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The Jewish Study Bible Contextualizes the Hebrew Bible with accompanying scholarly text on Jewish traditions and history.

Early Versions

The earliest Jewish Bible translation, the Torah translated into Greek, dates to approximately 275 BCE in Alexandria, the Egyptian capital city. As recorded in the Letter of Aristeas, which was composed at least a century after the events it purports to narrate, the second ruler of Hellenistic Egypt, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, was persuaded by his librarian to initiate and support a Greek translation of the Jewish laws or torah. This text was to occupy a place of honor at the great library Ptolemy was assembling at Alexandria. Ptolemy arranged for seventy‐two elders—each renowned for his scholarship and unblemished morality—to be brought in from Jerusalem to ensure that the translation would meet the highest standards of both Hellenistic and Jewish scholarship. Ptolemy welcomed them with lavish entertainment, after which they set about their task. They finished their work in seventy‐two days, dividing themselves into subcommittees and consulting with each other. This story has parallels, with variants and embellishments, in rabbinic literature, as well as in Josephus, Philo, and other ancient Jewish sources.

The last part of the Letter of Aristeas narrates a formal ceremony during which the Jews of Alexandria accepted this Greek translation of the Torah as Sacred Writ. Details of this ceremony call to mind, intentionally so, the account of Moses’ giving of the law in the biblical book of Exodus. To underscore the seriousness of this action, a curse was uttered against anyone daring to alter the wording of this Greek version.

It is unlikely that this lofty view of translation accords with what its translators actually had in mind. If we examine the Septuagint version of the Torah, we find a fairly literal reflection of its Hebrew Vorlage (underlying text). It is not difficult to see in this approach the desire to produce something on the model of a Hebrew‐Greek interlinear version, which would presuppose at least rudimentary knowledge of both languages on the part of its originally intended audience.

Such a Greek text, especially when it circulated independently among people who had little or no knowledge of Hebrew, could wellbecome a substitute for the original, as the Letter of Aristeas envisions. That is not necessarily the case, however. In fact, numerous revisers of this earliest version of the Greek, of whom Aquila (2nd century CE), Theodotion (2nd century CE), and Symmachus (2nd–3rd century CE) are the best known, regularly displayed their acceptance of the subservience of the Greek to the Hebrew when they “corrected” older Greek texts to accord with the Hebrew wording in use within their community. In this way they reflected the view, described above, of the foreign‐language text as at most the next‐best thing to the Hebrew. At the same time, the care with which they fashioned their Greek version demonstrates the seriousness with which they carried out their craft.

We cannot know for certain what led the author of the Letter of Aristeas to promote the Septuagint as a document with sanctity and authority equal to the original. The fact that Jewish revisers, presumably active before and during the period when the Letter was composed, continued their work in spite of the threats of anathema might lead to the conclusion that the Letter's author was an idiosyncratic or at least ineffective proponent of his point of view. But that is certainly not so. The 1st‐century CE Jewish philosopher Philo, himself a native of Alexandria, equated the Septuagint translators with the biblical prophets, thus according their words—and especially the differences between the Greek and the Hebrew texts—the status of inspired revelation. Philo knew no Hebrew; for such an individual, the Bible in translated form assumed preeminent importance.

While Philo was undoubtedly not the sole Jew to feel this way, his point of view is more characteristic of early Christians. It was in their communities that the relatively sober account of Aristeas acquired its miraculous characteristics: Each scholar worked alone to produce, under divine intervention, exactly the same text as his colleagues. And until Jerome (ca. 345–420 CE), hardly any church leader studied Hebrew or sought to learn the language so as to read the Old Testament in its original formulation. The Greek text served that purpose, as it continues to do for Orthodox Christians to this very day.

Was this earliest Greek version the result of internal Jewish concerns about the need for authoritative interpretation as the Hebrew grew increasingly foreign to the community? Or was the impetus, as asserted in the Letter of Aristeas, external, the result of intellectual curiosity on the part of the Ptolemaic leadership? As is so often the case, the response need not be either/or. Rather, it is perfectly understandable that a convergence of compatible motives led to this development.

The Letter of Aristeas deals only with the translation of the Torah. In the absence of external evidence, even sources as problematic as the Letter of Aristeas, it is difficult to speak with certainty about the order, provenance, and tendenz (ideological slant or general orientation) of other books or blocks of material for the Septuagint. We can note, nonetheless, that some later translators consciously modeled their renderings on the generally literal approach taken by the translators of the Torah, while other translators apparently felt free to modernize, harmonize, and other‐ wise modify the underlying Hebrew text, presumably to accord with their perception of audience needs. Among revisers such as Theodotion and Aquila, there is a noticeable tendency toward more literal representation of the Hebrew, not only in quantitative terms, but also qualitatively, whereby even the fairly limited freedom of lexical and stylistic variation in the Torah yielded to standardization. No matter what we may think of the literary value of the resultant Greek, such texts were popular, as witnessed by the continued use and development of the extremely literal version of Aquila by Greek‐speaking Jews throughout the Byzantine period.

The sources cited above witness to differing views about the value of the Greek version, but none condemns translation per se. Such condemnations are found in rabbinic sources, along with positive statements, often directedspecifically at the Greek text, about biblical versions in languages other than Hebrew. Such divergent opinions likely reflect deep divisions among rabbinic authorities, linked to factors such as chronology (preor post‐ 70 CE), geography (in the land of Israel or the Diaspora), and ideology. Although Christians disputed—sometimes heatedly, as in the case of Jerome and Augustine—about which text to translate, the question of whether to translate never arose.

In the formal sense the Septuagint does represent the earliest recorded enterprise aimed at producing a written version of Scripture in a language other than Hebrew. But it is likely that Bible translation or interpretation is several centuries older. As depicted in Nehemiah ch 8 , Ezra, standing before the people at Jerusalem's Water Gate, read from the Book of the Law (essentially the Torah) in Hebrew, with others providing an explanation. (The exact meaning of the Hebrew terminology used in Neh. 8.8 is debated; see notes there.) It is likely that this explanation or interpretation was in Aramaic, by then the lingua franca of the Middle East, for the benefit of the populace, who were no longer fluent in Hebrew. If this scenario is correct, interpreters were utilizing Aramaic to supplement and explain, but not replace, the Hebrew original, and in an oral rather than scribal context.

At some point in the pre‐Christian era, scribes put Aramaic renderings of the Bible into written form; the term Targum (plural: Targumim or Targums) designates such texts. Traditional Jewish sources identify the Torah as the earliest portion translated into Aramaic. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls are indeed two small Aramaic Leviticus fragments, alongside a far longer Targum of Job. The most important Targumim date from the early centuries of the Christian era, although the materials they contain are often much older. There are several important Targumim for the Torah, the Former Prophets, the Latter Proph‐ets, and the Writings. The most influential Targumim were composed in Babylonia.

It is often asserted that the texts of the Targumim, which initially functioned liturgically as supplements to the Hebrew, were essentially paraphrases. This is not so. For the most part, translators into Aramaic were relatively restrained in parting from whatever underlying Hebrew text they had. When they did depart from it, however, it is the case that they exercised considerably more freedom than most Septuagint translators in introducing extensive blocks of “nonbiblical” material in both narrative and legal sections. Among the techniques they adopted were circumlocutions for the name of God. They also incorporated a broad range of updatings to conform to their perceptions of both communal needs and the Oral Tradition. Parallel to developments in the transmission of the Septuagint, later Targumists allowed fewer and fewer paraphrases.

As part of Christian Scripture, the books of the Old Testament also circulated in Syriac, or Eastern Aramaic, and Latin. Jews may well have been responsible for some of the early (3rd century CE and before) Syriac versions that played a part in the later development of the standard Syriac Bible or Peshitta. On the other hand, there is no sure evidence that Jews produced Latin versions of the Bible, in spite of their presence in North Africa, where Christians prepared their earliest biblical texts in Latin. As noted above, Jerome made a point of learning Hebrew and of consulting Jewish teachers to produce the Latin text ultimately adopted by the Catholic Church as the Vulgate. For this, he was roundly attacked on philological, theological, and religious grounds; in terms of the latter, he was almost universally condemned for consorting with Jews who would infect him with their perverse interpretations (or rather misinterpretations) of sacred Scripture. It is nonetheless true that almost all subsequent translators (for example, Martin Luther) and translation committees (such as those responsible for the King James Version) made use, often extensive use, of Jewish sources.

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