Manuscripts of the Greek Old Testament

Manuscripts of the Greek Old Testament

Translated into Greek in Hellenistic Egypt, the Greek Old Testament was copied widely in Byzantium. Peter Toth surveys the history of this important text.

Written in Hebrew between the 11th and 2nd centuries BCE, the Hebrew Bible, known as the Old Testament in the Christian tradition, is a very special product of the Ancient Near East. Its uncompromising monotheism, complex moral regulations and specific view of history from the creation of the world to its prophesied destruction stand in sharp contrast to the flexible and international polytheism of ancient Greek and Roman religion. Judaism, therefore, was often viewed with suspicion in the ancient world. There was a general lack of interest in their sacred writings. The ground-breaking idea to translate this obscure collection into Greek was born in Hellenistic Egypt.

After its occupation by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE, Egypt became one of the most diverse cultural centres of classical antiquity. In addition to a Greek-speaking cultural elite and a large number of local Egyptians, the state of Alexander’s successors (known as the Ptolemaic Kingdom) included a rapidly-growing Jewish minority. It was probably the increasing significance of educated Greek-speaking Jews in Egypt that prompted the translation of the Old Testament into Greek in the 3rd century BCE.

The history of the translation project is recorded in a legendary letter sent by a certain Aristeas to his friend Philocrates.

The Septuagint

The Letter of Aristeas

Catena on the Octateuch (Burney MS 34 f001r)

In this 16th-century volume, a catena (commentary) on the first eight books of the Septuagint is preceded by the Letter of Aristeas (Burney MS 34)

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In this letter, often preserved in manuscripts as an introduction to the Greek Old Testament, Aristeas gives a detailed account of how the Pharaoh of Egypt (Ptolemy II Philadelphus, r. 283–246 BCE) wanted to enrich his famous library with a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, and so ordered a group of 70 scribes from Jerusalem to execute this task for him. Miraculously, the 70 translators finished their work in 70 days and produced 70 copies of exactly the same text individually. The outcome was immediately acknowledged as the authoritative version of Moses’ law known as the ‘Translation of the Seventy’, the Septuagint.

Although the historicity of Aristeas’ account of the translation-miracle is usually doubted, the significance of this early translation of the Old Testament can hardly be overestimated, because:

  • it represents a very early stage in the history of the Hebrew Bible that is centuries older than the standard (Masoretic) text of the Hebrew Scriptures (put together between the 6th–10th centuries)
  • as such an early form, it contains a lot of extra books that belonged to the Old Testament at that time, but were later removed from it and are not part of the English (King James) Bible either, such as the Letter of Jeremiah, Bel and the Dragon or the Book of Solomon’s Wisdom
  • it is this form of the Old Testament that is usually quoted in the Gospels and the New Testament
  • the 70 translators coined several long-lived iconic terms and concepts, such as the translation of the Messiah as ‘Christ’; the term ‘prophet’, ‘pharaoh’; the phrase ‘ages of ages’ and many more.

Being such an important and authoritative version, the Septuagint was quickly adopted in Jewish liturgical practice. Scrolls containing the Septuagint in Greek were used as the sacred reading (the Torah) in Greek-speaking synagogues throughout the Mediterranean.

The Exodus-Revelation papyrus

The Exodus-Revelation Papyrus (Papyrus 2053 f001r)

A 3rd-century papyrus fragment, with the text of Exodus on one side and Revelation on the other (Papyrus 2053)

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This papyrus is a fragment of such a liturgical roll, a Greek Torah that contains the Septuagint version of the Exodus (40: 26–32). The main importance of the fragment, however, stands in the fact that its verso – which, in the case of the Torah, is usually left blank – contains another text, the book of Revelation. It documents the Christian recycling of a Jewish scroll and gives insight into the very genesis of the Christian Bible with an Old and a New Testament.

The appearance of Christianity, which reframed the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint as the ‘Old Testament’ of God, had wide-reaching influence on the history and transmission of the Greek text of the Hebrew Bible in that:

  • apart from some early scholarly endeavours to produce complete bibles, like Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Alexandrinus, the modern concept of a complete bible with the Old and New Testaments (known as a pandect) was generally unknown in the Middle Ages
  • the Greek Old Testament was read and studied exclusively in the light of the New and, therefore, transmitted primarily in various interpretative contexts, such as liturgy and exegesis.

Old Testament lectionaries

The most common interpretative context of the Greek Old Testament was its use in Christian liturgy. In order to ensure their Christian interpretation, readings extracted from the Old Testament (mostly from Psalms, Genesis, Exodus and the Prophets) were embedded into the double context of New Testament readings and liturgical poetry. In accordance with this new function, Old Testament readings were not made from complete bibles or Old Testament manuscripts, but from a new collection which was produced to contain these reading-extracts in their appropriate liturgical setting. This new liturgical form of the Old Testament is the Prophets’ Lectionary (Prophetologion), which comprises Old Testament lections according to the calendar order of feasts.

Old Testament Lectionary (Prophetologion)

Lectionary of the Old Testament (Add MS 36660 f008r)

Created in the 12th century, this lectionary of the Old Testament shows how the text of the Septuagint was interpreted from a Christian perspective (Add MS 36660)

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This 12th-century prophetologion shows Old Testament readings for the Feast of the Epiphany (Exodus 15: 22-16: 1: Moses making the bitter brook sweet in the desert by his stick and Joshua 3: 15-17: the Arc of the Covenant making the Jordan flow backwards). The two extracts, both related to miracles with rivers, are connected by a series of short hymns with red initials (‘You have appeared, as the creator in creation, to enlighten those who sat in the darkness’), which ensures that Moses’ stick and the Arc stopping the Jordan are all understood as prefigurations of the incarnation and baptism of Christ, ‘the creator in creation’.

The commented Old Testament

In addition to collecting excerpts for liturgical or polemical purposes, the most efficient way to ensure that the Old Testament was understood in a Christian context was to include a simultaneous commentary right next to it. This special, commented, form of the Greek Old Testament manuscripts, where commentary accompanies, surrounds and sometimes even overflows the biblical text, is called a catena (literally a ‘chain’).

Octateuch with catena

Octateuch with catena (Add MS 35123 f085r)

A copy of the first eight books of the Old Testament with marginal commentary (catena) (Add MS 35123)

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This 12th-century copy of the five book of Moses, together with Joshua, Judges and Ruth, as the eight first books of the Old Testament (Octateuch), contains a massive amount of commentary around the text. Thanks to a masterful application of an elaborate reference code, the scribe established a constant connection between the biblical text and its explanation, which was taken from various works by different commentators, whose names are carefully marked with red in the text.

A very special type of catena-manuscript is one in which the interpretation is not written but depicted beside the biblical text. Such pictorial exegesis ensures an easy and simple way to convey the correct understanding of the Old Testament. After some early attempts to illustrate the Greek Old Testament, such as the Cotton Genesis from the 5th century, pictorial exegesis took a new turn after the restoration of the images in Byzantium in 842 AD. A large number of illustrated Octateuchs and Psalters were produced soon after this date, where the interpretation is lavishly depicted beside the text.

The Bristol Psalter

The Bristol Psalter (Add MS 40731 f074v)

The Bristol Psalter, made in the 11th century, contains many exegetical illustrations of the text of the Psalms (Add MS 40731)

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The Theodore Psalter

Theodore Psalter

The Theodore Psalter, finished in 1066, goes beyond exegesis to find parallels between the words of the Psalms and the Byzantine conflict over sacred images in the 8th and 9th centuries (Add MS 19352)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

  • Dr Peter Toth
  • Peter Toth earned his MA in Egyptology and Classics and his PhD in Classics. After a 10-year curatorship of medieval manuscripts at the University Library Budapest, he had various research projects at The Warburg Institute and King’s College London before he joined the British Library in 2016 as curator of ancient and medieval manuscripts. His main interest is in cultural interaction in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages via translations of texts and ideas from one language and tradition to the other.