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The “Letter of Aristeas,” the Alexandrian Library and Near Eastern Suzerainty Treaties

Daniel B. Levine

While the self-representation of the Letter of Aristeas is appropriate for second-century BCE Alexandrian Jews seeking to legitimize use of a Greek text as their holy scriptures, the author of Aristeas seeks to give further credence to the Septuagint text by lending the Library at Alexandria a veneer of holiness by setting up an implied comparison with the ancient Near East practice of depositing laws and treaties in a god’s temple.

It has long been recognized that Exodus’ narrative of the creation of the Law and its placement in the Tabernacle should be seen in the context of ancient Near Eastern proclamations and suzerainty treaties (Korošec, Daube, Mendenhall).  Newly-crowned Amorite dynasts would declare their subjects free from debt slavery before promulgating a code of laws. Hittite suzerainty treaties were read publically and then placed in a temple, “since the treaty itself was under the protection of a deity, it was deposited as a sacred thing in the sanctuary of the vassal state – perhaps also, to indicate that the local deity or deities would not and could not aid in breach of covenant” (Mendenhall 34).  The Law of Moses residing in the Tabernacle fills this role in Exodus, as part of the “time-honored Near Eastern typology of exaltation” (Hallo 377).

Recent work has pointed out the Letter’s “Exodus Paradigm.”  The Hellenistic Jewish author of Aristeas seeks to contrast the philo-Semitic, manumitting  Ptolemy II with the cruel Pharaoh of Exodus, and consciously structures his narrative along the lines of Exodus to acquire some of the holy writ’s status (Honigman 53-39).  In addition, the “Letter” uses phrases from the very Exodus text whose origin it purports to narrate (57, 58, 87, 96, 97, 153, 159-163). 

It is also clear that the creation of the Septuagint and much subsequent Jewish literary output in Hellenistic Alexandria had a close connection with the Homeric scholarship that flourished in the Library (Honigman, Niehoff). “The King and, even more, the Library, are both to be seen as important components of the mental picture the Jews of Alexandria held of the circumstances surrounding the origins of the LXX” (Honigman 118).

Indeed, the Letter stresses the Law’s “holiness” as a reason for its inclusion in this Hellenistic repository: the supposedly pagan Aristeas refers to the Torah as divine (4 θεῖος) as does Demetrius (θείαν, ἁγνήν, σεμνήν 31). Furthermore, Demetrius tells the king that an accurate translation in the Library would be worthy both of the “subject matter and of your benevolence” (32; Hadas), thus arguing that Ptolemy will arrogate the holiness of others’ laws to himself when he includes them in his Library. Ptolemy furthers this notion by calling the Jewish god ὁ μέγιστος θεός (37), and he finally engages in proskynesis before the translation and orders that the text receive pious care on its way to the Library (προσκυνήσας... καὶ συντηρεῖν ἁγνῶς 317).

This notion of the sanctity of the Library and its collection is a wholly Jewish construct, created to raise the status of the Septuagint’s text. There is no evidence that Greeks described the Library at Alexandria as a holy place, or in any way “temple-like.” Even the Library’s relation with the Museum, the “Sanctuary of the Muses,” is uncertain, as are details of its origin, layout and destruction (Bagnall). The Jewish author the Letter of Aristeas alone makes attempts to show the Library’s holiness.

As Mesopotamian suzerain/vassal treaties and other law texts found their resting places in temples that exalted their gods and rulers, and as the Law in Exodus found a home in the Tabernacle, “Aristeas’” apologetic account insists that the putative original Septuagint was to be found among classical texts in Library at Alexandria. The author thereby attempts to further legitimize the text by associating the LXX with two ancient traditional holy places: the biblical Tabernacle and Near Eastern temple repositories.

Session/Panel Title

The Social Life of Ancient Libraries

Session/Paper Number

41.1

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