Moses and the Exodus According to the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians: Hecataeus

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by Neil Godfrey

After reading Jan Assmann’s Moses the Egyptian I’d like to set out here the various alternative versions of the story of Moses and the Exodus as written by ancient Greek and Egyptian historians. (These will be known to many readers but I want to have them all set out together and perhaps discuss their significance in relation to “what really happened” afterwards.)

Here is the apparently earliest non-Jewish record, written by the Greek Hecataeus of Abdera in the fourth and third centuries B.C.E. after he settled in Egypt. It comes to us via another Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus [= of Sicily] of the first century B.C.E. I will highlight significant sections that overlap (however obliquely) with the biblical narrative.

[3]  Since we are about to give an account of the war against the Jews, we consider it appropriate, before we proceed further, in the first place to relate the origin of this nation, and their customs.

In ancient times a great plague occurred in Egypt, and many ascribed the cause of it to the gods, who were offended with them.

For since the multitudes of strangers of different nationalities, who lived there, made use of their foreign rites in religious ceremonies and sacrifices, the ancient manner of worshipping the gods, practised by the ancestors of the Egyptians, had been quite lost and forgotten.

Therefore the native inhabitants concluded that, unless all the foreigners were driven out, they would never be free from their miseries.

All the foreigners were forthwith expelled, and the most valiant and noble among them, under some notable leaders, were brought to Greece and other places, as some relate; the most famous of their leaders were Danaus and Cadmus. But the majority of the people descended into a country not far from Egypt, which is now called Judaea and at that time was altogether uninhabited.

3 The leader of this colony was one Moses, a very wise and valiant man, who, after he had possessed himself of the country, amongst other cities, built that now most famous city, Jerusalem, and the temple there, which is so greatly revered among them.

He instituted the holy rites and ceremonies with which they worship God; and made laws for the methodical government of the state. He also divided the people into twelve tribes, which he regarded as the most perfect number; because it corresponds to the twelve months within a whole year. 

He made no representation or image of gods, because he considered that nothing of a human shape was applicable to God; but that heaven, which surrounds the earth, was the only God, and that all things were in its power.

But he so arranged the rites and ceremonies of the sacrifices, and the manner and nature of their customs, as that they should be wholly different from all other nations; for, as a result of the expulsion of his people, he introduced a most inhuman and unsociable manner of life.

He also picked out the most accomplished men, who were best fitted to rule and govern the whole nation, and he appointed them to be priests, whose duty was continually to attend in the temple, and employ themselves in the public worship and service of God. 

He also made them judges, for the decision of the most serious cases, and committed to their care the preservation of their laws and customs. Therefore they say that the Jews have never had any king; but that the leadership of the people has always been entrusted to a priest, who excels all the rest in prudence and virtue. They call him the chief priest, and they regard him as the messenger and interpreter of the mind and commands of God. 

6 And they say that he, in all their public assemblies and other meetings, discloses what has been commanded; and the Jews are so compliant in these matters, that forthwith they prostrate themselves upon the ground, and adore him as the high priest, who has interpreted to them the will of God.

At the end of the laws this is added: “This is what Moses has heard from God and proclaims to the Jews.”

This lawgiver also laid down many excellent rules and instructions for military affairs, in which he trained the youth to be brave and steadfast, and to endure all miseries and hardships. 

7 Moreover, he undertook many wars against the neighbouring nations, and gained much territory by force of arms, which he gave as allotments to his countrymen, in such a way as that everyone shared alike, except the priests, who had a larger portion than the rest; so that, because they had a larger income, they might continually attend upon the public worship of God without interruption. Neither was it lawful for any man to sell his allotment, lest, by the greed of those that bought the allotments, the others might be made poor and oppressed, and so the nation might suffer a shortage of manpower.

He also ordered the inhabitants to be careful in rearing their children, who are brought up with very little expense; and by that means the Jewish nation has always been very populous. As to their marriages and funerals, he instituted customs far different from all other people.

But under the empires which rose up in later ages, especially during the rule of the Persians, and in the time of the Macedonians, who overthrew the Persians, through intermingling with foreign nations, many of the traditional customs among the Jews were altered . . .

This is what Hecataeus of Abdera has related about the Jews.

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Neil Godfrey

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23 thoughts on “Moses and the Exodus According to the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians: Hecataeus”

    1. Reading a few pages by Ashraf Ezzat does not inspire my confidence. He appears to me to be an antisemitic conspiracy theorist who prefers to follow his idionsyncratic interpretations of selected evidence in preference to engaging with current scholarly research by Egyptologists. Unless my perusals have been badly mistaken.

      I will be concluding these posts with an explanation that is consistent with the undisputed evidence of Egyptian history.

  1. Doesn’t Gmirkin’s book “Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus”, reviewed here a few years ago, argue that much of this passage is not from Hecataeus but from Diodorus’ immediate source, Theophanes of Mytilene?

    1. Yes, indeed. The posts are

      The Books of Moses — Unknown 300 years Before Christ?
      Why the Books of Moses should be dated 270 BCE (clue: “Rabbits”).

      From what I understand at this stage I don’t think it makes much difference to Assmann’s argument, however. (I’m prepared to be found wrong, however, as I read more.) My understanding at this stage is that the stories owe nothing to the narrative we read in the biblical account.

        1. That’s what I’m coming to — after I set them all out first. The more I look at little details in some of these the more I can see an argument for the biblical account itself being a revision of some “social memories” of “traumatic historical events” in Egypt’s past, in particular the Amarna period and ensuing plague.

          1. I have a much different and simpler theory.

            During the Roman Era, and as early as near or after the end of the Hasmonean Dynasty, the antiquity of the Jews became the subject to a lot of questions. The reasons for these questions is fairly obvious once you strip away Jewish and Christian apologetics and obsfucation: the Torah and the larger Primary History are Hellenistic documents exhibiting knowledge and mimesis of the well known works of Homer, Plato, etc. (see Wajdenbaum’s work), and the stories of Saul, David and Solomon are recognizable even today as being based on the lives of Alexander, Ptolemy I and Ptolemy II (see my summary treatment).

            The number of forgeries dating to this era dating to this time period is pretty impressive, and it should come as no surprise that Manetho’s definitive native history of Egypt would become a target of interpolation by both sides of the rhetoric. There can be no doubt that the identification of the Hykessos with the Jews was the work of a Jewish apologist (who unwittingly gave rise to the Ass Libel because the Hykessos worshipped a god with the head of an ass and revered the animal to the point of burying them with their owners). And “Manetho’s identification of the Jews with lepers appears to have been the interpolation of an anti-Jewish polemicist. In both cases, the interpolaters were attempting to make a statement about the Jews of their era by projecting those Jews upon Manetho’s history of Egypt, Eusebius’ copy of which was silent about the Jews. There were no “social memories” involved, just politics.

            1. Who exactly worshiped the ass and when? I’m not sure if we are talking about the same people here.

              I think the scenario you present is worth discussion but it is by no means obviously secure. Many questions arise out of it that I won’t raise just now on this thread.

              But for the moment I don’t see how it affects the social memory thesis.

              By the way, doubles in historical works are not necessarily indications of interpolations. Herodotus presents lots of doubles and variant/contradictory accounts and they are certainly not interpolations. Ditto in 1-2 Samuel and the Gospels, too.

              Jerusalem does not need to have been a major city at the time of any particular historian but at the same time we don’t forget it did rise to prominence from the time the Assyrians reduced Samaria.

              1. It has been a few years since I read it, but as I recall Jan Assmann in Moses the Egyptian spends a fair amount of time discussing both alleged exodus stories attributed to Manetho, which we can label as “the Hyksos Story” and “the Leper Story.” He does this specifically to distinguish between them as two different stories. Assmann discusses Ass (the animal) worship at page 37 of Moses the Egyptian and, based on modern archaelogical evidence, the Hykessos appear to have engaged in such worship. Whoever chose to identify the Hykessos with the Jews in the 2nd or 1st century BCE (most likely a Jewish apologist) gave rise to the Ass Libel against the Jews (something that Josephus rails against).

                Assmann’s social memory thesis rests on very shaky ground, if the “social memory” in question was really just a pack of then-modern lies. While I agree that lies can become truth and, therefore, a “social memory” no matter how misguided, can arise from such lies, but such lies can never indicate any past underlying social memory. The only “truth” such lies reflect on is the truth that comes after they were told and accepted as truth, not what happened before such lies were uttered for the first time.

                Unfortunately, Assmann’s thesis rests in part on Josephus’ assertions of what Manetho said, assertions that modern experts view as later interpolations and even Eusebius tried to distance himself from. The good news is that Assmann’s conception of “normative inversion” remains unaffected by the reliance upon “Manetho,” so that key observation about the nature and function of Jewish rituals remains intact. This does not mean that Assmann’s thesis has any real merit in the end, however.

              2. On page 24 of “Moses the Egyptian” Assmann writes:

                But there was certainly no religious conflict between the Hyksos and the Egyptians. The Hyksos were neither monotheists nor iconoclasts. On the contrary, their remaining monuments show them in conformity with the religious obligations of traditional Egyptian pharaohs, whose role they assumed in the same way as did later foreign rulers of Egypt such as the Persians, the Macedonians, and the Romans.

                The page you refer to does address the reports of ass worship but does not attribute it to any historical reality. I included a note about this in the Tacitus post.

      1. According to Gmirkin, Hecataeus was writing at 320-315 BCE and did not know of any written Jewish scriptures (which Gmirkin thinks were only composed around 270 BCE), but Theophanes of Mytilene visited Jerusalem with Pompey at 63 BCE so that his account is informed (albeit second-hand) by the Torah and therefore would not be an independent source for an Egyptian narrative. Also Gmirkin contends that the idea that Jews “never had any king” suited Pompey as their conqueror since it meant that any Jewish government was not legitimate, but was hardly a traditional Jewish conviction.

        1. There are so many problems with that passage from Hecataeus of Miletus, er Abdera (let’s just disregard the author identified by Diodorus), including the fact that the passage in question comes from a book bearing the same title as Manetho’s most famous work (could that suggest the author was, in fact, Manetho and not a Hecataeus of any place or era?). Many scholars argue that the “inaccuracies” contained in “Hecataeus’s” story of the Jews were the result of relying solely upon Egyptian priests (e.g., Manetho?) as sources for “his” history of Egypt. I believe Gmirkin places Hecataeus of Abdera’s activity a bit earlier than the consensus (the 320-315 BCE timeframe would place the passage before Theophrastus’ reference to the Judeans), and I believe it is possible Hecataeus of Abdera was active in the time of Ptolemy II Phaledelphus, e.g. as late as 270 BCE.

          Of interest: echoes of “Hecataeus of Abdera’s” alleged inaccuracy of Moses making it to the holy land, founding Jerusalem and establishing the laws there are found in the Old Testament:


          It seems possible to me that what Hecataeus of Abdera wrote may well have reflected the state of the Torah at the time (assuming that we are talking about Hecataeus of Abdera writing circa 270 BCE). It is fairly clear, for example, that the books detailing the stories of Saul, David, Solomon and all of the kings of Judah and Israel were written sometime after 200 BCE, i.e., after Hecataeus of Abdera. I imagine that the idea that Jews “never had any king” would have been attractive to potential Hellenistic colonists hearing of the account.

  2. If Manetho’s Aegyptica included a story regarding an “exodus” of the Jews, it would have looked like (and may indeed have been) what Hecataeus of Abdera allegedly wrote here. The identification of Jews with lepers was most likely an interpolation by an anti-Jewish polemicist, much as the interpolation regarding the “Hyksos” appears to have been an interpolation by a Jewish apologist.

    Of course, the problem with crediting the entirety of the excerpt to either Manetho or Hecataeus is that at the time he allegedly wrote it, Jerusalem was at best, according to Oded Lipschits, a town having at most 1000 to 1250 inhabitants. Jerusalem did not become a great city until the Hasmonean and Roman eras.

  3. Perhaps the Hyksos were early Jews. Attached to their domesticated animals, and observing for the time, Egyptian customs and gods. Till a later Moses began to redefine Judaism. As monotheistic, etc.

    Oddly, too, biblical tradition pictured Jews calling down/causing plagues in Egypt. And our savior is supposed to enter on a donkey, some said.

    So Hyksos provenance for Jews does not seem impossible.

    1. “Perhaps the Hyksos were early Jews. Attached to their domesticated animals, and observing for the time, Egyptian customs and gods.”

      When you have such clear evidence that even the term “Hyksos” is an interpolation (aka forgery), which only appears in a Jewish apologetic work, your “perhaps” rests on a slender reed indeed. You have to remember, as well, that Yahweh (not an Egyptian god) was already worshiped in Palestine around the time the Hykessos were in Egypt.

      While I have no problem accepting Assmann’s assertions that certain Jewish priestly practices were normative inversions of Egyptian priestly practices, I believe those normative inversions occurred during the Hellenistic Era and not before. There appears to be no archaeological basis for finding a mass migration or conquest by the Hykessos from Egypt to Palestine, and if we believe the dating of the Exodus in the Old Testament, by the time the Hykessos (who were too early to have been part of the Exodus) Palestine was part of Egypt.

      Spend some time with the evidence, weigh it, and then opine on probability (instead of asserting possibilities).

  4. Attempting to track down the origins of these various accounts to specific time periods and authorship are significant questions in their own right but they don’t impact on Assmann’s thesis.

    Nor does it make any difference to his thesis if Josephus is citing the genuine Manetho at one point and a pseudo-Manetho at another without realizing the difference. In fact, Assmann’s outline is taken from Redford who argues just that.

    And the point is not to prove or disprove the historicity of any particular point in any of these tales. There was no exodus as we read about in the biblical tale, and we have no reason to believe there was any mass deportation of lepers, either.

    Assmann’s (and Redford’s) thesis about the origins of such tales is tied to certain solid evidence for particular historical events in Egypt and the Near East and I’ll try to post on that soon. (I haven’t read widely about this thesis and it is new to me but I do finding it interesting.)

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