The first translation of the Torah was, according to one early rabbinic opinion, an event as tragic as the making of the golden calf. Another source said that darkness fell on the earth for three days. These may be extreme views. But there is no doubt that the first Bible translation was highly controversial.
In the 2nd century BCE Aristeas, an Alexandrian Jew, wrote a letter to his brother. He described the construction of the great library in Alexandria, where every book ever written was to be translated into Greek. According to Aristeas, only one text stumped the translators. It was the Hebrew Torah.
It's an unlikely claim. There was a large Jewish diaspora in Alexandria, almost certainly containing some Hebrew speakers. Traders and merchants crossed between Egypt and Israel continually, Hebrew would not be unknown to them. Yet Aristeas suggests that nobody in Alexandria could translate it.
Aristeas, who lived a century or so after the events he is describing, wrote himself into the story. He claims to have encouraged King Ptolemy to free 100,000 Jewish slaves and to tell Eleazar, the High Priest in Jerusalem, of his magnanimous act. In return Ptolemy should ask Eleazar to send Hebrew scholars to Alexandria, to translate the Torah into Greek.
King Ptolemy took Aristeas's advice and sent him to Jerusalem, where he persuaded the High Priest to despatch a delegation of 72 scholars. Seventy-two days after their arrival in Alexandria, the scholars proudly presented a copy of their work, a translation of the Torah into Greek.
Also at Book Week
Apart from Harry Freedman's, here are some other Jewish Book Week sessions to look out for:
● Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg will launch the fourth volume of her acclaimed Torah commentary, Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers, February 22, 7pm
● Emeritus Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks will speak on his critique of religious violence, Not in God's Name, February 28, 6.30pm
Later authors reproduced Aristeas's story. Each time they did so, the tale became a little more miraculous. In the version recorded by Philo, the Jewish philosopher who lived in Alexandria from about 25 BCE to 50 CE, instead of the translators collaborating, they each produced their own copy. Yet each copy was identical. In Philo's story a small miracle seems to have taken place. This miracle would become more pronounced as the legend developed over the coming centuries.
By the second century CE, in both Jewish and Christian sources, the translators were no longer simply producing identical Greek versions of the Pentateuch. They were doing so despite being locked into separate cells, unable to communicate with each other. They were now 70 translators and the work had become known as the Septuagint; the Latin word for 70.
Although both Jewish and Christian sources affirmed the miraculous nature of the translation, they did so for very different reasons. The early Christians, whose formal language was Greek, adopted the Septuagint as their official Bible text. For them it superseded the Hebrew Bible. Yet it differed in several places from the Hebrew. The Christians argued that the Hebrew Bible had been deliberately corrupted, to conceal proofs of Christianity. To the Christians, the miracle was that the Jewish translators, despite being unable to collaborate, could not falsify the text.
For the Jews, the miracle was that each translator independently and identically clarified passages which were potentially ambiguous or misleading. The Talmud gives examples. In the very first chapter the verse "Let us make man in our image" might suggest that other powers were involved in the creation of man. The Talmud tells us that the translators all came up with the far more straightforward, "I shall make man in an image". Similarly, in the account of the Tower of Babel, "We will go down and confuse their speech" became "I will go down..."
As the church became more determined in its defence of the Septuagint, the Jews turned further away from it. They made other Greek translations. Meanwhile the remaining books of the Hebrew Bible had been translated and added to the Septuagint. This exacerbated the controversies.
Of all the differences between the Greek and Hebrew Bibles, one in particular has resonated throughout history. It is the translation of the word almah in Isaiah 7,14. When read in Hebrew, Isaiah is prophesying that an almah, a young woman, will give birth to a righteous king. But the Septuagint translated almah as the Greek parthenos, which can mean virgin. The Septuagint, written long before Christianity, implied that a virgin would give birth.
Contemporary Christian scholars recognise that parthenos, in the sense of virgin, is an inaccurate translation of almah. The Catholic, Jerusalem Bible, renders the verse as "a maiden will give birth" and the Protestant, New English Bible speaks of a "young woman".
Not every Christian scholar agrees; in 1952 an American Baptist pastor publicly burnt a Bible which had translated almah as "young woman". But despite such occasional outbursts, after two millennia during which the Church sought to distance the Septuagint from its Hebrew original, some sort of rapprochement seems to be taking place.
The Septuagint controversy shows what can happen when faiths dispute the authenticity of a sacred text. But the Septuagint was just the first of many disputes; in medieval times, Bible translators were even put to death. It may be the foundation of religious belief but the translated Bible has a long and disputatious history.