Alexandria LibraryAccording to a legend preserved in the so-called Letter of Aristeas (no one knows who actually wrote it), the Septuagint translation of the Bible was commissioned by Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt so that he would have a copy of the Jewish lawbook for his famous library in Alexandria. To secure the cooperation of Eleazer, the Jewish high priest in Jerusalem, Ptolemy set free the many Jews who had been sold into slavery by Ptolemy’s father after his military campaign in Palestine in 312 B.C. In gratitude, Eleazer the high priest sent 72 elders from Jerusalem (six from each tribe) to Alexandria, where they were royally entertained and finally secluded on an island to undertake their work. In 72 days of joint labor they completed the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. The translation was accepted and sanctified by the Jewish community, and any changes were officially forbidden. Ptolemy then sent the translators home with costly gifts.

Turning from legend to fact, the Septuagint is a Jewish translation of the third century B.C.E., made for diaspora Jews in Egypt whose language was Greek and who no longer understood Hebrew. It is the first known translation of the Bible. Later, the early Christian Church adopted the Septuagint as divinely inspired and this version became the basis of the Latin translation known as the Vulgate. The Septuagint contains a number of books which are not in the Hebrew Bible (or Masoretic text as it is called by scholars), but based on their inclusion in the Septuagint, these books were also included in the Latin Vulgate. That is why such books as Judith, II Maccabees, The Wisdom of Solomon and Ben Sira, are considered canonical by the Roman Catholic Church, it was denounced by contemporaneous Jews. Although originally a Jewish translation, the Septuagint has been preserved only in Christian sources.

The Letter of Aristeas tells us how the Septuagint came into being.

The Letter of Aristeas purports to be written in the Egyptian metropolis of Alexandria by a certain Aristeas to a certain Philocrates, whom he calls his “brother.” The subject is how the Pentateuch—in Hebrew, the Torah, the Five Books of Moses—happened to be translated from Hebrew into Greek. According to the letter, the intellectually curious Ptolemy II Philadelphus 285–247 B.C., who ruled his empire from Alexandria, wanted his librarian Demetrius to assemble a library containing a copy of every book in the world. When Demetrius had collected over 200,000 books, he so advised the king, adding that he hoped to increase the number soon to 500,000. Among the books still missing was “the lawbooks of the Jews [which] are worth translation and inclusion in your royal library”

The translators were distinguished and knowledgeable:

“Eleazar selected men of the highest merit and of excellent education due to the distinction of their parentage; they had not only mastered the Jewish literature, but had made a serious study of that of the Greeks as well. They were therefore well qualified for the embassy, and brought it to fruition as occasion demanded; they had a tremendous natural facility for the negotiations and questions arising from the Law, with the middle way as their commendable ideal; they forsook any uncouth and uncultured attitude of mind; in the same way they rose above conceit and contempt of other people, and instead engaged in discourse and listening to and answering each and every one, as is meet and right. They all observed these aims, and went further in wishing to excel each other in them; they were, one and all, worthy of their leader and his outstanding qualities” (verses 121–122).

The work was apparently divided up, for we are told that the translators compared the results with one another: “They set to completing their several tasks, reaching agreement among themselves on each by comparing versions” (verse 302). when they could not reach agreement by consensus, the majority ruled; we are told in the librarian Demetrius’s memorandum to the king (quoted in the letter) that 72 translators (six from each tribe) would be used and that the “text [would be] agreed [to] by the majority” (verse 32). In this way, Demetrius concluded, the “achievement of accuracy in the translation” would be assured, and “we may produce an outstanding version in a manner worthy both of the contents and of your purpose” (verse 32).

This procedure—individuals working on their own tasks and then comparing their work in order to produce a finished product—is in general exactly the way translation committees operate to this very day. Only the palatial surroundings and the uninterrupted work schedule separate the Alexandrian translators from their modern counterparts!

“Handsomely provided” with “all that they would require,” the Jewish elders maintained a rapid pace: “The outcome was such that in 72 days the business of translation was completed”

The author’s purpose was really to establish and defend the authority of this Greek translation of the Pentateuch. That purpose lies implicit in much of the letter. It comes to the fore, near the end, in the description of the public reading and ratification of the translation:

“Demetrius assembled the company of the Jews in the place where the task of the translation had been finished, and read it to all, in the presence of the translators, who received a great ovation from the crowded audience for being responsible for great blessings.… As the books were read, the priests stood up, with the elders from among the translators and from the representatives of the ‘Community,’ and with the leaders of the people, and said, ‘Since this version has been made rightly and reverently, and in every respect accurately, it is good that this should remain exactly so, and there should be no revision.’ There was general approval of what they said, and they commanded that a curse should be laid, as was their custom, on anyone who should alter the version by any addition or change to any part of the written text, or any deletion either. This was a good step taken, to ensure that the words were preserved completely and permanently in perpetuity”

Source: Ben-Zvi, Itzhak. The Exiled and the Redeemed (p. 288); How the Septuagint Differs. Biblical Archaeology Review 2.2 (Jun 1976): 33-34, 38.; Mission To Alexandria Truth and legend about the creation of the Septuagint, the first Bible translation By Leonard J. Greenspoon.; The English translation used in this article is from R.J.H. Shutt, “Letter of Aristeas (A New Translation and Introduction),” which can be found in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 2, ed. James H. Charlesworth (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985).

The king (e.g. Ptolemy II Philadelphus) was delighted. Suddenly imbued with a boundless admiration for the ancient biblical legislator, he exclaimed with astonishment: “How could such a masterpiece possibly fail to attract the attention of our poets and historians?” The sovereign’s enthusiasm was shared by his faithful subjects, the Jews of Egypt. They were to celebrate the occasion by an annual feast on the island of Pharus, a custom will practiced during Philo’s time, in the first century C.E.

Source: Joseph Mélèze Modrzejewski. The Jews of Egypt. (p. 102)

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