Judeans: Pseudo-Hekataios’ On Judeans (pre-first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Judeans: Pseudo-Hekataios’ On Judeans (pre-first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified February 26, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=6655.

Ancient authors: Pseudo-Hekataios, On Judeans, as cited by Josephos, Against Apion 1.183-204 (link).

Comments: Hekataios of Abdera (alternative transliteration: Hecataeus) is best known for his work on Egyptian Matters (ca. 300 BCE), which many scholars suggest was a key source for the Egyptian account by Diodoros of Sicily (link). In Against Apion, Josephos claims to cite a work by Hekataios called On Judeans (or On Jews) but many scholars doubt the actual origin of this material and tend to ascribe it to a pseudo-Hekataios (due in part to several anachronisms). Whoever wrote this work, Josephos cites it as a means to further solidify his argument about the antiquity of Judean (Jewish) customs and people. The author of this work engages in at least some ethnographic observations about Judeans. There are no signs of strong negativity about Judeans here, which is part of why Josephos cites the material.

Further reading: B. Bar-Kochva, Pseudo-Hecataeus, On the Jews: Legitimizing the Jewish Diaspora, Hellenistic Culture and Society 21 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996) (link).

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.


Of a different nature is the evidence from Hekataios of Abdera, both a philosopher and a highly accomplished man, who rose to fame under king Alexander. Afterwards he associated with Ptolemy, son of Lagos. He makes no mere passing allusion to us, but wrote an entire book On Judeans, from which I propose to touch on some passages. I will begin with fixing his date. He mentions the battle near Gaza between Ptolemy and Demetrios, which, as Castor narrates, was fought eleven years after the death of Alexander, in the 117th Olympiad [ca. 312 BCE]. For under the heading of this Olympiad he says: “In this period Ptolemy, son of Lagos, defeated Demetrios, son of Antigonos, surnamed Poliorketes in a battle at Gaza.” Everyone agrees that Alexander died in the 114th Olympiad [323 BCE]. It is evident, therefore, that our people (ethnos) was flourishing both under Ptolemy and under Alexander.

Hekataios goes on to say that, after the battle of Gaza, Ptolemy became master of Syria, and that many of the inhabitants, hearing of his kindliness and humanity, wanted to accompany him to Egypt and to associate themselves with his realm. He says:

“Among these was Ezechias, a high priest of the Judeans, a man of about sixty-six years of age, highly esteemed by his countrymen, intellectual, and moreover an able speaker and unsurpassed as a man of business.” He adds: “Yet the total number of Judean priests who receive a tithe of the revenue and administer public affairs is about fifteen hundred.” Reverting to Ezechias, he says: “This man, after obtaining this honour and having been closely in touch with us, assembled some of his friends and read to them all the advantages of emigration. For he had in writing the conditions of their settlement and political status.”

In another passage Hekataios mentions our regard for our laws, and how we deliberately choose and hold it a point of honour to endure anything rather than transgress them. He says:

“And so, neither the slander of their neighbours and foreign visitors, to which as a people they are exposed, nor the frequent outrages of Persian kings and satraps can shake their determination. For these laws, naked and defenceless, they face tortures and death in its most terrible form, rather than repudiate the faith of their ancestors.”

Of this obstinacy in defence of their laws he furnishes several instances. He tells how on one occasion Alexander, when he was at Babylon and had undertaken to restore the ruined temple of Bel, gave orders to all his soldiers, without distinction, to bring materials for the earthworks. He tells how the Judeans alone refused to obey, and even submitted to severe chastisement and heavy fines, until the king pardoned them and exempted them from this task. Furthermore, when temples and altars were erected in the land by its invaders, the Judeans razed them all to the ground, paying in some cases a fine to the satraps, and in others obtaining pardon. For such conduct, he adds, they deserve admiration.

Then he goes on to speak of our vast population, stating that, though many tens of thousands of our people (ethnos) had already been deported to Babylon by the Persians, yet after Alexander’s death tens of thousands more migrated to Egypt and Phoenicia because of disturbances in Syria. The same writer has referred to the extent and beauty of the land which we inhabit in the following words: “They occupy almost three million arourai of the most excellent and fertile soil, productive of every variety of fruits. Such is the extent of Judea.” Furthermore, here is his description of Jerusalem itself, the city which we have inhabited from remote ages, of its great beauty and extent, its numerous population, and the temple buildings:

“The Judeans have many fortresses and villages in different parts of the land, but only one fortified city, which has a circumference of about fifty stadium-lengths and some hundred and twenty thousand inhabitants; they call it Jerusalem. Nearly in the centre of the city stands a stone wall, enclosing an area about five plethra long and a hundred cubits broad, approached by a pair of gates. Within this enclosure is a square altar, built of heaped up stones, unfinished and unwrought; each side is twenty cubits long and the height ten cubits. Beside it stands a great edifice, containing an altar and a lampstand, both made of gold, and weighing two talents; upon these is a light which is never extinguished by night or day. There is not a single statue or votive offering, no trace of a plant, in the form of a sacred grove or the like. Here priests pass their nights and days performing certain rites of purification, and abstaining altogether from wine while in the temple.”

The author further attests the share which the Judeans took in the campaigns both of King Alexander and of his successors. One incident on the march, in which a Judean soldier was concerned, he states that he witnessed himself. I will give the story in his own words:

“When I was on the march towards the Red Sea, among the escort of Judean cavalry which accompanied us was one named Mosollamos, a very intelligent man, strong, and, by common consent, the very best of bowmen, whether Greek or barbarian. This man, observing that a number of men were going back and forth on the route and that the whole force was being held up by a seer who was interpreting the signs, inquired why they were halting. The seer pointed out to him the bird he was observing, and told him that if it stayed in that spot it was expedient for them all to halt. If it stirred and flew forward, they should advance; if backward, then they should retire. The Judean, without saying a word, drew his bow, shot and struck the bird, and killed it. The seer and some others were indignant, and heaped curses upon him. ‘Why so mad, you poor wretches?’ he retorted. Then, taking the bird in his hands, he continued, ‘How could any sound information about our march be given by this creature, which could not provide for its own safety? Had it been gifted with divination, it would not have come to this spot, for fear of being killed by an arrow of Mosollamos the Judean.’”

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