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1001 deeds, sayings, curiosities and anecdotes of the ancient world

Library of Alexandria (and 6): The Bible of the Seventies.

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In the populous city of Alexandria there was a very large Jewish community. The Jews were already numerous groups throughout the Greek world, to the point that many of them barely understand Aramaic or Hebrew.

Greek Macedonian kings of Egypt, the Ptolemies, who ruled from Alexandria, maintained good relations with the very influential Jewish community. They had far less consideration for native Egyptians, who incidentally also did not had good relations with the Jews.

As I said, there were many Jews who  speaking Greek who increasingly less understood Hebrew, religious language par excellence of the Jews and the Aramaic that was spoken in Judea. This forced them to translate  the Jews religious books into Greek.

Moreover it is well known the purpose of the famous library of Alexandria to collect "all" books of all existing languages in the world. So in the interest of the Greeks for all books in the world, including the Hebrews, joined to the interest of the Jews  to show that its laws were not inconsistent with the Hellenistic world.

These two factors made up the right atmosphere to  a fantastic version of the translation of the Pentateuch into Greek should be created by a interested Jew  in century and a half or two centuries after the creation of Alexandria.

It should be considered that  the text of a holy book, wonderfully conveyed by divinity, has a ritual value in itself and therefore it is reluctant to be translated into any other language.

Well, the famous "Letter of Aristeas", which chronicles the process by that this translation took place, occurs at this time. This is most likely a Jewish document of the second century BC, attributed to a certain Aristeas, Jews who  presents himself as Greek.

The goal is certainly to heighten the importance of the Jewish community in the Greek world and explain why it was necessary to translate the Jewish holy books into Greek. The document, obviously false, had remarkable luck in your transmission in the ancient and medieval world.

In summary it tells how Ptolemy II, on the advice of Demetrios of Falera, instructs 72 wise men, 6 for each of the 12 tribes of Israel, offered by the High Priest of Jerusalem, Eleazar (actually seems almost impossible task to find 6 experts by tribe) for proper Greek translation, the first translation of the Pentateuch into Greek (probably existed some previous translations of some Jewish texts). Translators were locked in pairs in 36 isolated cells. They used exactly 72 days and they coincided absolutely in terms . Notice how the 72 experts  are rounded and down to 70, a figure more in line with the importance of the number 7 in the Semitic tradition in general.

Note: without doubt, the importance of the number seven is related to the lunar cycle and its phases every seven days precisely.

Then, this translation of the Seventy (Septuaginta) was promptly adoptaded by Christians as their own.

Read one of the most significant pieces of this fantastic tale whose  a brief analysis of the contradictions and anachronisms reveals his falsehood, matter that I do not discuss in this occasion:

The Letter Of Aristeas:

9)  Demetrius of Phalerum, the president of the king's library, received vast sums of money, for the purpose of collecting together, as far as he possibly could, all the books in the world. By means of purchase and transcription, he carried out, to the best of his ability, the purpose of the king. On one o(ccasion when I was present he was asked, How many thousand books are there in the library? (10) and he replied, 'More than two hundred thousand, O king, and I shall make endeavour in the immediate future to gather together the remainder also, so that the total of five hundred thousand may be reached. I am told that the laws of the Jews are worth transcribing and deserve a place in (11) your library.' 'What is to prevent you from doing this?' replied the king. 'Everything that is necessary has been placed at your disposal.' 'They need to be translated,' answered Demetrius, 'for in the country of the Jews they use a peculiar alphabet (just as the Egyptians, too, have a special form of letters) and speak a peculiar dialect. They are supposed to use the Syriac tongue, but this is not the case; their language is quite different.' And the king when he understood all the facts of the case ordered a letter to be written to the Jewish High Priest that his purpose (which has already been described) might be accomplished.
(29)The Memorial of Demetrius to the great king. 'Since you have given me instructions, O king, that the books which are needed to complete your library should be collected together, and that those which are defective should be repaired, I have devoted myself with the utmost care to the fulfilment of your wishes,(30) and I now have the following proposal to lay before you. The books of the law of the Jews (with some few others) are absent from the library. They are written in the Hebrew characters and language and have been carelessly interpreted, and do not represent the original text as I am(31) informed by those who know; for they have never had a king's care to protect them. It is necessary that these should be made accurate for your library since the law which they contain, in as much as it is of divine origin, is full of wisdom and free from all blemish. For this reason literary men and poets and the mass of historical writers have held aloof from referring to these books and the men who have lived and are living in accordance with them, because their (32) conception of life is so sacred and religious, as Hecataeus of Abdera says. If it please you, O king, a letter shall be written to the High Priest in Jerusalem, asking him to send six elders out of every tribe - men who have lived the noblest life and are most skilled in their law - that we may find out the points in which the majority of them are in agreement, and so having obtained an accurate translation may place it in a conspicuous place in a manner worthy of the work itself and your purpose. May continual prosperity be yours!'

(35) 'King Ptolemy sends greeting and salutation to the High Priest Eleazar
Now since I am anxious to show my gratitude to these men and to the Jews throughout the world and to the generations yet to come, I have determined that your law shall be translated from the Hebrew tongue which is in use amongst you (39) into the Greek language, that these books may be added to the other royal books in my library. It will be a kindness on your part and a regard for my zeal if you will select six elders from each of your tribes, men of noble life and skilled in your law and able to interpret it, that in questions of dispute we may be able to discover the verdict in which the majority agree, for the investigation is of the highest possible importance. I hope to win great renown by the accomplishment of this

(41) To this letter Eleazar replied appropriately as follows:
'Eleazar the High priest sends greetings to King Ptolemy his true friend. My highest wishes are for your welfare and the welfare of Queen Arsinoe your sister and your children.
(46) In the presence of all the people I selected six elders from each tribe, good men and true, and I have sent them to you with a copy of our law. It will be a kindness, O righteous king, if you will give instruction that as soon as the translation of the law is completed, the men shall be restored again to us in safety. Farewell.'
(121) The High priest selected men of the finest character and the highest culture, such as one would expect from their noble parentage. They were men who had not only acquired proficiency in Jewish literature, but had studied most (122) carefully that of the Greeks as well.
(301) Three days later Demetrius took the men and passing along the sea-wall, seven stadia long, to the island, crossed the bridge and made for the northern districts of Pharos. There he assembled them in a house, which had been built upon the sea-shore, of great beauty and in a secluded situation, and invited them to carry out the work of translation, since everything that they needed for the purpose (302) was placed at their disposal. So they set to work comparing their several results and making them agree, and whatever they agreed upon was suitably copied out under the direction of Demetrius. And the session lasted until the ninth hour; after this they were set free to minister to their physical (304) needs. Everything they wanted was furnished for them on a lavish scale

(307) As I have already said, they met together daily in the place which was delightful for its quiet and its brightness and applied themselves to their task. And it so chanced that the work of translation was completed in seventy-two days, just as if this had been arranged of set purpose.
(308) When the work was completed, Demetrius collected together the Jewish population in the place where the translation had been made, and read it over to all, in the presence of the translators, who met with a great reception also from the people, because of the great benefits which they had (309) conferred upon them. They bestowed warm praise upon Demetrius, too, and urged him to have the whole law transcribed and present a copy to their leaders.  (310) After the books had been read, the priests and the elders of the translators and the Jewish community and the leaders of the people stood up and said, that since so excellent and sacred and accurate a translation had been made, it was only right that it should remain as it was and no  (311)  alteration should be made in it. And when the whole company expressed their approval, they bade them pronounce a curse in accordance with their custom upon any one who should make any alteration either by adding anything or changing in any way whatever any of the words which had been written or making any omission. This was a very wise precaution to ensure that the book might be preserved for all the future time unchanged. (312) When the matter was reported to the king, he rejoiced greatly, for he felt that the design which he had formed had been safely carried out. The whole book was read over to him and he was greatly astonished at the spirit of the lawgiver. And he said to Demetrius, 'How is it that none of the historians or the poets have ever thought it worth their while to allude to such a wonderful (313) achievement?' And he replied, 'Because the law is sacred and of divine origin. And some of those who formed the intention of dealing with it have been smitten by God and therefore desisted from (314)  their purpose.' He said that he had heard from Theopompus that he had been driven out of his mind for more than thirty days because he intended to insert in his history some of the incidents from the earlier and somewhat unreliable translations of the law. When he had recovered (315) a little, he besought God to make it clear to him why the misfortune had befallen him. And it was revealed to him in a dream, that from idle curiosity he was wishing to communicate sacred truths to common men, and that if he desisted he would recover his health. I have heard, too, from the lips (316) of Theodektes, one of the tragic poets, that when he was about to adapt some of the incidents recorded in the book for one of his plays, he was affected with cataract in both his eyes. And when he perceived the reason why the misfortune had befallen him, he prayed to God for many days and was afterwards restored
.   (R.H. Charles-Editor. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1913)

It is very interesting the version of Bishop Epiphanius (circa 310-403), basically coinciding but with some input that I avoid reprinted in full. Anyone interested can find the text of Epiphanius on the network, on English; It can be found for example in


Epiphanius from Salamis or Salamina: De mensuris et ponderibus, 9:

And the first translators  of the divine Scriptures from the Hebrew language into the Greek were seventy-two men in number, those who made the first translation in the days of Ptolemy Philadelphus. They were chosen from the twelve tribes of Israel, six men from each tribe, as Aristeas has transmitted it in his work. And their names are these: first, from the tribe of Reuben, Josephus, Hezekiah, Zechariah, Johanan,
These are the names, as we have already said, of the seventy-two translators.

Also Josephus, the Jewish historian who wrote in Greek, whose work kept the Romans, also has so interesting question in his Jewish Antiquities, Lib. 12, 2 1 ss:

When Alexander had reigned twelve years, and after him Ptolemy Soter forty years, Philadelphus then took the kingdom of Egypt, and held it forty years within one. He procured the law to be interpreted, and set free those that were come from Jerusalem into Egypt, and were in slavery there, who were a hundred and twenty thousand. The occasion was this: Demetrius Phalerius, who was library keeper to the king, was now endeavoring, if it were possible, to gather together all the books that were in the habitable earth, and buying whatsoever was any where valuable, or agreeable to the king's inclination, (who was very earnestly set upon collecting of books,) to which inclination of his Demetrius was zealously subservient. And when once Ptolemy asked him how many ten thousands of books he had collected, he replied, that he had already about twenty times ten thousand; but that, in a little time, he should have fifty times ten thousand. But be said he had been informed that there were many books of laws among the Jews worthy of inquiring after, and worthy of the king's library, but which, being written in characters and in a dialect of their own, will cause no small pains in getting them translated into the Greek tongue (Translated by. William Whiston, A.M. Auburn and Buffalo. John E. Beardsley.)

And he keeps  telling us about the episode of Aristeas, that I avoid the reader to be basically already narrated.

This apology and commendation of the miraculous and fantastic translation was shared by the early Christian fathers who found compatible with the Christian tradition and it is the central issue when they talk about the Library of Alexandria and books in general ..

So in addition to quoted, Tertullian  in Apology, 18.5:

Ptolemy, surnamed Philadelphus, the most learnedof his race, a man of vast acquaintance with all literature, emulating, I imagine, the book enthusiasm of Pisistratus, among other remains of the past which either their antiquity or something of peculiar interest made famous, at the suggestion of Demetrius Phalereus, who was renowned above all grammarians of this time, and to whom he had committed the management of these things, applied to the Jews for their writings- I mean the writings peculiar to them and in their tongue, which they alone possessed. (Edited by Alexander Robertsand James Donaldsson. Translated by S.Thelwall. Edimburgo,Murray and Gibb.1869)

Ptolemaeorum eruditissimus, quem Philadelphum supernominant, et omnis litteraturae sagacissimus, cum studio bibliothecarum Pisistratum, opinor, aemularetur, inter cetera memoriarum, quibus aut vetustas aut curiositas aliqua ad famam patrocinabatur, ex suggestu Demetri<i> Phalerei, grammaticorum tunc probatissimi, cui praefecturam mandaverat, libros a Iudaeis quoque postulavit, proprias atque vernaculas litteras, quas soli habebant

and he goes on to comment the paragraph of the Letter of Aristea).

But St. Jerome, who translated directly from Hebrew, that he knows, is critical of version of the LXX and so, for example, in the letter XXXIV (to Marcela) he rejects the LXX translation of  "bread of affliction" by  "bread of idols ", as well as other cases.

Naturally, scientific philology collides with intransigent permanence  of "sacred texts", after all the work of men.

A belated summary of all this is found in Saint Isidorus in his Etymologies, VI, 3 and 4,  chapters entitled De bibliothecis and  De interpretibus  respectively:

Lib. VI, cap. 3, 5: (De bibliothecis)

Then Alexander the Great and his successors were applied with all their soul in providing the libraries with  all books. In particular Ptolemy, surnamed Philadelphus, the most knowledgeable about all kinds of literature, trying to emulate  Pisístrato in his love for libraries, endowed his library not only the writings of the Gentiles authors, but also of the Holy Scriptures. So in his time seventy thousand books could be found  in Alexandria.

Lib. VI, cap. 3, 5: (De bibliothecis)

Dehinc magnus Alexander, vel succesores eius instruendis ómnium librorum bibliothecis animam intenderunt, maxime Ptolomeus cognomento Philadelphus omnis litteraturae sagacissimus, cum studio bibliothecarum Pisistratum aemularetur, non solum gentium scripturas, sed etiam et divinas literas in bibliothecam suam contulit. Nam septuaginta milia librorum huius temproibus Alexandriae inventa sunt.

Book VI, Cap. 4, 1-5 (De interpretibus).:

1. This (Ptolemy Philadelphus), moreover, requested from the priest Eleazar the sacred writings of the Old Testament and saw to it that they were translated from Hebrew into Greek by seventy interpreters, and kept them in the Alexandrian library.
2. Although they were separated each one in individual cells, they interpreted through  the Holy Spirit every texts in such a way that nothing was  found in the book of any of them  something that was different from the rest  or disagreed even on the order of words.
3. There were also other interpreters who translated the Sacred Scripture from Hebrew into Greek , such as Aquila, Symmachus and Theodotion; also there is also that common (Vulgaris) translation (in the vernacular, in Latin), whose author is unknown, and so it is called Fifth Edition, without interpreter name.
4. Moreover, Origen provide a sixth and seventh edition with an admirable job,  and compared them with the other editions.
5. Also the presbyter Jerome, expert in all three languages, translated the same Scriptures from Hebrew into the Latin language and rendered them with great perfection. The translation  of this  interpreter  deservedly is preferred over the other, because it is not only the most accurate in words, but also clearer in understanding of sentences.

Cap. 4 (De interpretibus).:
1. Hic etiam ab Eleazaro sacro pontífice petens scripturas veteris testamenti, in Graecam vocem ex Hebraica lingua per septuaginta interpretes transferre curavit, quas in Alexandrina biblioteca habuit.
2. Siquidem singuli in singulis cellis separati ita omnia per Spiritum sanctum interpretati sunt, ut nihil in alicuius eorum codice inventum esset, quod in ceteris vel in verborum ordine discreparet.
3. Fuerunt et alii interpretes, qui ex Hebraica lingua in Graecam sacra eloquia transtulerunt, sicut Aquila, Symmachus et Theodotion, sicut etiam Vulgaris illa interpretation, cuius auctor non apparet et ob hoc sine nomine interpretis Quinta edition nuncupatur.
4. Praeterea sextam et septimam editionem Origenes miro labore reperit, et cum caeteris editionibus comparavit.
5.  Presbyter quoque Hieronymus trium linguarum peritus ex Hebraeo in Latinum eloquium easdem scrpturas convertit, eloquenterque transfudit. Cuis interpretati merito caeteris antgefertur. Nam est et verborum tenacior, et perspicuitate sententiae clarior.

In any case,  no all Jews celebrated the translation of the Pentateuch into Greek. Some considered unsuitable, if not sacrilegious, share the sacred message of a sacred language with all those gentiles or Jews who speak Greek.

Philo of Alexandria (he lived about 15 BC to 50 AD), tells how in his time a feast to commemorate this translation is celebrated every year on the island of Pharos. But not everyone remembered the fact with the same joy; the Talmud remembers it  as "a day of fasting and mourning, to atone for the sin committed by disclosing the Torah in the language of the Goyim (foreign nations)»

And in chronic "Megillat Ta'anit" written in Aramaic, we read:

"In the eighth (V), the seven of Tebet (December-January)  the law was written in Greek in the days of King Ptolemy, and darkness fell over the world for three days."

So it remains curious that Jews reject the translation and later Christians are those who welcome it wholeheartedly.

Clearly the translation expropriated the Old Testament as the exclusive property of the Jews and  it was at once evident proof of the division among the Jews who spoke Hebrew or Aramaic and who spoke only Greek.

The Fathers and Christian writers Justin, Irenaeus of Lyons, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Julius Africanus, Eusebius, Hilary of Poitiers, Cyril of Jerusalem, Ambrose are preparing the  legend which Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis in Cyprus (310-403) completely constructed: the translation is the work from divine inspiration.

Then when Rome is almost omnipresent and omnipotent, the Bible had to be translated into Latin and so Saint Jerome does it with the "Vulgate" (Vulgata),  so called because Latin is the language of the common (vulgaris) people,  opposite to the Greek scholar language.

In turn, they come  from the Vulgate many other translations to  modern European languages, which later were  produced by the above-stated reason of  the tendency of the sacred texts to their permanence and immutability and to stay as ritual texts which do not  should be available for all mortals. This is another issue, but we can remember the episode concerning San Luis de León, who  suffered persecution by translating books of the Bible or Luther, who first translated it into German to make it available to the faithful and step reaffirm German language with an important written document.


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