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William Shepard

Ptolemy Philadelphus

When Ptolemy Sotor had ruled for forty years, he died, and was succeeded by Ptolemy Philadelphus. This king was a great patron of learning. He founded a library in Alexandria, which soon grew to be the most magnificent collection of books in the world. The librarian whom he placed over it was named Demetrius, and he made it his business to buy all the books he could find that were of any value or interest. One day Ptolemy called Demetrius to him and asked how many ten thousands of books he had collected.

"I have already," answered Demetrius, "about twenty times ten thousand books in the library, but in a little time I shall have fifty times ten thousand."

Then Demetrius went on to say that he understood there were many books of laws among the Jews, which were of great value and would be worth adding to the king's library. "But these books," he said, "are written in the Jewish language and in strange letters, which makes it very difficult for the Greeks to read or understand them. Wherefore I think it would be a good plan to have all these books translated into the Greek language and placed in the library."

Ptolemy was pleased with what Demetrius proposed, and he counselled him to prepare a letter to the high-priest of the Jews about the matter.

Meanwhile, at the advice of one of his friends, named Aristeus, who was a wise and just man, Ptolemy set free the Jews who had been brought captive into Egypt by Ptolemy Sotor, and who now numbered one hundred and twenty thousand.

Then the king ordered a number of gold and silver vessels to be made as a present for the high-priest at Jerusalem, and with these presents he sent a letter telling the priest that he had set free all his countrymen who had formerly been in bondage, and that he only asked in return that he would assist him in having a translation made of the sacred books of the Jews, to be placed in the library at Alexandria.

"Thou wilt, therefore," continued the letter, "do well to choose out and send to me men of a good character, who are elders in age, six in number out of every tribe. And let these be learned men, skilled in the laws, and able to translate them into the Greek language. And when the translation shall be finished, I shall think that I have done a work glorious to myself."

The high-priest at this time was named Eleazar. He was pleased at the king's letter, and he gladly chose out and sent him seventy-two learned men out of the twelve tribes, who carried with them to Alexandria the sacred books of the Jews. When the king heard that the elders had reached the city, he dismissed all other visitors and ordered that they should be brought at once into his presence. And, as the old men came in, he treated them with great respect, and asked them many questions about their books. He also greatly admired the way in which they were written, for they were in letters of gold on thin sheets of parchment, and these sheets were joined together so perfectly that no one could tell where one sheet ended and the other began. He then said that he returned them thanks for coming to him, and still greater thanks to him that sent them, and, above all, to that God whose laws they appeared to be. Then did the elders and those that were with them cry out with one voice and wish all happiness to the king, at which he was so much affected that he wept for joy. And when he had bidden them deliver the books to those that were appointed to receive them, he asked the men to come in and sup with him.

Twelve days afterwards the elders began their translation. They worked in a house that Demetrius had prepared for them. It was built on an island near the sea-shore, and was a quiet place, where they could write and converse together without being interrupted. In seventy-two days all the books were translated and written out in the Greek tongue. Then Demetrius the librarian called together all the Jews that were in Alexandria, and the elders read the translation to them, and they were satisfied with it.

The king rejoiced that the work had been brought to so happy an end, and he was greatly delighted when the laws were read to him, and was astonished at their deep meaning and wisdom. Turning to Demetrius, he asked,—

"How comes it to pass that these laws, which are so wise and wonderful, have never been mentioned by any of our poets or historians?"

Demetrius answered, "No one has dared to make a description of these laws, because they are divine and venerable, and because some that have attempted it have been afflicted by God."

And then Demetrius spoke of one Theopompus, who had intended to write concerning these laws, but had been afflicted with madness for thirty days, and when he came to his senses, he was told in a vision that his madness fell upon him because he had indulged too great a curiosity about divine matters and was desirous of publishing them among common men. Whereupon he appeased God by prayer, and the madness never visited him again.

"Moreover," continued Demetrius, "the tragic poet Theodectes intended to make mention of things that were contained in the sacred books in one of his dramas, whereupon he was afflicted with blindness, and, being conscious of the reason of this disorder, he prayed to God, and was restored to sight."

The king gave orders to Demetrius that great care should be taken of the sacred books, so that nothing might ever be added to or taken away from what was written in them. And he sent the elders back to their own country with many handsome presents for them.