LimmudOz; Presenting on the Bible in Greek

16 06 2007

Update (05.07.07): It has since been brought to my attention by Joel Nothman that the “Minor Tractates” are not a part of the Babylonian Talmud. The reference below to bSof has been altered accordingly.

“Well,” as Sam Gamgee stated so laconically at the conclusion to The Lord of the Rings, “I’m back”. It has been a busy few days with both a presentation to deliver at LimmudOz and a Latin exam for which to prepare. Both obligations now being out of the way, I am free to prepare for my next (small) exam and my next (important) paper in peace. In the meantime, however, I thought that I might share a few of the texts about which I spoke at LimmudOz. The title of my paper was “It’s all Greek to Me: Translating the Torah in the Ancient World”. As such a title suggests, I was looking at the Old Greek translation of the Pentateuch, known to some as the Septuagint.

The two authors to first write of the Septuagint’s origins, Aristobulus and an anonymous author who writes from the perspective of Aristeas (a personal envoy to King Ptolemy II), both suggest that it was under the patronage of Ptolemy that the translation was conducted. A comparative look at the evidence would indicate that it was Ptolemy II (“Philadelphus”) to whom they were referring and that, at least according to the “Letter of Aristeas”, the translation was conducted in the first quarter of the third century BCE.

The issue upon which I spent the most time was that of the specific origin myth that first finds expression in the “Letter of Aristeas”. Aristobulus, who treats of the origins of the Septuagint prior to pseudo-Aristeas, does not provide any etymology (or, perhaps, etymythology) for the name. Pseudo-Aristeas, on the other hand, seems rather preoccupied with the term Septuagint (from Latin septuaginta, “seventy”) and presents three particular myths. There were seventy-two scholars (oddly, only seventy-one are named) conducting the translation over the course of seventy-two days, and asking seventy-two questions.

If we move a little further in time we encounter another perspective, that of the Greek philosopher Philo. Like Aristobulus and the supposed author of the “Letter of Aristeas”, Philo was a Jew. Like pseudo-Aristeas as well, Philo is sometimes thought to be a Hellenising Jew and sometimes considered to be a Judaising Greek. The distinction here is an interesting one. Was Philo attempting to promote the Bible to a Greek-speaking audience or promote the Greek Bible to a Jewish audience? In other words, did his text constitute an apology for Jews or an apology for Greeks? Either way, he writes the following of the translators:

… they, like men inspired, prophesied, not one saying one thing and another another, but every one of them employed the self-same nouns and verbs, as if some unseen prompter had suggested all their language to them. And yet who is there who does not know that every language, and the Greek language above all others, is rich in a variety of words, and that it is possible to vary a sentence and to paraphrase the same idea, so as to set it forth in a great variety of manners… But this, they say, did not happen at all in the case of this translation of the law, but that, in every case, exactly corresponding Greek words were employed to translate literally the appropriate Chaldaic [Hebrew] words, being adapted with exceeding propriety to the matters which were to be explained… considering these translators [were] not mere interpreters but hierophants and prophets to whom it had been granted it their honest and guileless minds to go along with the most pure spirit of Moses
De Vita Mosis II, 7:37-38, 40. Taken from The Complete Works of Philo (trans. C.D. Yonge; USA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993)

While Philo does not mention the number of translators, it is interesting that he has them prophesying rather than merely translating, and it is also of interest that he perceives their translation as being on a par with the original Hebrew. The fact that he stresses the mutability of word-order in Greek is also worthy of remark, given that the Old Greek translation of the Pentateuch is renowned for its slavish adherence to the underlying Hebrew – to such an extent that it even mirrors the Hebrew syntax in cases where, in Greek, such word-order is considered slightly awkward.

Philo lived between 20 BCE and 40 CE and, if we progress just a little further, we encounter the writings of another Palestinian Jew: Josephus. Composed at some time towards the end of the first century CE, “The Antiquities of the Jews” has the following to say about the translation of the Pentateuch into Greek:

“… We have also chosen six elders out of every tribe, whom we have sent, and the law with them. It will be thy part… to send back the law when it hath been translated; and to return those to us who bring it in safety…” This was the reply that the high priest made; but it does not seem to me to be necessary to set down the names of the seventy elders who were sent by Eleazar…
12:56-57. Taken from The Works of Josephus (trans. W. Whiston; USA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1987)

The relevant section, taken from a longer narrative that mirrors (in most, though not all, of its features) the “Letter of Aristeas”, provides an origin myth for the name Septuagint. An alternative myth is provided later within the same text (12:107), within which Josephus repeats the claim of Pseudo-Aristeas that the translation was conducted in seventy-two days. Nowhere does he mention prophesy as Philo had before him.

It is worth noting, however quickly, the apparant discrepancy between Josephus’ suggestion that the translation was conducted by six representatives of each tribe and his subsequent assertion that there were only seventy men. While it is tangential, we see the same discrepancy in the New Testament gospel of Luke (10:1). There the author speaks of seventy-two apostles, while some manuscripts of the same only state that there were only seventy. Both the author of Luke and Josephus were writing in Greek, within which “seventy-two” is rendered ε͗βδομηκοντα δυο and “seventy” is ε͗βδομηκοντα. One does not need to be able to read Greek to notice that the addition of δυο is the only feature differentiating the two, and it is thus most likely that subsequent manuscripts of Josephus (and Luke) had undergone an error of transmission.

The bulk of subsequent sources relevant to us are penned by Christian exegetes, but I shall take a moment to relate a few more sources within the Jewish tradition first. The first of these, from a chronological perspective, is the Mishna. Completed, according to tradition, at the end of the second century, the Mishna has the following to say regarding the Greek Pentateuch:

אין בין ספרים לתפלין ומזוזות, אלא שהספרים נכתבין בכל לשון, ותפלין ומזוזות אינן נכתבות אלא אשורית. רבן שמעון בן גמליאל אומר, אף בספרים לא התירו שיכתבו אלא יונית

There is no [difference] between books and tephillin and mezuzot, save that books may be written in any language while tephillin and mezuzot may only be composed in Assyrian [ie: the square Aramaic script employed for Hebrew]. Rabban Shim’on ben Gamliel says, “Even with books; they only permitted them to be [also] written in Greek”
mMeg 1:8

To better put this discussion in context, the authors of the Mishna are commenting upon the language that may be employed for the composition of the Torah. The first opinion, that of the Rabbis, is that the Torah may only be composed in Hebrew – here referred to as Assyrian in much the manner than Josephus called it Chaldaic. The second opinion, which is that of Rabban Shim’on ben Gamliel (head of the Sanhedrin in the last two decades before the destruction of the Temple in 69/70 CE) is that Greek is the only other permissable language for the Torah’s composition. His opinion is therefore stricter than the others, but it accords a value to the Greek that is not otherwise evident in this passage.

This passage from the Mishna is expanded upon in both the Palestinian and the Babylonian Talmuds. As the Palestinian Talmud was redacted first (5th century), and as its account is somewhat shorter to that which is given expression in the Babylonian Talmud, it makes sense to treat of that narrative first:

תני רבן שמעון בן גמליאל אומר אף בספרים לא התירו שיכתבו אלא יוונית. בדקו ומצאו שאין התורה יכולה להיתרגם כל צורכה אלא יוונית

Rabban Shim’on ben Gamliel taught, “Even with books; they only permitted them to be [also] written in Greek”. They checked and they found that it is impossible for the Torah to be translated exactly [into any language], except Greek.
pMeg 71c

Once again we have the same emphasis that we first found in Philo: the Greek translation of the Pentateuch is an exact translation that adequately renders the exact meaning of the underlying Hebrew. The passage in the Talmud presents the idea that the Rabbis actually checked and found that, not only was it an exactly faithful reproduction of the Pentateuch but that it was impossible to accomplish such a feat in any other language. The Old Greek translation of the Pentateuch is here being treated as canonical.

The Babylonian Talmud, as is its way, elaborates upon the story at greater length. Although the overall composition is redacted as late as the 8th century, the passage that I reproduce below is an old one. We shall have occasion soon to look at a later passage from the Talmud and remark upon its striking differences:

רבותינו לא התירו שיכתבו אלא יונית ותניא א”ר יהודה אף כשהתירו רבותינו יונית לא התירו אלא בספר תורה ומשום מעשה דתלמי המלך דתניא מעשה בתלמי המלך שכינס שבעים ושנים זקנים והכניסן בשבעים ושנים בתים ולא גילה להם על מה כינסן ונכנס אצל כל אחד ואחד ואמר להם כתבו לי תורת משה רבכם נתן הקב”ה בלב כל אחד ואחד עצה והסכימו כולן לדעת אחת

Our sages only allowed [the Torah to be written also in] Greek, as it is taught: Rabbi Yehuda said, “Even though the Rabbis permitted Greek, they only permitted it for the Torah [ie: not for tephillin or mezuzot] and this is because of what happened with King Ptolemy, as it is taught: It once happened that King Ptolemy gathered seventy-two elders and brought them into seventy-two chambers and did not reveal to them why he had brought them there. He came in to each one of them and said, “Write for me the Torah of Moses, your Master”. The Holy One, Blessed is He, placed counsel in each of their hearts and they came to an identical conclusion.”
bMeg 9a

There is much within this passage that is worthy of deliberation, not the least of which is the fact that one narrative is nested within another, creating a certain sense of recursiveness that is not uncommon in the Babylonian Talmud. The nature of the story related by Rabbi Yehuda (itself related by the anonymous author of the passage) testifies to a further development of the myth. As if seventy-two Rabbis agreeing about something was not enough of a miracle, Rabbi Yehuda has them placed in seventy-two rooms, and none of them being told in advance the reason for which they came. The passage then continues by relating various alterations that they made to the text in their translation, each for varying theological reasons. One is of particular import because the reasons behind it are political, rather than religious.

Leviticus 11:6 speaks of the hare as an unclean animal: “ואת־הארנבת כי־מעלת גרה הוא ופרסה לא הפריסה טמאה הוא לכם”. The word for hare, λαγως in Greek, was translated as δασυπους (“rough-foot”) because Ptolemy’s wife’s name was “Hare” and he would have assumed that the Jews were insulting him. This is worth mentioning here for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it is incorrect. Both of Ptolemy’s wives were named Arsinoë, not Lagos. Ptolemy’s paternal grandfather, on the other hand, was named Lagos and there are some sources that refer to Ptolemy as the son of Lagos as well. Being composed some centuries after the events that it purports to describe, the Talmud’s account merely got confused regarding the bearer of the name, but obviously reflected an older tradition nonetheless.

The second reason as to why this is interesting is that, along with the other examples that the Talmud gives, it reflects the fact that there are people other than Jews who are reading the Greek Pentateuch. By the time the Babylonian Talmud chips in with its version of the story, this is almost a moot point. We shall see in a moment how important this Bible was to the growing church and we shall also see how the Jews ended up rejecting it altogether as the Christians embraced it more. Such a passage as this serves to indicate that, in the opinion of the Rabbis, this Bible always had a non-Jewish readership and it is a further indication that, even if it had been a Jewish initiative (as most scholars believe it to have been), it was not maintained solely by the Jewish community for long.

There is one more Jewish source but it is somewhat different to the others that we have seen and it is worth taking a moment to look at the Christian sources first. The first of these is the “Dialogue with Trypho”, composed by Justin Martyr in the middle of the second century. He mentions seventy as the number of translators and, while he does not have them prophesying as such, he is nonetheless fixated on the issue of divine providence as reflected in the fact that they all came to agreement. He is also particularly concerned with the Septuagint rendering of Isaiah 7:14, which is worth spending a moment upon.

Taken by many to be constitute a messianic prophecy, Isaiah 7:14 speaks of “the young lady” (העלמה, η͑ παρθενος) giving birth to a son named Emanuel (“God is with us”). While the Hebrew specifically refers to a young lady, the Greek has a semantic range that also extends to the word “virgin” – much like the English “maiden” had connotations of both. Of especial interest here is the fact that the translation of Isaiah is perceived by Justin as having been a part of the original work of the seventy scholars. This idea is only first given full expression by the anonymous author of “Cohortatio ad Graecus” in the fourth century. Although he writes under the pseudonym of Justin Martyr, his work has long been recognised as being a later composition.

That the translation of Isaiah was a part of the original text, even if not stated explicitly, is the understanding of several early Christian exegetes. Iranaeus, the Bishop of Lyons at the end of the second century, mentions in “Aduersus Haereses” (3:21:2) that there were seventy scribes in seventy separate rooms and is likewise particularly concerned with Isaiah 7:14. The development of the seventy rooms motif is of interest, given its appearance in the Babylonian Talmud.

Clement of Alexandria, the head of the Alexandrian academy and the teacher of Origen, presents an origin myth which is strikingly similar to that of Iranaeus. In addition to perceiving the seventy scribes as having conducted their translation in seventy separate rooms, Clement also refers to their masterpiece as οι͑ονει ε͑λληνικην προφητειαν (“prophecy in Greek”). It is interesting that his most famous student, Origen, the greatest scholar of the Septuagint in the ancient world, makes no reference to the origin myth at all. The fact that he was so concerned with the plethora of variant Septuagint manuscripts (leading to his completion of the first critical edition in history) might indicate his scepticism of the divine origin narrative that was so common in his day. It is worth mentioning, however, that the variations that existed in his day within the Hebrew versions of the Bible did not deter him from believing that there was one original Hebrew text and it is therefore equally possible that he did believe the same in regards to the Septuagint as well.

Another scholar, roughly contemporaneous with Origen, who also does not treat of the miraculous origins of the Septuagint was Tertullian of Carthage (c. 160-225 CE). It has been conjectured that this is due to the fact that there was less polemic between Jews and Christians in Carthage than there was further east – a point that draws attention to the polemical nature of much of the other material, as likewise indicated by the emphasis on Isaiah 7:14. Such polemic is expressed most succinctly in later works, such as the sixth century “Disputatio cum Herbane Judaeo”. Composed by an anonymous author who claims to be the Bishop Gregentius of Tafra, the polemic is set during a disputation that is believed to have taken place around 535 CE.

The Jew, a fellow with the unlikely name of Herban (חרבן, “destruction, ruin” – an epithet applied to the second temple) declares morbidly at the outset:

Our fathers wrongly and capriciously translated the books of Israel into Greek so that you could take possession of the same and silence us.
Martin Hengel, The Septuagint as Christian Scripture: its Prehistory and the Problem of its Canon (ed. David J. Reimer; Edinburgh & New York: T&T Clark, 2002), 35

That things should have ever taken so decidedly a negative turn is reflected in a later text of the “Minor Tractates”. The text, ever so brief, simply reads:

אין כותבין לא עברית ולא ארמית ולא מדית ולא יונית. כתב בכל לשון בכל כתבים לא יקרא בו עד שתהא כתובה אשורית. מעשה בה’ זקנים שכתבו לתלמי המלך את התורה יונית והיה היום קשה לישראל כיום שנעשה העגל שלא היתה התורה יכולה להתרגם כל צרכה

It is not permissable [to write the Torah] in old Hebrew, in Aramaic, in Medean or in Greek. No language nor script shall be read from unless it be written in Hebrew [literally, Assyrian]. It happened once that five elders wrote the Greek bible for King Ptolemy, and that day was as hard for Israel as the day on which the [golden] calf was made. For it is impossible for the Torah to be translated exactly.
Sof 1:6-7; emphasis mine

How marvellous that so laconic an assertion can contain such emotion. Merely five elders are here credited with a translation that has brought nothing but disgrace to the community that conducted it. There is no proposed etymology of the name, no focus on the sanctity of the moment, and no lenience granted to the usage of the text at all. The Greek Pentateuch, once treated as canonical, has now been ruled out of Jewish practise altogether. Perhaps, by means of concluding, it is worth noting the observations of Jerome.

Credited with much of the translation from Hebrew into Latin, Jerome consulted often with Rabbis of his day and appears to have been on exceptionally friendly terms with the local Jewish community. Although he was writing in the fourth and fifth centuries, he appears not to have credited the origin myth of the Septuagint as anything other than what it was: a highly developed legend, now employed for purely antagonistic purposes. He writes, in his prologue to the Latin Pentateuch:

… nor do I know who was the first author to erect the seventy cells through his lies, since Aristeas, the bodyguard of the same Ptolemy, and much later Josephus, reported nothing of the kind. Instead, they wrote that those assembled in the hall had compared among themselves and not prophesied. It is one thing to be a prophet, and something else to be a translator… I do not condemn the Seventy, I raise no objection against them, but, with complete respect, I prefer the Apostles to them all.




4 responses

17 06 2007

For a more comprehensive discussion of exactly the points you mention (the historical view of Jews and others on the Septuagint) refer to the excellent recent Legend of the Septuagint by Wasserstein père and fils.

30 06 2007

Very interesting. Philo is a fascinating author, although his work is in such a format (lots and lots of small pieces) that it is very difficult to get a handle on his thought. Sorry I don’t have more to say on the post, but I enjoyed it.

5 07 2007
Joel Nothman

I had never heard of the Minor Tractates being referred to as part of the Babylonian Talmud, and so bSof confused me for quite some time. Is this commonly done?

As for the Isaiah issue, is it notable that the passage is quoted in Matthew (1:23)? Other prophets are also quoted there, but obviously there had to be a Greek translation, whether official or done on the spot, in order for it to appear there…

5 07 2007
Simon Holloway

I stand corrected: thanks for that. Their presence within the physical BT had led me to believe that they were considered a part of the same although, having just checked, you are correct in saying that they are not. It is too large a change to the structure of this post for me to alter that, although I shall add a disclaimer to note your point.

As for Isaiah being translated into Greek, I think that the main issue was that this was a translation that was conducted after the initial translation of the entire Pentateuch, but one to which various individuals likewise attached the tradition of the 72 scholars.

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