The Song of Simeon and the Bible
The Great Library of Alexandria (established during the reign of Pharaoh Ptolemy II Philadelphus, ca. 283-246 BC, and originally organized by a student of Aristotle) contained innumerable manuscripts, works and scrolls from all over the world.
In order to ensure everything possible was included in their library, the Egyptians even required their citizens (and even foreign travelers through Egypt) to hand in their own personal scrolls for copying so that they could be added to the overall collection. It is during the reign of Ptolemy II that the sacred scriptures of the Hebrew people were translated into the Greek language—which was the lingua franca of the world at thie time—in order to be included in the Alexandrian library’s already impressive collection of scrolls.
In order to have the scriptures accurately translated into Greek, Ptolemy II summoned seventy scribes from the Hebrew people to Alexandria. These were scribes and elders who were familiar with both the languages and the scriptures themselves. Initially, only the Pentateuch (the first five “Books of Moses”) was translated, with the rest of the scrolls to follow. According to a certain tradition, all seventy scribes ended up translating identical copies of the books from Hebrew into Greek, with no variations whatsoever.
As a result, this translation of the scriptures came to be known as the Septuagint (“seventy”) as a tip of the hat to these seventy scribes who performed an amazing feat in their translation efforts. This use of the Septuagint (often abbreviated as “LXX,” the Roman numerals for 70) spread like wildfire throughout the Greek-speaking Jewish world, and became the primary version of what we now call the Old Testament. It was so commonly used at the time of Christ and the Apostles that virtually all of their references to “scripture” come from this translation, and many of the parables, stories and other wisdom teachings that both Christ and His Apostles reference are from the Septuagint (and are not found at all in the medieval Masoretic text, ca. 10th century AD).
The Septuagint was “the Bible,” so to speak, for the Apostolic Church and has been received as the scriptures of the Hebrews all the way down to this day in both the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox traditions (in fact, even Ethiopian Jews use the LXX as their received text to this day). Despite the fact that Protestants claim there was a “silent period” between the end of their revised Old Testament canon and the time of the New Testament, Orthodox Christians believe that God continued to speak to His people, that prophets still arose (the NT proves this, referring to Anna as a “prophetess” in Luke 2:36 and to Simeon elsewhere in Luke 2, who both predated the NT era in their lifetime), as preserved alone by the LXX text.
However, none of this would have happened, possibly, were it not for the faith of Simeon the elder, called in Orthodox liturgical tradition Simeon the God-receiver, one of the seventy scribes of Israel who helped translate the Septuagint.
According to tradition, while translating the scroll of Isaiah from Hebrew into Greek, Simeon came upon the text that reads: ”Behold, a virgin shall conceive in the womb, and shall bring forth a Son” (Isaiah 7:14). Simeon found it hard to believe that “virgin” was the correct word in this passage, given the impossibility of a virgin to conceive a child. When he was about to replace the word “virgin” with simply “woman,” an angel of the Lord appeared to him. This angel informed him that “virgin” was, in fact, the correct word and that he would live to see the day when this would be fulfilled—the birth of the Messiah of Israel by a pure virgin. Simeon was faithful and so he obeyed the angel and kept the word as “virgin,” ensuring that his manuscript would match the others (which in turn led to the widespread popularity and acceptance of the Septuagint as inspired scripture, an attitude carried by Christ and the Apostles, no less).
And so, when we read the Gospel account of Christ being brought to the Temple as an infant, the elder Simeon is still there after 200 years, waiting to see the Messiah of Israel with his own eyes, just as the angel had promised him. Simeon immediately recognizes that Jesus is in fact the Christ (the Messiah) of Israel, and responds appropriately: “Lord, now let Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word, for my eyes have seen Your salvation, a Light to lighten the Gentiles and the Glory of Your people Israel” (Gospel Acc. to Luke 2:25-32). This passage, the Song of Simeon, is known in the West as the nunc dimittis, meaning “now dismiss” from its appearance in the Latin Vulgate.
Simeon could now rest in peace and depart this mortal world, having seen the fulfillment of the promise that God had made to him centuries before.
Unfortunately, many Bibles in America today do not use the Septuagint and many Christians do not know the back story for this Gospel. With the faith of Simeon, we can truly see Christ as He is, and we can receive the fulness of God’s revelation to and for us as His beloved people. If you are in a place where the Septuagint is not received as Scripture, perhaps you should consider finding the Church that has preserved the Bible of Christ and the Apostles all the way down to this very day.
Vincent Martini has a BA in Philosophy from Indiana University and is an Orthodox convert / layman in the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America. He resides in northwest Arkansas.