AFB B-Sides: Letter of Aristeas

Apocrypha for Beginners includes over 50 different apocrypha, but there are, of course, myriad more. This is part of a series of “B-sides”: posts about apocrypha that weren’t included in the book.

Letter of Aristeas

Facts

Also known as: Letter of Pseudo-Aristeas, Letter to Philocrates

Author: Unknown, a Hellenistic Jew living in diaspora in Alexandria; attributed to Aristeas of Marmora, a courtier of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (r. 283-46 BCE)

Date written: Between about 250 BCE and 100 CE

Language: Greek

Canons: None

Discovery

The Letter of Aristeas was well known to Jewish and Christian authors in late antiquity; it was cited by the Jewish Roman historian Josephus, Philo of Alexandria, Aristobulus of Alexandria, and Eusebius. It is well attested in Greek manuscripts from the Middle Ages. Matthias Palmerius printed the first modern edition with a Latin text in 1471. Simon Schard published the first printed Greek edition was published in 1561. That remained the standard edition until Moritz Schmidt published a new edition in 1870, which was followed by various other editions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Summary

Although titled a “letter” because it is addressed to the narrator’s (Aristeas’s) brother Philocrates, this work is more of a historical fiction with several documents (some letters) embedded within it. The main narrative begins with the Egyptian King Ptolemy II ordering the court librarian Demetrius to collect all of the books in the world for the library at Alexandria. Demetrius is especially keen to include the Jewish Law (Torah) in a Greek translation. But no such translation yet exists. The narrative is cut through with several digressions emphasizing special privileges that King Ptolemy bestows upon the Jewish people, but the main story continues to concern the translation of the Torah into Greek.

Word is sent to Eleazar, the High Priest in Jerusalem, to have translators travel to Alexandria: six from every one of the twelve tribes of Israel, for a total of seventy-two translators. The king tests the Jewish translators with a series of questions and gains their answers over seven days. Then the translation is undertaken, with each translator isolated in his own room. The translation takes seventy-two days to complete, the king lauds the men for their work, and Demetrius is ordered to take special care to preserve the translation.

Analysis

This work is not technically an apocryphon (according to standard definitions of the word, anyway), although it is often included among the “pseudepigrapha” related to the Hebrew Bible because of its relationship to other literary works of the period and its pseudo-historical narrative related to the Torah. Although most scholars agree that it is largely fictional propaganda, it is still considered to be an important source for the history of the Greek Septuagint and Jewish ideas about observing Israelite laws in diaspora. The emphasis on seventy-two translators working over seventy-two days gave way to the more standard number seventy (LXX in Roman numerals)–which carried over to the name of the Septuagint (meaning seventy).

The narrative about the translation of the Torah into Greek is the centerpiece of this work. Since it must have been written well after the first Greek translations of portions of the Hebrew Bible, it is a retrospective justification. It demonstrates that the Torah was central to Jewish belief and practice during the Second Temple period, for Jews not only in Palestine but also in diaspora. It also represents a general shift in the common language used by Jewish authors during the Second Temple period, from Hebrew and Aramaic to Greek.

Like other works composed by diaspora Jews during the Second Temple period, there is an emphasis on “piety.” This concerns is especially expressed with a focus on God as Creator, as well as the superiority of Israelite laws (the Torah) over other ways of life. At the same time, the author was clearly influenced by Hellenism. The language, literary form, and certain appeals to Greek philosophical ideas about ethics and politics all point to the author’s Hellenistic learning. It is possible that this work was meant to appeal to Jews as well as Gentiles, as a way to entice them into apologetic points about the superiority of Israelite laws. At the same time, the letter seems to appeal to Jews to embrace Greek culture. It therefore presents a syncretic ideal for both Jewish and Gentile audiences.


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