Judeans: Mnaseas, Poseidonios, Apollonios Molon, Diodoros, and Apion on the statue of a donkey and on human sacrifice (second century BCE and on)

Authors:  Mnaseas as cited in Josephos, Against Apion 2.112-114; Diodoros, Library 34, as cited by Photios, Bibliotheka p. 379 B; Poseidonios (Kidd, fragment 278), Apollonios Molon, and Apion as cited by Josephos, Against Apion 2.79-102 (link to Greek text and full translation).

Comments: It seems that the earliest circulating legend about there being a donkey image in the Jerusalem temple comes from Mnaseas of Patara, who writes around 200 BCE. There were at least two main slanderous stories that circulated about Judeans in connection with the activity of the Seleukid king Antiochos Epiphanes in entering the temple in Jerusalem in 170 BCE, one of which seems to build on the earlier idea of an image of a donkey. On the one hand are two variant stories that both suggest that Antiochos discovered an image of a donkey in some form within the temple (one variant preserved by Diodoros and the other by Apion via Poseidonios and / or Apollonios Molon).  On the other hand is a story about the supposed Judean custom of engaging in human sacrifice (from Apion via Poseidonios and / or Apollonion Molon).

The charge of human sacrifice, in particular, was very common within ethnographic material about “barbarian” peoples. The notion that Judeans would worship a donkey (as in Apion’s version but not Diodoros’) may be connected with the attempt to depict Judeans as a spin-off of Egyptians, who are regularly put down for “worshipping animals” in ethnographic writing.

Source of the translations: Diodoros as cited by Photios: translation by Harland. H.S.J. Thackeray, Josephus: The Life. Against Apion, LCL (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1926), public domain, modernized and thoroughly adapted and revised by Harland based on the Greek.


[Mnaseas’ story of an Idumean who stole the golden head of a donkey from the Judean temple]

(2.112-114) This model of piety, Apion, derides us again in a story which he attributes to Mnaseas. The latter, according to Apion, relates that:

“In the course of a long war between the Judeans and the Idumeans, an inhabitant of an Idumean city, called Dorii, who worshipped Apollo and bore (so we are told) the name of Zabidos, came out to the Judeans and promised to deliver into their hands Apollo, the god of his city, who would visit our temple if they all took their departure. The Judeans all believed him. Then Zabidos constructed an apparatus of wood, inserted in it three rows of lamps, and put it over his person. Arrayed in this way, he walked around, presenting the appearance to distant onlookers of stars perambulating the earth. Astounded at this amazing spectacle, the Judeans kept their distance, in perfect silence. Meanwhile, Zabidos stealthily passed into the sanctuary, snatched up the golden head of the pack-ass (as he facetiously calls it), and took off quickly to Dora.”


[Diodoros’ story of Antiochos VII Sidetes siege and Antiochos Epiphanes’ earlier discovery of a donkey statue, as summarized by Photios, Bibliotheka, p. 379 B]

Diodoros says that when King Antiochus [VII Sidetes] was laying siege to Jerusalem [134 BCE], the Judeans withstood for some time. But when all their supplies were exhausted, they found themselves forced to send embassies for ending hostilities. Now the majority of his friends advised the king to take the city and to completely destroy the descent group (genos) of the Judeans, since they alone of all peoples (ethnē) did not socialize with any other people and looked upon everyone as enemies. They also pointed out that the ancestors of the Judeans had been driven out of Egypt as impious and detested by the gods. But, since they had white or leprous marks on their bodies, for the sake of purification they were thrown out as though under a curse, assembling together beyond the frontier. Those sent beyond the frontier took over territory around Jerusalem. After organizing the people (ethnos) of the Judeans, they made it a tradition to have hatred towards humanity. Because of this, they introduced completely strange laws: to not eat meals with any other people and to not show them any good will whatsoever.

His friends also reminded Antiochus about the hatred his ancestors had towards this people. For Antiochos, called Epiphanes, on subjugating the Judeans had entered the innermost precinct of the god, where it was only lawful for the priest to enter [ca. 170 BCE]. Finding a marble statue there of a heavily bearded man with a book in his hands and seated on an ass, he assumed it was an image of Moses, the founder of Jerusalem and organizer of the people, the man who had framed for the Judeans customs concerning hatred of humanity and a lawless way of life. Since Epiphanes was shocked by such hatred towards all peoples, he was striving to destroy their customs. For this reason he sacrificed a large wild pig before the image of the founder and the open-air altar of the god, and poured its blood over them. Then, having prepared its flesh, he ordered that their holy books, containing the laws about hating foreigners, should be sprinkled with the broth of the meat; that the lamp, which they call eternal and which burns continually in the temple, should be extinguished; and, that the high priest and the rest of the Judeans should be forcibly fed the meat.

Going through this in detail, the friends of Antiochos [Sidetes in 134 BCE] called on him most of all to destroy the descent group completely or, failing that, to abolish their customs and force them to change their ways. But the king, being generous and mild-mannered, took hostages but dismissed the charges against the Judeans, once he had obtained the tribute that was owed and had removed the walls of Jerusalem.


[Apion’s stories of donkey worship and human sacrifice, drawing on Poseiodonios and/or Apollonios Molon]

(2.79-85) I am no less amazed at the proceedings of the authors who supplied Apion with his materials. I mean Poseidonios and Apollonios Molon. On the one hand they charge us with not worshipping the same gods as other people. On the other, they tell lies and invent absurd slanders about our temple, without showing any consciousness of impiety. Yet to high-minded people nothing is more disgraceful than a lie of any kind, but above all a lie about a temple of world-wide fame and commanding sanctity.

Within this sanctuary Apion has the audacity to assert that the Judeans kept an ass’s head, worshipping that animal and considering it worthy of the deepest reverence. The fact was disclosed, he maintains, on the occasion of the plundering of the temple by Antiochos Epiphanes [170 BCE] when the head, made of gold and worth a high price, was discovered. On this I will first remark that, even if we did possess any such object, an Egyptian should be the last person to reproach us. For an ass is no worse than the cats, he-goats, and other creatures which in his land rank as gods.

Next, how did it escape him that the facts convict him of telling an incredible lie? Throughout our history we have kept the same laws, to which we are eternally faithful. Yet, notwithstanding the various calamities which our city, like others, has undergone, when the temple was occupied by successive conquerors, Antiochos the Pious [ca. 135 BCE], Pompey the Great [63 BCE], Licinius Crassus [54-53 BCE], and most recently Titus Caesar [70 CE], they found there nothing of the kind, but the purest type of piety, the secrets of which we may not reveal to foreigners. Many sober historians attest to the fact that Antiochos [Epiphanes]’ plundering of the temple was unjust, that a lack of funds is what drove him to invade it, that he attacked us – his allies and friends – when he was not a proclaimed enemy, and that he found there nothing to deserve ridicule. Polybios of Megalopolis, Strabo the Cappadocian, Nikolaos of Damaskoss, Timagenes, Kastor the chronicler, and Apollodoros all assert that it was the need of funds which induced Antiochos, in violation of his treaties with the Judeans, to plunder the temple with its stores of gold and silver. There is the evidence which Apion should have considered, had he not himself been gifted with the mind of an ass and the impudence of the dog, which his people desire to worship. An outsider can make no sense of his lies.

(2.86-88) We Judeans attribute no honour or virtue to asses, such as is ascribed to crocodiles and asps by Egyptians. They regard persons bitten by a viper or mauled by a crocodile as blessed souls found worthy of god. With us, as with other sensible people, asses arc beasts that carry loads on their backs, and if they invade our threshing-floors and eat the corn or stop short on the road, they are soundly beaten as humble servants for labour and agriculture. Either Apion was the stupidist writer of fiction, or, to say the least, he could draw no just conclusion from such facts as he had to start from. For every one of his slanders against us is a failure.

[Charge of human sacrifice]

(2.89-97) He adds a second story of Greek origin which is a malicious slander upon us from beginning to end. On this it will suffice to remark that persons who explore pious topics should be aware that there is less profanity in violating the precincts of a temple than in slandering its priests. But these authors are more concerned to uphold a sacrilegious king than to give a fair and truthful description of our rites and temple. In their anxiety to defend Antiochos and to cover up the deceitfulness and sacrilege practised upon our people under pressure of empty financial accounts, they have further invented the fictitious story which follows in order to discredit us. Apion, who is here the spokesman of others, asserts that:

“Antiochos found in the temple a couch with a man reclining on it and a table before him filled with a banquet of fish of the sea, beasts of the earth, and birds of the air, at which the poor fellow was gazing in a stupor. The king’s entry was instantly hailed by him with adoration, as about to procure him profound relief. Falling at the king’s knees, he stretched out his right hand and implored him to set him free. The king reassured him and asked him tell him who he was, why he was living there, and what was the meaning of his abundant banquet. Then, with sighs and tears, the man, in a pitiful tone, told the tale of his distress. He said that he was a Greek and that, while travelling about the province for his occupation, he was suddenly kidnapped by foreign men and transported to the temple. There he was locked up and seen by nobody, but was fattened on feasts of the most lavish description. At first this unrequested attention deceived him and caused him pleasure. Suspicion followed, then consternation. Finally, on consulting the attendants who waited upon him, he heard of the unutterable law of the Judeans, for the sake of which he was being fed. The practice was repeated annually at a fixed season. They would kidnap a Greek foreigner, fatten him up for a year, and then convey him to a wood, where they slew him, sacrificed his body with their customary ritual, partook of his flesh, and, while immolating the Greek, swore an oath of hostility to the Greeks. The remains of their victim were then thrown into a pit. The man (Apion continues) stated that he had now but a few days left to live, and implored the king, out of respect for the gods of Greece, to defeat this Judean plot upon his life-blood and to deliver him from his miserable predicament.”

(2.97-102) A tale of this kind is not merely packed with all the horrors of a tragedy. It is also replete with the cruelty of total disrespect. It does not, for all that, acquit Antiochos of sacrilege, as its servile authors imagined. Antiochos suspected nothing of the sort when he invaded the temple; the discovery admittedly surprised him. His iniquity, impiety, and godlessness were, therefore, nonetheless excessive, however many lies may be told about him. These reveal their character on their face.

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