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“Augustine on The Septuagint”

from City of God, 18. 41-43

In this extract Augustine gives valuable information about the background to this Greek translation of the Old Testament and the esteem in which it was held by the Christians of his day.

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Peter Brown biography


Allan Fitzgerald


Henry Chadwick
a short indroduction


William Harmless.
Extracts from several of Augustine's main works


Henry Chadwick's translation of "Confessions"


R.W.Dyson's translation of "The City of God"


R.P.H. Green's translation of "On Christian Teaching"


Gareth Matthews' translation of "On The Trinity" (books 8 - 15)


Chapter 41.—About the Discord of Philosophic Opinion, and the Concord of the Scriptures that are Held as Canonical by the Church.

But let us omit further examination of history, and return to the philosophers from whom we digressed to these things. They seem to have labored in their studies for no other end than to find out how to live in a way proper for laying hold of blessedness. Why, then, have the disciples dissented from their masters, and the fellow-disciples from one another, except because as men they have sought after these things by human sense and human reasonings? Now, although there might be among them a desire of glory, so that each wished to be thought wiser and more acute than another, and in no way addicted to the judgment of others, but the inventor of his own dogma and opinion, yet I may grant that there were some, or even very many of them, whose love of truth severed them from their teachers or fellow-disciples, that they might strive for what they thought was the truth, whether it was so or not. But what can human misery do, or how or where can it reach forth, so as to attain blessedness, if divine authority does not lead it? Finally, let our authors, among whom the canon of the sacred books is fixed and bounded, be far from disagreeing in any respect. It is not without good reason, then, that not merely a few people prating in the schools and gymnasia in captious disputations, but so many and great people, both learned and unlearned, in countries and cities, have believed that God spoke to them or by them, i.e. the canonical writers, when they wrote these books. There ought, indeed, to be but few of them, lest on account of their multitude what ought to be religiously esteemed should grow cheap; and yet not so few that their agreement should not be wonderful. For among the multitude of philosophers, who in their works have left behind them the monuments of their dogmas, no one will easily find any who agree in all their opinions. But to show this is too long a task for this work.

But what author of any sect is so approved in this demon-worshipping city, that the rest who have differed from or opposed him in opinion have been disapproved? The Epicureans asserted that human affairs were not under the providence of the gods; and the Stoics, holding the opposite opinion, agreed that they were ruled and defended by favorable and tutelary gods. Yet were not both sects famous among the Athenians? I wonder, then, why Anaxagoras was accused of a crime for saying that the sun was a burning stone, and denying that it was a god at all; while in the same city Epicurus flourished gloriously and lived securely, although he not only did not believe that the sun or any star was a god, but contended that neither Jupiter nor any of the gods dwelt in the world at all, so that the prayers and supplications of men might reach them! Were not both Aristippus and Antisthenes there, two noble philosophers and both Socratic? yet they placed the chief end of life within bounds so diverse and contradictory, that the first made the delight of the body the chief good, while the other asserted that man was made happy mainly by the virtue of the mind. The one also said that the wise man should flee from the republic; the other, that he should administer its affairs. Yet did not each gather disciples to follow his own sect? Indeed, in the conspicuous and well-known porch, in gymnasia, in gardens, in places public and private, they openly strove in bands each for his own opinion, some asserting there was one world, others innumerable worlds; some that this world had a beginning, others that it had not; some that it would perish, others that it would exist always; some that it was governed by the divine mind, others by chance and accident; some that souls are immortal, others that they are mortal,—and of those who asserted their immortality, some said they transmigrated through beasts, others that it was by no means so; while of those who asserted their mortality, some said they perished immediately after the body, others that they survived either a little while or a longer time, but not always; some fixing supreme good in the body, some in the mind, some in both; others adding to the mind and body external good things; some thinking that the bodily senses ought to be trusted always, some not always, others never. Now what people, senate, power, or public dignity of the impious city has ever taken care to judge between all these and other well-nigh innumerable dissensions of the philosophers, approving and accepting some, and disapproving and rejecting others? Has it not held in its bosom at random, without any judgment, and confusedly, so many controversies of men at variance, not about fields, houses, or anything of a pecuniary nature, but about those things which make life either miserable or happy? Even if some true things were said in it, yet falsehoods were uttered with the same licence; so that such a city has not amiss received the title of the mystic Babylon. For Babylon means confusion, as we remember we have already explained. Nor does it matter to the devil, its king, how they wrangle among themselves in contradictory errors, since all alike deservedly belong to him on account of their great and varied impiety.

But that nation, that people, that city, that republic, these Israelites, to whom the oracles of God were entrusted, by no means confounded with similar licence false prophets with the true prophets; but, agreeing together, and differing in nothing, acknowledged and upheld the authentic authors of their sacred books. These were their philosophers, these were their sages, divines, prophets, and teachers of probity and piety. Whoever was wise and lived according to them was wise and lived not according to men, but according to God who hath spoken by them. If sacrilege is forbidden there, God hath forbidden it. If it is said, “Honor thy father and thy mother,” God hath commanded it. If it is said, “Thou shall not commit adultery, Thou shall not kill, Thou shall not steal,” and other similar commandments, not human lips but the divine oracles have enounced them. Whatever truth certain philosophers, amid their false opinions, were able to see, and strove by laborious discussions to persuade men of,—such as that God had made this world, and Himself most providently governs it, or of the nobility of the virtues, of the love of country, of fidelity in friendship, of good works and everything pertaining to virtuous manners, although they knew not to what end and what rule all these things were to be referred,—all these, by words prophetic, that is, divine, although spoken by men, were commended to the people in that city, and not inculcated by contention in arguments, so that he who should know them might be afraid of contemning, not the wit of men, but the oracle of God.

Chapter 42.—By What Dispensation of God’s Providence the Sacred Scriptures of the Old Testament Were Translated Out of Hebrew into Greek, that They Might Be Made Known to All the Nations.

One of the Ptolemies, kings of Egypt, desired to know and have these sacred books. For after Alexander of Macedon, who is also styled the Great, had by his most wonderful, but by no means enduring power, subdued the whole of Asia, yea, almost the whole world, partly by force of arms, partly by terror, and, among other kingdoms of the East, had entered and obtained Judea also, on his death his generals did not peaceably divide that most ample kingdom among them for a possession, but rather dissipated it, wasting all things by wars. Then Egypt began to have the Ptolemies as her kings. The first of them, the son of Lagus, carried many captive out of Judea into Egypt. But another Ptolemy, called Philadelphus, who succeeded him, permitted all whom he had brought under the yoke to return free; and more than that, sent kingly gifts to the temple of God, and begged Eleazar, who was the high priest, to give him the Scriptures, which he had heard by report were truly divine, and therefore greatly desired to have in that most noble library he had made. When the high priest had sent them to him in Hebrew, he afterwards demanded interpreters of him, and there were given him seventy-two, out of each of the twelve tribes six men, most learned in both languages, to wit, the Hebrew and Greek and their translation is now by custom called the Septuagint. It is reported, indeed, that there was an agreement in their words so wonderful, stupendous, and plainly divine, that when they had sat at this work, each one apart (for so it pleased Ptolemy to test their fidelity), they differed from each other in no word which had the same meaning and force, or, in the order of the words; but, as if the translators had been one, so what all had translated was one, because in very deed the one Spirit had been in them all. And they received so wonderful a gift of God, in order that the authority of these Scriptures might be commended not as human but divine, as indeed it was, for the benefit of the nations who should at some time believe, as we now see them doing.

Chapter 43.—Of the Authority of the Septuagint Translation, Which, Saving the Honor of the Hebrew Original, is to Be Preferred to All Translations.

For while there were other interpreters who translated these sacred oracles out of the Hebrew tongue into Greek, as Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion, and also that translation which, as the name of the author is unknown, is quoted as the fifth edition, yet the Church has received this Septuagint translation just as if it were the only one; and it has been used by the Greek Christian people, most of whom are not aware that there is any other. From this translation there has also been made a translation in the Latin tongue, which the Latin churches use. Our times, however, have enjoyed the advantage of the presbyter Jerome, a man most learned, and skilled in all three languages, who translated these same Scriptures into the Latin speech, not from the Greek, but from the Hebrew. But although the Jews acknowledge this very learned labor of his to be faithful, while they contend that the Septuagint translators have erred in many places, still the churches of Christ judge that no one should be preferred to the authority of so many men, chosen for this very great work by Eleazar, who was then high priest; for even if there had not appeared in them one spirit, without doubt divine, and the seventy learned men had, after the manner of men, compared together the words of their translation, that what pleased them all might stand, no single translator ought to be preferred to them; but since so great a sign of divinity has appeared in them, certainly, if any other translator of their Scriptures from the Hebrew into any other tongue is faithful, in that case he agrees with these seventy translators, and if he is not found to agree with them, then we ought to believe that the prophetic gift is with them. For the same Spirit who was in the prophets when they spoke these things was also in the seventy men when they translated them, so that assuredly they could also say something else, just as if the prophet himself had said both, because it would be the same Spirit who said both; and could say the same thing differently, so that, although the words were not the same, yet the same meaning should shine forth to those of good understanding; and could omit or add something, so that even by this it might be shown that there was in that work not human bondage, which the translator owed to the words, but rather divine power, which filled and ruled the mind of the translator. Some, however, have thought that the Greek copies of the Septuagint version should be emended from the Hebrew copies; yet they did not dare to take away what the Hebrew lacked and the Septuagint had, but only added what was found in the Hebrew copies and was lacking in the Septuagint, and noted them by placing at the beginning of the verses certain marks in the form of stars which they call asterisks. And those things which the Hebrew copies have not, but the Septuagint have, they have in like manner marked at the beginning of the verses by horizontal spit-shaped marks like those by which we denote ounces; and many copies having these marks are circulated even in Latin. But we cannot, without inspecting both kinds of copies, find out those things which are neither omitted nor added, but expressed differently, whether they yield another meaning not in itself unsuitable, or can be shown to explain the same meaning in another way. If, then, as it behoves us, we behold nothing else in these Scriptures than what the Spirit of God has spoken through men, if anything is in the Hebrew copies and is not in the version of the Seventy, the Spirit of God did not choose to say it through them, but only through the prophets. But whatever is in the Septuagint and not in the Hebrew copies, the same Spirit chose rather to say through the latter, thus showing that both were prophets. For in that manner He spoke as He chose, some things through Isaiah, some through Jeremiah, some through several prophets, or else the same thing through this prophet and through that. Further, whatever is found in both editions, that one and the same Spirit willed to say through both, but so as that the former preceded in prophesying, and the latter followed in prophetically interpreting them; because, as the one Spirit of peace was in the former when they spoke true and concordant words, so the selfsame one Spirit hath appeared in the latter, when, without mutual conference they yet interpreted all things as if with one mouth.





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original Latin text
from City of God, Book 18, chapters 41 - 43
City of God, 18. 41-43   XVIII
Civitas Dei
De Civitate Dei
Augustine's views about the Septuagint
Septuagint translation of the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures
Migne Latin
Patrologiae Latinae Cursus Completus
Patrologia Latina


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