The Place of Greek in the Biblical Theory of Epiphanius (Part 3.1)


In the past three posts (Part 1; Part 2.1; Part 2.2) we have been enquiring into the biblical theory of Epiphanius of Salamis; that is, how did Epiphanius conceive of the Bible? In the next posts, we take up the subject of the Greek translation in his biblical theory. In this post, we look at the important details of the legend of Aristeas and how Epiphanius narrated them. In the next post, I plan to describe Epiphanius’s evaluation of the Greek translation vis-à-vis the Hebrew text and the later Jewish revisions.

1. The Title of the Greek Version

In at least five places in On Weights and Measures, Epiphanius refers to the “Translation of the Seventy-Two” (Mens. 2, 8, 13 [“Translation of the Seventy-Two Translators”], 15, 19 [in the plural with the other translations]), but judging from usage he prefers far more the designation “the Seventy-Two Translators” or simply “The Seventy-Two” (Mens. 2, et al.).

2. The Setting for the Translation

The Letter of Aristeas (c. 100 BC) briefly accounts where and under what conditions the Seventy-Two worked:

Three days later Demetrius took the men and passing along the sea-wall, seven stadia long, to the island, crossed the bridge and made for the northern districts of Pharos [across from Alexandria]. There he assembled them in a house, which had been built upon the sea-shore, of great beauty and in a secluded situation, and invited them to carry out the work of translation, since everything that they needed for the purpose was placed at their disposal (Aristeas, 301–2).

Epiphanius transmits a traditional understanding of these lines of Aristeas in the following:

For Seventy-Two, with respect to the number, as they were also on the island, Pharos, being called the land on the northern side, right across from Alexandria, in thirty-six chambers, each pair in a chamber, being locked in from earliest dawn until evening, and in the evening being transported in thirty-six small skiffs and crossing over to the palace of Ptolemy Philadelphos and being his guests and sleeping, each pair, in thirty-six beds in order that they might not collaborate with one another but translate genuinely, in this way they accomplished [the translation]. For Ptolemy, having prepared the aforementioned thirty-six chambers on the other side of the island and having made them for two, he shut them in two by two, as I said, and at the same time he was enclosing two servants to serve them for the sake of the fine cookery and service with also the short-hand writers. Now he did not even make windows from the walls in those chambers but he opened the ones called skylights from the roofs above. Now in this way those who continued from morning to evening having been locked in by a bar, thus translated (Mens. 3; emphasis and translation mine).

In perhaps the most expanded version of the legend, Christian or Jewish, Epiphanius conveys two essential components of it: (1) they worked in cells separated from one another and (2) they did not collaborate with one another. This tradition did not begin with Epiphanius. Perhaps Philo of Alexandria implied it (Mos. 2.37), but certainly Christians in the second (e.g. Irenaeus) and third century developed it. Only Jerome would later cast doubt on the authenticity of the cells and the notion that they did not collaborate because Aristeas and Josephus seem to imply that they did collaborate and that there were no cells (Prologue to Genesis).

3. The Translation Method of the Seventy-Two

The Letter of Aristeas has precious little to say about how the translators rendered the Law into Greek but what follows is the relevant section:

So they 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. And the session lasted until the ninth hour;… and then devoted themselves to reading and translating the particular passage upon which they were engaged,…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 (Aristeas, 302–307; emphasis mine).

Aristeas reveals that they worked in one house and they appeared to collaborate on the translation in order to come to agreement on it. Then this translation was copied. Epiphanius, however, cannot resist imagining or supplying some other source (N.b. he does refer to “the account”) on the exact method of translation of the Seventy-Two:

Now one book was given to each pair [of translators], so to speak, the book of the Genesis of the world to one pair, the Exodus of the sons of Israel to another pair, the Leviticus to another, and another book after another to another pair. And thus the twenty-seven specified and established books…were translated (Mens. 3; translation mine).

With respect to the method, which we said, they [the books] were translated, they were given to each pair of translators in a rotation and from the first pair to the second and again from the second to the third and thus they went, each one, going around and translated thirty-six times, as the account goes, both the twenty-two and seventy-two of the apocrypha (Mens. 5; translation mine).

Although Aristeas contains one line on the method of translation, Epiphanius reports what they accomplished and how they did it. They translated into Greek not only the twenty-two canonical books but also the seventy-two apocryphal books of the Jews. The method employed was to divide the Seventy-Two translators into thirty-six pairs and have each pair translate each book so that a total of thirty-six translations of each book would be produced.

4. The Interpretation of the Results

The Letter of Aristeas reports a positive but modest result from the work of translation:

When the work was completed, Demetrius collected together the Jewish population in the place where the translation had been made, and read it over to all, in the presence of the translators, who met with a great reception also from the people, because of the great benefits which they had conferred upon them. They bestowed warm praise upon Demetrius, too, and urged him to have the whole law transcribed and present a copy to their leaders. 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 (Aristeas, 308–11).

No doubt Aristeas presents matters positively. All who heard the Law read were in awe. It was given a scriptural status like the Hebrew text of Deuteronomy (cf. 4:2).

Epiphanius reports an interpretation of the result as well:

Now when they were finished, the King sat on a high throne and also thirty-six readers sat in a lower position, having the thirty-six copies of each book and one having a certified copy of the Hebrew book. And while one reader was reading and the others keeping in silence there was no disagreement found, but a marvelous work of God in order that it might be known, that those men had the gift of the Holy Spirit, agreeing in the translation, and on the one hand where they added a word all added it at the same place, and on the other hand where they took away all took away equally. (Mens. 6; translation and emphasis mine).

The matter of the adding and taking away will be addressed in the next posts. Epiphanius has a high regard for the Seventy-Two. He interprets the manner and result of the translation as the very work of God performed by men who had the gift of the Holy Spirit.


Epiphanius has a complex biblical theory. He has high regard for the Hebrew canon and text and also for the Greek translation of the Seventy-Two on account of its method and miraculous result. In the next post, we hope to see how Epiphanius evaluates the Greek translation and the status of both the Hebrew and Greek versions within his biblical theory.


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