The Letter of Aristeas: How the Jewish Law was Translated from Hebrew to Greek


Letter of Aristeas

Letter of Aristeas

Lawrence H. Schiffman, Texts and Traditions, Ktav, Hoboken 1998, p.211-218.

The Letter of Aristeas is an ancient source which details the process by which the Torah was translated into Greek, producing the version known as the Septuagint. Aristeas must have been composed by an Alexandrinian Jew, between 170 and 100 B.C.E.

(1) A trustworthy narrative has been compiled, Philocrates, 120 of the meeting which we had with Eleazar, high priest of the Jews, arising out of your attaching great importance to hearing a personal account of our mission, its content and purpose….

(9) On his appointment as keeper of the king’s library, Demetrius of Phalerum 121 undertook many different negotiations aimed at collecting, if possible, all the books in the world. By purchase and translation he brought to a successful conclusion, as far as lay in his power, the king’s plan.

(10) We were present when the question was put to him, “How many thousand books are there (in the royal library)?” His reply was, “Over two hundred thousand, O King. I shall take urgent steps to increase in a short time the total to five hundred thousand. Information has reached me that the law books of the Jews are worth translation and inclusion in your royal library.”

(11) “What is there to prevent you from doing this?” he said. “Everything for your needs has been put at your disposal.” Demetrius replied, “Translation is needed. They use letters characteristic of the language of the Jews, just as Egyptians use the formation of their letters in accordance with their own language. The Jews are supposed to use Syrian language, but this is not so, for it is another form (of language).”

The king, in answer to each point, gave orders that a letter be written to the high priest of the Jews that the aforementioned project might be carried out….

(28) When this had been completed, he commanded Demetrius to report on the copying of the Jewish books. All measures were taken by these kings 122 by means of edicts and in complete safety, with no trace of negligence or carelessness. For this reason I have set down the copies of the report and of the letters, as well as the number of those returned and the state of each, because each of them was outstanding in magnificence and skill.

(29) The copy of the memorandum is as follows- “To the great king from Demetrius. Your command, O King, concerned the collection of missing volumes needed to complete the library, and of items which accidentally fell short of the requisite condition. I gave highest priority and attention to these matters, and now make the following further report-

(30) Scrolls of the Law of the Jews, together with a few others, are missing (from the library), for these (works) are written in Hebrew characters and language. But they have been transcribed somewhat carelessly and not as they should be, according to the report of the experts because they have not received royal patronage.

(31) These (books) also must be in your library in an accurate version, because this legislation, as could be expected from its divine nature, is very philosophical and genuine. Writers therefore and poets and the whole army of historians have been reluctant to refer to the aforementioned books, and to the men past (and present) who featured largely in them, because the consideration of them is sacred and hallowed, as Hecateus of Abdera says. 123 (32) If you approve, O King, a letter shall be written to the high priest at Jerusalem, asking him to dispatch men of the most exemplary lives and mature experience, skilled in matters pertaining to their Law, six in number from each tribe, in order that after the examination of the text agreed by the majority, and the achievement of accuracy in the translation, we may produce an outstanding version in a manner worthy both ofthe contents and of your purpose. Farewell always.”

(33) On receiving this report, the king ordered a letter to be written to Eleazar regarding these matters, announcing also the actual release of the prisoners. 124 He made them a gift also for the provision of cups and goblets and a table and libation vessels weighing fifty talents of gold, seventy talents of silver, and a goodly number of (precious) stones—he commanded the treasurers to allow the craftsmen to select whatever they might prefer— and of currency for sacrifices and other requirements one hundred talents.

(34) We will show you details of the provisions after we have given the copies of the letters. The letter of the king was of the following pattern.

(35) “King Ptolemy to Eleazar the high priest, hearty greetings. It is a fact that a large number of the Jews settled in our country after being uprooted from Jerusalem by the Persians during the time of their ascendancy, 125 and also came with our father into Egypt as prisoners. 126

(36) He put many of them into the military forces on generous pay, and in the same way. Having judged the veterans to be trustworthy, he set up establishments which he handed over to them, to prevent the Egyptian people from feeling any apprehension on their account. Having now inherited the throne, we adopt a more liberal attitude to all our subjects, and more especially to your citizens.

(37) We have freed more than a hundred thousand prisoners, paying to their captors the price in silver proportionate to their rank. We also make amends for any damage caused by mob violence. We decided to do this as a religious obligation, making of it a thank offering to the Most High God, who has preserved the kingdom for us in peace and
highest renown throughout the whole world. Those at the peak of their youth we have appointed to the army, and those who are able to be at our court, being worthy of confidence in our household, we have put in charge of (some) ministries.

(38) It is our wish to grant favors to them and to all the Jews throughout the world, including future generations. 127 We have accordingly decided that your Law shall be translated into Greek letters fromwhat you call the Hebrew letters, in order that they too should take their place with us in our library with the other royal books.

(39) You will therefore act well, and in a manner worthy of our zeal, by selecting elders of exemplary lives, with experience of the Law and ability to translate it, six from each tribe, so that an agreed version may be found from the large majority, in view of the great importance of the matters under consideration. We believe that the completion of this project will win (us) high reputation.

(40) We have dispatched on this business Andreas of the chief bodyguards and Aristeas, 128 men held in high esteem by you, to confer with you; they bring with them first fruits of offerings for the Temple and one hundred talents of silver for sacrifices and the other requirements. Write to us on any matters you wish, and your requests will be gratified; you will be performing also an act worthy of friendship for what you choose will be carried out with all dispatch. Farewell.”

(41) In reply to this letter Eleazar wrote in acceptance as follows- “Eleazar the high priest to King Ptolemy, dear friend, greeting. Good health to you and to Queen Arsinoe, your sister, 129 and to your children; if that is so, it would be well, and as we wish. We too are in good health.

(42) On receipt of your letter we rejoiced greatly because of your purpose and noble plan; we therefore collected together the whole multitude and read it to them, that they might know your piety toward our God. We also showed them the vessels which you sent, twenty of silver and thirty of gold, five cups, and a table for offering, and for the performance of the sacrifices and the furnishing of the Temple requirements one hundred talents of silver,

(43) brought by two men highly esteemed by you, Andreas and Aristeas, gentlemen of integrity, outstanding in education, worthy in every respect of your conduct and justice….

(45)…The whole multitude made supplication that it should come to pass for you entirely as you desire, and that God the ruler of all should preserve your kingdom in peace and glory, and that the translation of the sacred Law should come to pass in a manner expedient to you and in safety.

(46) In the presence of the whole assembly we selected elders, honorable men and true, six from each tribe, whom we have sent with the Law in their possession. It will be a noble deed, O righteous King, if you command that once the translation of the books is complete these men be restored to us again in safety. Farewell….”

Eleazar offered sacrifice, selected the men, and made ready an abundance of gifts for the king. He then sent us forth on our journey with a large escort. (173) When we reached Alexandria, news of our arrival was given to the king. Andreas and I were introduced to the court, we paid our warm respects to the king, and presented the letters from Eleazar.

(174) The king was anxious to meet the members of the deputation, so he gave orders to dismiss all the other court officials, and to summon these delegates.

(175) The unprecedented nature of this step was very clear to all, because it was an established procedure that important bona fide visitors should be granted an audience with the king only four days after arrival, while representatives of kings or important cities are rarely admitted to the court within thirty days. However, he deemed the present arrivals to be deserving of greater honor, having regard to the preeminence of him who had sent them. So he dismissed all the officials whom he considered superfluous and remained walking among the delegates until he had greeted the whole delegation.

(176) So they arrived with the gifts which had been sent at their hands and with the fine skins on which the Law had been written in letters of gold in Jewish characters; the parchment had been excellently worked, and the joining together of the letters 130 was imperceptible. When the king saw the delegates, he proceeded to ask questions about the books,

(177) and when they had shown what had been covered and unrolled the parchments, he paused for a long time, did obeisance about seven times, and said, “I offer to you my thanks, gentlemen, and to him who sent you even more, and most of all to the God whose oracles these are.”

(178) They all, visitors and the court present alike, said together and with one voice, “It is well, O King.” At this the king was moved to tears, so deeply was he filled with joy….

(179) The king commanded the parcels to be returned in order, 131 and then immediately greeted the delegates with these words- “It is (meet and) right, O men of God, first to render homage to the documents for the sake of which I have sent for you, and after that to extend to you the right hand of greeting. This explains my first action.

(180) I regard this day of your arrival as of great importance, and it shall be specially marked year by year throughout the time of our life, for by a happy chance it coincides with our victory at sea against Antigonus. 132 It will therefore be my wish to dine with you this day.”

(181) Everything of which you partake,” he said, “will be served in compliance with your habits; 133 it will be served to me as well as to you.” They expressed their pleasure and the king ordered the finest apartments to be given them near the citadel, and the preparations for the banquet to be made.

(182) The chief steward Nicanor summoned Dorotheus, who was appointed in charge of these matters, and bade him complete preparations for each guest….

(184) When they had taken their places, he ordered Dorotheus to carry everything out in accordance with the customs practiced by all his visitors from Judea. So Dorotheus passed over the sacred heralds, the sacrificial ministers and the rest, whose habitual role was to offer the prayers. Instead, he invited Eleazar, “the oldest of the priests, our guests,” to offer a prayer. He stood and spoke these memorable words-

(185) “May the almighty God fill you, O King, with all the blessings which he has created and may he grant you, your wife, and children, and those of the same mind to enjoy all blessings without end all the days of your life.”

(186) At these words from this man thunderous applause broke out with cries and rapturous joy, lasting a long time. Then they straightway turned to the enjoyment provided by the foods which had been made ready, all the service being carried out through the organization of Dorotheus, including the royal pages and the king’s honored guests….

(301) Three days afterward, Demetrius took the men with him, traversed the mile-long jetty into the sea toward the island, crossed the bridge, and went in the direction of the north. There he assembled them in a house which had been duly furnished near the shore—a magnificent building in a very quiet situation—and invited the men to carry out the work of translation, all that they would require being handsomely provided.

(302) They set to completing their several tasks, reaching agreement among themselves on each by comparing versions.The result of their agreement thus was made into a fair copy by Demetrius.

(303) The business of their meeting occupied them until the ninth hour, 134 after which they were free for bodily rest and relaxation, everything which they desired being furnished on a lavish scale.

(304) Apart from all this, Dorotheus also provided for them all that was prepared for the king—this was the order which he had received from the king. At the first hour of the day they attended the court daily, and after offering
salutations to the king, retired to their own quarters.

(305) Following the custom of all the Jews, they washed their hands in the sea in the course of their prayers to God, and then proceeded to the reading and explication of each point.

(306) I asked this question- “What is their purpose in washing their hands while saying their prayers?” They explained that it is evidence that they have done no evil, for all activity takes place by means of righteousness and truth.

(307) In this way, as we said previously, each day they assembled in their quarters, which were pleasantly situated for quiet and light, and proceeded to fulfill their prescribed task. The outcome was such that in seventy-two days the business of translation was completed, just as if such a result was achieved by some deliberate design.

(308) When it was completed, Demetrius assembled the company of the Jews in the place where the task of the translation had been finished, and read it to all, in the presence of the translators, who received a great ovation from the crowded audience for being responsible for great blessings.

(309) Likewise also they gave an ovation to Demetrius and asked him, now that he had transcribed the whole Law, to give a copy to their leaders.

(310) As the books were read, the priests stood up, with the elders from among the translators and from the representatives of the “Community,” 135 and with the leaders of the people, and said, “Since this version has been made rightly and reverently, and in every respect accurately, it is good that this should remain exactly so, and that there should be no revision.”

(311) There was general approval of what they said, and they commanded that a curse should be laid, as was their custom, on anyone who should alter the version by any addition or change to any part of the written text, or any deletion either. This was a good step taken, to insure that the words were preserved completely and permanently in perpetuity.

When the king received messages about these events, he rejoiced greatly, because it seemed that the purpose which he shared had been safely accomplished. All of the version was read by him, and he marveled profoundly at the genius of the lawgiver….

(317) When the king had received, as I previously mentioned, Demetrius’ account on these matters, he bowed and gave orders for great care to be taken of the books and for their hallowed preservation.

(318) He invited the translators to visit him often after their return to Judea. It was, he said, only fair for their departure to take place, but when they returned he would, as was right, treat them as friends, and they would receive the most liberal hospitality at his hands.

(319) He ordered preparations to be made for their departure, and treated the men magnificently, presenting to each one three robes of the finest materials, two talents of gold, a cup worth a talent, and complete furnishing for a dining room.

(320) He also sent to Eleazar, along with their luggage, ten silver-footed couches, with all accessories to go with them, a cup worth thirty talents, ten robes, purple cloth, a magnificent crown, one hundred lengths of finest linen, vessels, bowls, and two golden goblets for a dedication.

119. Trans. R J. H. Shutt, in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, ed. J.H. Charlesworth (Garden City, N.Y.- Doubleday, 1985, vol. 2, pp. 12-34.

120. The brother of the author to whom the letter is addressed.

121. Demetrius of Phalerum served Ptolemy I Soter and died c. 283 B.C.E. He could not, therefore have served Ptolemy II Philopater (283-246 B.C.E.) who is credited with arranging the translation of the Torah into Greek.

122. Referring to the Ptolemaic kings of Egypt.

123. Probably a reference to his lost “History of Egypt” which must have contained extensive material on the Jews. Hecateus was a contemporary of Alexander the Great and Ptolemy I. (Cf. above text 4.3.1.)

124. No doubt a reference to Jewish prisoners.

125. Referring to the Jewish military units established by the Persians after their ascendancy in 540 B.C.E.

126. As a result of the military campaigns of Ptolemy I Soter (ruled 323-283 B.C.E.) in Judea.

127. The author no doubt exaggerates the status of the Jews and the concern of Ptolemy for them.

128. The purported author of the text.

129. Arsinoe married her brother, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, in ca. 278 B.C.E. Such marriages were normal among Egyptian royalty.

130. Most probably a reference to the stitching together of the sheets of parchment.

131. The scrolls were again placed in their wrappings.

132. Actua1ly, Ptolemy II Philadelphus was defeated by Antigonus Gonatas, king of Macedonia (ruled ca. 277-239 B.C.E.) at the naval battle of Cos (ca. 254 B.C.E.).

133. It will be prepared according to Jewish dietary laws.

134. 3-00 pm.

135. The Jewish community.

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