ARISTEAS, LETTER OF


ARISTEAS, LETTER OF
ARISTEAS, LETTER OF, Jewish-Alexandrian literary composition written by an anonymous Jew, in the form of a letter allegedly written to his brother Philocrates by Aristeas, a Greek in the court of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285–246 B.C.E.). The contents of the book are as follows: On the advice of his courtiers, Demetrius of Phalerum and Aristeas, Ptolemy Philadelphus orders the sacred writings of the Jews to be translated for the library of Alexandria. The king writes to Eleazar, the high priest in Jerusalem, requesting that expert translators be sent to him. His letter is accompanied by a precious gift for the Temple. Aristeas at the head of an Egyptian delegation goes to Jerusalem and returns with a detailed description of Judea, Jerusalem, the Temple and its services, and his talks with Eleazar. Eleazar sends Ptolemy II 72 elders, six from each of the 12 tribes, who are well versed in both the Mosaic Law and in the customs of Greek society. The king gives them an elaborate reception and for ten days holds banquets in their honor in the course of which he discovers their great wisdom. They are then taken to the Island of Pharos and within 72 days they translate the Scripture into Greek. The translation is approved by the king and by the representatives of the Alexandrian Jewish community, and the translators are sent back home laden with gifts. This story, based on a legend about the Septuagint current in Alexandria by the third century B.C.E., is more a historical romance than an accurate account. The author of the Letter used this legend as a framework which he filled with certain ideas that he wished to disseminate among his Jewish readers. He describes the Greeks as admirers of Judaism and pleads for the establishment of closer relations between the two peoples. He considers their idolatrous religion no barrier, since he believes that the Greeks too worship the one and only God under the name Zeus. He describes Judaism as pure monotheism which does not stand in conflict with the ideas accepted in Greek philosophy. This emerges in particular from the conversations with the 72 elders at the banquet. He gives a symbolic interpretation to the commandments as well as a rational explanation. A certain dualism thus underlies the outlook expressed in the Letter: on the one hand separation of Jews from non-Jews as a result of their religious observances, and on the other hand their approximation to Greek culture. This reflects the outlook of the upper class of the Alexandrian Jewish community, who though they mixed freely with the Greeks in business and were influenced by Greek culture, nevertheless adhered to the principles of Judaism on which the existence of the autonomous Alexandrian Jewish community depended. The book is written in Hellenistic Greek, influenced by the official language in Ptolemaic Egypt. (For another account of the Septuagint Translation, see philo .) There is considerable disagreement among scholars as to the date of the Letter, and Elias Bickerman has attributed it to the late second century B.C.E. -BIBLIOGRAPHY: H.T. Andrews, in: R.H. Charles, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in English, vol. 2 (1913), 83 ff.; Wendland, in: E. Kautzsch, Apocryphen und Pseudepigraphen, 2 (1900), 1–31; H. St. John Thackeray, Letter of Aristeas (1918); Bickerman, in: ZNW, 29 (1930), 280 ff.; M. Hadas, Aristeas to Philocrates (1951); R. Tramontano, Lettera di Aristea a Filocrate (1931); A. Tcherikover, Ha-Yehudim ba-Olam ha-Yevani ve-ha-Romi (1961), 316–18; idem, Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews (1959), 348. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY:   S. Jellicoe, The Septuagint and Modern Study (1968); R.J. Shutt, "Letter of Aristeas (A New Translation and Introduction)," in: J.H. Charlesworth (ed.), The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha., vol. 2 (1985); L.J. Greenspoon, "Truth and Legend about the Septuagint," in: Approaches to the Bible. Vol. I: Composition, Transmission and Language (1994), 184–96. (Avigdor (Victor) Tcherikover)

Encyclopedia Judaica. 1971.

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