In this post want to investigate some of the aspects concerning the Septuagint (LXX) specifically in its relation to the significance of the Torah in Judaism (as seen by some of the Rabbis) and how the translation itself was revered as especially seen by the work of Philo and the Epistle of Aristeas.
For this I would like to start with some Rabbinic writings; though these might post date the New Testament, nevertheless the thought pattern behind those writing might well have been around for quite some time.
In Exodus Rabbah 33.1 we read:
It is like a king who had only one daughter. There came a certain king and took her to wife; and he sought to go to his own land and take her with him. The king said: My daughter, whom I have given you, is my only; I cannot be parted from her; but neither can I say to you, Do not take her, for she is your wife. But do me this kindness. Where you go, make me a bedroom for me that I may dwell with you, for I cannot let my daughter go. In the same way said the Holy One (blessed be he) to Israel: I have given you the Law, but I cannot be separated from it; nor can I say to you Do not take it. But wherever you go make me a house in which I may dwell, as it is said, Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them (Exod 25:8).
In this little parable we can immediately see the preciousness and importance of Torah. As a father loves his daughter, so does YHWH love His Torah. The giving of Torah is then a very gracious act of Israel’s covenant partner. A similar thought can be found in Siphre Numbers, Shelah, 115, 35a the question “Why is the Exodus from Egypt mentioned in connection with every single commandment?” the answer is given after another parable:
when God redeemed the children of Abraham his friend, he redeemed them, not as children, but as slaves, so that if he imposed upon them decrees, and they obeyed not, he could say, ‘Ye are my slaves.’ When they went into the desert, he began to order them some light and some heavy commands, e.g. Sabbath and incest commands, and fringes and phylacteries. They began to protest. Then God said, ‘You are my slaves. On this condition I redeemed you, that I should decree, and you should fulfil.’ [Nevertheless, God’s slaves are unlike man’s slaves. God’s ways are not like those of ‘flesh and blood’. For a man acquires slaves that they may look after and sustain him, but God acquires slaves that He may look after and sustain them].
Torah is seen here as God’s gracious provision for His “slaves” which he purchased for their own benefit. Through Torah YHW takes care and sustains his covenant people.
One more similar contemplation can be found in Kiddushin 30b. Here we find the following:
The words of the Law are likened to a medicine of life. Like a king who inflicted a big wound upon his son, and he put a plaster upon his wound. He said, ‘My son, so long as this plaster is on your wound, eat and drink what you like, and wash in cold or warm water, and you will suffer no harm. But if you remove it, you will get a bad boil.’ So God says to the Israelites, ‘I created within you the evil yetzer, but I created the Law as a drug. As long as you occupy yourselves with the Law, the yetzer will not rule over you. But if you do not occupy yourselves with the Torah, then you will be delivered into the power of the yetzer, and all its activity will be against you.’
Though here the affliction is attributed to God and He is the one who actually created the evil in man (or the evil intention יֵצֶר), we again see His loving care by providing His people with Torah which actually will lead to life if being kept.
With these statements I now would like to come to the translation work of the Hebrew Scripture into the Greek tongue – the LXX. In order to see the significance of this translation for Philo let us first look at his awe of Torah. We read e.g. in De Migriatione Abrahami 91:
For although the seventh day is a lesson to teach us the power which exists in the uncreated God, and also that the creature is entitled to rest from his labours, it does not follow that on that account we may abrogate the laws which are established respecting it, so as to light a fire, or till land, or carry burdens, or bring accusations, or conduct suits at law, or demand a restoration of a deposit, or exact the repayment of a debt, or do any other of the things which are usually permitted at times which are not days of festival.
Philo who is not necessarily known for his literal interpretation of Scripture nevertheless sees the necessity of keeping the law as it is written down (to a certain extent at least). In De Opificio Mundi 3 he states in a Stoic fashion that “the law corresponds to the world and the world to the law, and that a man who is obedient to the law, being, by so doing, a citizen of the world, arranges his actions with reference to the intention of nature, in harmony with which the whole universal world is regulated.” In here he then sees the Stoic ideal being accomplished if one actually adheres to the teachings of Torah.
In his retelling of the translation work Philo (de Vita Mosis II:26-42) records that the men who were entitled with the task of translating Torah from the “Chaldean tongue into the Greek were “under inspiration”. Though they were being in separated rooms, they came up with a the same“word for word” translation. Now it is interesting to observe with what reverence Philo depicts the situation further. He writes,
And there is a very evident proof of this; for if Chaldaeans were to learn the Greek language, and if Greeks were to learn Chaldaean, and if each were to meet with those scriptures in both languages, namely, the Chaldaic and the translated version, they would admire and reverence them both as sisters, or rather as one and the same both in their facts and in their language; considering these translators not mere interpreters but hierophants and prophets to whom it had been granted it their honest and guileless minds to go along with the most pure spirit of Moses(emphasis mine).
In other words what Philo is saying here is that the Hebrew and the Greek are of same value and that hence through the study of the LXX one can hear the direct words God gave to Moses on Mt. Sinai. This is significant in that we can see that translation work (though Philo’s account is quite fanciful) is a useful tool to teach other people groups the oracles of God. Further, the Greek translation of the Old Testament was the foundational source of most of the New Testament writers.
A more “realistic” account of the translation work is found in the Epistle of Aristeas. Instead of attributing the coherence of words to some supernatural aspect we read: “So they [i.e., the translators] set to work comparing their several results and making them agree, and whatever they agreed upon was suitably copied out under the direction of Demetrius” (302). Let us not be disturbed by the historical error of mentioning Demetrius as the president of the king’s library. Here we see that the scholars who attended to the translation task did compare their notes and made corrections accordingly. Nevertheless some supernatural influence might be depicted in the following statement: “As I have already said, they met together daily in the place which was delightful for its quiet and its brightness and applied themselves to their task. And it so chanced that the work of translation was completed in seventy-two days, just as if this had been arranged of set purpose” (307; emphasis mine).
In verses 310-11 of this letter we can examine the following (emphasis mine):
After the books had been read, the priests and the elders of the translators and the Jewish community and the leaders of the people stood up and said, that since so excellent and sacred and accurate a translation had been made, it was only right that it should remain as it was and no alteration should be made in it. And when the whole company expressed their approval, they bade them pronounce a curse in accordance with their custom upon any one who should make any alteration either by adding anything or changing in any way whatever any of the words which had been written or making any omission. This was a very wise precaution to ensure that the book might be preserved for all the future time unchanged.
Here again with see praises given to the translation work. It is also interesting to observe the curse for adding to the translation in light of Deut 4:2; 12:32; Rev 22:18-20. In the canonical books the curse is given to the person who adds to God’s Word and in the Epistle of Aristeas the same is recorded for the translation thereof.
In conclusion I want to restate that in these two writings (Philo and Epistle of Aristeas) we can see similar adoration to the LXX which is seen by the Rabbis for the Torah.