“As if by some Plan”: Alexandria, Aristeas, Philo, and the LXX

 

 
Resting in the cloistered place, and with no one present, that is except the elements of the region—earth, water, air, heaven—concerning the creation of which they were about to give a sacred account–for the beginning of the law is the account of creation—the others, just as though they were being inspired, other people were not interpreting other things, but all were translating the same nouns and verbs, as if a Suggester gave were instructing each of them invisibly (Philo, Life of Moses 2.37).
I’ve spent a number of my last few posts discussing the differences between the Greek and the Hebrew texts which lay behind our modern, English Bibles. These differences, although mostly influencing the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament, can and do influence how we read the New Testament as well. But, before we go any further, we really need to discuss what these terms mean. So, let’s get started with the Septuagint! 
 
Philadelphus r. 285–246 BCE
According to the legendary account found in the Letter of Aristeas (2nd cent BCE), Demetrius of Phaleron was given huge sums of money by Ptolemy II Philadelphus to make the Library of Alexandria the greatest library of the entire world. In the midst of his extravagant purchases, he learns of the Pentateuch and is convinced that “it is necessary for these books to be in your library in an accurate and careful form, since the subject is very philosophical and in nature and pure, perhaps even divine!” (Aristeas, 31).
 
The problem, of course, is that their content requires as much expertise to translate as does the language. Demetrius convinces the king to write a letter to the high priest in Jerusalem to send down translators:

Send us six men from each of your tribes, those who have proven their character by their way of life, men who are Elders, experienced in the things of their own law, so that after examining the translation and taking the agreement from the majority, which is accurate with reference to the translation, we might set it elegantly in a manner worth of the regime and your choice! (32).

After arriving in Alexandria and proving their worth to the King and Court, they retreat to a special facility—all provided at the king’s considerable expense!—and get to work translating. It takes them exactly 72 days:

And it happened in such a way, that the work of the translation was finished in seventy two days, something like this having happened as though according to some Plan (Aristeas, 307).

Aristeas, then, doesn’t explicitly state that the translation was inspired, but he certainly opens up the way. After all, there were 72 translators, and it took them exactly 72 days to translate the Pentateuch.
 
Philo, a Jewish exegete living in Alexandria and a rough contemporary of the apostle Paul, shows that—after the passage of time—this hint of inspiration had developed. We also see a shift. Philo describes the translation process thus:

Resting in the cloistered place, and with no one present, that is except the elements of the region—earth, water, air, heaven—concerning the creation of which they were about to give a sacred account—for the beginning of the law is the account of creation!—the others, just as though they were being inspired, other people were not interpreting other things, but all were translating the same nouns and verbs, as if a Suggester gave were instructing each of them invisibly (Philo, Life of Moses 2.37).

Although Philo doesn’t know Hebrew, he is aware enough about various problems in translation that he discusses this a bit more to show exactly how special the Greek translation of the Pentateuch was:

And yet, who does not know that all dialects (especially the Greek dialect!) have a large number of words, and so it’s quite possible for someone to translate differently while metaphrasing and paraphrasing, or adapting other words?  But they say this did not occur with this translation, but the words in their original etymological meaning corresponded to the words in their original etymological meaning and to the same sense, the Greek with the Chaldean, well suited to the realities indicated! (2.38).  

 
 
 
Now, it should be said that Philo here is wrong: the Greek translation of the Pentateuch he’s talking about isn’t exactly like the Hebrew text. But what this does show is the immense valuation among the Jews—in the diaspora, but also in Palestine!—that this translation held. Philo describes that every year there is a feast to commemorate the translation in order to \”thank God for the services done for the good of the public\” through the translation! (2.41).
 
 
So what can we learn about the Septuagint, here? What’s the tl;dnr version?
  • The Septuagint only includes the Greek translation of the Pentateuch undertaken by scholars and Ptolemaic authority and provision, not the entire Greek Bible (although, it should be noted that what most people mean when they reference the Septuagint is this broader, metonymic usage and most folks aren’t always exact).
  • It’s called the Septuagint or LXX because of the 72 (in Aristaeus) or 70 (in Philo) scholars who translated the Pentateuch under the Ptolemaic aegis (LXX is the Latin enumeration of 70)
  • The LXX was (most likely) translated in the 3rd-2nd century BCE but definitely in Alexandria, Egypt
  • The LXX translation was disseminated and used by Jews throughout the Diaspora and even in Palestine, where—if the gospels can be believed—it was even read in Jewish synagogues, used by Jesus and by Paul.

This is a pretty complex topic. You can read through some of the primary sources yourself, but I’d also highly recommend reading through Timothy Michael Law’s When God Spoke Greek if you want more information. There are a lot of good introductions to this topic (Jobes, Marcos, and Swete are always excellent!), but TML writes for a general audience and in such a way as to make the reading enjoyable and stimulating. I disagree with TML in any number of ways, but none of those ways alter my recommendation (Disclaimer: TML is a friend/acquaintance of mine, but I\’ve been recommending his work since before I knew him personally.)

Next time, we’ll talk about the Masoretic Text.

 

Published by Jared Saltz

Biblical Studies Faculty (Florida College). PhD candidate at HUC-JIR. Husband, father, student.

4 thoughts on ““As if by some Plan”: Alexandria, Aristeas, Philo, and the LXX

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