Idumeans and Judeans: Ptolemy the historian on the difference (late first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Idumeans and Judeans: Ptolemy the historian on the difference (late first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified February 7, 2023,

Authors: Ptolemy (perhaps Ptolemy of Askalon), On Herod the King, as described in On Similarities and Differences of Terms / Περί ὁμοίων και διαφόρων λέξεων / De adfinium vocabulorum differentia, no. 243 (link to Greek text) = FGrHist 11, B199, F1 (link to FGrHist).

Comments: Ptolemy (late first century BCE) is a little known author whose work on Herod the client king of Judea is briefly discussed in a grammatical work often attributed to Ammonius the grammarian (first or second century CE). The focus of the passage is on varying usages of ethnic terminology with regard to “Judeans.” Ptolemy apparently distinguished between Judeans originating within the land of Judea and forcefully circumcised Idumeans (of Syrian or Phoenician origin, in his view) who could likewise be designated “Judeans.” Josephos refers to an incident in which John Hyrkanos I has the Idumeans (the equivalent of biblical Edomites or descendents of Esau) circumcised, on which go to this link (Antiquities 13.257; cf. Strabo, Geography, on Nabateans). The passage attributed to Ptolemy indicates that ancient authors struggled with theorizing peoplehood, ethnic terminology, and the distinction or overlap between peoples due to shared customs. The passage is also notable for its direct reference to the fact that “foreign” people who adopted Judean customs might be designated “Judeans.”

Source of the translation: Translation by Harland.


Judeans and Idumeans differ, as Ptolemy says in the first book On Herod the King. On the one hand, the Judeans are such from origin and nature. The Idumeans, on the other hand, were not originally Judeans, but Phoenicians and Syrians. After being forced to be circumcised and to follow the same customs (nomima), they were called “Judeans.”

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