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ARISTEAS, LETTER OF:

In the guise of a letter to a brother Philokrates, "Aristeas" writes:

Contents of the Letter.

"By the advice of Demetrius Phalereus, chief librarian of Ptolemy Philadelphus, the king decided to include in his library a translation of the Jewish Lawbook. To secure the cooperation of the high priest Eleazar at Jerusalem, Aristeas advises him to purchase and set free the numerous Jews who had been sold into slavery after his father's campaign against them (312). He sends Andreas, a captain of his body-guard, and Aristeas, laden with rich presents, and entrusted with a letter, asking Eleazar to send him seventy-two elders to undertake the translation. The envoys see Jerusalem, inspect the Temple and the citadel, and admire the high priest and his assistants at their service in the sanctuary; they are instructed, moreover, by Eleazar in the deeper moral meaning of the dietary laws, and return, with the seventy-two elders, to Alexandria. The king receives the Jewish sages with distinction, and holds a seven-day banquet, at which he addresses searching questions to them daily, always receiving appropriate answers. The wisdom of their replies, though it seems to the modern reader rather trivial, arouses general astonishment. Three days after the feast, Demetrius conducts the sages to the island of Pharos, where in seventy-two days of joint labor they complete their work. Demetrius reads the translation aloud in a solemn assembly of the Jewish congregation; it is accepted and sanctioned by them, and any change therein officially forbidden. The king, to whom the translation is also read, admires the spirit of the Law-giver, and dismisses the translators with costly gifts."

Errors in the Letter.

The author of this letter declares himself (§ 16) a heathen; as such, in §§ 128, 129, he asks Eleazar concerning the purport of the Jewish dietary laws; and in § 306 consults the translators about the meaning of the ceremony of washing the hands before prayer (see Schürer, ii. 444, note 57). But it is universally recognized that in point of fact his panegyrizing tendency toward Judaism throughout shows him to be a Jew (Kautzsch, "Die Apokryphen," i. 16); it is also certain that he can not have lived in the time of Philadelphus. However important and reliable his general information may be concerning Egyptian affairs, government, and court-ceremonial in the times of the Ptolemies (Wilcken, in "Philologus," iii. 111), his historical statements about the time of Philadelphus are unreliable. In § 180 he changes Philadelphus' defeat at Cos into a victory; he does not know that Demetrius was banished on the accession of Philadelphus, or that the latter's marriage with his sister was childless (§§ 41, 185); he transplants the philosopher Menedemus arbitrarily to the court of the Ptolemies (§ 201), and lets the historian Theopompus and thetragedian Theodektes relate incredible stories to Demetrius (§§ 314, 315). Of Theodektes, who died before 333 B.C., Demetrius can scarcely have had cognizance.

Opinions about the date of the letter vary considerably. Schürer ("Geschichte des Jüdischen Volkes im Zeitalter Jesu Christi," ii. 468) assigns it to about 200 B.C. He bases his opinion upon the acknowledged use made of the letter by Aristobulus, but Aristobulus' time is also a matter of divergent opinion (see Aristobulus). Schürer thinks that in every aspect the letter presupposes the situation before the conquest of Palestine by the Seleucids (Syrians), when it stood in a state of lax dependence on Egypt. But this can not be proved; Palestine appears to have been in no way dependent upon Egypt. The high priest is represented as an independent ruler, with whom the king of Egypt negotiates as with an independent sovereign. He maintains a strong garrison in the citadel,Nothing concerning the date can be learned from the description of the citadel. It is certain only that it lay north of the Temple. Schürer (in private correspondence) takes it to be the tower mentioned in Neh. ii. 8, vii. 2; Josephus, "Ant." xii. §§ 133, 138; II Macc. iv. 12, 27; v. 5; while Wendland understands it to be the large building (βάρις) built by the Hasmoneans, also north of the Temple. Schürer (p. 470) is right in holding that the mention of the harbors proves nothing. and gives the translators military escort (§ 172).

The Question of Date.

Although the title of king is not mentioned, Philo, who reproduces closely the contents of the letter, does speak of βασιδεύς. Schürer has to allow that if the period of the letter is conceived to be that of the Hasmonean independence, it is superfluous to suggest the hypothesis of "an artificial reproduction of by gone circumstances." And in truth, there are many indications pointing to the later Maccabean times. Can it be only chance that the names Judas, Simon, and Jonathan appear three times each, and Mattathias once, among the names of the translators (§§ 47 et seq.)? The names Sosibius and Dositheus (§§ 12, 50) are borrowed probably from Philopator's minister and from the Jewish general. It is also extremely probable that Aristeas borrows even his own name from the Jewish historian Aristeas, of whose work, Περὶ 'Ιουδαίων, a fragment exists in Eusebius' "Præparatio Evangelica," ix. 25). Examination of the parallelism with the verbal usages of the Septuagint cited in the index to Wendland's edition of Aristeas' letter will show by the multitude of the resemblances that the letter was written at a period in which the translation of the whole Bible (not only that of the Law) had already exerted wide influence. Of special importance, however, is a passage in the prologue to Jesus Sirach, wherein the latter's grandson excuses the imperfections of his translation by stating that the Greek translation of the Law, the Prophets, and the other books varies considerably from the original Hebrew. If the Greek translation had still enjoyed, in the year 130 (when the translation of Sirach was probably made), that esteem which Aristeas (according to Schürer, seventy years earlier) presupposes, such condemnatory criticism could not have been offered to Egyptian Jews. All of this is testimony in favor of the later Maccabean age; and the possession of Samaria and parts of Idumea by the Jewish state (§ 107) proves the era to have been at least the time of John Hyrcanus. One can, therefore, readily understand how it is that Alexander Polyhistor was unacquainted with the work, if written in the first century B.C. That it was written before the invasion of Palestine by Pompey (63) and the loss of Jewish independence can not be doubted. These facts are sufficient to contradict the theory advanced by Grätz ("Gesch. der Juden," iii. 379, 582) that it was written in the time of Tiberius. The fact that, according to Aristeas (§ 301), the island of Pharos was built upon and inhabited, gives a definite date against Grätz, for according to Strabo, xvii. 6, Pharos remained waste and desolate after Cæsar's war. The ἐμπανίσταί, "informers," mentioned by Aristeas (§ 167), whom Grätz imagines to be the Roman delators, are mentioned in early papyri of the Ptolemies. The visit which, in Aristeas (§ 304), the translators pay every morning of their seventy-two working days to the king, does not necessarily refer to the "salutatio matutina" of the Roman imperial court. This detail may well have been founded upon the court ceremonial of the Ptolemies, about which we know little, but which, as we learn from Aristeas himself (§ 175), was very elaborate. Nor does Grätz prove convincingly that Aristeas' description of the Temple and of the citadel refers to the Herodian Temple and the Antonia.

Its Philosophy Only Commonplace.

That the author lived in Egypt has been mentioned; and it accounts for the rather superficial influence of philosophy upon him.

His references to the Epicurean doctrine of pleasure (§§ 108, 223, 277), the recommendation of the μετριοπάθεια—restraint of the passions—(§ 197), and many parallels to Greek proverbial wisdom, never rise above the platitudes and commonplaces of an ordinary education. When Aristeas says (§ 132) that God's power reveals itself in everything, because His dominion fills the whole world (compare § 143), only strong prejudice would discern the conception of intermediary beings, or would interpret, as applied to "angels," the various attributes applied to God really only in their Biblical conceptions (Gfrörer and Dähne). To consider Aristeas the disciple of an Alexandrian school of philosophy is to do him too much honor. When he deems that the heathens pray to the one God, only under other names (§ 16), and interprets the dietary laws in the fashion of the allegorical Midrash, he shows simply how attenuated his Judaism has become. And if one fancies Biblical resemblances are to be detected in the sayings of the translators, doubt is awakened by their superficial conception, or by coincident resemblance to Greek proverbial wisdom, showing only how every characteristic and national feature had become reduced to vagueness.

Influence of Aristeas.

The legend which forms the framework of the book has attained great importance in the Christian Church. However much the Jewish writer's fancy may have given itself play in its embellishment—as, for instance, in the quasi-legal style of the reports of the deliberations, and in the clumsy imitations of the accustomed forms of dinner-table philosophy—still the legend in its main features may easily have reached Aristeas through the channel of popular tradition. The threefold cooperation of king, highpriest, and Palestinian sages, and especially the solemn sanction of the Greek translation, have for their sole objects the legitimation of the version, and the obtaining for it of equal authority with the original text. Philo, who otherwise follows Aristeas, goes beyond him in attributing divine inspiration to the translators, and in making them by divine influence produce an identical translation, and in calling them prophets ("Vita Mosis," ii. 7). This exaggeration must be considered simply as a popular development of the legend, and Philo's regard in his exegesis for the translation as a holy text testifies to the general appreciation in which it was held. When the use of the Septuagint in the synagogue service speedily surrounded it with an atmosphere of sanctity, pious belief easily accommodated itself to a myth, the material and form of which closely resembled the familiar legend of the restoration of the holy books by Ezra under divine inspiration; a legend which is found for the first time in IV Esdras, but which is certainly far older. The Christian Church received the Septuagint from the Jews as a divine revelation, and quite innocently employed it as a basis for Scriptural interpretation. Only when Jewish polemics assailed it was the Church compelled to investigate the true relationship of the translation to the original. Origen perceived the insufficiency of the Septuagint, and, in his "Hexapla," collected material for a thorough revision of it. But the legend long adhered closely to the Septuagint and was further embellished by the Church. Not only were "the Seventy" (the usual expression instead of Seventy-two) credited with having translated all the Sacred Scriptures instead of the Law only (according to Epiphanius, a whole mass of Apocrypha besides), but the miraculous element increased. At one time we are told the translators were shut up in seventy cells in strictest seclusion (pseudo-Justin and others); at another, in thirty-six cells, in couples. Epiphanius in his work, "De Mensuris et Ponderibus" (written 392), furnishes the most highly elaborated and most widely accepted form of the story. The legend became a weapon in the battle which was waged around the Bible of the Church; the "inspired" Septuagint was not easily surrendered. The rigid orthodoxy of the fourth century, which resulted in the ruin of all knowledge in the Church, did not scruple to set this legend in its crassest form in opposition to the promising beginnings by Origen of a proper Biblical text criticism, and so to arrest the latter completely at the start. Only Jerome, who as a philologist understood the value of Origen's work, made use of his material, and in the Vulgate preserved for the Western Church this most precious legacy, exercising, consistently with his usage, a rational criticism upon the legend.

Thus Aristeas plays a great, even a fateful, rôle in the Church. The varying opinions as to this legend very often reflect dogmatic views about the Bible in general, and the understanding, or the misunderstanding, of his critics concerning textual questions.

Bibliography:
  • Various editions: The ed. princeps of the Greek text, by S. Schard, Basel, 1561, upon which all subsequent editions are based.
  • M. Schmidt's ed. in Merx, Archiv f. Wissenschaftliche Erforschung des A. T. (Halle, 1868), 241-312;
  • Aristeœ ad Philocratem Epistula, cum Ceteris de Origine Versionis LXX Interpretum cum Testimoniis ex L. Mendelssohnii Schedis, ed. P. Wendland, Leipsic, 1900.
  • Schmidt depends mainly upon one Paris manuscript, but Mendelssohn compared all manuscripts extant.
  • Wendland's index shows the importance of Aristeas for the study of Hellenistic Greek, by comparison with the LXX, with inscriptions, papyri in the Ptolemaic age, and Polybius.
  • Paragraph references in the above article are those in Wendland's edition.
  • Wendland, German translation with introduction, in E. Kautszch, Die Apokryphen und Pseudepigraphen des A. T. ii. 1-31, Freiburg im Breisgau, 1899.
  • Other literature is quoted by Schürer, Gesch. des Jüdischen Volkes, 3d ed., iii. 470.
K. P. W.
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