The epistle of Aristeas.
Counted among the pseudepigrapha.
Online Critical Pseudepigrapha.
Skeptik (Greek only).
CCEL: Letter of Aristeas (English only).
Letter of Aristeas (English only).
Letter of Aristeas (English only).
Letter of Aristeas (English only).
Letter of Aristeas in the Jewish Encyclopedia.
Letter of Aristeas in the Catholic Encyclopedia.
EJW (Peter Kirby).
Letter of Aristeas (Douglas E. Cox).
Jewish background texts
The epistle of Aristeas to Philocrates is counted as one of the
pseudepigrapha. It is famous for describing the translation of the
Hebrew scriptures into Greek by seventy-two translators, yielding the
Septuagint, or LXX.
Peter Kirby (Early Jewish Writings).
Peter Kirby surveys scholars writing on the epistle of Aristeas to Philocrates:
Raymond F. Surburg writes (Introduction to the Intertestamental Period,
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.
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.
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,
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 Greekthat is, non-Jewishofficial
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 reign247 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)