Judean wisdom: Theophrastos on Judean philosophers (fourth century BCE)

Authors: Theophrastos as cited by Porphyry, On Abstinence from Killing Animals 2.26.

Comments: Theophrastos (fourth century BCE) was the successor of Aristotle among the peripatetic philosophers. In this passage, Porphyry of Tyre (third century CE) cites a passage in which Theophrastos talks about Judeans (as a subset of Syrians) being the first to engage in animal sacrifice but also, it seems, human sacrifice (but only under compulsion, from the god?). This obscure and almost nonchalant reference to what seems like human sacriifice is not easy to untangle, particularly when combined with the notion of a philosophical lifestyle. It was common to accuse “barbarians” of human sacrifice, but mud-slinging does not seem the intention here. In connection with the notion of wise barbarians, this passage is particularly important as the earliest characterization of Syrians or Judeans as a descent group of philosophers. Theophrastos also suggests they had a focus on interpreting the stars.

Source of the translation: Translation by Harland.

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book 2

26 Because of their original sacrifice, the Syrians, of which Judeans are a part, still today sacrifice animals, as Theophrastos says. But if someone ordered us to sacrifice in the same way, we should stay away from doing so. For they do not eat the sacrificed animals, but burn them in their entirety at night time, pouring on them much honey and wine. They destroy the sacrifice quickly, so that not even the all-seeing one would be a spectator of this terrible act. They fast on the days between sacrifices, and throughout this time. Being a descent group (genos) of philosophers, they discuss the deity with each other, and at night they observe the stars, examining them and calling on God in their prayers. They were the first to begin sacrificing other animals and even themselves, doing this by compulsion, not because they desired to do it.

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