For the Talmud, the Translation of the Bible into Greek Was a National Tragedy. Azariah de Rossi Disagreed

Dec. 28 2017

Today, the fast of the Tenth of Tevet primarily commemorates the start of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 588 BCE, which culminated with the city’s destruction. But it is also associated with a handful of other anniversaries, including that of the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, completed, according to medieval Jewish sources, on the eighth day of Tevet. As this linkage with the fast day suggests, rabbinic tradition took a dim view of the Septuagint, as the Greek translation—legendarily executed by 72 Jewish sages on commission from King Ptolemy of Egypt in the 3rd century BCE—is known. In the early 1570s, the Italian rabbi and humanist Azariah de Rossi undertook to change that, for reasons summarized by Elli Fischer:

[The history of the Septuagint involved] an admission by classical Greek culture (represented by Ptolemy II) and Christianity (which preserved the work and considered it sacred) that the Jews held the original, authentic Bible and had access to its true meaning and wisdom. For a persecuted people—it had been barely a year since the expulsion of Jews from Bologna, and the Talmud had been burned publicly in several major Italian cities in the 1550s and 1560s, not to mention that Jews expelled from Spain constituted a significant part of Italian Jewry—such a work had great apologetic value.

Moreover, the Hebrew language played an important role in the two great movements that were transforming Europe at the time: the Renaissance and the Reformation. The Renaissance, as its name indicates, was perceived as a recovery and renewal of lost grandeur, a rebirth after a long, dark age. There was a return to Greek and Latin classical culture, but also to Hebrew.

In Italy and the Netherlands, Renaissance scholars studied Hebrew with Jewish or apostate tutors, attempting to gain access to Jewish texts—far more than just the Torah—without the mediation of translations or interpretations. . . . This emergent phenomenon, which came to be known as Christian Hebraism, required Jewish manpower. Indeed, 15th- and 16th-century Jewish scholars . . . found employment teaching Hebrew to Christians and translating Hebrew works into Latin and other European languages. That is, they were playing a role similar to that of [the Jewish sages who authored the Septuagint]. Azariah, too, . . . was approached by a Christian scholar [for assistance]. . . .

But Azariah was not just the analogue of Ptolemy’s [Jewish] sages; he was also their mirror image. They translated Hebrew into Greek; he translated [works] from Latin into Hebrew. They brought the Torah to the famed Library of Alexandria; he brought books and knowledge from the vast repositories accessible to him and embedded them in a rabbinic work.

Welcome to Mosaic

Register now to get two more stories free

Register Now

Already a subscriber? Sign in now

Read more at Lehrhaus

More about: Azariah de Rossi, Italian Jewry, Religion & Holidays, Septuagint, Tenth of Tevet, Translation

To Today’s Cosmopolitan and “Oikophobic” Left, Israel Can Never Be Acceptable

Aug. 23 2019

On the day the Knesset passed its nation-state law last year, Benjamin Netanyahu proclaimed, “This is our state—the Jewish state. . . . This is our nation, language, and flag.” This declaration, argues Wiliam Voegeli, points precisely to what the American left finds so unpalatable about Israel:

Sign up to read more

You've read all your free articles for this month

Register

Sign up now for unlimited access to the best in Jewish thought, culture, and politics

Already have an account? Log in now

Read more at Claremont Review of Books

More about: Anti-Zionism, Leftism, Nation-State Law, Nationalism