Egyptians, Chaldeans, and Phoenicians: Julius Africanus on competitive chronologies (ca. 222 CE)

Citation with stable link: Maia Kotrosits, 'Egyptians, Chaldeans, and Phoenicians: Julius Africanus on competitive chronologies (ca. 222 CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 22, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=11423.

Ancient authors: Sextus Julius Africanus (mid-second to mid-third century CE), Chronographies, fragment 15, as cited by Georgios Synkellos, Chronography 17.28-18.10, and fragment 18 as cited by Agapius Mabbugensis, Historia universalis PO 5/4, 587,8s.

Comments (by Maia Kotrosits): Sextus Julius Africanus was a polymath, ambassador for Rome, and Christian born in the mid- to late-second century CE (for more biographical information, go to this link). We have already encountered him giving military advice to the Romans on how to conquer the Parthians, for instance (link). Africanus’ Chronographies, written around 222 CE, was a work in five volumes that attempted to tell a history of the world from the biblical creation in Genesis to his own historical moment. It was a deeply Christian history, one which tried to reconcile, or at least compare, biblical timelines with those of “foreign” peoples. His goal, however, was not just an account of events. History was prophecy, as he looked toward the Christian end of time (see Grafton and Williams). Ironically, this attempt at comprehensive, universal time remains today only in fragments. But in its moment, it was quite influential, not least on Eusebius of Caesarea’s Chronicle and Church History.

The organization of time was a deeply culturally specific dimension of life, since it involved not only peoples’ history and memory of themselves as a collective, but also their daily rhythms of work or celebration (festivals, etc). Thus it was one that was not without its frictions as conquering entities, as well as less severe forms of contact with other peoples, forced some synthesis or synchronization. This colonial synchronization was no less true of the Christian empire that emerged over a century after Africanus wrote. But in other cases, ethnic groups used time and its organization as modes for carving out cultural distinctiveness, as Judean or Jewish culture did (see, e.g., Gribetz).

In the first passages, Africanus engages directly with Egyptian, Chaldean and Phoenician calculations of timelines in a competitive manner by establishing the superiority of Hebrew accounts preserved in the biblical narratives. In this way, Hebrews or Judeans are presented as wise foreigners who have preserved accurate chronologies. Another fragment has Africanus entering into common debates about who invented writing (on which see Pliny’s summary at this link) by proposing that the biblical Seth introduced written language.

Works consulted: A. Grafton and M. Williams, Christianity and the Transformation of the Book (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2006); S.K. Gribetz, Time and Difference in Rabbinic Judaism (Princeton University Press, 2020).

Source of translation: Translation by Harland of fragment 15, in consultation with M. Wallraff, ed., Iulius Africanus, Chronographiae: The Extant Fragments, trans. William Adler (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2007). Fragment 18 (in Arabic) translated by Adler.

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[Fragment 15, on erroneous calculations of Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Chaldeans]

From Africanus, concerning the mythical chronology of the Egyptians and the Chaldeans:

“Egyptians, then, have arrogantly presented excessive lengths of times and myriads of years according to some thesis based on astrological reckonings they made. Some of them, considered accurate in these matters, compress these, saying that they are lunar years. But inclining no less than the others to the mythical, they manage to reconcile these years with the eight and nine thousand years that the Egyptian priests in Plato falsely reckon to Solon.”

And after a while:

“Why should anyone even speak about the thirty thousand years of the Phoenicians or about the absurdity of the Chaldeans with their four hundred and eighty thousand years? Even though, being descendents of Abraham [from Ur of the Chaldeans in Genesis 11:28-31], the Judeans descend from Chaldeans, the Judeans have received through the spirit of Moses more sensible and humane teaching, along with the truth. From what remains of Hebrew accounts, they have handed down a period of five thousand and five hundred years up to the arrival of the Word of salvation that was announced during the government of the Caesars.”

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[Fragment 18, on the biblical Seth as inventor of the alphabet and writing]

Africanus the sage claims that Seth the son of Adam was the first to bring to light letters and taught writing and the Hebrew language.

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