Judean wisdom: Artapanos on contributions by Abraham, Joseph, and Moses (second century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Judean wisdom: Artapanos on contributions by Abraham, Joseph, and Moses (second century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified June 2, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=6213.

Ancient authors: Artapanos, On Judeans (perhaps in the decades just after 186 BCE), as summarized by Alexander Polyhistor (mid-first century BCE) and later cited by Eusebius of Caesarea, Preparation for the Gospel 9.18.1; 9.23.1-4 (early fourth century CE) (link to Greek text; link to full work).

Comments: One important aspect of ethnic relations in the ancient world was competition over which ethnic group or people was most responsible for advancing society or culture by introducing wisdom, inventions, and other aspects of civilization. In this writing, Artapanos (likely a Judean from Egypt himself) presents Abraham, Joseph, and Moses as key figures in the development of civilization within Egypt specifically, from which Moses brought this knowledge with him to the land of Israel. This suggests a competition of sorts between Judeans (or Israelites) and Egyptians, and the appropriation of inventions usually attributed to Egyptian pharoahs or gods (e.g. hieroglyphics, measurement of land, mascot animals within temples) by Judeans. Artapanos also equates the Judean Moses with Mousaios, and by this means appropriates Greek stories of that figure’s contributions to culture. Also, Moses introduces the pursuit of wisdom (philosophy) itself. All of this taps into the notion of wise foreigners or “barbarians” in order to give Judeans the edge in the competition.

Source of the translation: E.H. Gifford, Eusebius: Preparation for the Gospel (Oxford: Clarendon, 1903), public domain, was used as the base for a new translation by Harland, based the critical edition of the Greek by Karl Mras, Eusebius: Die Praeparatio evangelica, 2 vols. (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1954).


Fragment 1, on Abraham’s contributions to society (Eusebius, Preparation 9.18.1)

In his book on Judean matters, Artapanos says that the Judeans were called “Hermiouth,” which means “Judeans” when translated into the Greek language. Artapanos says that they were called “Hebrews” after Abraham. Abraham came with all his household into Egypt to Pharethothes, namely pharaoh Thoth (with the god Thoth, usually associated with introducing writing and other cultural inventions, being humanized here). Abraham then taught the king astrology (astrologia). On Abraham and astrology, it is noteworthy that astrological works attributed to Abraham circulated before Vettius Valens wrote in the mid-second century CE (see Anthologies 2.29-30 [external link]). After remaining with the pharaoh twenty years, he says that Abraham returned again into the regions of Syria, but that many of those who had come with him remained in Egypt because of the prosperity of the land.

Fragment 2, on Joseph’s contributions to society and interaction with Arabians (Eusebius, Preparation 9.23.1-4)

In his book On Judeans, Artapanos says that Joseph was a descendant of Abraham and son of Jacob. Because Joseph surpassed his brothers in understanding and wisdom, they plotted against him. But he became aware of their conspiracy, he sought the help of neighbouring Arabs to take him over to Egypt, and they did what he requested. For the kings of the Arabians are descendants of Israel [perhaps Ishmael is intended], being sons of Abraham and brothers of Isaac. When Joseph had come to Egypt and had been recommended to the king, he was made administrator of the entire land. The Egyptians previously occupied the land in a disorganized way, because the country was not divided and the lesser strata were unjustly treated by the more powerful. Joseph was the first to divide the land and mark it out with boundaries. He made much unused land fit for cultivation and allotted certain parts of the arable lands to the priests. He was also the inventor of measurements. For all these things, Joseph was greatly loved by the Egyptians. He married Aseneth a daughter of the priest of Heliopolis, with whom he had sons. Later his father and his brothers came to him, bringing plenty of material goods, and they were settled in Heliopolis and Sais and the Syrians multiplied in Egypt. These, he [Artapanos] says, built both the temple in Athos and that in Heliopolis, and were called “Hermiouth.” Soon afterwards Joseph died, as did also the king of Egypt. So Joseph while governor of Egypt stored up the grain for seven years, which had been immensely productive, and became master of Egypt.

Fragment 3, on Moses’ contributions to society (Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel 9.27.1-37; also partially summarized in Clement of Alexandria, Stromata

In his book On Judeans, Artapanus says that, after the deaths of Abraham, his son Mempsasthenoth, and also the king of Egypt, his son Palmanothes succeeded to the sovereignty. This king behaved badly toward the Judeans. First the king built Kessa and founded a temple there, and then he built the temple in Heliopolis. He had a daughter named Merris, whom he married to a certain Chenephres [perhaps alluding to Chaonnophris, one of the kings during the insurgency of 205-186 BCE], king of the regions beyond Memphis, for there were at that time many kings in Egypt. Since she was unable to have children, she adopted a child of one of the Judeans and named him Moses.

As an adult, the Greeks called him Mousaios. This Mousaios, they said, was the teacher of Orpheus. As a grown man he taught humanity many useful things. For he invented boats, machines for laying stones, Egyptian weapons, and engines for drawing water and for war, and he invented philosophy (philosophia). Furthermore, he divided the country into thirty-six districts (nomoi). He also established the god to be worshipped by each district and the sacred letters (i.e. hieroglyphics) for the priests. Their gods were cats, dogs, and ibises. He also set aside a special district for the priests. All these things he did for the sake of keeping the monarchy firm and safe for Chenephres. For previously the populace, which was in disorder, sometimes expelling kings and sometimes setting them up, often the same persons but sometimes others. For these reasons, Moses was loved by the populace and honoured like a god by the priests, who named him Hermes because of his interpretation of the sacred letters (i.e. hieroglyphics).

But when Chenephres noticed the excellence of Moses, he envied him and found a way to kill him on some plausible pretext. So when the Ethiopians invaded Egypt, Chenephres thought that he had found a convenient opportunity, and he sent Moses out as a general of an army against the Ethiopians. But Chenephres put together a force of farmers, anticipating that he would be easily killed by the enemy due to the weakness of his troops.

But Moses along with a hundred thousand of the farmers came to the so-called district of Hermopolis and camped there. Moses sent generals to pre-occupy the country, and they gained remarkable successes in their battles. Artapanos adds that the people of Heliopolis say that this war went on for ten years. So Moses, because of the greatness of his army, built a city in this place in which he consecrated the ibis, because this bird kills the animals that are poisonous to humans. Moses called it Hermes’ city. Though they were enemies, the Ethiopians loved Moses so much that they even learned from him the custom of circumcision. Not only them, but the [Egyptian] priests as well.

When the war ended, Chenephres pretended to welcome Moses while in reality he was continuing to plot against him. So Chenephres took Moses’ troops from him, and sent some to the frontiers of Ethiopia for an advanced guard. He ordered others to demolish the temple in Diospolis which had been built of baked brick, and build another one of stone from the quarries of the neighbouring mountain, appointing Nacheros superintendent of the building. When Chenephres came with Moses to Memphis, he asked Moses whether there was anything else useful for humankind: Moses said the breed of oxen, because by means of them the land is ploughed. After giving the name Apis to a bull, Chenephres commanded the troops to establish a temple for him. He ordered them to bring and bury there the animals which had been consecrated by Moses, because Chenephres wanted to bury the inventions of Moses in oblivion. But when the Egyptians were alienated from Chenephres, he bound his friends by an oath not to report to Moses his plot against him, and he appointed the men who were to kill Moses. However, when no one would obey him, Chenephres scolded Chanethothes, whom he had especially addressed, and, after he was scolded, Chanethothes promised to make the attempt to kill Moses when he found an opportunity.

When Merris died around this time, Chenephres professed to give the body to both Moses and Chanethothes in order to transport to regions beyond Egypt and bury it, planning that Moses would be killed by Chanethothes. But while they were on the way, one of those who were aware of the plot reported it to Moses. Being on his guard, Moses buried Merris himself, and called the river and the city there “Meroe.” This same Merris is honoured by the people of the country not less highly than Isis.

Then Aaron the brother of Moses, having learned about the plot, advised his brother to flee into Arabia. Moses took the advice and sailed across the Nile from Memphis, intending to escape into Arabia. But when Chanethothes was informed of Moses’s escape, he waited to ambush him and kill him. When Chanethothes saw Moses coming, he drew his sword against him, but Moses was too quick for him, seized his hand, and drew his sword and killed Chanethothes.

So he made his escape into Arabia, and lived with Raguel the ruler of the district, after marrying that ruler’s daughter. Raguel wished to engage in a campaign against the Egyptians in order to restore Moses, and establish the government for his daughter and son-in-law. But Moses prevented it, out of regard for the members of his own tribe. Raguel ordered the Arabs to plunder Egypt, but withheld them from a military campaign.

About the same time Chenephres died, having been the very first person to contract elephantiasis. He is said to have faced this misfortune because he ordered the Judeans to wear linen garments and not to wear woollen clothing, so that they would be easily detectable and punished by him. But Moses prayed to God now to finally put an end to the sufferings of the tribes. Since God was satisified, Artapanos says, fire suddenly blazed up out of the earth and went on burning even though there was no wood or any other fuel in the place. And Moses was frightened at the occurrence and fled. But a divine voice spoke to him and said to march against Egypt and to rescue the Judeans in order to lead them into their old country.

So Moses took courage and determined to lead a military force against the Egyptians. But first he came to his brother Aaron. When the king of Egypt heard of the arrival of Moses, he called him forward and asked what he had come for. Moses answered: because the Lord of the world commanded him to deliver the Judeans. When the king heard this, he put him in prison. But when it was night, all the doors of the prison-house opened on their own; some guards died, and others were sound asleep, and their weapons broke in pieces. So Moses escaped and came to the palace. Finding the doors open, he went in and the guards here were also sound asleep and Moses woke up the king. Being dismayed at what had happened, the king ordered Moses to tell him the name of the God who sent him, scoffing at him. Moses bent down and whispered in his ear, and when the king heard it he fell speechless but Moses held him and revived him. And he wrote the name on a tablet and sealed it up. One of the priests who made light of what was written on the tablet was seized with a convulsion and died. Also the king told him to work some sign for him, and Moses threw down the rod which he held and turned it into a serpent. When they were all frightened, Moses seized it by the tail, picked it up, and made it back into a rod again. Then he went forward a little and struck the Nile with the rod, and the river flooded and deluged the whole of Egypt: it was from that time that the Nile’s inundation began. The water became stagnant and stank and killed all living things in the river, and the people were perishing of thirst. But when these wonders had been done, the king said that after a month he would let the people go, if Moses would restore the river to its proper state. Moses struck the water again with his rod and controlled the stream. When this was done, the king summoned the priests from above Memphis, and said that he would kill them all and demolish the temples unless they also would accomplish some miracle. Using some witchcraft and incantations, they made a serpent and changed the colour of the river. The king, being full of pride at what was done, began to mistreat the Judeans with every kind of revenge and punishment. Then Moses, seeing this, both accomplished further signs and struck the earth with his rod. This brought up a kind of winged animal to attack the Egyptians, and all their bodies broke out in boils. Since the physicians were unable to heal those who were suffering, the Judeans again gained relief. Again Moses using his rod brought up frogs, as well as locusts and lice. For this reason, Egyptians dedicate the rod in every temple – to Isis as well – because the earth is Isis and the earth sent up these miracles when the earth was struck by the rod. But as the king still continued with his foolishness, Moses caused hail and earthquakes at night, so that those who fled from the earthquake were killed by the hail and those who sought shelter from the hail were destroyed by the earthquakes. And at that time all houses collapsed, as well as most temples.

Finally, after facing such calamities the king let the Judeans go. After the Judeans acquired [from the Egyptians] many drinking-vessels, clothing, and very much other treasure, they crossed the rivers on the Arabian side and, after traversing much ground, came on the third day to the Red Sea. Now the people of Memphis say that Moses, who was acquainted with the country, waited for the ebb tide, and took the people across the sea when it was dry. But the people of Heliopolis say that the king chased after them with a great force, having also with him the consecrated animals, because the Judeans were taking away the property which they had acquired from the Egyptians. Yet a divine voice came to Moses to strike the sea with the rod and divide the sea. When Moses heard the voice, he touched the water with the rod and so the stream divided and the [Judean] force passed over by a dry path. But when the Egyptians went in with them and were pursuing them, a fire, Artapanos says, shone out upon them from the front, and the sea over-flowed the path again and the Egyptians were all destroyed by the fire and the flood. Yet, after escaping this danger, the Judeans spent forty years in the wilderness, God rained down meal for them like millet, similar in colour to snow. Artapanos says that Moses was tall and reddish, with long white hair and dignified. He performed these deeds when he was about eighty-nine years old.

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