The seventy-two elders of the Letter of Aristeas: An ancient midrash on Numbers 11?

Noah Hacham*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


According to the Letter of Aristeas, the ancient treatise on the creation of the Greek translation of the Pentateuch, the high priest Eleazar chose seventy-two elders and dispatched them to Egypt where they translated the Torah into Greek. Scholars discerned the meaning of this number, indicating the affinity to the seventy elders who joined Moses and Aaron in the Sinai covenant (Exod. 24) and the fact that this number represents all the tribes of Israel equally, thus sanctifying the Greek translation in a similar way to the Torah. Particular attention was paid to Epiphanius, the fourth century church father, who explicitly states that the seventy-two elders provide equal representation to all the constituent tribes of Israel. Rabbinic literature, however, has been entirely absent from this discourse. In this article I point to Sifre on Numbers, a second century midrash, that notes that seventy-two elders experienced the Divine revelation (Numbers 11): seventy in the Tabernacle and Eldad and Medad in the camp. I suggest that based on a similar ancient interpretation of Numbers 11, the Letter of Aristeas chose the number seventy-two in order to bestow the aura, authority and sanctity of the seventy-two elders of Number 11 on the Greek translation. This example also highlights Rabbinic literature as an integral element of the cultural context of Jewish-Hellenistic literature.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)175-185
Number of pages11
JournalJournal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jun 2021

Bibliographical note

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  • Epiphanius
  • Letter of Aristeas
  • Septuagint
  • Sifre on Numbers
  • seventy-two


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