Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Judean wisdom: Aristoboulos on Moses and the Judean god as source for Plato and Pythagoras (mid-second century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 29, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=16283.
Ancient authors: Aristoboulos (mid-second century BCE), fragments 3-5 (in Collins’ translation), as cited by Clement of Alexandria (late-second century CE), Tapestries / Stromateis 1.150 (link; link to Greek) and Eusebios (early-fourth century CE), Preparation for the Gospel 13.11-12 (link; link to Greek).
Comments: According to Clement of Alexandria, this Judean Aristoboulos wrote in the time of king Ptolemy Philometor (ca. 180-145 BCE), and this may well be (Tapestries 1.150.1). In these fragments of Aristoboulos’s work, Aristoboulos presents himself as though he is addressing the Ptolemaic king in Egypt.
Aristoboulos argues for the superiority of Judean legislation as a source of wisdom deriving from the god of the Hebrews, Israelites, and Judeans. He begins by asserting that Greek philosophy as seen in Plato and Pythagoras derives, in large part, from writings of Moses and, ultimately, from the wisdom or divine utterances of the Hebrew or Israelite god. Aristoboulos also tries to add more Hellenistic power to his point by citing several Greek poets about Zeus and about the number seven, here taken as indirectly referring to the true Judean god and the law of sabbath. Overall, then, Judeans are presented as a superior people, even in relation to the culturally and politically dominant Greeks or Greco-Macedonians ostensibly being addressed. So Aristoboulos taps into the widely recognized idea of foreign wisdom in order to claim top rung for Hebrews or Judeans and their god, but his audience may be an internal, Judean one nonetheless.
Works consulted: J.J. Collins, Between Athens and Jerusalem: Jewish Identity in the Hellenistic Diaspora (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000 ), 186-190 (link).
Source of translation: E.H. Gifford, Eusebius: Preparation for the Gospel (Oxford: Clarendon, 1903), public domain, heavily adapted by Harland.
Aristoboulos, as cited by Clement of Alexandria
(1.150) In volume one of his To Philometor, Aristoboulos, wrote:
“It is clear that Plato closely followed our legislation, and has carefully studied numerous precepts contained in it. For others before Demetrios of Phaleron, and prior to the supremacy of Alexander [died 323 BCE] and the Persians [mid-sixth century BCE], have translated the narrative about the departure of the Hebrews (our countrymen) from Egypt, the fame of all that had happened to them, and the conquest of the land, on the one hand; and, the exposition of the whole law, on the other. So it is clear that many things have been borrowed by the previously mentioned philosopher [Plato], for he learned much, just as Pythagoras also transferred many of our precepts and inserted them in his own system of doctrines. But the entire translation of all the contents of our law was made in the time of the king surnamed Philadelphos, your ancestor [Ptolemy I Soter, reigning ca. 305-282 BCE, is in mind], who brought greater zeal to the work, which was managed by Demetrios of Phaleron [who was connected with Soter’s court].”
(4) The Pythagorean philosopher Numenius [of Apameia, second century CE] wrote directly: “What is Plato but Moses speaking Greek?”
This Moses was an expounder of stories about God, a prophet and, in the eyes of some, an interpreter of sacred laws. The actual writings, which merit our full confidence, record his birth, actions, and life. However, we must also speak about Moses as briefly as possible. . . [omitted Clement’s discussion of Moses].
Aristoboulos, as cited by Eusebios
[Eusebios’ framing in the context of establishing Greek philosophy as derivative of Hebrew or Judean wisdom]
(13.11-12) [Eusebios:] Actually, although I have made these selections [showing how Moses was the basis of many of Plato’s views] out of the writings of Plato, any other student might find still more points of agreement with our doctrines in the same author, and perhaps in others too. Since, however, others before us have touched upon the same subject, I think it would be right for me to look at the results of their work also. And I will quote first the words of the Hebrew philosopher Aristoboulos (or: Aristobulus), which are as follows:
[Plato and Pythagoras derive many precepts from Moses and the Judean law]
“It is clear that Plato closely followed our legislation, and has carefully studied numerous precepts contained in it. For others before Demetrios of Phaleron, and prior to the supremacy of Alexander and the Persians, have translated the narrative about the departure of the Hebrews (our countrymen) from Egypt, the fame of all that had happened to them, and the conquest of the land, on the one hand; and, the exposition of the whole law, on the other. So it is clear that many things have been borrowed by the previously mentioned philosopher [Plato], for he learned much, just as Pythagoras also transferred many of our precepts and inserted them in his own system of doctrines. But the entire translation of all the contents of our law was made in the time of the king surnamed Philadelphos, your ancestor, who brought greater zeal to the work, which was managed by Demetrios of Phaleron.”
Then, after interposing some remarks, he further says:
[God’s words as origin of everything, including law of the Judeans]
“For we must understand the voice of God not as words spoken, but as construction of works, just as Moses in the law has spoken of the whole creation of the world as “words” of God. For he constantly says of each work, ‘And God said, and it was so.’ Now it seems to me that Moses has been very carefully followed in everything by Pythagoras, Socrates, and Plato, who said that they heard the voice of God as they were contemplating the arrangement of the universe so accurately made and indissolubly combined by God.”
“Moreover, Orpheus, in verses taken from his writings in the Sacred Account, presents the doctrine that all things are governed by divine power; that they have had a beginning; and, that God is over everything. This is what Orpheus says:
‘I speak to those who lawfully may hear: / depart, and close the doors, all you who are profane, / who hate the ordinances of the just, / the law divine announced to all humanity. But you, Musaeus, child of the bright Moon, / lend me your ear, for I have truths to tell. / Let not the former fancies of your mind / Amerce you of the dear and blessed life. / Look to the word divine, keep close to that, / and guide thereby the deep thoughts of your heart. / Walk wisely in the way, and look to no one, / except to the immortal framer of the world. / For an ancient story speaks of him this way: One, perfect in himself, everything else by him / made perfect, ever present in his works, / by mortal eyes unseen, by mind alone / discerned. It is not he that out of good / makes evil to spring up for mortal men. / Both love and hatred wait upon his steps, / and war and pestilence, and sorrow and tears. / For there is no one but him. If all other things / were easy to behold, you could only first / see him here present upon earth. / The footsteps and the mighty hand of God / whenever I see, I’ll show them you, my son. / But him I cannot see, so dense a cloud / in tenfold darkness wraps our feeble sight. / No mortal could behold him in his power, except one, an offspring of the tribe (phylē) of the Chaldeans. / For he was skilled to mark the sun’s bright path, / and how in even circle round the earth / the starry sphere on its own axis turns, / and winds their chariot guide over sea and sky; / and showed where fire’s bright flame its strength displayed. / Only God himself, high above heaven unmoved, / sits on his golden throne, and plants his feet / on the broad earth. / His right hand he extends / over Ocean’s farthest bound. The eternal hills / tremble in their deep heart, nor can endure / his mighty power. And still above the heavens / Alone he sits, and governs all on earth, / himself first cause, means, and purpose of everything. / So men of old, so tells the Nile-born sage, / taught by the twofold tablet of God’s law. / Nor otherwise dare I speak about him: / In heart and limbs I tremble at the thought, / how he from heaven all things in order rules. / Draw near in thought, my son. But guard your tongue / with care, and store this doctrine in your heart’” [Orphic fragment 247 in Kern].
“Aratos [of Soloi, ca. third century BCE] also speaks of the same subject in this way:
‘From Zeus we begin the song, nor ever leave / his name unsung, whose godhead fills all streets, / all crowded markets of men, the boundless sea / and all its ports; whose aid all mortals need. / For we are his offspring. And kindly he reveals to man good omens of success, / stirs him to labour by the hope of food, / tells when the land best suits the grazing ox, / or when the plough; when favouring seasons bid / plant the young tree, and sow the various seeds’ [Aratos, Phainomina 1-9].
“It is clearly shown, I think, that all things are pervaded by the power of God. I have properly represented this by taking away the name of ‘Zeus’ which runs through these poems, because it is to God [i.e. the Judean god] that their thought is sent up, and for that reason I have so expressed it. These quotations, therefore, which I have brought forward are not inappropriate to the questions before us.”
“All the philosophers agree that we should hold pious opinions concerning God, and to this especially our system gives excellent instruction. The whole construction of our law pertains to piety, justice, and self-control, and everything else that is truly good.”
[Eusebios:] To this, after an interval, he adds what follows:
[Wisdom and its origins, drawing on Solomon and the creation narrative]
“With this is closely connected the idea that God the creator of the whole world has also given us the seventh day as a rest, because for all men life is full of troubles. In fact, this day might naturally be called the first birth of light, by which all things are seen. The same thought might also be metaphorically applied in the case of wisdom, because all light proceeds from wisdom. And it has been said by some who were of the Peripatetic sect that wisdom is in place of a beacon of light, for by following it constantly men will be rendered free from trouble through their whole life. But more clearly and more beautifully one of our ancestors, Solomon, said that it has existed before heaven and earth. This in fact agrees with what has been said above. However, what is clearly stated by the law – that God rested on the seventh day – does not mean, as some suppose, that God ceases to do anything from then on. Rather, it refers to the fact that, after he has brought the arrangement of his works to completion, he has arranged them this way for all time. For it points out that in six days he made the heaven and the earth, and everything in them in order to distinguish the times and predict the order in which one thing comes before another. After arranging their order, he keeps them in order and does not change them. He has also plainly declared that the seventh day is ordained for us by the law, to be a sign of that which is our seventh faculty, namely reason, whereby we have knowledge of things human and divine. Furthermore, the whole world of living creatures and of all plants that grow revolves in sevens. And its name ‘Sabbath’ is interpreted as meaning ‘rest.’”
“Also Homer and Hesiod declare, borrowing from our books, that it is a holy day. Hesiod does so in the following words: ‘The first, the fourth, the seventh a holy day.” Again he says: ‘And on the seventh again the sun shines bright.’ Homer also speaks as follows: ‘And soon the seventh returned, a holy day.’ And again Homer says: ‘It was the seventh day, and everything was done.’ Again: ‘And on the seventh dawn the baleful stream / of Acheron we left.’ By this he means that after the soul’s forgetfulness and vice have been left, the things the soul chose before are abandoned on the true seventh, which is reason, and we receive the knowledge of truth, as we have said before. Linos also speaks in this way: ‘All things are finished on the seventh dawn.’ And again: ‘Good is the seventh day, and seventh birth.’ And: ‘Among the prime, and perfect is the seventh.’ And: ‘Seven orbs created in the starlit sky / shine in their courses through revolving years.’”
[Eusebios:] So those are the statements of Aristoboulos. And what Clement has said on the same subject, you may learn from the following . . . [omitted Clement of Alexandria’s material, on which search Clement of Alexandria on this website].