The “Greek Septuagint.” That’s something many of us hear time and time again in discussions of Scripture. But what exactly is the Septuagint? And well, why is it important?
First off, the name Septuagint is applied to a certain compilation of translations of the Hebrew Bible and some related texts into Koine Greek (the ‘common’ supra-regional form of Greek spoken and written in much of the Mediterranean and the Middle East during Hellenistic and Roman antiquity), because of a legend which purports that seventy or seventy-two Jewish scholars were involved in its production. The Latin phrase versio septuaginta interpretum, “translation of the seventy interpreters,” a calque of the Greek phrase ἡ μετάφρασις τῶν ἑβδομήκοντα (hē metaphrasis tōn hebdomēkonta, “translation of the seventy”) is the origin of the term.
But where do we get this idea of the seventy-two translators? A work known as the Letter of Aristeas describes the Greek translation of the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament, aka the Pentateuch) by seventy-two Jewish scholars sent into Egypt from Jerusalem at the request of the librarian of Alexandria, resulting in the Septuagint translation. The author of the letter claims to be a courtier of “Ptolemy” - presumably Ptolemy II Philadephus (reigned 285-246 BC).
In the letter, the author relates how the king of Egypt was urged by his chief librarian Demetrius of Phaleron to translate the Jewish Torah into Greek, and so add the knowledge of the Hebrews to the vast collection of books the empire had already collected. The king responds favorably to this idea, beginning by liberating the Jews in his kingdom who had been taken into captivity by his predecessors, and sending lavish gifts to the Temple in Jerusalem along with his envoys. In response to the request, the high priest chooses exactly six men from each of the twelve tribes, giving 72 in all. When the translators arrive in Alexandria, the king weeps for joy and for the next seven days poses philosophical questions to the translators (which they duly answer). The seventy-two translators then complete their task in exactly seventy-two days. The Jews of Alexandria, on hearing the newly-made translation, request copies to be made and lay a curse on anyone who would dare change it. The translators then return home duly rewarded.
This is a very well-known story, one that has been repeated as fact by subsequent generations of Jewish and Christian authors, getting elaborated every time it is retold. In fact, the Talmud (3rd-5th century AD) presents a highly-condensed version:
King Ptolemy once gathered seventy-two Elders. He placed them in seventy-two chambers, each of them in a separate one, without revealing to them why they were summoned. He entered each one’s room and said: “Write for me the Torah of Moses, your teacher.” God put it in the heart of each one to translate identically as all the others did.