Letter of Aristeas


The catena, a biblical commentary that proceeds verse by verse, was a popular interpretative tool in the Byzantine world. The catena could be transmitted as marginal commentary to the text of the Bible, or, as is the case in this 16th-century manuscript, in a separate volume.

This catena deals with the Octateuch, or the first eight books of the Old Testament (Genesis-Ruth). It is prefaced by the well-known Letter of Aristeas, which describes how Ptolemy II Philadelphus, Pharaoh of Egypt between 283 and 246 BCE, ordered the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek.

The manuscript was copied by the scribe Ioannes Nathanael, who was known to have worked in Venice, as well as in Ancona (in central Italy) and on Crete. This, combined with the watermark found on the paper, suggests an origin in north-eastern Italy. It was in England by the first half of the 18th century at the latest, when it was owned by the physician and bibliophile Richard Mead, who bequeathed it to another doctor and book collector, Anthony Askew.

At the sale of Askew’s books in 1816, it was purchased by Charles Burney, whose vast collection of manuscripts, theatrical ephemera, and newspapers was acquired by the British Museum after Burney’s death in 1818.

Full title:
Letter of Aristeas
16th century
Aristeas Judaeus (author), Ioannes Nathanael (scribe)
Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Held by
British Library
Burney MS 34

Full catalogue details

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Translated into Greek in Hellenistic Egypt, the Greek Old Testament was copied widely in Byzantium. Peter Toth surveys the history of this important text.