Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

24 Oct 2019

The Letter of Aristeas (Part Two)

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NOTE: This is the second in a two-part series on one of the most significant fake letters in the history of the church. The previous essay introduced the reader to the letter, explained what it says, and showed the historical and factual problems with the narrative. This post will address why the letter was written and will consider what truths might be contained in the letter.

Purpose of the Narrative

While one might think that the purpose of the narrative would be clear, the diverse nature of the Letter prevents firm conclusions. The Letter purports to be about the production of the Greek translation of the Hebrew law, but its purview is far wider than that. It offers a criticism of idolatry, a rather Hellenized defense of the Jewish law, a decidedly positive view of Jerusalem and temple activity, and a hagiographical interpretation of Jewish elders in Jerusalem. The net effect is that the letter appears to be more of a defense of Judaism itself than a defense of the translation.

Such an assessment does not indicate that the letter says nothing about the translation, for it surely does. Nevertheless, the central point of the letter is to defend Judaism, and to show its principles to be enlightened. In light of this, Goldstein summarizes it as, “Obey the Torah, venerate the temple of Jerusalem, but speak Greek and put your hopes in the Ptolemaic Dynasty.”[1] The points it makes concerning the translation appear secondary, though not unimportant to the narrative. For instance, it is clear that the author of the Letter believes the translation to be equal in authority with the original Hebrew and, in fact, superior to most Hebrew copies of the Law.

That it is equal in authority can be seen from the intentional analogies with Israel’s reception of the Law. First, there is an Exodus-like theme with the release of the slaves followed by the giving of the Law.[2] Second, Orlinsky highlights that the words “to read out loud” followed by the affirmation of the people “describes the biblical procedure in designating a document as official and binding, in other words, as divinely inspired.”[3] A third indication of the equal authority of the translated Greek is that there is a strong prohibition against changing its contents, just as with the Hebrew Law (Deut 4:2; 12:32).

That the Greek text is superior to Hebrew copies of the Law is also suggested in the Letter. Demetrius describes the Hebrew manuscripts as having “been transcribed somewhat carelessly and not as they should be; for they have never been made with any sort of royal foresight” (30). Of course, such a criticism presumably does not apply to the pristine, gold-lettered copy of the Law brought by the Jewish elders. Accordingly, since this translation was overseen by royal decree, and was accomplished by the most reverent Jewish men from the most pristine copy of the Hebrew Law, the copies of this translation are to be trusted.

The Letter does not go so far as to proclaim the text inspired, though it certainly leans in that direction. As Law says, “the seeds are sown” in the Letter of Aristeas, with the result that “both Jews and Christians would reap their fruit later.”[4] In other words, later Jewish and Christian interpreters would make explicit what remains implicit in the Letter.[5]

The question remains: why did Pseudo-Aristeas present the translation this way? Some have suggested that the Letter is an apologetic for a new version just produced which was seeking to usurp prior texts.[6] More likely, it served as an apology for an older version in light of the fact that newer translations, perhaps more aligned with the Hebrew, were being produced.[7] It could, however, simply be an apology generally for the Greek text, providing a “charter myth” for its divine inception.[8]

What is True in the Narrative?

Wright laments that since “Aristeas contains the earliest account of the Septuagint’s beginnings [it] often conveys to the narrative a kind of de facto credibility, and scholarly reconstructions often proceed on the assumption that Aristeas has something to tell us about how the Septuagint was produced.” In truth, the Letter merely offers a “sophisticated literary argument for how Aristeas understood the Septuagint in the mid-second century B. C. E.”[9] In other words, the Letter only tells us what one Jewish individual thought about the Septuagint a century or more after its production.

An analysis of the Letter reveals that some of the narrative is clearly false. First, that the translators were from Jerusalem is unlikely in light of their use of the Greek language.[10] On the other hand, it is quite possible that the scrolls used for the translation came from there. Second, while the Letter indicates seventy-two translators, there is a rabbinic version of the story having only 5 translators, which is much more probable considering the unity of the text. Is there anything we may take as true from the Letter? The unfortunate answer is no. As Roger Bagnall notes, the Letter “has that least attractive quality in a source: to be trusted only where corroborated by better evidence, and there unneeded.”[11] What scholars affirm from the Letter are affirmed because they are evidenced in the translation. First, in light of the Greek language used, it is highly probable that the translation was done in Alexandria Egypt, where a large number of Jews lived during the third and second century BCE. Second, the entire Pentateuch was likely translated at one time, for the text has a general unity of style, vocabulary, and philosophy of translation.


The Letter of Aristeas is a fanciful story, which has taken on inordinate weight due to it being the only historical document to speak about the origins of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. The author knew enough about the historical situation to give an air of credibility to the Letter, but the historical blunders combined with the amazing improbabilities lead to a rejection of any historical value for the document. Accordingly, we agree with Wright that “If we want to know about the origins of the Septuagint, then Aristeas is not our best bet. We should look where we find our best evidence of the Septuagint’s intended function, the textual-linguistic character of the translation itself.”[12]

[1] Jonathan A. Goldstein, “The Message of Aristeas to Philocrates: In the Second Century BCE, Obey the Torah, Venerate the Temple of Jerusalem, But Speak Greek and Put Your Hopes in the Ptolemaic Dynasty,” in Eretz Israel, Israel, and the Jewish Diaspora: Mutual Relations, ed. Menahem Mor (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1991).

[2] Timothy Michael Law, When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 36.

[3] See Orlinsky’s work for further parallels between Moses and the Letter of Aristeas’s presentation. Harry M. Orlinsky, “The Septuagint as Holy Writ and the Philosophy of the Translators,” Hebrew Union College Annual 46 (1975): 94.

[4] Law, When God Spoke Greek, 38.

[5] To give only one example example, Philo would later make divine inspiration explicit, arguing that the translators, “like men inspired, prophesied, not one saying one thing and another another, but every one of them employed the self-same nouns and verbs, as if some unseen prompter had suggested all their language to them.” Philo, The Works of Philo Judæus: The Contemporary of Josephus, trans. C. D. Yonge, vol. 3 (London: George Bell & Sons, 1899), 82.

[6] This is the historic position of Kahle, though few followed him. Paul Kahle, The Cairo Geniza, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1959), chap. 3.

[7] Müller, The First Bible of the Church, 55.

[8] Jobes and Silva, Invitation to the Septuagint, 19; Benjamin Wright III, “The Letter of Aristeas and the Question of Septuagint Origins Redux,” Journal of Ancient Judaism 2 (2011): 323.

[9] Wright III, “The Letter of Aristeas and the Question of Septuagint Origins Redux,” 305, 323.

[10] Examples include χονου, a vessel or cup (Gen. 44:2) ; φιβις, ark (Ex. 2:3) ; and παπυρος, papyrus (Job 8:11). Everett Falconer Harrison, “The Importance of the Septuagint for Biblical Studies (Part 1),” Bibliotheca sacra 112, no. 448 (October 1955): 345.

[11] Roger S. Bagnall, Hellenistic and Roman Egypt: Sources and Approaches (Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2006), 352.

[12] Wright III, “The Letter of Aristeas and the Question of Septuagint Origins Redux,” 325.