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I’m familiar with the Talmudic account of the Septuagint, but I would like to know if there are any sources/Midrashim that allude to who the 70 rabbis/scholars were and why THEY were chosen to translate the Tanach from Hebrew to Greek?

Thanks!

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  • We must remember that the original Septuagint, translated by rabbis more than 22 centuries ago, was of the Pentateuch alone, and not of the Books of the Prophets, nor other Biblical Writings. We have no idea exactly when the remaining texts of the Bible were translated into Greek, and who were the translators, and were they reliable. Related: judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/34203/… Apr 11 at 13:35
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Aside from the Talmud, the story of the Septuagint is mentioned in the minor tractate Soferim (1:7-8):

מעשה בה׳ זקנים שכתבו לתלמי המלך את התורה יונית והיה היום קשה לישראל כיום שנעשה העגל שלא היתה התורה יכולה להתרגם כל צרכה:

It once happened that five elders wrote the Torah for King Ptolemy in Greek, and that day was as ominous for Israel as the day on which the golden calf was made, since the Torah could not be accurately translated.

שוב מעשה בתלמי המלך שכנס ע"ב זקנים והושיבם בשבעים ושנים בתים ולא גלה להם על מה כנסם נכנס לכל אחד ואחד מהם אמר להם כתבו לי תורת משה רבכם. נתן המקום עצה בלב כל אחד ואחד והסכימה דעתן לדעת אחת וכתבו לו תורה בפני עצמה

It also happened that King Ptolemy assembled seventy-two elders and placed them in seventy-two [separate] rooms without telling them the reason for which he had assembled them. He then went to each one of them and said to him, ‘Write for me [a translation of] the Torah of Moses your master’. The Omnipresent inspired them and the mind of all of them was identical, so that each on his own wrote the [same translation of the] Torah

I'm not familiar with other rabbinic accounts as to the identity of the rabbis, but the Jewish historian Philo of Alexandria provides an account of the Septuagint writers that might be helpful. It appears in a biography that he wrote on Moses (Moses 1 and 2, 2:31-38), and in it he praises the translators. He mentions the location of the translation, some context (e.g., they were determined by the Cohen Gadol), and claims that they received ruach hakodesh in completing the task (which, considering the many differences from the original, has led many scholars to conclude that Philo wasn't fluent in Hebrew, like many Alexandrian Jews at the time). Here's his report:

This great man [Ptolemy], having conceived an ardent affection for our laws, determined to have the Chaldean translated into Greek, and at once dispatched envoys to the high priest and king of Judaea, both offices being held by the same person, explaining his wishes and urging him to choose by merit persons to make a full rendering of the Law into Greek. The high priest was naturally pleased, and, thinking that God’s guiding care must have led the king to busy himself in such an undertaking, sought out such Hebrews as he had of the highest reputation, who had received an education in Greek as well as in their native lore, and joyfully sent them to Ptolemy. When they arrived, they were offered hospitality, and, having been sumptuously entertained, requited their entertainer with a feast of words full of wit and weight. For he tested the wisdom of each by propounding for discussion new instead of the ordinary questions, which problems they solved with happy and well-pointed answers in the form of apophthegms, as the occasion did not allow of lengthy speaking.

After standing this test, they at once began to fulfill the duties of their high errand. Reflecting how great an undertaking it was to make a full version of the laws given by the Voice of God, where they could not add or take away or transfer anything, but must keep the original form and shape, they proceeded to look for the most open and unoccupied a spot in the neighborhood outside the city. For, within the walls, it was full of every kind of living creatures, and consequently the prevalence of diseases and deaths, and the impure conduct of the healthy inhabitants, made them suspicious of it. In front of Alexandria lies the island of Pharos, stretching with its narrow strip of land towards the city, and enclosed by a sea not deep but mostly consisting of shoals, so that the loud din and booming of the surging waves grows faint through the long distance before it reaches the land. Judging this to be the most suitable place in the district, where they might find peace and tranquillity and the soul could commune with the laws with none to disturb its privacy, they fixed their abode there; and, taking the sacred books, stretched them out towards heaven with the hands that held them, asking of God that they might not fail in their purpose. And He assented to their prayers, to the end that the greater part, or even the whole, of the human race might be profited and led to a better life by continuing to observe such wise and truly admirable ordinances.

Sitting here in seclusion with none present save the elements of nature, earth, water, air, heaven, the genesis of which was to be the first theme of their sacred revelation, for the laws begin with the story of the world’s creation, they became as it were possessed, and, under inspiration, wrote, not each several scribe something different, but the same word for word, as though dictated to each by an invisible prompter. Yet who does not know that every language, and Greek especially, abounds in terms, and that the same thought can be put in many shapes by changing single words and whole phrases and suiting the expression to the occasion? This was not the case, we are told, with this law of ours, but the Greek words used corresponded literally with the Chaldean, exactly suited to the things they indicated.

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  • Why does Philo refer to the original text as “Chaldean”? Wasn’t it translated from Hebrew ( or one can argue paleo Hebrew) into Greek?
    – user24992
    Feb 26 at 4:37
  • @user24992 Philo often refers to the Jewish people and the Hebrew language as "Chaldean" (Χαλδαϊκὴν) in his writings.
    – Aryeh
    Feb 26 at 9:48
  • Great answer, thank you. But who was the great priest at that time? Wasn't he a Seduce (definitely not a Pharisee)? And therefore the chosen elders should also be Sadducees?
    – Al Berko
    Feb 27 at 18:00
  • @AlBerko I don't who the Cohen Gadol was at the time, but we're talking about a period at least 50 years before the Sadducees.
    – Aryeh
    Feb 28 at 7:58
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Edit: I've now noticed that the Letter of Aristeas, which records the story of the creation of the Septuagint, records the names of all of the sages involved:

"The following are the names of the elders: Of the first tribe, Joseph, Ezekiah, Zachariah, John, Ezekiah, Elisha. Of the second tribe, Judas, Simon, Samuel, Adaeus, Mattathias, Eschlemias. Of the third tribe, Nehemiah, Joseph, Theodosius, Baseas, Ornias, Dakis.

Of the fourth tribe, Jonathan, Abraeus, Elisha, Ananias, Chabrias.... Of the fifth tribe, Isaac, Jacob, Jesus, Sabbataeus, Simon, Levi. Of the sixth tribe, Judas, Joseph, Simon, Zacharias, Samuel, Selemias.

"Of the seventh tribe, Sabbataeus, Zedekiah, Jacob, Isaac, Jesias, Natthaeus. Of the eighth tribe Theodosius, Jason, Jesus, Theodotus, John, Jonathan. Of the ninth tribe, Theophilus, Abraham, Arsamos, Jason, Endemias, Daniel.

Of the tenth tribe, Jeremiah, Eleazar, Zachariah, Baneas, Elisha, Dathaeus. Of the eleventh tribe, Samuel, Joseph, Judas, Jonathes, Chabu, Dositheus. Of the twelfth tribe, Isaelus, John, Theodosius, Arsamos, Abietes, Ezekiel. They were seventy-two in all.

Adding to @Aryeh's answer, both the author of the Letter and Josephus wrote that the name of the High Priest at the time of the translation was Elazar (Antiquities XII:2:4-7):

"Now when this had been done after so magnificent a manner, according to the king's inclinations, he gave order to Demetrius to give him in writing his sentiments concerning the transcribing of the Jewish books; for no part of the administration is done rashly by these kings, but all things are managed with great circumspection...he commanded that an epistle should be drawn up for Eleazar, the Jewish high priest, concerning these matters; and that they should inform him of the release of the Jews that had been in slavery among them...When Onias the high priest was dead, his son Simon became his successor. He was called Simon the Just because of both his piety towards God, and his kind disposition to those of his own nation. When he was dead, and had left a young son, who was called Onias, Simon's brother Eleazar, of whom we are speaking, took the high priesthood; and he it was to whom Ptolemy wrote...This was the reply which the high priest made. But it does not seem to me to be necessary to set down the names of the seventy [two] elders who were sent by Eleazar, and carried the law, which yet were subjoined at the end of the epistle..."

Josephus most likely based himself on the Letter of Aristeas for information on the exchange between Elazar and Ptolemy, and for the rest of information, it seems he had another source.

Dr. Chaim Chefetz has identified this Elazar the High Priest in his essay (in Hebrew) "Hakohanim Hagedolim Be'tchilat Yemei Bayit Sheni M'shimon Hatzaddik V'ad Yochanan Kohen Gadol" (The High Priests In The Beginning of the Second Temple Era From Simon the Just until Yochanan the High Priest), in the book "Mincha L'Ish", pg. 230-232 (my translation):

"...According to Hirsch, it's doubtful whether Elazar really served as High Priest after Shimon Hatzaddik (Simon the Just), and doubtful even more, in his view, whether this Elazar even ever existed...however, with all due respect, I must object to this doubt on principle, because, as prior explained, we mustn't blame Josephus on inventing things, without clear evidence from a different source...thanks to Josephus we are able to solve a mystery that hovers over a famous figure mentioned in the Talmud, named Elazar who served as a High Priest during the time of the Second Temple. We learn in Tractate Yoma 9a:

"But the years of the wicked will be shortened; that is a reference to the Second Temple, which stood for four hundred and twenty years and in which over three hundred High Priests served. In calculating the tenures of the High Priests, deduct from the figure of four hundred and twenty years forty years that Shimon HaTzaddik served, and eighty years that Yoḥanan the High Priest served, ten years that Yishmael ben Pavi served, and some say eleven years that Rabbi Elazar ben Ḥarsum served..."

...and in his Introduction to his commentary on the Mishna...the Rambam places R' Elazar ben Charsom in the time of Antignos of Socho, noted student of Shimon Hatzaddik. All commentators and researchers note that Rambam's source for this statement is unknown. From what we know about the Rambam, there's almost nothing in terms of halacha and aggadah that's found in his books that he didn't take from the spectrum of Talmudic and Midrashic literature. The existence of this source is proven, in my opinion, entirely from Josephus, who also took from that source his statement that after Shimon Hatzaddik, his brother served in the role of High Priest after him, meaning his "brother" in justice and Torah, Elazar. And even the historical logic requires this, because after the ugly story that happened between the sons of Shimon Hatzaddik [explained earlier in the essay], when the slyness of one and the lack of Torah knowledge of the other were discovered, it would be safe to assume that the elders of the priesthood and the leaders of the people would decide to elect a wise, knowledgeable figure...a student-friend of Shimon Hatzaddik, who would serve as High Priest until the rage will dissipate and give way to shame, and of the descendants of Shimon Hatzaddik will rise in age and in wisdom..."

Rabbi Aharon Hyman in Toldot Tannaim V'Amoraim also hints to this interpretation in his entry on R' Elazar ben Charsom.

tl;dr Elazar the High Priest at the time of the LXX was Rabbi Elazar ben Charsom.

About why they were chosen, the author of the Letter wrote:

"In the presence of all the people I selected six elders from each tribe, good men and true..."

While Josephus wrote:

"... We have also chosen six elders out of every tribe, whom we have sent, and the law with them. It will be thy part, out of thy piety and justice, to send back the law, when it hath been translated, and to return those to us that bring it in safety..."

Of course, the difference between the two versions may be only rooted in the decisions of the Greek-to-English translators.

The Rashash on Sanhedrin 16b wrote (my translation):

"...and thus we understand well the story of King Ptolemy who gathered 72 elders that it must be that they were the Great Sanhedrin, because from them came the teachings of the Torah..."

So according to the Rashash, the reason these men were chosen was because they were the members of the Sanhedrin of that generation, and therefore they were both the wisest of the generation and they were the teachers of the Torah, so only they had the authority to compose such a work.

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  • @user24992 I found the names of the authors in the Letter of Aristeas. See my edited answer.
    – Harel13
    Apr 11 at 12:50

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