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 While there are a number of historical references in the book, these may very well be literary devices used to tell the story of the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek.
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.