The ancient Greek world appears to have been ignorant of the Jews (or even Israel) in Palestine until around the end of the fourth century. I still recall my high school disappointment when I read the famous work of the Greek “father of history”, Herodotus, only to find not a single mention of biblical Judea even though surrounding peoples were colourfully portrayed in detail. If Herodotus had truly traveled through these regions as we believed at the time (a view that has been questioned in more recent scholarship) what could possibly account for such a total omission of a people whose customs surely differed so starkly from those of their neighbours. Didn’t Herodotus love to seek out and dwell upon the unusual?
A History of Israel from the Ground Up (i.e. from archaeology)
Perhaps that nagging question prepared me to be more open to the arguments of scholars sometimes labeled as the “Copenhagen School” — Thompson, Lemche, Davies in particular at first — than I might otherwise have been. Their thesis is that biblical Israel, the Israel of the Patriarchs, the Exodus, the united kingdom of Saul, David and Solomon, the rival sibling kingdoms of Israel in the north and Judah in the south up to the time of the captivities, first of Assyria and then of Babylon, and finally the story of Jews undergoing a literary and religious revival by the waters of Babylon, all this was a literary fable as much as the stories of Camelot and King Arthur were. That’s oversimplifying it a little, since the stories functioned quite a bit more seriously than as mere entertainment; and there was indeed a historical kingdom of Israel based around Samaria, although the southern kingdom of Judah led from Jerusalem did not really emerge as a significant power until after Israel was deported by the Assyrians. Leading figures from the Judea really were deported to Babylon but the purpose of this deportation, as with all such deportations, was to destroy the old identities of the captives and reestablish them with new ones. So there was no opportunity for a literary or religious revival. There was no Bible as we know it during any of this time.
The Biblical books were the product of the peoples subsequently deported by the Persians to settle the region of Palestine in order to establish it as an economic and strategic piece of real estate for the Persian empire. This was the colony of Yehud. (If I recall correctly it was for a time part of the Persian satrapy extending across the biblical land of promise from the Nile to the Euphrates.) Fictionalized narratives of this settlement have come down to us in the books of Nehemiah and Ezra. Scribal schools competed to establish a new narrative and cultural identity for this settlement. The native inhabitants (or “people of the land”) became the godless Canaanites from whom the settlers needed to withdraw in every way. Myths of returning to the land of their fathers to restore the true worship of the god of this land emerged just as they did with other deported populations of which we have some record.
The First Greek Witnesses
Let’s move ahead a little now to the time when we find our first notice of this people among the Greeks. It’s around 300 BCE. The Persian empire has crumbled before the Macedonian phalanxes of Alexander the Great. The old Persian province of Yehud is now under Hellenistic rule.
Theophrastus was the philosophical heir of Aristotle. He is also one of the first to have left us an account of the Jews. Only fragments survive and most is gleaned second hand from what other writers recorded. The following is from Porphyry.
And indeed, says Theophrastus, the Syrians, of whom the Jews constitute a part, also now sacrifice live victims according to their old mode of sacrifice; if one ordered us to sacrifice in the same way we would have recoiled from the entire business. For they are not feasted on the sacrifices, but burning them whole at night and pouring on them honey and wine, they quickly destroy the offering, in order that the all-seeing sun should not look on the terrible thing. And they do it fasting on the intervening days.
During this whole time, being philosophers by race, they converse with each other about the deity, and at night-time they make observations of the stars, gazing at them and calling on God by prayer. They were the first to institute sacrifices both of other living beings and of themselves; yet they did it by compulsion and not from eagerness for it.
I suspect few us aware of the Bible would be very surprised to find a foreigner singling out an interest in the deity and frequent prayers as collective characteristics of the Jews. The interest in the stars might raise an eyebrow, however, given the Bible’s condemnation of astrology. But a little searching soon reveals that Greek philosophers following Plato considered the study of the heavens as the study of the source of all knowledge of the divine.
Belief in the regularity and perfection of the heavenly order, with a philosophical and religious basis, was a common view throughout the Hellenistic world. . . . [The Greeks took up this idea with utmost enthusiasm] to make it an essential ingredient of their religion and their philosophical thought. We already find it in Pythagoras and late in Plato, his friend Eudoxus of Cnidus and Aristotle; however it was given its greatest significance in the Stoa [where Stoicism originated]. . . . The ordered movement of the stars, especially of the firmament, was regarded as an expression of divine perfection and the stars themselves were divine beings. For Philo the were [“divine souls . . . unadulterated and divine”] (Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism, p. 235)
The stars and their movements were in effect considered revelations and proofs of God.
But the question that interests me at this point is “What gave the Jews the reputation of being a race of philosophers?”
(1) When in ancient times a pestilence arose in Egypt, the common people ascribed their troubles to the workings of a divine agency; for indeed with many strangers of all sorts dwelling in their midst and practising different rites of religion and sacrifice, their own traditional observances in honour of the gods had fallen into disuse.
(2) Hence the natives of the land surmised that unless they removed the foreigners, their troubles would never be resolved. At once, therefore, the aliens were driven from the country, . . . . But the greater number were driven into what is now called Judaea, which is not far distant from Egypt and was at that time utterly uninhabited.
(3) The colony was headed by a man called Moses, outstanding both for his wisdom and for his courage. On taking possession of the land he founded, besides other cities, one that is now the most renowned of all, called Jerusalem. In addition he established the temple that they hold in chief veneration, instituted their forms of worship and ritual, drew up their laws and ordered their political institutions. He also divided them into twelve tribes, since this is regarded as the most perfect number and corresponds to the number of months that make up a year.
(4) But he had no images whatsoever of the gods made for them, being of the opinion that God is not in human form; rather the Heaven that surrounds the earth is alone divine, and rules the universe. The sacrifices that he established differ from those of other nations, as does their way of living, for as a result of their own expulsion from Egypt he introduced an unsocial and intolerant mode of life. He picked out the men of most refinement and with the greatest ability to head the entire nation, and appointed them priests; and he ordained that they should occupy themselves with the temple and the honours and sacrifices offered to their God.
(5) These same men he appointed to be judges in all major disputes, and entrusted to them the guardianship of the laws and customs. For this reason the Jews never have a king, and authority over the people is regularly vested in whichever priest is regarded as superior to his colleagues in wisdom and virtue. They call this man the high priest, and believe that he acts as a messenger to them of God’s commandments.
(6) It is he, we are told, who in their assemblies and other gatherings announces what is ordained, and the Jews are so docile in such matters that straightway they fall to the ground and do reverence to the high priest when he expounds the commandments to them. And at the end of their laws there is even appended the statement:
“These are the words that Moses heard from God and declares unto the Jews.”
Their lawgiver was careful also to make provision for warfare, and required the young men to cultivate manliness, steadfastness, and, generally, the endurance of every hardship.
(7) He led out military expeditions against the neighbouring tribes, and after annexing much land apportioned it out, assigning equal allotments to private citizens and greater ones to the priests, in order that they, by virtue of receiving more ample revenues, might be undistracted and apply themselves continually to the worship of God. The common citizens were forbidden to sell their individual plots, lest there be some who for their own advantage should buy them up, and by oppressing the poorer classes bring on a scarcity of manpower. . . . .
The Jews never had a king? Was this a bit of ignorance or had the biblical narrative we know so well not yet taken a general hold of the whole community? And what of the land being uninhabited at the time the Israelites entered it? Yet more ignorance or was the myth of Joshua’s conquest yet to form and spread?
A xenophobic reputation? A 2008 article by Katell Berthelot, “Hecataeus of Abdera and Jewish ‘misanthropy’” (Bulletin du CRFJ, #19), argues that although “misanthropy” referred to here by Hecataeus is a negative trait it was not nearly so censorious as it became toward the end of the second century BCE. The Spartans, another race much admired by Athenian and other philosophers, was likewise burdened with something of a xenophobic reputation.
Generally Hecataeus’s portrayal of the Jews is an idealistic one. The rulers are the wisest and godliest of men. Their division into twelve tribes is propitious. They are prepared for war (a positive trait — as it was for Sparta).
The wisdom of God — a God over all else and who is worshiped most truly without images or hint of human form — rules this people.
Josephus is another who preserves some of what Hecataeus wrote about the Jews and singles out his admiration of their willingness to suffer punishments for the sake of keeping their laws.
A nation of philosophers?
I have touched on many points that could be expanded into whole chapters, even books, in the above outline. Trying to find a way to distil so much into a single post is one of the reasons for the delay in getting this one up at last.
So let me come now to one other “little detail” in the back of my mind while reading these Greek accounts of the Jews in the pre-Maccabean period.
In earlier posts I have addressed a few arguments attempting to show that considerable portions of the Old Testament originated with authors imbued with Hellenistic philosophical ideas. Some scholars have even published arguments that the entire Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings) is modelled upon the Histories by Herodotus. The Genesis narrative of the pre-flood violence and foundings of civilized arts, the flood itself, the patriarchal wanderings, and so forth, appear to be closely connected with Plato’s account of the origins of human civilization and aspects of the myth of Atlantis. (One such post was Genesis Myths Inspired by Plato?)
Another set of similarities with Greek philosophy is found throughout the Pentateuch in the laws of Moses given to Israel. I am unable to track the reference at the moment but I have read commentaries upon a historic reluctance of scholars to bring to the fore and address the discomforting questions that arise when they read Plato’s Laws and inevitably notice the many details in common in the Pentateuch. Plato wrote that the ideal division of a state should be into twelve tribes. He also urged a deep love of law should be instilled into the people; that God should be worshiped as supreme over all and without images; the wisest and godliest of men should rule — righteous and just laws all came from God through his righteous agents, the priests; a healthy distance from foreigners may have some benefits in maintaining the purity of the ideals of the state; citizens should be courageous and prepared for war; land should be equally divided in a way that maintained an inheritance for all; and so forth and much more.
Some of this idea can be found in earlier posts dealing with the early chapters of Philippe Wajdenbaum’s book, Argonauts of the Desert. (It’s late and would take too long for me to find the links. Do a word search.– Although I have not discussed this aspect of Wajdenbaum’s book in any depth yet.)
Is it possible — is it worth exploring the hypothesis — that the Jews were led by Hellenistically educated men (presumably few women would have been involved) who were still engaged in constructing (and/or debating) a new identity for their settlement, with many inspired by the ideals of Greek political philosophy to attempt to establish their idea of a utopian state and culture?
I’ll leave it there for now.
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