Monday, December 31, 2012

Have You Read Aristeas' Letter?

As explained, the Letter of Aristeas (and see this book)

was a letter addressed from Aristeas to his brother Philocrates...Over twenty manuscripts of this letter are preserved...the letter's author alleges to be a be a courtier of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (reigned 281-246 BCE).

Most scholars hold that the letter was a

pseudepigraphal work of pseudo-history produced in Alexandria, probably in the mid-2nd century BC, to promote the cause of Judaism...The author’s purpose was to present Judaism in a favourable light to pagans and make strict observance of religious laws attractive to Hellenistic Jews...The writer used current Hellenistic literary conventions and the technical language of the Alexandrian court, but his Greek style and several historical inaccuracies indicate that he was a deliberate archaist. His concern for the welfare of Jewish slaves, his romantic picture of Palestinian Jewry, and his efforts to explain the theory behind Jewish dietary laws mark him as a Jew rather than a pagan.

As to its dating,

the general consensus [is] that it was likely written in the last third of the 2nd century B.C.E. (i.e. ca. 130-100 B.C.E.) - although some scholars (e.g. Jelicoe and Orlinsky) date it as early as 170...Under the cloak of a Gentile praising Judaism, it defended Judaism to Jews by letting Jewish readers look at their tradition through the eyes of an outsider, who found not only something commendable, but traditions corresponding to high values in Hellenistic society. As an apology for the prestige of Judaism, this document is one of the most striking and vigorous attempts to bridge the gap between Judaism and Hellenism for which we have evidence. 


This article proposes that the Letter of Aristeas was written in the late third century bce, either towards the end of the reign of Ptolemy IV (222–205 bce) or the beginning of the reign of Ptolemy V (204–180 bce). This dating is supported, inter alia, by the list of harbors in the Letter (115) and by the Sitz im Leben of Jewish life in Egypt that the Letter reflects.

In the end, the letter attests to a physical reality even if it is polemical or theological propaganda.

As another scholar writes:

major parts of the book relate the expedition members’ impressions of the Land of Israel, Jerusalem, the Temple and the High Priest and describe in detail the philosophical banquet in which the king and his friends participated together with the seventy-two sages that came from Jerusalem. Clearly then, since it exhibits characteristics of other genres such as utopian geography and philosophy, Aristeas should not be regarded as historiography alone...
 ...the core of the ideology [of the letter] is easily discernible: a combination of total loyalty to Judaism and deep and active involvement with the Hellenistic world and culture. This combination is revealed in the writer’s affection for and identification with the Hellenistic world on the one hand, and in the logic and justice attributed to the laws of the Torah, the central place of God and the importance of the Land of Israel, Jerusalem and the Temple on the other

As to that physical, geographical reality, what does it contain that, for example, could deny the Islamic Temple Denial campaign?

Well, this:
Description of Jerusalem.
(a) The temple (and the water-works system).
(b) The ceremony.
(c) The citadel.
(d) The city.
(e) The countryside.

Excerpts from Chapter Four:

...but I will first of all give you a description of the whole country. When we arrived in the land of the Jews we saw the city situated 84 in the middle of the whole of Judea on the top of a mountain of considerable altitude. On the summit the temple had been built in all its splendour. It was surrounded by three walls more than seventy cubits high and in length and breadth corresponding to the structure of the edifice. All the buildings 85 were characterized by a magnificence and costliness quite unprecedented. It was obvious that no expense had been spared on the door and the fastenings, which connected it with the door-posts, and 86 the stability of the lintel. The style of the curtain too was thoroughly in proportion to that of the entrance. Its fabric owing to the draught of wind was in perpetual motion, and as this motion was communicated from the bottom and the curtain bulged out to its highest extent, it afforded a pleasant 87 spectacle from which a man could scarcely tear himself away. The construction of the altar was in keeping with the place itself and with the burnt offerings which were consumed by fire upon it, and the approach to it was on a similar scale. There was a gradual slope up to it, conveniently arranged for the purpose of decency, and the ministering priests were robed in linen garments, down to their 88 ankles. The Temple faces the east and its back is toward the west. The whole of the floor is paved with stones and slopes down to the appointed places, that water may be conveyed to wash away the 89 blood from the sacrifices, for many thousand beasts are sacrificed there on the feast days. And there is an inexhaustible supply of water, because an abundant natural spring gushes up from within the temple area. There are moreover wonderful and indescribable cisterns underground, as they pointed out to me, at a distance of five furlongs all round the site of the temple, and each of them has countless pipes 90 so that the different streams converge together...

92 The ministration of the priests is in every way unsurpassed both for its physical endurance and for its orderly and silent service. For they all work spontaneously, though it entails much painful exertion, and each one has a special task allotted to him. The service is carried on without interruption - some provide the wood, others the oil, others the fine wheat flour, others the spices; others 93 again bring the pieces of flesh for the burnt offering, exhibiting a wonderful degree of strength. For they take up with both hands the limbs of a calf, each of them weighing more than two talents, and throw them with each hand in a wonderful way on to the high place of the altar and never miss placing them on the proper spot. In the same way the pieces of the sheep and also of the goats are wonderful both for their weight and their fatness. For those, whose business it is, always select the beasts which are without blemish and specially fat, and thus the sacrifice which I have described, 94 is carried out. There is a special place set apart for them to rest in, where those who are relieved from duty sit...Everything is carried out with 96 reverence and in a way worthy of the great God.

...100 But in order that we might gain complete information, we ascended to the summit of the neighbouring citadel and looked around us. It is situated in a very lofty spot, and is fortified with many towers, which have been built up to the very top of immense stones, with the object, as we were informed, of 101 guarding the temple precincts, so that if there were an attack, or an insurrection or an onslaught of the enemy, no one would be able to force an entrance within the walls that surround the temple. On the towers of the citadel engines of war were placed and different kinds of machines, and the position was 102 much higher than the circle of walls which I have mentioned. The towers were guarded too by most trusty men who had given the utmost proof of their loyalty to their country...The citadel was the special protection of the temple and its founder had fortified it so strongly that it might efficiently protect it.

105 The size of the city is of moderate dimensions. It is about forty furlongs in circumference, as far as one could conjecture. It has its towers arranged in the shape of a theatre, with thoroughfares leading between them. Now the cross roads of the lower towers are visible but those of the upper 106 towers are more frequented. For the ground ascends, since the city is built upon a mountain. There are steps too which lead up to the cross roads, and some people are always going up, and others down and they keep as far apart from each other as possible on the road because of those who 107 are bound by the rules of purity, lest they should touch anything which is unlawful... 

A great quantity of spices and precious stones and gold is brought into the country by the Arabs. For the country is well adapted not only for agriculture but also for commerce, and the 115 city is rich in the arts and lacks none of the merchandise which is brought across the sea. It possesses too suitable and commodious harbours at Askalon, Joppa, and Gaza, as well as at Ptolemais which was founded by the King and holds a central position compared with the other places named, being not far distant from any of them. The country produces everything in abundance, 116 since it is well watered in all directions and well protected from storms. The river Jordan, as it is called, which never runs dry, flows through the land. Originally (the country) contained not less than 60 million acres-though afterwards the neighbouring peoples made incursions against it...

Other mountain torrents, as they are called, flow down into the plain and encompass the parts about Gaza and the district of 118 Ashdod. The country is encircled by a natural fence and is very difficult to attack and cannot be assailed by large forces, owing to the narrow passes, with their overhanging precipices and deep ravines, and the rugged character of the mountainous regions which surround all the land. 119 We were told that from the neighbouring mountains of Arabia copper and iron were formerly obtained...


The Temple.


Arab merchants.

So, is denial an historical option?


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