Ptolemy II Philadelphus, the Greek ruler of Egypt (c.288-247
BCE), had a magnificent library in the city of Alexandria, consisting of 995
books representing many cultures around the world. "Let us add another
five books, to make a thousand," the king said to his minister Aristeas.
The minister advised the king to complete his library by having the holy book
of the Jews, the Torah, or five books of Moses, translated into Greek. Immediately
the king sent messengers to the high priest Eleazar in Jerusalem, asking to
have translators sent to Alexandria to undertake the task.
sent seventy-two elders to King Ptolemy. The king placed the men in seventy-two
separate rooms and told each to translate the Torah into Greek. At the end of
seventy-two days Jewish
tradition makes it the eighth of Tevet the elders completed their independent
translations. And behold! All were identical. The spirit of God had rested upon
the sages of Israel so that though they worked separately, they wrote as one
person, with not a single difference among them. Everyone celebrated, and the
king sent the elders back to Jerusalem bearing gifts of gold and silver.
Such is the legend of the Septuagint, the earliest translation of the Hebrew
Bible into Greek, a legend so extensively accepted that the translation was
named for the elders; septuaginta in Latin means "seventy."
The legend became widely known in the ancient world chiefly through the Letter
of Aristeas, a document supposedly written by the king's minister to his brother.
In reality, the letter seems to have been composed by a Jew of Alexandria whose
purpose may have been to show the compatibility of Jewish teachings with Hellenism.
Scholars from the Jewish community of Alexandria probably prepared the Greek
translation themselves, and for much the same reasons Jews translated the Bible
into other languages: the people knew little Hebrew. Although the Jews of Alexandria
practiced their religion, they spoke and wrote in Greek. The same was true of
Jewish communities throughout the Hellenistic world, and Jews of many lands
welcomed the Alexandrian Torah translation. Eventually all of the Bible was
translated into Greek; in legend, by the same seventy-two elders.
Among its uniqueness, this first Greek Bible includes the word Diaspora several
times, and from this translation the term probably came into general use for
the settlement of Jews outside the land of Israel. The translators applied it
to a number of different Hebrew words that had the connotation of "dispersion."
But for all the enthusiasm that greeted the completion of the Septuagint in
its own time, the sages who lived about three or four centuries later viewed
it as a tragedy. Although they retold the legend in the Talmud, the designated
the eighth of Tevet as a fast day, comparing the completion of the translation
to the fashioning of the golden calf. Their objections came partly because the
Septuagint text differed in many respects from what by then was the accepted
Hebrew one (known as the Masoretic text). More distressing to them, the Greek
text had become the standard Scripture of the growing Christian Church, and
missionaries used it to preach to Greek-speaking Gentiles and convert them to
Said the rabbis, "Just as the golden calf had no substance, yet people
worshipped it, so the Greek translation does not hold the true substance of
Torah, yet the Gentiles believe they know the entire Torah through it."
Although other Greek translations of the Bible followed the Septuagint, it remained
the most influential. Most of the quotations in the New Testament from the Hebrew
Bible are based on it, and it is still the bible of the Greek Orthodox Church.
Over time the rabbinic fast day was generally forgotten or put aside, but the
legend of the seventy-two elders and their inspired feat of unity became a cherished
part of Jewish folklore.