Skip navigation to content

Aristeas to Philocrates

(Summary of a lecture by J. Davila on 11 February 1999)

I. The letter of Aristeas is an interesting book because (_inter alia_) it doesn't fit into any of the standard (and somewhat procrustean) genres or categories of literature usually assigned to the OT Pseudepigrapha (see lecture 1b for 1997, which listed the categories rewritten Bible, testaments, liturgical texts, sapiential texts, magic, and apocalypses). The title of Aristeas in the MSS is not "the letter of," rather just "Aristeas to Philocrates." Our earliest witness, the first century CE Jewish historian Josephus, gives the title as "the book of Aristaeus." Eusebius (the fourth century CE church historian) calls it "On the Translation of the Law of the Jews." The work purports to be an account of the translation of the Pentateuch and to be written in the middle of the 3rd century BCE, but it is universally agreed that Aristeas is pseudonymous and was composed much later. The word "letter" is the title is also inappropriate because Aristeas doesn't fit the format of ancient letters. Hadas notes that the author calls the work a DIHGHSIS in line 1, a type of narrative known from classical rhetoric and defined by Theon and Cicero as a narration setting forth things that happened, or things as they might have happened, i.e., presenting idealized history with a moral to it.

Aristeas also gives us an unusual answer to one important question we ask of many OT Pseudepigrapha: is it a Jewish or a Christian composition? A straightforward solution is often impossible, but there is one for Aristeas: it was transmitted in a MS tradition by Christians, it claims to be composed by a pagan, yet it was clearly written by a Jew and perhaps went through a couple of Jewish editions. The basic story tells how the Egyptian king Ptolemy II had a Greek translation of the Pentateuch made for the Library of Alexandria.

Josephus, as we shall see, gives us reason to believe that the text we have is interpolated but, as per Bob Kraft's article assigned for this course, the place to start is not with the putative original edition, but rather with the extant MS tradition, from which we must work backwards in the hope of ending up somewhere in the vicinity of an original text. In 1968 Sidney Jellicoe knew of 23 MSS dating from the 11th century CE on (i.e., all MS evidence for Aristeas is medieval or later). I am not aware of any new MSS recovered since then . The most thorough discussion of the MS tradition was published by Thackery in 1914: he divides the available MSS into two groups whose archetype would take us back perhaps into the Byzantine period. Also, Eusebius extracts about a quarter of Aristeas in books 8-9 of his _Praeparatio Evangelica_, and this summary is of some use for textual criticism. As I mentioned, our earliest source is Josephus, who paraphrases the work, reproducing about a third of it (see below).

II. Aristeas was quite influential in early Christian circles because the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the LXX) was adopted by Christians as their inspired scripture to go with the Greek NT. The book was discussed by many church fathers (on the otpseud 1999 bibliography web page I have given links to as many translations or summaries of these discussions as I could find). Available space and time limit me to a survey of some of the most important ones:

AUGUSTINE (in _City of God_ 18.42-43, written by 427 CE) is clearly dependent on Aristeas in his retelling of the story. (He mentions that the king was Ptolemy Philadelphus, that Eleazar was the high priest, and that there were 72 translators--6 from each tribe.) He also notes that in his time the translation was called the Septuagint. (Named after 70 translators, presumably because the "Septuaginta et duum" was too much of a bother to say.) But his story is an improved version which we can trace back at least to the first century CE: the translators independently produced identical translations, thus proving the divine authority of the LXX. This claim was important because, as noted above, the LXX was the scripture used by the early Church, so the Church was vulnerable to the objection by Jews that the Christian scripture wasn't the original text and wasn't reliable.

JEROME (a contemporary of Augustine; see his _Preface to the Pentateuch_) knew both Hebrew and Greek and could compare the LXX with the Hebrew Bible, so he knew Augustine's story was nonsense and said so in the preface to his translation of the Pentateuch from Hebrew into Latin. He does seem to think that whole HB (not just the Pentateuch) was done at once under Ptolemy Lagus (the father of Philadelphus) and he asserts that the translation was distorted because Ptolemy was a Platonist and the translators didn't want to offend him. Jerome's agenda was to justify his own translation of the HB from Hebrew.

EPIPHANIUS (c. 315-403; in _On Weights and Measures_ 3-11) has the wildest version of story. It is partly dependent on Aristeas, but is full of detail about how Ptolemy shut the translators up in pairs and took strict measures to keep them from collusion (even giving them separate cooks, and skylights rather than windows). Having taken these precautions, he then fed each pair of translators one book at a time until each pair had translated every book of the HB, plus the 22 books of the Apocrypha. The king then had the 36 translations compared before him and, of course, they were found to be identical.

IRENAEUS (c. 175 CE; _Against the Heresies_ 3.21.2) tells a brief version of the story, perhaps based on Aristeas, although it contains much else. Ptolemy son of Lagus had 70 elders brought from Jerusalem. He had them do the translations separately so they wouldn't conspire to hide things in their scriptures from him. But when translations were compared, they were found to be identical. The context is a discussion of the LXX translation of Isa 7:14 ("a 'virgin' shall conceive..."). The later Jewish Greek versions (of Theodotian and Aquila) translate "young woman," rather than "virgin," which doesn't work nearly as well for a prophecy of Jesus' birth (although it reflects the Hebrew more accurately). Irenaeus uses the story to defend the divine inspiration of the LXX so he can use it for messianic prophecies even when it disagrees with the original Hebrew.

JUSTIN MARTYR (fl. c. 100-165 CE; _Apology_ 1.31), the first extant Christian writer to tell the story of LXX origins. In the context of a discussion of the Hebrew prophets, he relates that Ptolemy king of Egypt sent to Herod (sic!) king of the Jews and asked for a copy of the books of prophecies. When he found he couldn't read them (they were in Hebrew, after all), he sent again for translators and the books were translated into Greek. There is nothing in this version of the story about separating the translators, but Justin is the first recorded interpreter who misunderstood that whole HB was translated at once, rather than the Pentateuch alone. By implication he was defending the veracity of the LXX, since he goes on to condemn the Jews for disbelieving in Christian claims about messianic prophecies in the OT (including Isa 7:14). Justin may have read Aristeas, but it is also possible that he is just working from a general legend (perhaps even oral traditions?) about LXX origins.

III. Despite its importance for early Christian writers and despite its own claim to be an Egyptian pagan work, the final edition of Aristeas is clearly Jewish. One could first note the lack of reference to explicitly Christian concerns, but only to hasten to add (for reasons already covered) that this is a very weak argument. Fortunately, we have a good deal of positive evidence arising from the writer's explicitly Jewish concerns. Aristeas has a nationalist interest: he is concerned to show that the king released many Jewish slaves before starting the translation (vv. 15-27); he gives extremely detailed descriptions of the Jerusalem temple and the temple cult (vv. 83-100); he give an allegorical defense of the food impurity laws and other ritual laws, apparently trying to demonstrate to gentiles and wavering Jews that Jewish ritual laws were defensible in terms of Greek rationalism (an approach rather similar to that of Philo of Alexandria) (vv. 128-71); he mentions the Jewish "customs in matters of drink and food and bedding" followed by the translators (v. 182); he refers to a Jewish custom of handwashing during prayer and gives reasons for it (vv. 305-6); and he refers to "the lawgiver" (Moses) (e.g., v. 312).

IV. There is also some evidence for the function of Aristeas (and the translation story in general) during time it was transmitted in Jewish circles. The most important data come from:

JOSEPHUS (_Antiquites_ 12.1-118), who gives a close paraphrase of the work as part of his overall agenda to justify Judaism for a hellenistic/Roman audience. He puts no more emphasis on the translation itself than did the original Aristeas; the real interest of the story for Josephus seems to be the good relations it shows between Jews and the Egyptian king as well as the king's deep respect for Jewish tradition. These elements were important for the case Josephus was making in Rome that Jews were an ancient nation respected by other ancient Near Eastern traditions and that they were able to get along with neighboring nations, despite the debacle of the revolt against Roman rule in 68-70 CE.

It is worth noting that Josephus seems to handle the text of Aristeas with reasonable care. He abbreviates, but there is little indication of deliberate distortion. He changes the name Aristeas to Aristeaus; his numbers frequently vary from our MSS of Aristeas (but with no clear tendenz); the details of the king's dedicatory offerings (paras. 57-84) are sometimes different, but this whole passage is very difficult and Josephus may not have understood it much better than we do; he gives the name of the high priest as Elisha (Elissaios) not Eleazar (paras. 97). All these could be variants in the Aristeas MS Josephus had before him rather than deliberate changes by Josephus. Otherwise, he makes a small alteration of the sense of v. 18 in para. 23; he adds a little of own material from another source in paras. 43-44; he adds an interpretive comment in para. 91; he waters down the curse on anyone who alters the translation in para. 109; and makes perhaps one or two other small changes. But basically he seems to have summarized the text he had before him.

PHILO OF ALEXANDRIA (around the turn of the era; _Vita Mosis_ 2.25-44) also tells the story of a translation of the Pentateuch under Philadelphus with and outline very similar to Aristeas (it is quite likely he read the work). The king sends an embassy to Judea to get some translators; he treats them to feasting with witty and virtuous conversation and questioning; the translation takes place on the island of Pharos. But Philo seems to be the first to add that by prophetic inspiration all the translators produced exactly the same Greek text independently. He also tells of an annual festival at Pharos to his day which celebrated the translation. His agenda was to show that the LXX (which Philo used instead of the HB) was just as inspired as the original Hebrew.

THE PROLOGUE TO BEN SIRA. Jesus ben Sira wrote the wisdom book Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) in the early second century BCE in Hebrew, and his grandson translated it into Greek in 132 BCE. The grandson refers in passing to existing Greek translation of the law, the prophecies "and the rest of the books" and he seems less than satisfied with this translation, indicating it has "no little difference" from the original texts. There is no indication that the grandson knew Aristeas, but if he is referring to the Old Greek translation, he may be demonstrating the attitude that Aristeas was written to combat.

ARISTOBULOS may have written around the middle of the second century BCE; his work is lost except for quotations preserved by Eusebius and Clement of Alexandria. (These are translated in OTP 2, pp. 830-42, esp. 839-40). He claims that there were earlier translations even before Alexander's time (and that Pythagoras and Plato were influenced by them). He refers to a translation under Ptolemy Philadelphus, managed by Demetrius Phalereus. The latter detail is probably unhistorical and it is only known elsewhere from Aristeas, so Aristobulus may have read him (or conceivably, the other way around). He uses the story to argue for the primacy of Jewish traditions over Greek philosophy.

V. The content and shape of the original edition of Aristeas is a complicated problem, as Hadas has shown, and as far as I've been able to find, this problem has been surprisingly neglected by scholars. Of 322 total verses, Josephus uses or alludes to vv. 9-81, 172-305 (with 187-292 summarized very briefly in paras. 100-102), and 308-21. Perhaps it's not surprising that he would leave out the introduction and conclusion, but it is more problematical to say he deliberately omitted the other material. Given his care in handling the details of the document, it seems likely that the journey to Jerusalem and Eleazar's comments (vv. 82-171) weren't in the MS he had. This may also be true of the defense of ritual hand-washing in vv. 306-7. In my view it is quite likely that they are secondary additions after the time of Josephus. I should emphasize, though, that the question of Josephus' use of his sources is a complicated one and one needs to take into account his use of the biblical text and of 1 Maccabees. I hope to take up this question again later in semester when we look at Pseudo-Hecataeus and the problem of quotations fragments in general.)

Even if I am right about the textual history of Aristeas, the original edition is also Jewish. First, this would be the default position, since we established the Jewish origin of the second edition. Second, some of the internal evidence cited above still applies (in vv. 15ff., 305). The function of the reconstructed original work seems to be to tell a story justifying a particular LXX translation whose accuracy had been challenged (cf. on the Prologue to Ben Sira, above).

Finally, a word about the date of composition of the first edition. Basically, we can sat that it was old enough to fool Josephus, but young enough for the writer not to have accurate knowledge of some important historical matters regarding the reign of Ptolemy II. A good guess might be 100 BCE +/- 125 years. I find it difficult to refine the possible date any further, although others have tried, drawing on more ambiguous evidence such as the political situation presupposed by the work, the geographical and architectural details it presents, its linguistic usage, and parallels with the papyri, especially the Zenon corpus. We have no evidence for date of the date of the redaction of the second edition (the one in our MSS), except that Josephus didn't have it and therefore it may well have been written after his time.

(c) 1999
Reproduction beyond fair use only on permission of the author.

Contact details

St Mary's College
The School of Divinity
University of St Andrews
South Street
St Andrews
Fife KY16 9JU
Scotland, United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)1334 462850
Fax: +44 (0)1334 462852