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Letter of Aristeas

Third Century B.C. - First Century A.D.

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Raymond F. Surburg writes (Introduction to the Intertestamental Period, p. 152):

The Letter of Aristeas is dedicated to Philocrates, brother of the author of the letter, in this way: "My brother in character no less than in blood, but one with me as well as in the pursuit of goodness." It begins by telling how King Ptolemy Philadelphus (285-247 B.C.) was advised by his librarian to have the laws of the Jews translated for his library of 200,000 volumes which had no translation of the sacred scriptures of the Jews (vv. 1-8). Ptolemy selects Aristeas to go on an embassy to the high priest Eliezer with the request to send a body of scholars to translate their sacred scriptures into Greek. Aristeas takes the opportunity to suggest to Ptolemy the freeing of the 30,000 men whom his father had brought from Palestine as garrisons for the country districts (vv. 17-27). The king agrees to free the Jews and also pays their owners 20 drachmae per head, the total being 660 talents (vv. 28-40).

Eleazar answers Ptolemy's request favorably (vv. 41-50). The king then sends a gift of 100 talents of silver to Eliezer for the temple sacrifices: a sacred table (vv. 51-72), gold and silver bowls (vv. 73-78), and golden vials (vv. 79-82).

A most interesting account of the temple, city, and country is then given (vv. 107-120), which is believed to be from a lost work of Hecate. The translators selected by the high priest leave for Egypt (vv. 121-127). This is followed by a disquisition on the enactment of laws that treat of food, which are justified by means of the allegorical method (vv. 128-171). Ptolemy accords the Jewish elders great deference (vv. 172-186), entertains them at a banquet for seven successive days, and is delighted with the answers to the 72 questions given by the leaders from Palestine (vv. 187-300).

At the end of the week the elders are installed on the island of Pharos, where they work every day and complete their translation in 72 days (vv. 201-311). The translation is read before the Jewish population and recognized by the latter to be accurate (vv. 312-317). Any person who tampers iwth it in the future is to be subject to a curse. The king receives the scrolls with great satisfaction and dismisses the translators, who return to Jerusalem with costly gifts (vv. 318-322).

Emil Schürer writes: "This survey of the contents shows, that the object of the narrative is by no means that of relating the history in the abstract, but the history so far as it shows, what esteem and admiration were felt for the Jewish law and for Judaism in general by even heathen authorities, such as King Ptolemy and his ambassador Aristeas. For the tendency of the whole culminates in the circumstance, that praise was accorded to the Jewish law by heathen lips. The whole is therefore in the first place intended for heathen readers. They are to be shown what interest the learned Ptolemy, the promoter of science, felt in the Jewish law, and with what admiration his highly placed official Aristeas spoke of it and of Judaism in general to his brother Philocrates. When then it is also remarked at the close, that the accuracy of the translation was acknowledged by the Jews also, this is not for the purpose of commending the translation to Jews, who might still oppose it, but to testify to the heathen, that they had in the present translation an accurate version of the genuine Jewish law, and it is they, the heathen, who are thus invited to read it." (The Literature of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus, pp. 308-309)

Martin McNamara writes: "This work is remembered for the legend it contains on the translation of the Pentateuch from Hebrew into Greek. Although this letter casts light on the author's interests and theological views, still the content seems to be fairly meagre. There is emphasis on the Law. The work has conventional ethical teaching, with stress on trust in God. 'The highest good in life is to know that God is the Lord of the universe and that in our finest achievements it is not we who attain success but God who by his power brings all things to fulfilment and leads us to the goal' (§195). The author's interest in the Jerusalem temple is evident from his detailed description of it: the temple itself including the arrangements for the water supply (§§83-91), the ministration of the priests and of Eleazar in particular (§§92-99), the Akra or citadel (§§100-104). We also are given a brief description of Jerusalem (§§105-106), and a description of the country districts of Palestine (§§107-120)." (Intertestamental Literature, p. 231)

James C. VanderKam writes: "There has been a long debate among scholars regarding whether the Letter tells us anything historically reliable about the translation of the law into Greek. It is not impossible that the process happened or started in Philadelphus's reign since use of the translation is attested by ca. 200 BCE. It seems unlikely on general grounds that it all transpired just as the Letter claims. It is possible that the Letter was written in part to defend the validity of the Torah in Greek in face of claims made for the sole sufficiency of the Hebrew version. In later Christian retellings of the story about the translation found in the Letter, the tale expanded so that eventually the entire Hebrew Bible was involved (so Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 68:6-7); indeed, all the translators worked on the entire project independently, and when they compared their results at the end, wonder of wonders, every one of them was exactly alike (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.21.2)." (An Introduction to Early Judaism, pp. 84-85)

Leonhard Rost writes: "The author claims to be a Greek—that is, non-Jewish—official in the court of King Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-246), who was one of the leaders of the mission to the high priest Eleazar and is now reporting what happened to his brother Philocrates. This statement is a fiction. The letter shows clearly that the author was an Alexandrian Jew living considerably later (§§ 28, 182) than the events described. He commits historical errors: Demetrius of Phaleron had been banished around 183 B.C. and had died soon afterwards; he could therefore not have been in office as the administrator of the library. The sea battle against Antigonus near Cos (258 B.C.) was a defeat, not a victory, as § 180 states; and the battle of Andros did not take place until the final year of Ptolemy II's reign—247 B.C. Menedemus is said to have been at the banquet, but it is dubious whether he ever came to Egypt from Eretria (§ 201). These discrepancies are cited by H. T. Andrews. Bickermann, besides citing some earlier observations, adds the demonstration that various idioms in the Letter do not occur until the middle of the second century and later. Examples are the phrase 'if it seems good' (§ 32), the title 'chief bodyguard(s)' in the plural, and the formula 'greetings and salutations.' It is therefore best to follow M. Hadas and date the Letter around the year 130 B.C. Wendland assumes that it was composed between 97 and 93 B.C. Willrich and Graetz suggest the reign of Caligula, but this dating is too late, since Aristeas presumes that the island of Pharos is inhabited, whereas Caesar had made it uninhabitable in 63 B.C." (Judaism Outside the Hebrew Canon, p. 102)

Emil Schürer writes: "No consensus concerning the date of this book has been arrived at by critics. It seems however tolerably certain to me, that it originated not later than about 200 years before Christ. The legend, that it was Demetrius Phalereus who suggested the whole undertaking to Ptolemy Philadelphus is unhistorical, not only in its details, but in the main point; for Demetrius Phalereus in the time of Ptolemy Philadelphus no longer lived at court at Alexandria (see above, p. 161). When then the Jewish philosopher Aristobulus designates just Demetrius Phalereus as the originator of the undertaking (in Euseb. Praep. evang. xiii. 12. 2, see the passage above, p. 160), it is very probable that the book in question was already in his hands. Now Aristobulus lived in the time of Ptolemy Philometor, about 170-150 B.C., and the result thus obtained is supported on internal grounds also. The period when the Jewish people were leading a peaceful and prosperous existence under the conduct of their high priest and in a relation of very slight dependence upon Egypt, i.e. the period before the conquest of Palestine by the Seleucidae, evidently forms the background of the narrative. There is nowhere any allusion to the complications and difficulties which begin with the Seleucidian conquest. The Jewish people and their high priest appear as almost politically independent. At all events it is to a time of peace and prosperity that we are transferred. Especially is it worthy of remark, that the fortress of Jerusalem is in the possession of the Jews (Merx' Archiv, i. 272. 10 to 273. 4 = Havercamp's Josephus, ii. 2. 113). Whether this stood on the same spot as the one subsequently erected by Antiochus Epiphanes (1 Macc. i. 33) or not, the author is in any case acquainted with only the one in the possession of the Jews. The fortress however erected by Antiochus remained in the possession of the Seleucidae till the time of the high priest Simon (142-141 B.C., 1 Macc. xiii. 49-52). Of this fact the author has evidently as yet no knowledge, and as little of the subsequent princely position of the high priest; to him the high priest is imply the high priest, and not also prince or indeed king. In every respect then it is the circumstances of the Ptolemaic age that are presupposed. If the author has only artificially reproduced them, this is done with a certainty and a refinement which cannot be assumed in the case of a pseudonymous author living after it. Hence the opinion, that the book originated not later than 200 B.C., is justified." (The Literature of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus, pp. 309-310)

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