The Battle of the Seventy Translators

How many rabbis first translated the Hebrew Bible, and how many different translations did they produce?

The main page of the Complutensian Polyglot Bible, 16th century, which contains a rendering of the Septuagint. Wikipedia.

The main page of the Complutensian Polyglot Bible, 16th century, which contains a rendering of the Septuagint. Wikipedia.

May 25 2023
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Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.

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The voice [of God at Mount Sinai] went forth and divided into 70 voices and 70 languages, so that every nation would hear it in the language that it spoke.—Exodus Rabbah 5:9

Consider how the voice [of God at Mount Sinai] reached every Israelite, each according to his powers: the elderly according to their powers, and the youths according to their powers, and the children according to their powers, and the infants according to their powers, and the women according to their powers, and even Moses himself.—Exodus Rabbah, 5:9

It happened that King Ptolemy convened 72 elders, enclosed them in 72 chambers without telling them why, and then went from one to the other and said, “Transcribe for me [in Greek] the Torah of your master Moses.” God bestowed His counsel on each of them and all arrived at a single identical translation.—Talmud, Megillah 9a

Ptolemy II, the Hellenistic monarch of Egypt from 283 to 246 BCE, was the ruler who commissioned the Septuagint, the earliest Bible translation whose first part, the Five Books of Moses, was carried out under his reign. Its name derives from its Latin title of Vetus Testamentum ex Versione Septuaginta Interpretum, “The Old Testament in the Version of the 70 Translators.” In rabbinic tradition, too, it is known as targum ha-shiv’im, “the translation of the 70,” even though the oldest accounts of it have it that the actual number of scholars summoned by Ptolemy was 72, six from each of the twelve tribes of Israel.

This is an obvious anachronism, the twelve tribes of Israel having long disappeared by Ptolemy’s time. Whether real or apocryphal, however, it is not a coincidence, I think, that the number of 72 was rounded off by rabbinic—and in its wake, Christian—tradition to 70, which was also held by the rabbis to be the number of the world’s languages.

The two brief passages cited above from Exodus Rabbah, a compilation of midrashim relating to the book of Exodus that dates to the medieval period but reflects older sources, are well-known. Both comment on the fact that the description of revelation in Exodus 19 speaks once of God’s “voice” (kol) and once of His “voices” (kolot), and while the first passage has been taken to bear witness to Judaism’s universalism, the second has been frequently cited by Jewish sources as a justification for biblical exegesis that seems far removed from the original intention of the text. If the Israelites, after all, heard different things at Sinai in accord with each listener’s personal development, don’t we, their descendants, also have the right to our different understandings of what was said there?

It would appear to follow from this that there is no single “correct” reading of the Torah. Or, as stated by another medieval Hebrew text with older antecedents, “The Alphabet of Rabbi Akiva”: “The Books of Moses were given in the 70 facets of 70 languages, and the Prophets in the 70 facets of 70 languages, and the Law in the 70 facets of 70 languages.” Biblical interpretation is thus open-ended, or at least extends to a possible 4,900 (70 x 70) ways of reading each biblical verse.

And yet, according to the talmudic tractate of Megillah, when the 72 (later reduced to 70) translators of the Bible were assembled, each produced, despite being isolated from the others, the exact same translation, down to the last word! This story, moreover, contradicts the earliest and (though it, too, has its embellishments) most reliable description of what happened in Alexandria, the so-called Epistle of Aristeas to Polycrates. An account in the form of a lengthy letter relating how the Septuagint came into being, purportedly sent to his brother by an official in Ptolemy’s court and probably written within a few decades of the latter’s death, the epistle tells how the Bible’s first translators were taken to a magnificent villa on an island near Ptolemy’s palace. After the commensurate banqueting, speech-making, and gift-giving, so it continues:

They set to work by comparing [their different translations] until they reached agreement, and once an agreement was reached, it was recorded by Demetrius, [a royal official]. This went until the ninth hour of each day, after which they indulged in bodily recreation and had all their needs generously provided for. . . . Thus they gathered every day and performed the task given them.

This is in fact quite the opposite of what we are told by the midrash: not the miraculous coinciding of separately produced translations but a group effort leading, via debate and discussion, to a consensual text. Nor were the rabbis the first to reverse the Epistle of Aristeas in this respect. Preceding them was the early 1st-century CE Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, who wrote of the Septuagint’s origins: “Therefore, being settled in a secret place, . . . they [the translators], like men inspired, prophesied, not one saying one thing and another another, but every one of them employing 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, adapting many different forms of expression to it at different times?”

Although Philo, who was demonstrably familiar with the Epistle of Aristeas, does not explicitly say that the translators of the Septuagint worked in isolation from one another, he clearly implies as much, since there would have been nothing remarkable about their arriving at the same language if they had done so through a process of mutual dialogue. And while the rabbis do not seem to have known Philo’s writings, it is possible that his version of the Septuagint’s origins reached them indirectly—or conversely, that he himself was influenced by an early rabbinic or Pharisaic source. One way or another, if Greek, like every language, has 70 “facets” according to “The Alphabet of Rabbi Akiva,” the 70 translators of the Septuagint, according to both Philo and the rabbis, ignored 69 of them in favor of just one.

Seventy versus seventy: this is a controversy between strict constructionism and latitudinarianism that lies at the heart of the Jewish attitude toward the Bible—indeed of all biblical commentary, and in a wider context, of all literary criticism. Does a text like the Bible mean whatever we take it to mean, so that it is potentially infinite in its meanings, or does it mean only one thing, which is what its composer intended it to mean?

And yet the argument is in a sense an illusory one, for if the Torah’s composer was an Infinite Being, this Being’s compositional intentions could have been infinite, too. Indeed rabbinic Judaism has traditionally resolved the 70-70 debate by being strict-constructionist and latitudinarian at once—the former in relation to God’s word, which is regarded as sacredly fixed and unchangeable, the latter in relation to its interpretation, which is thought of as endless. In the battle of the seventies, which bears on the seventh-week holiday of Shavuot, this week’s celebration of the giving of the law at Sinai, both sides are thus the winners.

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