A Treasury of Jewish Letters: Letters from the Famous and the Humble - Vol. 1

By Franz Kobler | Go to book overview

6
From the 'Letter of Aristeas'

FOR some three centuries before the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. the Jews in Egypt, and especially in Alexandria, formed a highly cultured community which effected a remarkable synthesis between Jewish religious practice and Greek speculative thought. This synthesis was based on a Greek translation of the Pentateuch which was no less esteemed by them than the original Hebrew by the Jews in Palestine. The so-called 'Letter of Aristeas' is a highly embellished account of the circumstances in which the Jews of Egypt came into possession of this treasure, known to subsequent generations, for reasons given in the 'Letter' itself, as the Septuagint. The 'Letter' tells the story of the embassy sent by Ptolemy Philadelphus, King of Egypt ( 285-247 B.C.E.), to Jerusalem in order to obtain a copy of the Torah and the assistance of Jewish translators, and how the seventy-two Hebrew scholars were received by the king, and how they performed the great task in exactly seventy-two days. In spite of the form chosen by the author - that of a letter addressed by Aristeas to his brother Philocrates - this document is a fictitious literary product. The writer, who pretends to be a Greek by birth, and one of the two high officials who were sent by the king to Jerusalem, was probably an Alexandrian Jew of the first century B.C.E. The report given in the letter was accepted as historical by Philo, Josephus, the Talmud, and the Church Fathers, but modern scholars have thrown doubt on many, if not most, of its statements. The literary value of the colourful narrative remains, however, unaffected.


1. Aristeas describes the Temple and the Service of the High Priest

Some of the descriptions contained in the 'Letter' are given with the vividness of an eye-witness, such as that of the overwhelming impression caused by the first sight of the Temple and by the service of the High Priest.

-29-

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