS Seminaries (Septuagint is the technical name given to the Greek Translation of the Old Testament) seeks to enable research into this translation and its continuing influence within the Christian world today.

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