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.

Eleazar 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 Christianity.

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.



From: Jewish Days: A Book of Jewish Life and Culture Around the World (Farrar Straus Giroux 1996).

author Francine Klagsbrun has written more than a dozen books and numerous articles on social, religious, feminist and family issues. She is a columnist for "The Jewish Week" and "Moment" magazine, and lectures extensively throughout the United States.



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