2015-05-27

Moses and Exodus according to the Roman historian Tacitus

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing. . . . 

The Roman historian Tacitus (ca 56-117 C.E.) appears to combine several versions of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt. Most significantly,

In Tacitus, the characterization of Jewish monotheism as a counter-religion which is the inversion of Egyptian tradition and therefore totally derivative of, and dependent on, Egypt reaches its climax. (Assmann, Moses the Egyptian, p. 37)

From book 5 of Tacitus’s Histories:

3 1 Most authors agree that once during a plague in Egypt which caused bodily disfigurement, King Bocchoris approached the oracle of Ammon and asked for a remedy, whereupon he was told to purge his kingdom and to transport this race into other lands, since it was hateful to the gods.

So the Hebrews were searched out and gathered together; then, being abandoned in the desert, while all others lay idle and weeping, one only of the exiles, Moses by name, warned them not to hope for help from gods or men, for they were deserted by both, but to trust to themselves, regarding as a guide sent from heaven the one whose assistance should first give them escape from their present distress.

They agreed, and then set out on their journey in utter ignorance, but trusting to chance. Nothing caused them so much distress as scarcity of water, and in fact they had already fallen exhausted over the plain nigh unto death, when a herd of wild asses moved from their pasturage to a rock that was shaded by a grove of trees. Moses followed them, and, conjecturing the truth from the grassy ground, discovered abundant streams of water.

This relieved them, and they then marched six days continuously, and on the seventh seized a country, expelling the former inhabitants; there they founded a city and dedicated a temple.

4 1 To establish his influence over this people for all time, Moses introduced new religious practices, quite opposed to those of all other religions. The Jews regard as profane all that we hold sacred; on the other hand, they permit all that we abhor.

They dedicated, in a shrine, a statue of that creature whose guidance enabled them to put an end to their wandering and thirst [i.e. the ass] 

sacrificing a ram, apparently in derision of Ammon. They likewise offer the ox, because the Egyptians worship Apis. . . . . 

5 1 . . .   their ideas of heavenly things are quite the opposite [to the Egyptians’].

The Egyptians worship many animals and monstrous images; the Jews conceive of one god only, and that with the mind alone: they regard as impious those who make from perishable materials representations of gods in man’s image; that supreme and eternal being is to them incapable of representation and without end. Therefore they set up no statues in their cities, still less in their temples; . . . 

Assmann, p. 37 of Moses the Egyptian

The strange and particularly absurd motif of the god of the Jews being represented in the statue of an ass finds its explanation in Plutarch, who tells the story in a completely mythologized form. The god Seth, the murderer of Osiris, is driven out of Egypt and spends seven days fleeing into Palestine. There he fathers two sons, whom he calls Hierosolyma and Juda. Seth is usually associated with the donkey in Egyptian mythology.

Stern, p. 98 of Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism

In addition, the fact that the name Iao, known also to pagan circles as the name of the God of the Jews, is similar in sound to the Egyptian word for ass probably contributed something to the emergence of the fable.

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