Ptolemy II’s Gift to the Temple in the Letter of Aristeas
LXX and the Letter of Aristeas
Sometime in the third century B.C.E., probably in Egypt, the Pentateuch was translated into Greek. Current scholarship recognizes that the five books of the Pentateuch were translated independently of one another. This translation has important text-critical value as an early textual witness to the first five books of the Bible.
Subsequently the rest of the Hebrew Bible would be translated, and these texts, along with others not eventually included in the Hebrew canon of scripture, became the scriptures of many Hellenistic Jews as well as the early Christian church. The entire work is popularly known as the Septuagint (LXX, or “seventy”), reflecting the apocryphal story of how the Torah was translated into Greek by 72 translators.
In Jewish circles, the story is best known from the version which appears in the Babylonian Talmud (ca. 6th–7th cent. C.E.), Tractate Megillah (9a; MS Columbia 294–295):
מעשה בתלמי המלך שלקח שבעים ושנים זקנים והושיבם בשבעים ושנים בתים ולא גילה להן על מה כינסן נכנס אצל כל אחד ואחד אמ’ להן כתבו לי תורת משה רבכם נתן הק’ב’ה’ עיצה בלב כל אחד ואחד והסכימה דעת כולן לדעת אחת
Once King Ptolemy gathered seventy-two elders and put them into seventy-two houses, and did not reveal to them why he gathered them. He entered each room and said to them: “Write the Torah of Moses your rabbi for me.” The Holy One, blessed by He gave counsel into each of their hearts, and their viewpoints (i.e., translations) all came out in agreement.
The Talmud’s version of this tale, however, is by no means the oldest. The earliest known text narrating the legend of the translation of the Jewish law into Greek by 72 translators appears in the Letter of Aristeas, composed pseudonymously in the latter part of the second century B.C.E. by a Greek speaking Jew from Alexandria.
Letter of Aristeas: An Overview
The Greek text, made up of 322 verses or paragraphs, presents itself as a letter to a certain Philocrates from his brother Aristeas, who, in the world of the narrative, was a courtier in the court of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (reigned 283–246 B.C.E.). Pseudo-Aristeas (as I shall call the pseudonymous author) describes how Demetrius, the royal librarian of Ptolemy wants a copy of the Torah for the great library in Alexandria, but remarks that the book is only available in the Judean language (§11), namely Hebrew. So, Ptolemy “proposed to write to the high priest of the Judeans so that Demetrius might bring to completion the aforementioned matters [i.e., the translation of the Judean books]” (§11).
In his letter, Ptolemy requisitions seventy-two scholars, six from each tribe, from the Jewish high priest in Jerusalem, Eleazar, to come to Alexandria to render the translation. Aristeas leads a delegation to Jerusalem to retrieve the seventy-two scholars, whom Eleazar names in his correspondence, and brings with him gifts from Ptolemy. The letter continues with:
- A travelogue that describes Jerusalem, especially the Temple and its ministrations, and then Judea, and its surroundings;
- Eleazar’s long farewell speech to the translators, condemning idol worship and emphasizing the symbolic meaning of some Jewish laws, especially laws concerning eating kosher food;
- Ptolemy’s reception of the translators and a series of seven symposia in which the king questions each of the translators;
- The execution of the translation;
- Its presentation to Ptolemy and to the Judeans who heartily approve of it;
- The return of the translators to Judea.
Most, if not all, of the work is fictional. Its author knew the LXX translation of the Pentateuch, quoting the Greek version in some places, employing its vocabulary, and alluding to it at various points in the narrative. For example, Aristeas arranges for the liberation of Jewish slaves in Egypt, which connects the reader to the story of the exodus.
Elsewhere in the letter, Ptolemy has gifts made for the Temple in Jerusalem, a scene that reworks parts of the Tabernacle account in Exodus.
A Gift of a Table and Bowls for the Temple
Along with the delegation to Jerusalem, Ptolemy sends gifts for the Temple in Jerusalem, specifically a table and bowls intended to be used in the priestly ministrations. This description is long and detailed (§§51b–82), immediately preceding the travelogue (§§83–120).
Did Pseudo-Aristeas have knowledge of the actual table in the temple? This seems unlikely considering the fictional nature of the narrative as a whole. Although some scholars have suggested that the travelogue in the letter came from narratives of historical pilgrimages to Jerusalem, the idealized picture that Pseudo-Aristeas paints of Jerusalem and its surroundings renders such a conclusion unlikely. By extension, it is highly doubtful that Pseudo-Aristeas’s description of Ptolemy’s gifts has any basis in experience of the Jerusalem temple.
Pseudo-Aristeas was likely inspired by two main considerations in describing such gifts:
- Ptolemy II’s extravagance—Ptolemy II had a wide reputation in antiquity for his love of art and opulence. In the description of Ptolemy’s gifts of the table and bowls, the Letter of Aristeas’s author certainly plays on this reputation.
- The tabernacle account in Exodus—The description of the table in Aristeas seems to have been built upon the description of these same items in the book of Exodus.Nevertheless, Pseudo-Aristeas does not merely copy the passage or even paraphrase it, but in his 15-paragraph description, he goes well beyond his basic source material in Exodus, and his 10-paragraph description of its bowls greatly exceeds their brief mention in Exodus.
The elaborate description of Ptolemy’s gifts in Aristeas takes the form of an ekphrasis, a Greek rhetorical device that gives a graphic description of a thing or person intended to bring the subject vividly to the eyes of the reader.
The Letter of Aristeas prefaces the description of the table with an account about how Ptolemy initially wanted to make the table of colossal size. The king inquired about how large the “previous one was that stood in the temple” (§52), presumably the table that his was meant to replace, and was told that nothing prevented him from building a bigger one. He relents only when he realizes that such a gargantuan table would serve no practical purpose in the Temple, and he wants the priests to be able to use it.
This account emphasizes both Ptolemy’s extravagant nature as well as his great respect for the Jerusalem temple, its priesthood, and customs. This is part of a consistent theme in the Letter of Aristeas, that Ptolemy II showed great respect for the Jewish God.
Exod 25:23-27 describes the table as part of God’s instructions concerning the Tabernacle.Pseudo-Aristeas takes the Exodus passage and runs with it, but he begins with a very close—though not verbatim—parallel to Exodus 25:3a:
|Exodus 25:23a||Letter of Aristeas 57|
|And you shall make a table of pure gold, the length two cubits and the width of one cubit and the height a cubit and a half.||So they fashioned the table two cubits in length <and a cubit in width> and a cubit and a half in height, of pure gold, making the creation solid on every side.|
The letter then adds: “Now I mean not of gold overlaid around something, but a metal plate was fastened on.”
Having decided that an oversized table was impractical (§56),
[Ptolemy] ordered that the various types of arts be used to the highest degree, since he intended everything to be majestic and he had a good ability for perceiving how objects looked. Wherever things were not written down, he ordered them to be made according to beauty; wherever things were written down, he ordered their measurements to be followed.
Thus, in its description of the table’s decoration, the Letter of Aristeas goes far beyond the source in Exodus:
Exod 25:23b And you shall make for it twisted gold moldings around, and you shall make for it a rim, a handbreadth all around. 25:24 And you shall make a twisted molding for the rim all around.
This brief description of a decorative motif in Exodus is replaced in Aristeas with 14 paragraphs detailing a very complex set of ornamental features. Ptolemy’s table has a rim measuring a palm’s breadth, and, like the table in Exodus, it has twisted molding. The rim is said to be triangular with rope decorations with precious stones as well as egg decorations made from precious stones (§§60–62). Underneath the egg reliefs were garlands of all kinds of produce—grape clusters, ears of corn (stachus), dates, apples, pomegranates, olives—each having its proper color.
This decoration recalls the so-called egg-and-dart pattern often found in Ionic architecture—one of the three forms of Greek architecture, the other two being Doric and Corinthian—which had three registers: (1) the top, which had wave molding (kuma); (2) the middle having the egg-and-dart pattern specifically; and (3) the bottom register of floral designs.
Below this rim, Pseudo-Aristeas suggests that the table had a similar pattern, perhaps on the sides of the table. The relief on the table itself was a winding pattern, which had precious stones in the middle of it. Then came a web-like pattern, which also had inlaid precious stones. Pseudo-Aristeas notes that the table was constructed the same way on both sides so that it could be used “from whichever side they [i.e., the priests] chose” (§65).
Pseudo-Aristeas clearly tries to create an image of a luxurious table, consistent with Ptolemy’s reputation for ostentation. The table, as the letter describes it, defies making a clear image of it. Indeed, the description is so over the top and unrealistic that Erich Gruen has suggested that Pseudo-Aristeas was actually making fun of the king’s reputation for such opulence.
Legs and Feet
Exodus 25:26 mentions legs, but gives no information about their construction, so Pseudo-Aristeas lets his imagination soar when describing them. The legs were inserted into a “solid metal plate” and had capitals decorated with gold-plated lilies, which bent underneath the table. The feet had the shape of boots with a ruby support on the bottom. Thus, the table rested on four rubies underneath the boot-shaped feet.
The legs were decorated with ivy, acanthus, and grapevines made of stone, which wrapped around from the feet up to the capitals. In describing the design of these vines, Pseudo-Aristeas tells us that “everything had been made effectively and fitted, having the unchangeable superiority of experience and skill to approach reality, so that even when a breeze of air blew, the positioning of the leaves allowed for movement, since the arrangement of everything was modeled on reality” (§70).
One element notably missing in the Letter of Aristeas, though prominent in Exodus, is the table’s rings and carrying-poles:
Exod 25:25 And you shall make four gold rings, and you shall place the rings on the four parts of its feet under the rim. 25:26 And the rings shall be for sheaths for the carrying-poles so as to lift the table with them…
Pseudo-Aristeas skipped these elements, presumably because they belonged to the tabernacle’s table, which needed to be portable, since the Israelites were always on the move; such portability was not needed for the Temple table.
Repeating Ptolemy’s Intention
After describing the table’s decorative features at length, Pseudo-Aristeas explains why Ptolemy did this (§72):
For since he had decided to add nothing to the size, whatever was necessary to spend on the larger construction, this he dedicated to even more decoration. And according to his decision, everything was completed in an amazing and remarkable manner, both with inimitable skill and illustrious beauty.
The Gold and Silver Bowls
In its description of the items that should accompany the table, Exodus merely states:
Exod 25:28 And you shall make its bowls and censors and libation cups and ladles, those which you shall pour a libation. Of pure gold you shall make them.
Here again our author uses his ekphrastic imagination, veering even farther from the biblical text. Rather than the Greek terms used in the LXX, trublion (“bowl) and spondeion (“pouring cup”), Pseudo-Aristeas distinguishes two kinds of bowls that the king ordered to be made: the krater, a large drinking bowl that was used to mix wine and water and often to fill other cups, and the phialē, a large, flat bowl used for drinking or for pouring libations. He does not include the terms thuiskē (“censer”) or kuathos (“ladle”), the two other objects listed in Exodus.
In contrast to the Exodus passage that stipulates the bowls be made of pure gold, we are told in the letter that some were made of gold and some of silver. Indeed, Pseudo-Aristeas relates that when the bowls were lined up with gold and silver ones alternately “the arrangement was completely indescribable, and when people drew near to the sight, they could not tear themselves away due to the illumination and the pleasure of the sight” (§77). Like the table, the bowls were lavishly decorated with lozenges made of precious stones, lilies, and grape clusters all around the rim. The golden bowls had grape vines entwined with myrtle and olive with precious stones set in them.
As if this weren’t enough, Aristeas ends this section with three paragraphs describing how much Ptolemy invested in money and care to this project of gifts for the Jerusalem temple (§§80–82):
80 In general, neither in the king’s treasuries nor in any other was there such work either in artistry or in lavish expense. For the king devoted not a little forethought to them, loving the fame accrued for things having such beauty. 81 For often he would disregard public business and carefully attend the artisans so that they might execute the objects in a manner appropriate to the place to which the works were being sent. Therefore, everything was accomplished majestically and in a manner worthy both of the king who was sending them and of the high priest who presided over the place…
As a Jew with a Greek education and in the manner of other Hellenistic writers, Pseudo-Aristeas in this section displays his rhetorical skill, as he does throughout the text. He signals the ekphrastic nature of his descriptions with the number of times that he points out that indescribable, amazing, and remarkable nature of these works of superior art.
The Goals of Ekphrasis
Why does Pseudo-Aristeas go to such lengths to describe these gifts as part of his fictional account of how the Torah was translated into Greek?
Pseudo-Aristeas’s portrayal of Ptolemy’s gifts fits into one larger theme of the book: that Jews in Alexandria can participate in elite Alexandrian Hellenistic culture without compromising their identities as Jews. By creating this picture of Ptolemy II (and other Greek elites such as Aristeas and the court philosophers) as respecting the Jewish god and Jewish traditions—the king even serves kosher food at his symposia!—Pseudo-Aristeas emphasizes that elite Greeks understand and respect Jewish traditions, especially those that set Jews apart.
In the world of the Letter of Aristeas, it is a matter of pride that Jews have their own laws given by a lawgiver, Moses; their own ruler, in this case Eleazar the high priest; and their city, Jerusalem, that stands on par with Ptolemy and Alexandria. Pseudo-Aristeas creates his fictional account as a way of constructing a Jewish identity for his co-religionists that works in Hellenistic Alexandrian society of the late second century. His ekphrasis of the table and bowls, and his emphasis on how important this project was to King Ptolemy, play a role in that larger enterprise.
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February 5, 2019
January 14, 2021
Prof. Benjamin G. Wright III is University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Religion Studies at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He received his M.Div. from Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Christian Origins from the University of Pennsylvania. Wright’s most recent book is a commentary on the Letter of Aristeas (2015). A collection of his essays was published as, Praise Israel for Wisdom and Instruction: Essays on Ben Sira and Wisdom, The Letter of Aristeas and the Septuagint, and he did the translations of Sirach (Ben Sira) and the Epistle of Jeremiah for A New English Translation of the Septuagint and the Other Greek Translations Traditionally Included under That Title, which he edited with Albert Pietersma. He is currently working on a commentary on the Wisdom of Ben Sira.
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