The Translation That Changed History

By Naphtali Hoff

The first extended Jewish experience in Egypt, which began in earnest with the passing of Jacob and then his sons, will occupy our collective attention for the next many weeks. We will read about a shocking reversal in status and treatment, from the special honor afforded them as members Yosef’s family to intense servitude and suffering.

This drastic change resulted not only in an extended period of physical persecution, but also a precipitous spiritual decline, to the point where we eventually descended to the lowest possible level. Things deteriorated to such a degree that a premature exodus was necessitated, before every last vestige of religious connectivity would be lost.

Interestingly, this period would not be the only time when the spiritual future of a sizable Egyptian Jewish community would be compromised. The Jews living in Alexandria during the Ptolemaic Period (3rd Century BCE) would also be presented with meaningful spiritual challenges, including one primary incident that is commemorated today, 8 Teveth.

Jews arrived in Alexandria for a variety of reasons. Many came willingly, hoping to take advantage of new economic opportunities in Ptolemaic Egypt. 100,000 are reported to have been forcibly brought southward, to serve either as local slaves or as mercenaries in the military forces. Collectively, these Jews would form one of the most powerful and influential Jewish communities over the next three centuries.

In 285 BCE, Ptolemy I Soter abdicated the throne to his young son, Ptolemy II Philadelphus. Unlike his father, who engaged in many years of warring and political struggle, Ptolemy II reigned over a peaceful administration. This benevolent king would rule for thirty-nine years, from 285–246 BCE. Throughout those years, a tranquil Ptolemaic Egypt shifted its attention from militaristic pursuits to those of cultural and educational advancement. Alexandria, its capital, became the world’s cultural center. Like all other residents of the city, the Jews would be greatly impacted by this cultural infusion.

During the Ptolemaic period, Alexandrian Jews maintained good relations with the government. Many acquired citizenship. They also enjoyed positive interactions with their gentile neighbors, though some anti-Jewish polemics persisted. Some of the ill will was undoubtedly the result of social tensions existent between the groups. The Jews were at times favored and incurred local envy and resentment.

No single event underscored this new, liberal attitude amongst Alexandrian Jews than did their reaction to the writing of the Septuagint, meaning the “translation of the (Torah into Greek by) seventy (two sages)”.

As part of his quest for cultural enhancement, Ptolemy II determined to assemble the world’s largest library of books and documents, the first of its kind. His librarian had amassed tens of thousands of manuscripts from the world over, which was an astonishing number in the ancient world. However, there remained one glaring absence in the imperial library: the Jewish Torah. The Torah was universally renowned. Though not accessible to the gentile world, it possessed an unparalleled standing amongst the ancients, reputed as a text of tremendous religious and ethical character. Without it, Ptolemy II felt that his library would be incomplete.

The Egyptian ruler concluded that he must release the tens of thousands of Jewish slaves living in Alexandria before requesting a translated copy of the Jews’ holiest book. By royal fiat, he ordered all Jewish slaves released; he would cover the costs of such a noble gesture with funds taken from the royal treasury.

Upon their release, Ptolemy II invited seventy-two elders from Judah to Alexandria to participate in this monumental event. The Talmud (Megilla 9a) describes what occurred next.

(He) placed them in seventy-two separate rooms, without telling them why he had brought them together. He went in to each one of them and said to him, ‘Translate for me the Torah of Moshe your master’. God then inspired each one of them, and they all (independently) wrote for him…

The Talmud relates that Hashem miraculously inspired each sage to translate the Torah in a like manner with the others, so as to avoid misinterpretation and incorrect theological conclusions. Occasionally, the sages were forced to deviate from the literal meaning of the text. Three such examples are:

  • Bereishis bara Elokim (Genesis 1:1) – ‘G-d created in the beginning’, instead of ‘In the beginning, G-d created’. The purpose of this change was to prevent the idea of Two Powers (‘Genesis’ and ‘G-d’) being read into the text.
  • Na’aseh Adam (Ibid 26) – ‘I shall make man in My image and likeness’, instead of ‘Let us make’, for the same reason.
  • Hava neirda v’nivleh sham sifasam (Ibid 7:11) ‘Come let Me descend and confuse their tongues’, ‘me’, instead of ‘us’.

The Talmud lists many additional examples of such changes.

Ptolemy II was thrilled to add the Septuagint to his already impressive library collection. Alexandrian Jewry was also elated upon its completion. They viewed it as a communal treasure, particularly in light of their increased proficiency in Greek over Hebrew. Similar to translations of Torah into English today, the Septuagint allowed those who were unversed in the language of their forebears to gain access to the words of their holy Torah. They also viewed with pride the synthesis of their Torah with the Greek language and culture. The community marked the day of its completion, 8 Teveth, 246 BCE, as one of prayer and celebration.

The Jewish community living in Israel, however, responded in a markedly different manner: they viewed the writing of the Septuagint as a tragedy. They compared it to the fashioning of the golden calf, stating that, “just as the golden calf had no substance, yet people worshiped it, so the Greek translation does not hold the true substance of Torah, yet the gentiles believe they know the entire Torah through it.” (Megillath Taanith) As accurate a translation as it was, it was still unable to replicate the radiance of the Torah. The true, multi-faceted, depth of the Torah, which shines through its Hebrew language, was restricted and lost in this translation.

The sages also foresaw its misuse at the hands of others, who would use it to preach to Greek-speaking gentiles and convert them to their religion. It would also open the door to countless later misinterpretations of the Torah, and centuries of religious persecution of the Jewish people. As such, it was declared a day of darkness and fasting.

The Septuagint was a watershed in Jewish history. More than any other event, this translation would make the Hebrew religion into a world religion. It would introduce gentile nations to the teachings of Judaism, its ideals and values. While there are some definite benefits to such exposure (see Maimonides, Laws of Kings and their Wars, 11:11–13), this exposure would come at a heavy price for the Jews. From this point forward, they would need to defend their religion and their Torah against those who would challenge its authenticity and accuracy.