Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Septuagint

In a previous post explaining the concept behind the precessional numbers, I wrote that "once one becomes aware of the precessional numbers, they turn up in the most surprising places."

One surprising place that illustrates this assertion is the tradition surrounding the first translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. This translation became known as the Septuagint (often abbreviated as "the LXX") and it was an extremely important and influential translation from its origin in the first half of the 3rd century BC all the way up to the modern period (and is still preferred by the Orthodox Church as a source for Old Testament Scripture).

Most scholars agree that the earliest part of the Hebrew Scriptures translated into Greek was the Torah (the Law of Moses or the Pentateuch), and it is around this earliest translation that the tradition of the original translators is centered, as well as being the source of the title "Septuagint."

According to the Talmud (in the first section of the Tractate Megillah), the first translation into Greek was done by order of King Ptolemy II (309 BC - 246 BC), who reigned with and then after his father Ptolemy I, one of Alexander the Great's generals and his successor to the portion of Alexander's empire centered on Egypt after Alexander's death.

He designed a test whereby 72 elders from Jerusalem were summoned, placed into 72 separate rooms so that they could not collaborate, and ordered to translate the Torah from memory into Greek. By a miracle, all of them translated the Hebrew into Greek the exact same way. Other ancient sources add that the 72 elders accomplished the task in 72 days. From this tradition, the translation was called "the Septuagint," meaning "the Seventy" (a shorthand version of "the translation of the seventy").

The repetition of the number 72, one of the most fundamental and important precessional numbers, is startling. Whatever one thinks of the story itself (whether one believes it took place that way or not, and whether or not miraculous intervention was involved), it is quite clear that the ancient sources took care to repeat the number 72 in order to call attention to its significance.

The incorporation of this precessional number into the tradition of the Septuagint translation is all the more startling because conventional history teaches that precession was not even noticed until the meticulous work of Hipparchus of Nicea, who lived from about 190 BC to 128 BC (perhaps to 120 BC), and who probably did not discover it until close to his death (some scholars believe this crowning achievement came in the year 126 BC). The original translation of the Septuagint, on the other hand, took place before 250 BC (Ptolemy II died in 246 BC).

While it is of course possible that the legendary aspects of the translation and the insistence on the number 72 came later than that, the tradition and number of the translators is referred to in an ancient text called the Letter of Aristeas whose author purports to be a courtier of Ptolemy II writing contemporaneously to the actual translation, but which has been shown to have been written some eighty to a hundred thirty years later, between 170 BC to 130 BC. Nevertheless, this date clearly puts it before the achievement of Hipparchus and raises the question as to the presence of an important precessional number in the tradition of a miraculous translation of the Torah.

While some modern scholars have argued that the traditions surrounding the translation of the Septuagint were invented to try to raise that translation to prominence over other competing translations in the second century BC, this argument does reduce the significance of the use of a precessional number. In fact, this interpretation adds to the mystery, because it means that the choice of that significant number (which also shows up in the most foundational Egyptian myth of Osiris, Set, and Horus) may have carried some authority with certain groups who were also familiar with its importance.

Others might argue that the number 72 was simply a coincidence, in that six elders were chosen as representatives of each of the twelve tribes of Israel. However, the possibility that it is a coincidence is diminished by the fact that Ptolemy reigned over the Egyptian portion of Alexander's empire, where the number 72 had great significance (from the Osiris mythology), as well as by the repetition of the number in the description of the event, as well as by the tradition that the translation was accomplished in 72 days (which cannot be explained by any connection to the twelve tribes of Israel).

Not only that, but Hebrew Scripture and tradition clearly teach that many of the twelve tribes (most commonly ten) were lost after the captivity events that took place hundreds of years earlier (around 720 BC by some accounts -- a date which of course contains the very same precessional number we are discussing!). Thus the simple explanation that the Septuagint's 72 elders represented six elders per tribe and had nothing to do with any other significant numbers is historically difficult to maintain.

It is also a fact that precessional numbers appear in the Hebrew Scriptures themselves, including in the book of Numbers (part of the Pentateuch) and thus to argue that the significance of these numbers was unknown at that time is not plausible (I discuss some of these examples towards the end of the Mathisen Corollary, following some of the detective work by the tireless and extremely insightful Martin Doutré).

I have not seen anyone else discuss the precessional significance of the numbers involved in the tradition of the translation of the Septuagint, but it is possible that someone else has noticed it (although the significance of precessional numbers is often completely overlooked, and so this connection may have escaped attention until now).

Either way, this example proves my assertion that, once you understand the precessional numbers and their significance, you might find that they pop up when you least expect them.