Judean wisdom: Josephos on philosophical sects among Judeans (late-first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Judean wisdom: Josephos on philosophical sects among Judeans (late-first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 7, 2024, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=9188.

Ancient author: Josephos, Life 7-12; Judean War 2.111-113 and 119-166; Antiquities 13.171-173 and 18.11-25 (link).

Comments: In these passages from several works, Josephos (or: Flavius Josephus) describes several intellectual groups among Judeans (Jews) in the first century to a Greek-speaking audience in a way that both takes on the aura of ancient ethnographic writing and presents certain Judeans as instances of wise foreigners. In his autobiographical writing, Josephos claims to have personally explored each of the different Judean philosophies available to him (a common thing for an ancient intellectual to claim).

In the other passages, Josephos focusses on describing the customs or intellectual positions of each group. In the process, Josephos frames them in terms of Greek philosophical “sects” (haireseis). While his discussion can be shorter or longer depending on the passage, Josephos gives most attention to the Essenes, who were also described in an ethnographic manner by the Judean Philo of Alexandria (link) and the Roman author Pliny the Elder (link), among others. Josephos presents the Essenes as a foreign (to the Greeks) group that has nonetheless developed an ideal way of life in keeping with the pursuit of true wisdom. This makes his discussion particularly apt in connection with other authors who sketch out cases of barbarian wisdom, even though Josephos is himself a Judean, of course. Porphyry of Tyre later makes extensive use of Josephos’ account of the Essenes (with extensive citation) in order to present the Judeans among those wise peoples who appropriately avoided the killing and eating of animals (link). So Josephos may have achieved one of his aims in reaffirming the position of certain Judean groups on a list of wise barbarians.


Life 7-12

[Josephos describes his testing of each of the three sects of the Judeans / Jews]

(7) Distinguished as he was by his noble birth, my father Matthias was even more distinguished for his upright character, being among the most notable men in Jerusalem, our greatest city. Brought up with Matthias, my own brother by both parents, I made great progress in my education, gaining a reputation for an excellent memory and understanding. While I was still just a boy about fourteen years old [ca. 51-52 CE], I won universal approval for my love of letters as the chief priests and the leading men of the city used to come to me constantly for precise information on some specific aspect of our customs.

(10) At about the age of sixteen [53-54 CE], I decided to gain personal experience of our sects (haireseis). These, as I have frequently mentioned [see other passages below], are three in number: the first is the Pharisees, the second is the Sadducees, and the third is the Essenes. I thought that, after a thorough investigation, I should be in a position to choose the best one. So I submitted myself to hard training and laborious exercises and passed through the three sects. However, as I was not content with the experience gained, on hearing of one named Bannos, I became his devoted disciple. Bannos lived in the dessert wearing only the clothing that trees provided, feeding on whatever grew naturally, and bathing frequently (both day and night) in cold water for the sake of purity. I lived with him for three years and, after accomplishing my purpose, returned to the city [Jerusalem]. Now that I was nineteen years old [56-57 CE], I began to regulate my life by the rules of the Pharisees, a sect having points of resemblance to what the Greeks call the Stoic sect.


Judean War 2.111-113 and 119-166

[Simon the Essene prophet]

(111) Archelaus, on taking possession of his ethnarchy, did not forget old feuds, but treated not  only the Judeans but even the Samaritans with great brutality. Both parties sent deputies to Caesar to denounce him, and in the ninth year of his rule he was banished to Vienna,” a town in Gaul, and his property confiscated to the imperial treasury. It is said that, before he received his summons from his Caesar, he had this dream: he thought he saw nine tall and full-grown ears of corn on which oxen were browsing. He sent for the soothsayers and some Chaldaeans and asked them their opinion of its meaning. Various interpretations being given, a certain Simon, of the sect of the Essenes, said that in his view the ears of corn denoted years and the oxen a revolution, because in ploughing they turn over the soil; he would therefore reign for as many years as there were ears of corn and would die after a chequered experience of revolutionary changes. Five days later Archelaus was summoned to his trial. . . [material omitted].

[Three forms of philosophizing among Judeans]

(119) There are three forms of philosophizing among Judeans. The members of the first are called Pharisees, those of the second are called Sadducees, and those of the third are called Essenes.

[1. Essenes and their customs]

The Essenes have a reputation for cultivating extraordinary holiness. Being Judeans by birth (genos), they show greater attachment to each other than do the other sects. (120) They abandon pleasures as evil and regard self-control and the control of the emotions (or: passions) as a special virtue. They disdain marriage but they adopt other people’s children while still young, and they regard them as their kin and educate them in keeping with their own principles. In fact, they do not condemn marriage and what follows from it. Rather, they want to protect themselves against women’s sexual promiscuity since they are persuaded that no woman is faithful to one man.

They despise wealth and their community of goods is truly amazing. You will not find one among them distinguished by more possessions than another. They have a law that new members on admission to the sect will confiscate their property to the group, with the result that you will nowhere see either extreme poverty or excess wealth. The individual’s possessions join the common stock and everyone, like brothers, enjoys a single patrimony. They consider oil defiling, and anyone who accidentally comes in contact with it washes his body, because they make a point of keeping their skin dry and always being dressed in white. They elect supervisors to attend to the interests of the community, the special services of each supervisor being determined by the whole body.

The Essenes do not occupy any one city, but settle in large numbers in many cities. On the arrival of a member of the sect from somewhere else, all the resources of the community are put at their disposal, just as if they were their own. They enter the houses of men whom they have never seen before as though they were their most intimate friends. (125) Consequently, they carry nothing whatever with them on their journeys, except weapons for protection against bandits. In every city there is one of the group expressly appointed to attend to visitors, who provides them with raiment and other necessaries.

In their dress and deportment they resemble children under rigorous discipline. They do not change their garments or shoes until they are torn to shreds or worn out. There is no buying or selling among themselves, but each gives what he has to any in need and receives from him in exchange something useful to himself. They are, moreover, freely permitted to take anything from any of their brothers without making any return.

Their piety towards the deity takes a peculiar form. Before the sun is up they do not speak at all about regular matters, but offer to him certain prayers (handed down from their ancestors) as though calling him to rise. They are then dismissed by their superiors to the various skills in which they are proficient and are strenuously employed until the fifth hour, when they again assemble in one place and, after wrapping their loins with linen cloths, bathe their bodies in cold water. After this purification, they assemble in a individual apartment which none of the uninitiated is permitted to enter.

Now that they are pure, they go to the dining hall as if it is some sacred shrine. (130) When they have taken their seats in silence, the baker serves out loaves to them in order, and the cook sets before each one a plate with a single course. Before eating the priest says a prayer, and none may share in the meal until after the prayer. When breakfast is ended, he pronounces a further prayer. Thus at the beginning and at the close they honour God as the bountiful giver of life. Then laying aside their special clothing, as holy vestments, they again engage themselves in their labours until the evening. On their return they eat supper in a similar manner, and any guests who may have arrived sit down with them. No clamour or disturbance ever pollutes their dwelling. They speak in turn, each making way for his neighbour. To persons outside the silence of those within appears like some awful mystery. In fact, this is due to their invariable sobriety and to the limitation of their allotted portions of meat and drink to the demands of nature.

In all other matters they do nothing without orders from their superiors. Only two things are left to individual choice: the rendering of assistance and compassion. Members may of their own volition help the deserving when in need and supply food to the poor. But presents to relatives are prohibited without permission from the managers. (135) Holding back righteous anger, they are masters of their temper, champions of fidelity, and ministers of peace. Any word of theirs has more force than an oath. They avoid swearing oaths, regarding that as worse than perjury, for they say that anyone who is not believed without an appeal to God stands condemned already. They display an extraordinary interest in the writings of the ancients, singling out in particular those which contribute to the well-being of soul and body. With the help of these, and with a view to the treatment of diseases, they make investigations into medicinal roots and the properties of stones.

A candidate anxious to join their sect is not immediately admitted. For one year, during which he remains outside the group, they prescribe for him their own rule of life, presenting him with a small ax, the loin-cloth already mentioned, and white clothing. Having given proof of his self-control during this probationary period, he is brought into closer touch with the rule and is allowed to share the purer kind of holy water, but is not yet received into the meetings of the community. For after this exhibition of endurance, his character is tested for two years more, and only then, if found worthy, is he enrolled in the society.

But, before he may touch the common food, he is made to swear tremendous oaths, swearing: first that he will practise piety towards the deity; next that he will observe justice towards men; that he will wrong no one whether of his own volition or under someone else’s orders; that he will always hate the unjust and fight the battle of the just; (140) that he will always keep faith with all men, especially with the powers that be, since no ruler attains his office except by the will of God; that, if he happens to be in leadership, he will never abuse his authority nor, either in dress or by other outward marks of superiority, outshine his subjects; that he will always be a lover of truth and an exposer of liars; that he will keep his hands from stealing and his soul pure from unholy gain; and, that he will conceal nothing from the members of the sect and report none of their secrets to others, even though tortured to death. He swears, moreover, to transmit their rules exactly as he himself received them; to abstain from robbery; and, similarly, to preserve the books of the sect and the names of the angels. Such are the oaths by which they secure entrance into the group.

They expel from the group those who are convicted of serious crimes. The ejected individual often comes to a most miserable end. For, being bound by their oaths and usages, he is not at liberty to partake of other men’s food, and so ends up eating grass, wasting away and dying of starvation. This has led them in compassion to receive many back in the last stage of exhaustion, considering that torments which have brought them to the verge of death are a sufficient penalty for their failures. (145) They are just and scrupulously careful in their trial of cases, never passing sentence in a court of less than a hundred members. The decision reached in this way is irrevocable. After God they hold most in awe the name of their lawgiver, and anyone who speaks against the lawgiver is punished with death. It is a point or honour with them to obey their elders and to obey majority opinion. For instance, if ten sit together, one will not speak if the nine desire silence.

They are careful not to spit while with company or to the right, and are stricter than all Judeans in abstaining from work on the seventh day. For not only do they prepare their food on the day before to avoid kindling a fire on that one, but they do not venture to remove any vessel or even defecate. On other days they dig a trench a foot deep with a shovel (such is the nature of the hatchet which they present to new members of the group) and wrapping their mantle around them so that they do not offend the rays of the deity. Then they replace the excavated soil in the trench. For this purpose they select the more out of the way spots. And though this discharge of excrement is a natural function, they make it a rule to wash themselves after it, as if defiled.

(150) Thev are divided, according to the duration of their discipline, into four grades. The junior members are considered so inferior to the seniors that a senior, if merely touched by a junior, must take a bath as though having contact with someone of another tribe [i.e. a non-Judean]. They live to a great age – most of them more than 100 years – because of the simplicity and regularity of their mode of life, I imagine. They make light of danger and triumph over pain by their resolute will. They consider an honourable death better than immortality. The war with the Romans thoroughly tested their souls by every variety of test. They were racked and twisted, burnt and broken, and made to pass through every instrument of torture, in order to induce them to speak against their lawgiver or to eat some forbidden thing. They refused to yield to either demand, nor ever once did they cringe to their persecutors or shed a tear. Smiling in their agonies and mildly deriding their tormentors, they cheerfully resigned their souls, confident that they would receive them back again.

For it is a firm belief of theirs that the body is corruptible and its constituent matter impermanent, but that the soul is immortal and imperishable. Emanating from the finest ether, these souls become entangled, as it were, in the prison-house of the body, to which they are dragged down by a sort of natural spell. But when the souls are released from the bonds of the flesh, then, as though freed from a long servitude, they rejoice and are taken up. (155) Sharing the belief of the sons of Greece, they maintain that for virtuous souls there is reserved a place beyond the ocean, a place which is not oppressed by rain or snow or heat, but is refreshed by the ever gentle breath of the west wind coming in from ocean. While they relegate base souls to a large, murky and tempestuous dungeon with never-ending punishments. The Greeks, I imagine, had the same conception when they set apart the Islands of the Blessed (on which go to Lucian’s satirical story: link) for their brave men, whom they call heroes and demigods, and the region of the impious for the souls of the wicked down in Hades, where, as their mythologists tell, persons such as Sisyphus, Tantalus, Ixion, and Tityus are undergoing punishment. Their aim was first to establish the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, and secondly to promote virtue and to deter from vice. For the good are made better in their lifetime by the hope of a reward after death, and the emotions (or: passions) of the wicked are restrained by the fear that, even though they escape detection while alive, they will undergo never-ending punishment after death. Those are the discourses about the gods which the Essenes engage in concerning the soul, whereby they irresistibly attract all who have once tasted their philosophy.

There are some among the Essenes who profess to foretell the future, being versed from their early years in holy books, various forms of purification and sayings of prophets. Seldom, if ever, do they make a mistake in their predictions. [See the story of Simon the Essene prophet in War 2.111-113 further below].

(160) There is yet another group of Essenes, which, while at one with the rest in its mode of life and customs, differs from them in its views on marriage. They think that those who decline to marry cut off the main purpose of life, the propagation of the human descent group. Furthermore, they think that, if everyone adopted the same view, the whole human descent group would very quickly die out. However, they give their wives a three years’ probation period and only marry them after they have by three periods of purification given proof of fertility. They have no intercourse with them during pregnancy, thus showing that their motive in marrying is not self-indulgence but the procreation of children. When they wash themselves, the women wear a dress and the men wear a loin-cloth. Such are the ways of this group.

[2. Pharisees]

Among the two first-named sects, the Pharisees – who are considered the most accurate interpreters of the laws and hold the position of the leading sect – attribute everything to Fate (heimarmenē) and to God. They hold that to act rightly or otherwise rests, in fact, with men for the most part, but that in each action Fate cooperates. Every soul, they maintain, is imperishable, but the soul of the good person alone passes into another body, while the souls of the wicked suffer eternal punishment.

[3. Sadducees]

The Sadducees, the second of the groups, do away with Fate altogether, and remove God beyond, not merely the commission, but the very sight, of evil. (165) They maintain that man has the free choice of good or evil, and that it rests with each man’s will whether he follows the one or the other. As for the persistence of the soul after death, penalties in the underworld, and rewards, they will have none of them. The Pharisees are affectionate to each other and cultivate harmonious relations with the community. The Sadducees, on the contrary, are very savage (agriōteron) in their behaviour even among themselves. They are rough in their interactions with their peers as if dealing with foreigners. Such is what I have to say about those engaging in philosophy among the Judeans.


Antiquities 13.171-173

[Three sects among the Judeans]

(171) Now at this time there were three sects (haireseis) among the Judeans, which held different opinions concerning human affairs: the first was of the Pharisees, the second of the Sadducees, and the third of the Essenes. As for the Pharisees, they say that certain events are the work of Fate (heimarmenē), but not everything. As to other events, it depends upon ourselves whether they will take place or not. The category (genos) of Essenes, however, declares that Fate is in control of everything, and that nothing happens to people unless it is in keeping with with the decree of Fate. But the Sadducees do away with Fate, holding that there is no such thing and that human actions are not achieved in accordance with her decree, but that all things lie within our own power. The result is that we ourselves are responsible for our well-being, while we suffer misfortune through our own thoughtlessness. However, I have given a more detailed account in the second book on Judean Matters [i.e. the passage from Judean War above] regarding these issues.


Antiquities 18.11-25 [based on Whiston’s translation]

[Four Judean philosophies]

Since the ancient era of their ancestors, the Judeans had three philosophies (philosophoi) peculiar to themselves: that of the Essenes, that of the Sadducees, and the third sort of philosophy was that of those called Pharisees [the fourth is not mentioned here but is discussed below]. Although I have already spoken about them in the second book of the Judean War [passage above], I will also touch on them now.

[1. Pharisees]

Now the Pharisees have a limited diet and avoid luxuries. They follow reason and do whatever reason prescribes for them to do. They think they should earnestly strive to observe reason’s dictates for practice. They also pay a respect to those who are older and they are not so bold as to contradict their elders in anything which they have introduced. When they determine that all things take place by Fate (heimarmenē), they do not take away from people the freedom to choose how to behave appropriately. This is because they hold the view that it pleases God to create a situation in which what he wills is done but man can still choose to act rightly or wrongly. They also believe that souls have the power to live after death and that under the earth there will be rewards or punishments in keeping with whether they have lived rightly or wrongly in this life. The latter are to be detained in an everlasting prison, but the former will have power to revive and live again. (15) Because of these views, they are influential among the populace and whatever the Pharisees advise about divine worship, prayers, and sacrifices, the populace performs them according to their direction. The cities give great attestations to them on account of their virtuous approach, both in their way of life and in their discourses.

[2. Sadducees]

Now the teaching (logos) of the Sadducees is that souls die with the bodies. They do not observe anything beyond what the law enjoins them to do. For they think it a virtue to dispute with those teachers of wisdom whom they follow. But this teaching is followed by only a few men, but by those of the greatest dignity. But they are able to accomplish almost nothing by themselves. For when they become leaders (as they are unwillingly and by force sometimes obliged to be), they addict themselves to the notions of the Pharisees because the population would not otherwise tolerate them.

[3. Essenes]

The teaching of the Essenes is that all things are best ascribed to God. They teach the immortality of souls and believe that the rewards of righteousness should be earnestly pursued. When they send what they have dedicated to God into the temple, they do not offer sacrifices because they have more pure purifications of their own. For this reason, they are excluded from the common court of the temple but offer their sacrifices themselves. Yet their way of life is better than that of other people, and they devote themselves to farming.

(20) They also deserve our admiration in that they far exceed all other men that are devoted to virtue. In fact, they exceed others to such a degree that such a thing has never appeared among any other men, neither Greeks nor barbarians, not even briefly, even though this has endured a long time among them. They hold all things in common, so that a rich person enjoys no more of his own wealth than the one who has nothing at all.

There are about four thousand men that live in this way. They neither marry wives nor are want to have servants since they think the latter tempts men to be unjust and the former promotes domestic quarrels. But though they live by themselves, they serve one another. They also elect certain financial functionaries to receive the incomes of their revenues and of the produce and priests who are to provide wheat and prepare their food. They live in a way that does not differ from those Dacians (Dakoi) who are called Ktistians (Ktistai; literally: Founders) [cf. Strabo, Geography 7.296].

[4. Judas the Galilean’s group]

Judas the Galilean was the leader of the the fourth of the philosophies. These men agree in all other things with Pharisaic opinions, but they have an unconquerable attachment to freedom since they are convinced that God is to be their only ruler and lord. They also worry little about submiting to any form of death, nor do they worry about the deaths of their relations and friends if only they can avoid calling any human being “lord.” Since this immoveable resolution of theirs is well known to many people, I will speak no farther about the matter. Nor am I afraid that anything I have said about them would be disbelieved. Rather, I fear that what I have said is not enough to express the resolution they show when they face pain. The madness of the people (ethnos) began to grow when Gessius Florus [Roman procurator of Judea ca. 64-66 CE], the procurator, provided an occasion for the Judeans to go wild and, by the abuse of his authority, make them revolt against the Romans. Those are the philosophies of the Judeans.


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); William Whiston, The Whole Genuine Works of Flavius Josephus, 4 volumes (Glasgow: Blackie, Fullerton and Co, 1829) (Antiquities 18.11-25 only), adapted by Harland.

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