You are here

Viewing Cultures in the Letter of Aristeas

Max Leventhal

University of Cambridge

The Letter of Aristeas is a Hellenistic work narrating the translation of the Torah into Greek at the behest of Ptolemy Philadelphus. It is important for the study of Hellenistic Judaism (it describes the Septuagint’s production) and for Hellenistic Greek literary culture (it describes the Alexandrian Library). Despite its importance as a historical source, it is under-appreciated as literature. This is largely due to its perceived deceptiveness as a pseudepigraphic document (Hody 1684; Meecham 1932, 133-71; Hadas 1951, 5-9), which has held scholarly focus on the question of its historical accuracy. Recent attempts at redressing this neglect – (Honigman 2003, Chapter 4; Wright 2015, 6-15) – continue to obsess over its historicity. In this paper, I argue that the Letter is a sophisticated literary product and that a focus on its structure, motifs, and allusions provides us with a deeper understanding of how Graeco-Jewish authors related to the overlapping Greek and Jewish cultures in which they operated.

I exemplify my argument by examining how the Letter relates Greek and Jewish cultures of viewing objects. The Letter describes the gifts given to the Jerusalem Temple by Ptolemy, the Temple itself, and the Judean environs. This highly visual passage occupies roughly 70 chapters (§51-121; of a work containing 320 chapters) but has been considered a mere digression (Murray 1975) or a rhetorical display filling out the narrative or else producing poikilia (Honigman 2003, 17). More recently, Jane Heath (2013) has shown that its language corresponds to a Hellenistic lexicon of artistic production and also relates this to more well-known Greek, poetic ekphrases. This paper, more specifically, shows how the author describes Jewish artworks as adhering to and even surpassing Greek aesthetic principles, but also how they present aesthetics as inseparable from ethics. Jewish objects are figured as succeeding by combining Greek aesthetics with Jewish ethical concerns. I show this by focusing on two central interests of the descriptions.

First, I consider the Letter’s engagement with Greek conceptions of artistic realism. Particularly important is Zeuxis’ and Parrhasius’ competition to paint the most realistic scene: the anecdote is preserved by Pliny (HN 35.65-6) but assuredly Hellenistic. I show that the contrast of the gifts’ realistic crafted vegetation (§70) and the Temple’s billowing curtain (§86) draws on the contrast of Zeuxis’ realistic grapes and Parrhasius’ realistic curtain. The Letter’s inversion of the Greek scheme, namely that the curtain is real and not painted, however, challenges the idea of artistic realism tout court. This Jewish take on realism is underscored, moreover, with the vegetation and the curtain being moved by breath (πνεῦμα, cf. §70 and 86), an ekphrastic trope in the Greek tradition more commonly used to praise realistic figured images and statuary seemingly imbued with ‘spirit’ (cf. e.g. A.P.9.724, 740, 146, 150).

Second, I look at the Letter’s response to Greek ideas of artistic measure and proportionality. By comparing the descriptions with texts such as Polyclitus’ Canon (40 A 3 D.-K.) and Posidippus’ ekphrastic epigrams (67-8 A.B.) I show that the gifts and the Temple are both described in terms of proportionality. The differences between the descriptions, however, highlight how cultural approaches to measure and proportion have serious ramifications for state configuration: Ptolemy’s disproportionately large gifts and swollen Alexandria (§52-5, 108-11) are contrasted with Jerusalem’s measured altar and city plan (§87, 105). The ethical aspect of these divergent approaches to proportion are subsequently spotlighted by two passages in which the material form of the gifts and the Temple are related to prescriptions from Exodus (§56, 87). The quintessentially Greek idea of measure, in other words, is adhered to in the Letter only by the intervention of Jewish Law.

This analysis of the Letter contributes to three areas of scholarship: 1) it provides further evidence of Hellenistic prose’s vitality; 2) it reveals the interests of the Jewish viewer of Greek art; 3) it identifies additional complexities within the cultural polemics surrounding Jewish literature written in Greek.

Session/Panel Title

Science in Context

Session/Paper Number


Share This Page

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy