Biblical Egypt by R. David Pogge

Chapter 13

Ptolemy and the Septuagint

The Graeco-Roman Period

Section 13.1 - God Gave Egypt to Alexander

As prophesied in Daniel 8, God gave Egypt to Alexander the Great. After he died, his empire was divided between his four strongest generals, as prophecied.

As I was thinking about this, suddenly a goat with a prominent horn between its eyes came from the west, crossing the whole earth without touching the ground. It came toward the two-horned ram I had seen standing beside the canal and charged at it in great rage. I saw it attack the ram furiously, striking the ram and shattering its two horns. The ram was powerless to stand against it; the goat knocked it to the ground and trampled on it, and none could rescue the ram from its power. The goat became very great, but at the height of its power the large horn was broken off, and in its place four prominent horns grew up toward the four winds of heaven.

While I, Daniel, was watching the vision and trying to understand it, there before me stood one who looked like a man. And I heard a man’s voice from the Ulai calling, “Gabriel, tell this man the meaning of the vision.”

He said: “I am going to tell you what will happen later in the time of wrath, because the vision concerns the appointed time of the end. The two-horned ram that you saw represents the kings of Media and Persia. The shaggy goat is the king of Greece, and the large horn between its eyes is the first king. The four horns that replaced the one that was broken off represent four kingdoms that will emerge from his nation but will not have the same power. 1

The “horn” who got Egypt was Ptolemy I (also known as Soter I). He reigned for 22 years, and was succeeded by Ptolemy II (Philadelphus), who ruled Egypt for nearly 40 years.

Section 13.2 - The Greek Translation of the Bible

Ptolemy II is very important to a book about Biblical Egypt because it was largely because of him that we have an accurate translation of the Old Testament. Yes, we now have a variety of old manuscripts which scholars compare today to reconstruct the actual words of God; but for a while the primary translation was the Septuagint, commissioned by Ptolemy II. Josephus tells the story.

Demetrius Phalerius, who was library keeper to the king, was now endeavoring, if it were possible, to gather together all the books that were in the habitable earth, and buying whatsoever was any where valuable, or agreeable to the king's inclination, (who was very earnestly set upon collecting of books,) to which inclination of his Demetrius was zealously subservient. And when once Ptolemy asked him how many ten thousands of books he had collected, he replied, that he had already about twenty times ten thousand; but that, in a little time, he should have fifty times ten thousand. But be said he had been informed that there were many books of laws among the Jews worthy of inquiring after, and worthy of the king's library, but which, being written in characters and in a dialect of their own, will cause no small pains in getting them translated into the Greek tongue;

Ptolemy wrote, and that in the manner following: "King Ptolemy to Eleazar the high priest, sendeth greeting. There are many Jews who now dwell in my kingdom, whom the Persians, when they were in power, carried captives. These were honored by my father; some of them he placed in the army, and gave them greater pay than ordinary; to others of them, when they came with him into Egypt, he committed his garrisons, and the guarding of them, that they might be a terror to the Egyptians. And when I had taken the government, I treated all men with humanity, and especially those that are thy fellow citizens, of whom I have set free above a hundred thousand that were slaves, and paid the price of their redemption to their masters out of my own revenues; and those that are of a fit age, I have admitted into them number of my soldiers. And for such as are capable of being faithful to me, and proper for my court, I have put them in such a post, as thinking this [kindness done to them] to be a very great and an acceptable gift, which I devote to God for his providence over me. And as I am desirous to do what will be grateful to these, and to all the other Jews in the habitable earth, I have determined to procure an interpretation of your law, and to have it translated out of Hebrew into Greek, and to be deposited in my library. Thou wilt therefore do well to choose out and send to me men of a good character, who are now elders in age, and six in number out of every tribe. These, by their age, must be skillful in the laws, and of abilities to make an accurate interpretation of them; and when this shall be finished, I shall think that I have done a work glorious to myself. And I have sent to thee Andreas, the captain of my guard, and Aristeus, men whom I have in very great esteem; by whom I have sent those first-fruits which I have dedicated to the temple, and to the sacrifices, and to other uses, to the value of a hundred talents. And if thou wilt send to us, to let us know what thou wouldst have further, thou wilt do a thing acceptable to me." 2

Eleazar sent the requested 72 Jewish scholars (six from each of the 12 tribes), and Josephus describes in excruciating detail how well Ptolemy treated them. We will skip over that part and jump to the conclusion.

Accordingly, they made an accurate interpretation, with great zeal and great pains, and this they continued to do till the ninth hour of the day; after which time they relaxed, and took care of their body, while their food was provided for them in great plenty: besides, Dorotheus, at the king's command, brought them a great deal of what was provided for the king himself. But in the morning they came to the court and saluted Ptolemy, and then went away to their former place, where, when they had washed their hands, and purified themselves, they betook themselves to the interpretation of the laws. Now when the law was transcribed, and the labor of interpretation was over, which came to its conclusion in seventy-two days, Demetrius gathered all the Jews together to the place where the laws were translated, and where the interpreters were, and read them over. The multitude did also approve of those elders that were the interpreters of the law. They withal commended Demetrius for his proposal, as the inventor of what was greatly for their happiness; and they desired that he would give leave to their rulers also to read the law. Moreover, they all, both the priest and the ancientest of the elders, and the principal men of their commonwealth, made it their request, that since the interpretation was happily finished, it might continue in the state it now was, and might not be altered. And when they all commended that determination of theirs, they enjoined, that if any one observed either any thing superfluous, or any thing omitted, that he would take a view of it again, and have it laid before them, and corrected; which was a wise action of theirs, that when the thing was judged to have been well done, it might continue for ever.

14. So the king rejoiced when he saw that his design of this nature was brought to perfection, to so great advantage; and he was chiefly delighted with hearing the Laws read to him; and was astonished at the deep meaning and wisdom of the legislator. And he began to discourse with Demetrius, "How it came to pass, that when this legislation was so wonderful, no one, either of the poets or of the historians, had made mention of it." Demetrius made answer, "that no one durst be so bold as to touch upon the description of these laws, because they were Divine and venerable, and because some that had attempted it were afflicted by God." …

15. And when the king had received these books from Demetrius, as we have said already, he adored them, and gave order that great care should be taken of them, that they might remain uncorrupted. … And this was what came to the Jews, and was much to their glory and honor, from Ptolemy Philadelphus. 3

Section 13.3 - Discrepancies

Thanks to Ptolemy, a very accurate version of the Old Testament was passed down to us, as was confirmed by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. There are a few minor differences here and there attributed to transcription errors due to poor penmanship or smudging—but there are no doctrinal differences.

In Section 3.2 we quoted Exodus 12:40, which said.

Now the length of time the Israelite people lived in Egypt [and Canaan] was 430 years.

In that section, we noted that the Samaritan Pentateuch and Septuagint translations of Exodus 12 have the words “and Canaan,” but those words aren’t in the Masoretic text. Skeptics like to use discrepancies like these to try to discredit the Bible, and some Christians pick one verse to prove their favorite translation is better than all others. It is really making a mountain out of a mole-hill.

It is possible that the words “and Canaan” were accidentally omitted by a careless, or tired, copyist, and copies of that copy eventually became the Masoretic text used by the King James translators. Perhaps the Samaritans and the Jewish scholars who produced their translations were working from a copy that did not have that omission.

There is another possibility. Some of my friends told me they went to England on their vacation—but it is clear from the places they say they visited that they really went to Great Britain. I, myself, spent three weeks on temporary duty in The Netherlands, but spent only a few hours passing through Holland. Holland is a western part of the Netherlands, and my Dutch associates were slightly peeved when I confused Gelderland (the eastern part of the Netherlands where we were) with Holland. Holland and Gelderland are as different from The Netherlands as California and New York are from America. To an American, there is no difference between England and Great Britain, or between Holland and The Netherlands—but there is a difference to Welsh, Scottish and Dutch people.

To Hebrews, all the time wasted in Canaan and Egypt, waiting to enter the Promised Land, was time spent in Egypt. Just like there is no difference to us between Holland and The Netherlands, to the anxious Hebrews there was no difference between Canaan and Egypt—it wasn’t the land God promised to their father, Abraham; and that’s all that mattered.

To the Egyptians, however, there’s a big difference between Canaan and Egypt. No doubt the Hebrew scholars being paid to translate the scriptures for Ptolemy didn’t want to offend their Egyptian boss by confusing their glorious land of Egypt with that worthless piece of desert called, “Canaan,” so they added the clarification.

The Bible is infallible: but people aren’t. People make copying errors, or misunderstand foreign expressions. There are minor differences in translations. In my opinion, there is no single translation that is perfect. When they disagree, sometimes the Masoretic text is correct and sometimes the Septuagint is correct.

I quote the New International Version throughout this book, instead of the King James Version, because 17th Century English is confusing to many modern readers. In the early drafts of this book, I used the King James Version. When I submitted the third draft to one of my proofreaders, she "corrected" many of the Biblical quotes because she thought I had made spelling errors and gramatical errors when typing the Biblical texts. If an experienced editor gets so confused by the changes in the English language over the past 400 years, most readers are likely to be confused, too.

My favorite English translation is the 1984 New International Version. The Louis Segund translation is my choice when reading the Bible in French; but I often consult multiple other translations. The King James Version contains some English words ("gay," and "alleged," for example) which have changed their meaning since 1611, and lots of words that modern readers don’t know at all. (There are too many examples for me to "shew" you.) That makes it unnecessarily confusing. Because the obsolete language is so difficult, many people give up when trying to read the whole Bible in a year. I suggest you read a modern translation instead.

If, as some people claim, the King James Version is the only true translation, making it the only translation that should ever be read, will all the people who speak only Spanish never have an opportunity to read the true Word of God? Of course not!

Because there are 30,422 verses in the Bible, 4 there is a lot of redundancy. Every major doctrine is stated multiple times. If a doctrine can only be supported by one verse, and that one verse has to be in a particular translation, I believe that doctrine is either false or unimportant.

Back to Chapter 12 Table of Contents On to Chapter 14


1 Daniel 8:5-8, 15-16, 19-22
3 ibid.
4 According to Meredith’s Book of Bible Lists. I didn’t count them myself.