The Letter of Aristeas
By Henry St. John Thackeray
Large Print Edition
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - April 1, 2010
This book contains and discusses the famous Letter of Aristeas that purports to explain the origin of the first translation of the Bible, from Hebrew into Greek.
Surprisingly, the Letter was not written by Aristeas. Scholars debate who wrote it. In all probability it was composed by an anonymous Hellenistic Jew living in Alexandria at the end of the second century B.C.E. According to Aristeas' report, which is probably not true, the second Greek king of Egypt, Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285–246 B.C.E.), requested that the Hebrew Torah be translated into Greek so that the translation could be placed in the library of Alexandria.
Ptolemy sent a request to the Jewish leader in Jerusalem, the high priest Eleazar, to send him seventy-two elders, six men from each tribe, men who were well versed in the Hebrew Bible and Greek culture. The high priest sent the elders. They translated Scripture in seventy-two days. The repetition of the number seventy-two yielded the Greek name of the Torah, Septuagint, the rounded number "seventy."
This historical romantic tale has many interesting highlights, including seventy-two questions, mostly of an ethical and political nature, that the king asked each of the seventy-two Jewish elders in order to test their sagacity and ability to translate the Torah. It also contains one question that the putative author supposedly inquired of the high priest Eleazar about the biblical food laws and the priest's unusual answer. The book is interesting because of the narrative and because it is a significant part of ancient history, even though it is apparently untrue.
Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of fifteen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he co-authors with Rabbi Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides, the latest being Maimonides: Reason Above All, published by Gefen Publishing House, www.gefenpublishing.com. The Orthodox Union (OU) publishes daily samples of the Targum books on www.ouradio.org.