Report on the Firmament

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The Creation Concept

Single file


The Traditional Explanation

The Rigid Sky in Greek Philosophy

Temples of Zeus

The Letter of Aristeas

Antiochus and the Jews

Ezekiel's Firmament

Varro on Pagan Religion

The Firmament in New Testament Times

A Quotation from On the Sublime

The Christian Era: Domed Cathedrals

The Demise of the Firmament

Daniel's 2,300 Days

The Search for the Firmament

Waters Above the Heavens?

Canopy Theories



The Letter of Aristeas

In the time of Antiochus IV a Greek translation of the Pentateuch was being prepared in Alexandria, where a large Jewish population had been transferred by Ptolemy Philadelphus in the previous century. The Jews of Alexandria had gradually lost their knowledge of the ancient Hebrew language, and many had adopted the Hellenistic culture to some extent.

In the document known as the Letter of Aristeas, which scholars believe was written by a Hellenistic Jew in the mid second century BC, an elaborate story is related about how the translation of the Pentateuch was done, and the reasons for it, and the circumstances. The Aristeas document pretends to date from more than a century earlier, and the setting of the story is the court of Ptolemy Philadelpus in Alexandria. Scholars generally view the work as fiction, but nevertheless, it is the basis for the name by which the Greek Bible has become known, the "Septuagint" or "LXX". It is also regarded as an important source document for the history of the period.

The Aristeas story was clearly intended to persuade Jews of the authority and sanctity of the new Greek text. Whatever the specific date the translation occurred, evidence within the Bible itself, in the prophecy of Daniel chapter 8, suggests that changes to the cosmology of the Bible were ordered by the Seleucid king Antiochus IV, who reigned in the second century BC. These changes, in the guise of "corrections", probably first appeared in the Greek translation of the scriptures, and were subsequently introduced into the Hebrew text from the Greek.

The Letter of Aristeas indicates that when the Greek translation of the Bible appeared, it was claimed that the new Greek text was even more authoritative than the Hebrew text. The Aristeas text contains a document purportedly written by Demetrius of Phalerum, the president of the library of Philadelphus the king. This document is reproduced below. Demetrius claims the Hebrew scriptures had been "somewhat carelessly committed to writing and are not in their original form." Further, this was supported by the evidence of "experts." Demetrius proposed that this could be rectified by making the new translation.


An exerpt from the Letter of Aristeas, lines 28-34

When this business had been dealt with, he ordered Demetrius to submit a memorandum about the copying of the Jewish books. For at the court of these kings, everything was managed by means of decrees, and with maximum security, and nothing was done in an offhand or casual manner. I have therefore recorded the copy of the memorandum and the copies of the letters, and the list of gifts sent and the description of each, because each of them was of extraordinary quality and craftsmanship. This is a copy of the memorandum:

To the Great King, from Demetrius. In accordance with your Majesty's order concerning the library, that books needed to complete the collection should be acquired and added, and that those accidentally damaged should receive suitable attention, I submit the following report, having attended to my responsibility in the matter in no casual manner. Books of the Law of the Jews, with some few others, are wanting. For it happens that these books are written in the Hebrew script and language, but, according to the evidence of the experts, have been somewhat carelessly committed to writing and are not in their original form; for they have never had the benefit of royal attention. It is important that these books, duly corrected, should find a place in your library, because this legislation, in as much as it is divine, is of philosophical importance and of innate integrity. For this reason writers and poets and the great majority of historians have avoided reference to the above mentioned books and to the people who have lived and are living in accordance with them, because, as Hecataeus of Abdera says, the view of life presented in them has a certain sanctity and holiness. If, then, your Majesty approves, a letter shall be written to the high priest in Jerusalem, asking him to send elders of exemplary lives, expert in their country's Law, six from each tribe, so that, having established the agreement of the majority and obtained an accurate translation, we may give the book a distinguished place in our library, in keeping both with the importance of the affair and of your own purpose. May you ever prosper!

In view of this memorandum, the king ordered a letter on the subject to be written to Eleazar, informing him also of the accomplished emancipation the prisoners. In addition, he gave for the crafting of the bowls and flagons, table, and libation cups fifty talents weight of gold and seventy talents of silver and a fully adequate quantity of precious stones (ordering the treasurers to leave the choice of materials to the craftsmen), and up to a hundred talents of coined money for sacrifices and other details.

The parts of the original Hebrew scriptures, and specifically, the Pentateuch, most likely to have been viewed by Greeks and Hellenistic Jews at Alexandria as needing such modification, were cosmological passages such as the creation account of Genesis 1, that omitted mention of the rigid sky, Olympus, in appropriate places. The concept of a rigid sky was essential for the geocentric theory, but would be entirely absent in the original Hebrew text, inspired by God. The Greek poets and philosophers supposed that the rigid sky, represented by Zeus Olympus, carried the stars around, and held them up.

Thus, the above statement by Demetrius alleging deviations from the "original form" existed in the Hebrew scriptures seems very much like a ruse or a pretext for altering the cosmology of the Greek version of the scripture, and Letter of Aristeas apears an attempt to explain the discrepancy between the Hebrew and the Greek text, which was subsequently hidden when the Hebrew text was altered to conform to the Greek. The changes, identifying the 'raqia' with the sky had been introduced into the Greek translation; the Letter of Aristeas was apparently designed to account for them.

The Memorandum of Demetrius provides clear evidence that alterations were made to the scriptures, resulting in discrepancies between the Hebrew and the new Greek version; these were the parts that had been "somewhat carelessly committed to writing" and so were "not in their original form." The story related by Aristeas about the translation of the Pentateuch in Alexandria presents the new Greek text as superior to the Hebrew. The Greek text is touted as the more accurate version, in which the deficiencies due to "careless transcription" had presumably been corrected by the Israelite scholars.

[See Important Early Translations of the Bible.]

[See also The Importance of the Septuagint for Biblical Studies.]


Bartlett, J.R., 1985. Jews in the Hellenistic World, Cambridge U. Press. p. 20-21. Or, see HTML version of The Letter of Aristeas, R.H. Charles, ed.

Copyright © 1996 by Douglas E. Cox
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