Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Legend of the Letter of Aristeas by Robert Chambers 1875

The Legend of the Letter of Aristeas by Robert Chambers 1875

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The most ancient Greek version of the Old Testament that has come down to us, and the one that was commonly in use among the Jews at the time of Christ, is named the Septuagint. Its origin is shrouded in deep obscurity. But the myth concerning it is well known, and was received by the church as a piece of genuine history down to the 17th century. It is contained in a letter purporting to be written by a Greek, Aristeas, to his brother, Philocrates, during the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus, king of Egypt (284-247 B.C.), and is to the following effect: Demetrius Phalereus, librarian to Ptolemy, while engaged in drawing up a general collection of laws, ascertained that those of the Jews were peculiarly interesting, and expressed to his sovereign a wish to have a copy of them. Ptolemy immediately took steps to procure one. First of all, he set free more than 100,000 Jewish captives, whom his father had carried into Egypt, though their ransom cost him a sum estimated at nearly three millions sterling. Then he wrote a letter to Eleazar, the high-priest, praying him to send a copy of the Jewish Scriptures, together with seventy-two learned men (hence the Latin name Septuaginta = 70, six from each of the twelve tribes, who could translate Hebrew into Greek. This letter, along with magnificent presents, was conveyed to Jerusalem by two ambassadors, Andreas and Aristeas. A favourable reception was given to the embassy by Eleazar, who delivered up a copy of the Scriptures in letters of gold, and selected for the work of translation seventy-two of the wisest and most erudite men in all Palestine. On their arrival in Alexandria, they were entertained for seven successive days at splendid feasts, the king himself entering into free conversation with his guests, and propounding many abstruse questions for their solution. Their answers inspired everybody with admiration of their sagacity. At the close of the festivities, they were conducted by Demetrius, for the sake of quiet, to the isle of Pharos, which was conveniently near. There they worked hard for the greater part of the day, returning to Alexandria in the evening; and at length, in exactly as many days as there were translators, namely, seventy-two, the version was finished. It was then read by Demetrius, in the presence of the principal Jews residing in Alexandria, who praised its fidelity, and imprecated curses on the heads of any who should dare to alter a word. Then the king, after publicly expressing his admiration of the wisdom of Moses, ordered the work to be religiously preserved in the Alexandrian Library, and loading the translators with gifts, permitted them to return to Jerusalem. He also granted to the Alexandrian Jews the privilege of transcribing the work for their own use.

This is the substance of Aristeas's letter, which is still extant, and no one who has paid any attention to the peculiar traits of fabricated narratives, can doubt for a moment that we have here a choice specimen of the class. The author professes to be a heathen, while his letter is in reality steeped in Jewish prejudices. The attitude of Ptolemy towards the Jews is a patriotic figment; his liberation of the captives and his gorgeous presents to the Temple are things unknown to history; his desire for an equal number of translators from each of the twelve tribes is a ludicrous homage to a vanished tribal system: the convivial entertainments in Alexandria are merely vulgar attempts to glorify the translators. Every scholar, indeed, now admits that the letter is a forgery, executed for the purpose of exalting the credit of the version, which, in reality, was made by different men at different times, and which, instead of being remarkable for its uniform excellence, displays all the various degrees of merit, from a painful literality, to the most arbitrary license. Yet, on the other hand, the forgery is itself ancient, and therefore some grains of historic fact may perhaps lie hidden in the bushel of falsehood, though we are now incapable of making them out Philo, who was a contemporary of Christ, repeats the story in his Life of Moses with some variations. He says nothing about Demetrius Phalereus or Aristeas, but he mentions the deputation to Jerusalem, and the execution of the work in the isle of Pharos. He also represents the translators (whose number he does not specify) as producing each a separate version, and adds, that when all were compared, they were found to agree so exactly that it proved the translators to be inspired. But Philo was himself ignorant of Hebrew, and therefore likely to believe any wondrous tale about the merits of the Septuagint. Josephus, a little later, is familiar with the letter of Aristeas, which he substantially reproduces in his Antiquities. Much earlier, however, than either of these is the evidence of Aristobulus, who flourished in the beginning of the 2d century B.C Unfortunately, this evidence is not beyond dispute. It is only preserved at secondhand in Clement of Alexandria and Eusebius, and at best is rather obscure. The chief point of difference in the statement of Aristobulus from that of the pseudo-Aristeas is, that he assigns the translation to the reign of Ptolemy 'Soter,' father of 'Philadelphus.' There is also a passage in the prologue to the apocryphal book called Jesus, the Son of Sirach, or Ecclesiasticus, which seems to imply that a Greek version of the Old Testament then (2d century B.C.) existed. But it gives no support to the Aristean myth. The later testimony of the Church Fathers, Epiphanius, Eusebius, Jerome, &c. is entirely without weight. It is merely Aristeas over again, with such modifications as they chose to make in the original narrative.

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