Judeans: Poseidonios (?) and Strabo on decline after Moses (first century CE)

Authors: Poseidonios (?) and Strabo, Geography 16.2.34-40 (link to full work)

Comments: Strabo’s description of collecting bitumen from the Dead Sea that immediately follows this important ethnographic passage on the origins and customs of the Judeans cites Poseidonios of Apameia (first century BCE) as a source. This, combined with the fact that Strabo’s story of a decline (into Hasmonean tyranny and banditry) from a golden age (Moses’ ideal society) may suggest that this entire passage draws on Poseidonios to some extent (see also this link). Strabo’s description of earliest Judean culture is among the more positive ones that has survived in ancient Greek literature. However, it should be noted that he is very negative about contemporary Judeans, and Strabo thinks that some key Judean customs (which are viewed negatively), such as circumcision, were a very late development of the Hasmonean period (late second and early first centuries BCE). We should not expect accuracy in such sources describing other peoples, of course.

Strabo’s discussion of the positive origins and subsequent decline of Judean society leads him into an excursus on the very idea of organized communal living under the direction of rules established by gods by way of prophets. Here Strabo provides various ethnographic examples of Getians (Thracians), Assyrians, Indians, and others who similarly formed such organized communities under the guidance of a figure connected with the gods. In this way, too, Moses is presented as somewhat of an ideal figure.

Source: H.L. Jones, Strabo, vol. 7 (LCL; Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1930), public domain (copyright expired and not renewed), heavily adapted by Harland.


Book 16

[Surrounding territories and populations]

(34) As for Judea, its western extremities towards Kasius are occupied by the Idumaeans and by the lake. The Idumaeans are Nabataeans, but due to a rebellion they were banished from there, joined the Judeans, and shared in the same customs (nomimoi) with them. Most of the region near the sea is occupied by Lake Sirbonis and by the land continuous with the lake as far as Jerusalem. For this city is also near the sea; for, as I have already said, it is visible from the seaport of Iope. This region lies towards the north. In general, it is inhabited (as is each place in particular) by mixed populations from Egyptian, Arabian and Phoenician peoples (ethnē). for such are those who occupy Galilee, Hierikos, Philadelphia and Samaria, which the final Herod named Sebaste. But though the inhabitants are mixed in this way, the most important reliable report regarding the temple at Jerusalem represents the ancestors of the present Judeans, as they are called, as Egyptians.

[Moses and the origins of the Judeans]

(35) Moses, namely, was one of the Egyptian priests, and he held a part of Lower Egypt, as it is called. But he went away from there to Judea, since he was displeased with the state of affairs there, and was accompanied by many people who worshipped the deity. For he says, and taught, that the Egyptians were mistaken in representing the deity with images of beasts and cattle,​as were also the Libyans. He also taught that the Greeks were also wrong in modelling gods in human form. For, according to him, god is this one thing alone that encompasses us all and encompasses land and sea – the thing which we call heaven, or universe, or the nature of all that exists. What sensible person, then, could be bold enough to fabricate an image of god resembling any creature amongst us? No, people should cast aside the practice of image-carving and, setting apart a sacred precinct and a worthy sanctuary, should worship God without an image. People who have good dreams should sleep in the sanctuary, not only themselves on their own behalf, but also others for the rest of the people. Also, those who live self-restrained and righteous lives should always expect some blessing, gift, or sign from god, but no one else should expect them.

(36) Now Moses, saying things of this kind, persuaded a significant group of thoughtful men and led them away to this place where the settlement of Jerusalem is now. He easily took possession of the place, since it was not a desirable place, nor yet one for which anyone would make a serious fight. For it is rocky and, although it itself is well supplied with water, its surrounding territory is barren and waterless, and the part of the territory within a radius of sixty stadia is also rocky beneath the surface. At the same time, Moses put forward as defence his sacrifices and his deity instead of using weapons. He resolved to seek a place of worship for the deity and promised to deliver to the people a kind of worship and a kind of ritual which would not oppress those who adopted them either with expenses or with divine obsessions or with other absurd troubles. Now Moses enjoyed a good reputation with these people. He organised an extraordinary mode of leadership, since all the peoples around came over to him, because of his dealings with them and because of the prospects he held out to them.

[Subsequent decline of Judean society]

(37) His successors for some time continued the same course, acting righteously and being truly pious toward the god. But later on, superstitious men were first of all appointed to the priesthood, and then tyrannical people. Superstition led to abstinence from flesh, from which it is their custom to abstain even today, and circumcisions and excisions and other observances of the kind. Tyrannies led to groups of bandits (lēstēria). Some revolted and harassed the countryside, both their own countryside and that of their neighbours. Others co-operated with the rulers, seized the property of others and subdued much of Syria and Phoenicia. But they still had respect for their acropolis, since they did not treat it as the seat of tyranny, but honoured and revered it as a holy place.

[Digression on ideals of communal life]

(38) For this is natural, and it is common to the Greeks and to the barbarians: Being members of organized communities (politikoi), they live under common rules. For otherwise it would be impossible for the population in any place to do one and the same thing in harmony with one another, which is precisely what living in an organized community means, or in any other way to live a common life. And the rules are twofold: coming either from gods or from people. People in ancient times, at least, gave greater honour and veneration to rules from the gods. For this reason, people who consulted oracles were common at that time: people who ran to Dodona “to hear the will of Zeus from the high-tressed oak” [Odyssey 14.328],​ thus using Zeus as their counsellor, and those who ran also to Delphi, “seeking to learn whether the child which had been exposed to die was no longer alive,” ​but the child himself “was on his way to the home of Phoibos [a designation of the god Apollo], wishing to discover his parents”[Euripides, Phoenician Women 36-37]. Among the Cretans, Minos “reigned as king and conversed with great Zeus every ninth year” [Odyssey 19.179]​. Every nine years, as Plato [Minos 319E, Laws 1.624B] says, they would go up to the cave of Zeus and receive decrees from him and carry them to the people. And Lykourgos,​ his emulator, did likewise; for oftentimes, as it appears, he would go abroad to inquire of the Pythian priestess what ordinances it was proper for him to report to the Lakedaimonians. 

(39) Whatever truth there may be in these things, they have at least been believed and sanctioned among people. For this reason, the prophets were also held in so much honour that they were deemed worthy to be kings, on the ground that they gave us ordinances and amendments from the gods, not only when the prophets were alive, but also when they were dead. So, for example, Teiresias, “to whom even in death Persephone granted reason, that he alone should have understanding, whereas the others flit about as shadows” [Odyssey 10.494-495].​ Further examples of such prophets are: Amphiaraos, Trophonios, Orpheus, Mousaios, and the god among the Getians [Thracians], who in ancient times was Zamolxis;​ Dekaineus, the diviner of Byrebistas, and a Pythagorean in my time; Achaikaros among the Bosporenians [Pontic peoples]; the naked wise-men (gymnosophists) among the Indians; the Magians (as well as the necromancers, along with the so-called dish-diviners and water-diviners) among the Persians; the Chaldeans among the Assyrians; and, the Tyrrhenian astrologers among the Romans.​ Moses was a person like these prophets, as were his immediate successors, who started out well before things turned out for the worse.

[Judea under Hasmoneans and the Roman conquest]

(40) At any rate, Judea was now under the rule of tyrants. Alexander was first to declare himself king instead of priest, and both Hyrkanos and Aristoboulos were sons of his. When they differed over the rule, Pompey went over to overthrow them and to destroy their fortifications, and in particular took Jerusalem itself by force. For it was a rocky and well-watered fortress. Although well supplied with water inside, its outside territory was completely without water. It had a trench cut in rock, sixty feet in depth and two hundred and sixty feet wide, and from the stone that had been hewn out, the wall of the temple was fenced with towers. Pompey seized the city, it is said, after watching for the day of fasting, when the Judeans were abstaining from all work. He filled up the trench and threw ladders across it. Moreover, he gave orders to rase all the walls and, so far as he could, destroyed the bandit hide-outs (lēstēria) and the treasuries of the tyrants. Two of these were situated on the passes leading to Hierikos, I mean Threx and Tauros, and others were Alexandrium and Hyrcanium and Machaerus and Lysias and those in the neighbourhood of Philadelphia and Scythopolis in the neighbourhood of Galilee. . . [a description of the land follows, including details about the Dead Sea cited from Poseidonios]

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