What is the Letter of Aristeas?

The book uses an epistle format to present Jewish faith as a rational religion worthy of the respect of the Hellenistic world. In addition, the Letter describes the apocryphal origin of the Septuagint. While there are a number of historical references in the book, these may very well be literary devices used to tell the story of the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek.

The Letter of Aristeas

Majority opinion dates the book to 150-100 B.C., although it may be dated as late as the first century. Since the book demonstrates a detailed knowledge of Judaism it is undoubtedly the work of a Jewish writer, likely from Alexandria. The book is extremely valuable for the study of the New Testament since it has a great deal of information about Judaism in the century before Christ. Of primary importance is the detailed description of the temple service and the city of Jerusalem. The letter contains a description of temple service as it was performed a little more than a century before the Jesus. While the book is usually thought of as the “origin of the Septuagint,” it is far more important for what it says about first century B.C. Judaism both in theory (the banquet questions and answers) and in practice (temple worship).

The first eight lines introduce the work. Like Luke and Acts, Aristeas addresses his work to Philocrates, who is praised in the prologue for his scholarly mind and understanding. The purpose of the book is to relate the meeting Aristeas had with Eleazar and the circumstances through which Aristeas led a group of Jewish scholars to Alexandria for the purpose of translating the Hebrew Bible into Greek.

Lines 9-51 relate the decision of the king of Egypt to collect books from all over the world into a single library. The Jewish books, however, cannot be used since they are written in Hebrew. They need to be translated before they are suitable for the great library. The king frees the Jews living in Egypt from slavery and honors them greatly. A letter is written from the king to Eleazar the high priest in Jerusalem explaining to him the plan to translate the Hebrew Bible for the library. Eleazar responds positively to this invitation and Aristeas leads the delegation to Jerusalem to bring the translators to Egypt. Six men are selected from each of the twelve tribes, a total of seventy-two men in all.

Lines 52-82 is a detailed description of the furnishings the Temple in Jerusalem. The items described are fantastic and beautifully adorned with gold and jewels. Lines 83-120 describe Jerusalem and the area of the Temple in detail, including a wonderful description of the vestments of the priests and the process by which they lead in the sacrifices. “Everything is carried out with reverence and in a way worthy of the Great God” (95). All of the details given have an “eyewitness” quality about them, although we must take into account the probability of exaggeration and boasting on the part of our faithful Jewish author. The impression we have is of great wealth and artistic skill in the design of the Temple and the surrounding city.

Aristeas returns to the intended theme of the letter in line 120b, with a slight apology to Philocrates for the detailed diversion. Eleazar selected men for the translation committee who were of the most noble character and well educated in the study of the Law (120b-127). Aristeas questioned Eleazar with regard to these men and he receives a lengthy discussion of the rationality of the Jewish religion (lines 128-171). The bulk of this section concerns the food laws, which the author seems to think need a special explanation. Some animals are forbidden for good reason: mice pollute everything they touch. Weasels are unclean because they were though to give birth out of their mouths. Eleazar convinces Aristeas in each case of the truth of the Jewish religion, and he tells Philocrates he desired to impart to him the “solemnity and characteristic outlook of the Law.”

Eleazar makes appropriate sacrifices and sends seventy-two representatives with Aristeas to Alexandria (172-186). They arrive with gifts for the king and are settled into quarters and well provided for by the king. A huge banquet is prepared, and the men as seated in the order of their age (cf. Gen. 43:33, Joseph seats his brothers in order as well.) There is a long section (187-300) in which the king asks each man in turn some question (usually ethical, philosophical or political) and the man pauses for a moment then gives a brief yet wise answer. The king is impressed by each and increasingly demonstrates his approval of the answers.

Each night of the seven-day banquet the king asks ten men a question. Each of these questions and responses gives an insight into the thinking of Judaism just before the turn of the centuries. It would be interesting project to take each question and answer and search for parallels in the debates between Hillel and Shammai in order to determine how current these questions may have been in the first century. It would also be possible to take each answer and find parallel in the New Testament, especially in the teaching of Jesus and Paul. For example, there seems to be a running theme of self-control and self-sufficiency throughout the responses which find a parallel in the letters of Paul (Gal. 5:23, Phil 4:10-13, for example.)

After the king is satisfied with the worthiness of the translators, they are taken to an island where they would set about the work of translating (lines 301-321). This is the most famous part of the letter as it relates the legendary origins of the Septuagint and the abbreviation LXX for the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. Each of the translators sets about their work for seventy-two days. After the work is finished, the books are read and accepted by the Jews with applause and no one suggested any changes be made to the translations. The translation was read to the king and he marveled at the wisdom of the Lawgiver. The translators are rewarded and told that if they ever wanted to return to Egypt the king would receive them gladly.

Like the rest of the Letter of Aristeas, this idealized apocryphal story of the origin on the Greek Old Testament is an attempt to show the Hellenistic world the Jewish faith is worthy of respect. But is that really the purpose? Who would read and be convinced of the excellence of the Jewish faith about 100 B.C.? I think it is highly unlikely a Greek living in Alexandria, Egypt would read the Letter of Aristeas and be convinced Judaism was a worthy religion and contemplate converting.

I think this Letter is apologetics for insiders. Aristeas does not write to convert Greeks to Judaism, but rather to convince young Hellenistic Jews that their faith is worthy of respect and to encourage them to remain in the faith. The Jewish people do not need to be embarrassed about their Scripture or their Laws because they are rational, and they can be proud of their worship in the Jerusalem Temple. By way of analogy, most Christian apologetics is not read by atheists who are considering converting to Christianity; Christians read this literature in order to bolster their faith and remain Christians.

Is this a fair reading of Aristeas? Perhaps I am wrong and this is missionary literature rather than insider apologetics.

8 thoughts on “What is the Letter of Aristeas?

  1. I disagree with the scholarly consensus that thinks that every religious book in the world is forged, including those in the bible. And for those who believe in the bible, they always use hypocritical standards, judging everything outside the bible with a different standard that those in the bible. I think it’s clear that this is an authentic letter, and so did writers like Josephus and Philo, who were not prone to accepting all sorts of apocryphal trash.

    So, in this case, I find the internal evidence overly convincing that this is an authentic letter about the Greek LXX being translated. The Greek style is definitely not something you would find from a Jewish writer, but from an actual heathen Greek speaker. There is a certain feel to the letter that is real, and the experience is definitely by a non-Israelite who is experiencing Israel for the first time. The way that the questions are described and the way that he experiences the Israelite culture and sees the area for the first time, are definitely a real experience, and don’t sound anywhere even remotely like something that was forged. The amount of detail and “rabbit trails” are not charateristics for a forged work. The lengthy description of the gifts that Ptolemaios made is far too superfluous and pointless if it were a forgery, and forgers simply don’t have interest in these types of things. The internal letters from the Jews about the translation sound incredibly authentic. It really sounds like an account coming from a Roman history book by a geographer or some sort.

    The letter also lines up perfectly with the known historical framework (though some want to contend on a year off or something on the lifespan of a librarian or something… Of course, the heathen works are always 100% authentic and have 100% immaculate manuscripts without any scribal errors and trump anything bible-related… Rather, they should be recognizing all the other 99% of things that line up too perfectly…)

    I’m not the only one who noticed this. There are other serious scholars that think it’s authentic, and came to that conclusion based on similar observations as I did. If it did happen to be in the bible, bible scholars would have absolutely no problem defending its authenticity, and wouldn’t have to stretch to grasping at straws.

  2. I would disagree with the statement, “every religious book in the world is forged,” many are authentic. But in the case of Aristeas, in may be a genuine report of apocryphal stories about the Septuagint, but it is an apocryphal story. The banquet is created to give the author a chance to discuss finer points of Judaism.

    Authentic and historically accurate are really two different ideas here. Maybe a real Aristeas wrote this letter, but does the author tell us what really happened to translate the Septuagint? So yes, it might be an authentic letter reflecting the beliefs of some Jews in the first century BC, but no, it is not historically accurate with respect to the origin of the Septuagint. To use my example in the original post, there were some Jews who thought the ferret was unclean because it gives birth through its mouth, but it is not true a ferret gives birth through its mouth. So an authentic recollection of a traditional explanation of the food laws, but not really an accurate tradition.

    Can you give me an example of a scholar who thinks Aristeas is historically accurate?

    • I can see if I can try to dig up the scholas who think it’s an authentic book and get back with you.

      I’m saying that it’s an authentic letter by the authentic Aristeas who had an authentic visit to Israel during the time period that the letter claims it was written.

      Regarding the ferret or weasel or whatever… Aristeas is relating a real discourse that he had with the Jews when he went to visit them. Whether or not what they said was true is another situation. But what he said they said there is no reason to doubt.

  3. A few things that scholars seem not to mention…

    #1 – There are two Demetrios of Phaleron, one of the grandson of the first. The first is 350-280BC, and the second lived at least from 262-255BC.
    #2 – Some people reject it based on Ptolemaios stating that his victory over Antigonos was a victory. There are a few ways to reconcile this:
    (A) – The secular source from where the information is derived that it was a failure is incorrect, which is a source later than this letter. I haven’t researched this myself to see what all the evidence is and what it’s weight is. Secular scholars seem to always think a “secular” writing is correct over the bible in every instance that they contradict.
    (B) – It was in fact a defeat, but Ptolemaian propaganda said it was a victory, and he continued to spread this word, including at the time of this festival. Since it is he who speaks this, not the narrator. It is a great injustice when a historian assumes that every single character in an account speaks truthfully, and the entire writing is judged as if this was the case. He’s the king. He can put people to death for speaking otherwise. How many common people had the ability to investigate this right away? We have right in our own days, dispute on whether or not there was voter fraud in the election. There’s countless times that we know things were said that were not true.

    • I would also add, that people do a great diservice with the bible too, but assuming that every character, including righteous characters, are always speaking doctrinal truth. The bible records facts of what people said. Many times the character’s perspective is wrong,or they aren’t telling the truth. I think many of these individuals, if they existed today, would be surprised to learn that someone was taking their statements as absolute truth. Therefore, I think many people have erred greatly by taking a non-inspired statement out of the mouth of a righteous character in the formation of doctrine.

  4. Your conclusion is compelling and strikes me as believable that this letter would be written more so for the sustainment of “apologetics for insiders,” rather than for the conversion of the Greeks. I’m curious to hear a bit more as to what led you to draw this conclusion. Through reading Tomasino’s Judaism Before Jesus for class and learning about all of the external influences on the Jews during this time, it makes sense to me that a Jewish leader would wish to present something in an effort to aid in securing the Jewish faith (2003). After the exile, foreign religious influence infiltrated everyday Jewish life- especially the Persian Zoroastrianism- which actually mirrored several Jewish beliefs. What was to keep the Jew’s fascination with these beliefs at bay, and secure commitment to the Law?
    While the letter of Aristeas is apocryphal, it seems to me to reflect a need of our modern day-in-age. We live in a post-Christian era, and what is to keep us from the compelling grasp of New-Age influences and Atheist logic? It may not be a bad thing to aim more literature and media to those of the faith to nourish their belief and understanding, and so that they may make disciples of all nations. Matthew 10:16 rings its truth in my ears at this time: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves (NIV).” If we are to be as shrewd as snakes, we must daily cultivate a strong Christian core, so that we may be sent out among wolves and ideally intrigue some of our predators with our gentle demeanor, even if we are to be swallowed up and attacked by the majority.

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