Egyptians: Josephos on animal worship (late first century CE)

Authors: Josephos, Against Apion 1.223-226; 2.65-73 (link to Greek text and full translation).

Comments: Josephos’ entire work refuting Apion and others can be read in full in another post (link). One strategy that Josephos adopted in order to counter the notion that Judeans were an inferior people was to distance as far as possible Judeans from any Egyptian connection. In the process, Josephos often reflects Greek and, especially, Roman derogatory perspectives on the Egyptian practice of “worshipping animals.” This was often used in ethnographic contexts as a sign that Egyptians were in fact lower than the animals they worshipped, thereby placing Egyptians in an extremely low position within hegemonic ethnic hierarchies. This common Greek or Roman ethnographic viewpoint is captured well in Josephos’ rhetorical question: “is not the reason why we refuse to call you all Egyptians, or even collectively men, because you worship and breed with so much care animals that are hostile to humanity?”

To read more about Judean characterizations of Egyptians, see Harland’s article “Climbing the Ethnic Ladder: Ethnic Hierarchies and Judean Responses.”

Source of the translation: 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.

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[Profound contrast between the piety of the Judeans and the piety of the animal-worshipping Egyptians]

(1.223-226) The slanders against us originated with the Egyptians. To gratify the Egyptians, certain authors attempted to distort the facts. They misrepresented the circumstances of the entry of our ancestors into Egypt, and gave an equally false account of their departure. The Egyptians had many reasons for their hatred and envy. There was the original grievance of the domination of our ancestors over their land, and their renewed prosperity when they had left it and returned to their own land. Furthermore, the profound contrast between the two forms of piety created bitter animosity, since ours is as far removed from theirs as is the nature of God from that of irrational beasts. For it is their ancestral custom to regard animals as gods, and this custom is universal, although there are local differences in the honours paid to them. These frivolous and utterly senseless specimens of humanity, accustomed from the outset to mistaken ideas about the gods, were incapable of imitating the holinesss of our discourses about God. Awareness of our numerous admirers filled them with envy. Some of them carried their stupidity and narrow-mindedness so far that they did not hesitate to contradict their ancient chronicles. In the blindness of their passion, they failed to perceive that what they wrote actually contradicted their claims.

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(2.65-73) Apion persists: “But if they are citizens, why do they not worship the same gods as the Alexandrians?” To which I reply: “Why do you, on your side, though Egyptians, wage with one another bitter and implacable war on the subject of obligations to the gods?” Indeed, is not the reason why we refuse to call you all Egyptians, or even collectively men, because you worship and breed with so much care animals that are hostile to humanity? We, on the other hand, obviously form a single and united descent group (genus). However, as wide as these differences of opinion are among your natives of Egypt, why should you be surprised at the allegiance to their original laws of a people who came to Alexandria from another land?

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