Our Gemara tells the story of the targum shiv’im, the Greek translation of the Torah organized by King Ptolemy of Egypt, who collected 72 sages, put them in separate rooms and commanded them to begin translating. According to the Gemara all of the Sages responded to a heavenly message and translated the Torah in the same way, including passages that could have been misunderstood had they been rendered in a literal fashion.
The targum shiv’im was the first translation of the Torah into a foreign language, an occurrence that the Sages viewed at first as dangerous, at best (Megillat Ta’anit records that a fast day was established in commemoration of the event). After a time, however, the translation was accepted as important and valuable and was treated with respect by the Sages. The Jews of Egypt, in particular, viewed the targum shiv’im with great reverence and saw its creation as one of holiness.
Aside from the record of the event that appears in Rabbinic literature, a lengthy description of the translation and how it came to be has been found in an ancient Greek letter entitled “the letter of Aristeas,” which describes the king’s initiative to have the Torah translated and the greatness of the Sages who were brought from Israel to carry it out.
The targum shiv’im that is extant today was preserved mainly by Christians who believed it to be even more reliable than the original Hebrew. Over time, changes were introduced into the work, well beyond the changes described in the story that is told in our Gemara. Today’s version includes occasional passages that we do not have in the standard Hebrew Tanakh; there are even entire books – apocrypha – that appear in the targum shiv’im that do not appear in the Tanakh. At the same time, not all of the changes that are recorded in our Gemara are actually found in the version that we have today.