Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

ARISTEAS.

Shall men forever be deceived in the most indifferent as well as the most serious things? A pretended Aristeas would make us believe that he had the Old Testament translated into Greek for the use of Ptolemy Philadelphus — just as the Duke de Montausier had commentaries written on the best Latin authors for the dauphin, who made no use of them.

According to this Aristeas, Ptolemy, burning with desire to be acquainted with the Jewish books, and to know those laws which the meanest Jew in Alexandria could have translated for fifty crowns, determined to send a solemn embassy to the high-priest of the Jews of Jerusalem; to deliver a hundred and twenty thousand Jewish slaves, whom his father, Ptolemy Soter, had made prisoners in Judæa, and in order to assist them in performing the journey agreeably, to give them about forty crowns each of our money — amounting in the whole to fourteen millions four hundred thousand of our livres, or about five hundred and seventy-six thousand pounds.

Ptolemy did not content himself with this unheard-of liberality. He sent to the temple a large table of massive gold, enriched all over with precious stones, and had engraved upon it a chart of the Meander, a river of Phrygia, the course of which river was marked with rubies and emeralds. It is obvious how charming such a chart of the Meander must have been to the Jews. This table was loaded with two immense golden vases, still more richly worked. He also gave thirty other golden and an infinite number of silver vases. Never was a book so dearly paid for; the whole Vatican library might be had for a less amount.

Eleazar, the pretended high-priest of Jerusalem, sent ambassadors in his turn, who presented only a letter written upon fine vellum in characters of gold. It was an act worthy of the Jews, to give a bit of parchment for about thirty millions of livres. Ptolemy was so much delighted with Eleazar’s style that he shed tears of joy.

The ambassador dined with the king and the chief priests of Egypt. When grace was to be said, the Egyptians yielded the honor to the Jews. With these ambassadors came seventy-two interpreters, six from each of the twelve tribes, who had all learned Greek perfectly at Jerusalem. It is really a pity that of these twelve tribes ten were entirely lost, and had disappeared from the face of the earth so many ages before; but Eleazar, the highpriest, found them again, on purpose to send translators to Ptolemy.

The seventy-two interpreters were shut up in the island of Pharos. Each of them completed his translation in seventy-two days, and all the translations were found to be word for word alike. This is called the Septuagint or translation of the seventy, though it should have been called the translation of the seventy-two.

As soon as the king had received these books he worshipped them — he was so good a Jew. Each interpreter received three talents of gold, and there were sent to the high-sacrificer — in return for his parchment — ten couches of silver, a crown of gold, censers and cups of gold, a vase of thirty talents of silver — that is, of the weight of about sixty thousand crowns — with ten purple robes, and a hundred pieces of the finest linen.

Nearly all this fine story is faithfully repeated by the historian Josephus, who never exaggerates anything. St. Justin improves upon Josephus. He says that Ptolemy applied to King Herod, and not to the high-priest Eleazar. He makes Ptolemy send two ambassadors to Herod — which adds much to the marvellousness of the tale, for we know that Herod was not born until long after the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus.

It is needless to point out the profusion of anachronisms in these and all such romances, or the swarm of contradictions and enormous blunders into which the Jewish author falls in every sentence; yet this fable was regarded for ages as an incontestable truth; and, the better to exercise the credulity of the human mind, every writer who repeated it added or retrenched in his own way, so that, to believe it all, it was necessary to believe it in a hundred different ways. Some smile at these absurdities which whole nations have swallowed, while others sigh over the imposture. The infinite diversity of these falsehoods multiplies the followers of Democritus and Heraclitus.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25