The idea of establishing the Göttingen Septuaginta-Unternehmen is rooted in the historical-philosophical tradition of the 19th century. Being part of this tradition, Paul Anton de Lagarde (1827–1891) postulated that history could only be fully appreciated through the preservation of our religious heritage through critical editions. Although Lagarde’s intentions were questionable, it was his life commitment to this claim that brought him to establish a project of reconstructing and publishing the original text of the Septuagint and to sow the seeds of the Unternehmen.
When after extensive spadework Lagarde finally “came to rest”—as his successor Julius Wellhausen (1844–1918) put it—, it was left to his sole pupil Alfred Rahlfs (1865–1935), together with the Göttingen Old Testament scholar Rudolf Smend (1851–1913), to undertake the first step towards the foundation of the Göttingen Septuaginta-Unternehmen. He did so by writing a memorandum dated 19 August 1907 and addressed to the Prussian Ministry of Religious, Educational and Medical Affairs (Preußisches Ministerium der Geistlichen, Unterrichts- und Medicinalangelegenheiten). Intensively promoted by prominent Göttingen scholars and backed by the Royal Academy of Sciences of Berlin, the Septuaginta-Unternehmen could be launched on 1 April 1908 as an institution governed by the Royal Society (today: Academy) of Sciences and Humanities of Göttingen. The Prussian Ministry and, from 1911 onwards, the Government of the German Empire provided financial security for the institute.
The names of the men who played a crucial role in the process of founding and developing the institute are illustrious. They impersonate an approach that was truly interdisciplinary in the modern sense of the word: operating within the methodological framework of Greek philology, they combined in their Septuagint research linguistics, Old and New Testament study as well as expertise in the field of patristic studies. Alongside Friedrich Leo (1851–1914) and Paul Wendland (1864–1915), two classical philologists who spared no efforts to promote the Septuaginta-Unternehmen, it was primarily Eduard Schwartz (1858–1940) who played a huge part in shaping the project of the institute. With very precise notes and memoranda he outlined the specific steps and difficulties of the mammoth project that was to be undertaken. The detailed character of this survey stands in sharp contrast with Rahlfs’ original plans (and prognoses, according to which he estimated in 1907 that “the enterprise will take 30 years…”). Also the Old Testament scholars Wellhausen and Smend, the linguist Jacob Wackernagel (1853–1938) and the patristic scholar Nathanael Bonwetsch (1848–1925) feature among the institute’s founding fathers. Early interdisciplinarity is also reflected in the fact that throughout the history of the Septuaginta-Unternehmen, which spans more than a century, the chairs of the executive committee have been held by classical philologists (Schwartz, 1908–1909; Kurt Latte, 1952–1956), linguists (Wackernagel, 1909–1915), Old Testament scholars (Alfred Bertholet, 1915–1928; Walter Zimmerli, 1970–1979; Rudolf Smend, 1979–2001; Reinhard Gregor Kratz, since 2001) and New Testament scholars (Walter Bauer, 1928–1946; Joachim Jeremias, 1956–1970).
The following passage from one of the early memoranda (1909) of the committee gives the impression that the interdisciplinarity that characterized the early research of the institute occasionally collided with certain restrictions of confessional and national nature:
“The entire Christian world as well as philological and historical scholarship is greatly interested in the task of reconstructing the original Septuagint, but this task can only be undertaken by German philologists and only on Protestant soil.”
Even back then, however, the emphatic reference to Protestantism met a mixed response among the committee members. Moreover, the international correspondence produced by Rahlfs in his function as the first director of the institute (1908–1933) clearly demonstrates how much the Göttingen edition project was designed for international cooperation, even in its early stages. It was the Catholic Bible scholar Joseph Ziegler whose edition of the prophetic books (1939–1957) shaped the first phase of the of the Göttingen editio maior and who helped the project to shake off the last confessional constraints.
The international character of the institute was fully established in 1966 with the appointment of the Canadian professor of Oriental studies and Old Testament John William Wevers. His edition of the Pentateuch (1974–1991) characterizes the second publication phase of the institute together with the editions of the deuterocanonical books by Robert Hanhart, the longstanding director of the Septuaginta-Unternehmen (1961–1993). A further expansion took place with the appointment of the Septuagint scholar Anneli Aejmelaeus, a member of the so-called Helsinki School, as director of the institute in the years 1993–2000.
The interconfessional, interreligious and international orientation of the Göttingen Septuaginta-Unternehmen is most clearly visible in its subject matter: the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which was produced by Jews in the Alexandrine diaspora and later became part of Christian Scripture.