The Letter of Aristeas is a Hellenistic Jewish literary work from the second century BCE. Written in the form of a letter sent from the court of King Ptolemy in Egypt, it is best known as the legend of the translation of the Septuagint (LXX). First, the Five Books of Moses (and eventually other books of the Bible) were translated into the Greek language by a process that began sometime in the third or second century BCE. Besides the elaborate narrative of how this translation project transpired, the Letter to Aristeas sheds many glimpses into ancient life. Below are some passages that describe the work of the Temple. The story is deliberately shaped to give the impression of an eye-witness account observing the functions of the Jerusalem Temple in the second century BCE.
The ministering of the priests was absolutely unsurpassable in its vigor and the arrangement of its well-ordered silence: All work hard of their own accord, with much exertion, and each one looks after his appointed task. Their service is unremitting, sharing the sacrifices, some undertaking the carrying of wood, others oil, others wheaten flour, others the sweet spices, others offering burnt offerings of the parts of the flesh—all of them exerting their strength in different ways. 93 They divide the legs of the bullocks with both hands, though they are more than two talents in weight in almost every case, and then with an upward movement rip off with each hand in an amazing way a sufficiently large portion with unerring accuracy. The sheep and the goats are similarly treated in a remarkable way, weight and fat notwithstanding. Those whose concern it is choose in every case spotless specimens outstanding for fatness: Thus the aforesaid procedure is carried out.
94 They have a rest room set aside, where those who are resting sit down. When this happens, some of those who are rested stand up with alacrity, but no one orders the arrangements of their ministry. 95 A general silence reigns, so that one might think that there was not a single man in the place although the number of ministers in attendance is more than seven hundred, in addition to a large number of the assistants bringing forward the animals for sacrifice: Everything is carried out with reverence and in a manner befitting supreme divinity.
96 It was an occasion of great amazement to us when we saw Eleazar engaged on his ministry, and all the glorious vestments, including the wearing of the “garment” with precious stones upon it in which he is vested; golden bells surround the hem (at his feet) and make a very special sound. Alongside each of them are “tassels” adorned with “flowers,” and of marvelous colors. 97 He was clad in an outstandingly magnificent “girdle,” woven in the most beautiful colors. On his breast he wears what is called the “oracle,” to which are attached “twelve stones” of different kinds, set in gold, giving the names of the patriarchs in what was the original order, each stone flashing its own natural distinctive color—quite indescribable. 98 Upon his head he has what is called the “tiara,” and upon this the inimitable “mitre,” the hallowed diadem having in relief on the front in the middle in holy letters on a golden leaf the name of God, ineffable in glory. The wearer is considered worthy of such vestments at the services. 99 Their appearance makes one awe-struck and dumbfounded: A man would think he had come out of this world into another one. I emphatically assert that every man who comes near the spectacle of what I have described will experience astonishment and amazement beyond words, his very being transformed by the hallowed arrangement on every single detail.
100 For the inspection of the entire scene we climbed the neighboring citadel, and viewed it from there. It is situated on a lofty site, fortified with a number of towers, which in their turn are built of sizable stones right up to the top, according to our information, for the protection of the area around the Temple (Letter of Aristeas 92-100; trans., Charlesworth)