Judeans: Agatharchides of Knidos on the Sabbath (second century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Judeans: Agatharchides of Knidos on the Sabbath (second century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 1, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=6659.

Author: Agatharchides of Knidos, unknown work, FGrHist 86 F20, as cited by Josephos, Against Apion 1.205-212 (link) and Antiquities 12.5-6 (link).

Comments: Not much is known about Agatharchides, but he was active in the second century BCE and is sometimes connected with the peripatetic philosophers. His work On the Erythraian Sea, which deals with several peoples in the process, is noteworthy (link [coming soon]). In this case, the Judean (Jewish) author Josephos cites Agatharchides (without clarifying what work is involved) as an example of a Greek author who knows of the Judean people, even though the content is very negative about the Judean custom of refraining from work and war on the Sabbath.

Source of the translation: H.S.J. Thackeray and R. Marcus, Josephus, volumes 1-7; LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1926-43), public domain (Thackeray passed away in 1930, Marcus passed away in 1956, and copyright not renewed), modernized and thoroughly adapted and revised by Harland based on the Greek.


There is another writer whom I will name without hesitation, although he mentions us only to ridicule our folly, as he regards it – I mean Agatharchides. He is telling the story of Stratonike, how she deserted her husband Demetrios and came from Macedonia to Syria, and how, when Seleukos disappointed her by refusing to marry her, she created a revolution at Antioch while he was starting on a campaign from Babylon. Then he tells how, after the king’s return and the capture of Antioch, she fled to Seleukeia, and instead of taking sail immediately, as she might have done, let herself be stopped by a dream, was captured and was put to death. After telling this story and deriding the superstition of Stratonike, Agatharchides quotes in illustration a tale told about us. The following are his words:

“The people known as Judeans (Jews), who inhabit the most strongly fortified of cities, called by the natives Jerusalem, have a custom of abstaining from work every seventh day. On those occasions, they neither bear arms nor farm, nor engage in any other form of public service, but pray with outstretched hands in the temples until the evening. Consequently, because the inhabitants, instead of protecting their city, persevered in their folly, Ptolemy, son of Lagos, was allowed to enter with his army. The land was in this way given over to a cruel master, and the defect of a practice enjoined by law was exposed. That experience has taught the whole world, except that people, the lesson not to resort to dreams and traditional guesses about the law, until its difficulties are such as to baffle human reason.”

Agatharchides finds such conduct ridiculous. Dispassionate critics will consider it a grand and highly meritorious fact that there are men who consistently care more for the observance of their laws and for piety towards God than for their own lives and their land’s fate.


Antiquities 12.5-6

This account is attested by Agatharchides of Knidos, the his­torian of the royal successors [of Alexander], who reproaches us for our fearful practices (deisidaimonia; or: superstition), on account of which we lost our freedom, in these words:

“There is a people called Judeans who have a strong and great city called Jerusalem. They allowed to fall into the hands of Ptolemy by refusing to take up arms and, instead, through their poorly-timed, fearful practices submitted to having a hard master.”

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