Judean wisdom: Josephos on Abraham’s dissemination of astrological knowledge (late-first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Judean wisdom: Josephos on Abraham’s dissemination of astrological knowledge (late-first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 1, 2024, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=16238.

Ancient authors: Josephos (late-first century CE), Judean Antiquities 1.154-170 (link).

Comments: Josephos’ retelling of Abraham’s story diverges significantly at certain points from the Genesis narrative. This section in which Josephos argues that Abraham was an expert in astrological calculations is one of those. As with Artapanos (link) and Eupolemos (link), Josephos taps into the notion of foreign or “barbarian” wisdom in order to put forward Abraham as the source of astrological knowledge not only for Egyptians, but also for Greeks. He also brings in non-Judean sources as further support for these claims. His journey to Egypt is presented as primarily to test the value of his own knowledge against that of well-respected Egyptian priests. The face-off with Chaldeans and then Egyptian priests is aimed at establishing the superiority of Hebrew or Israelite wisdom via this founding figure.


[Migration of Abraham]

(1.154-170) Since Abraham had no legitimate son, he adopted Lot, his brother Haran’s son and the brother of his wife Sarah. At the age of seventy-five he left Chaldea, since God commanded him to move to Canaan. He settled in Canaan and left the country to his descendants. He was intelligent about everything, persuasive with his hearers, and not mistaken in his inferences. So he began to have more lofty conceptions of virtue than the rest of humankind, and determined to reform and change the ideas universally current concerning God.

[Astrological knowledge and correction of Chaldeans]

As a consequence, Abraham was the first boldly to declare that God, the creator of the universe, is one, and that, if any other being contributed anything to man’s well-being, each did so by God’s command and not in virtue of its own inherent power. He inferred this from the changes to which land and sea are subject, from the course of sun and moon, and from all the celestial phenomena. For, he argued, if these bodies were endowed with power, they would have provided for their own regularity [i.e. he contested Chaldean astrological concepts]. However, since they lacked this power, it was clear that even those services in which they cooperate for our greater benefit they render not in virtue of their own authority, but through the power of their commanding sovereign. To him alone it is right to render our honour and thanksgiving. It was in fact due to these opinions that the Chaldeans and the other peoples of Mesopotamia rose against Abraham. Thinking it was appropriate to emigrate by the will and help of God, he settled in the land of Canaan. Established in Canaan, Abraham built an altar and offered a sacrifice to God.

[Non-Israelite witnesses to Abraham’s accomplishments]

Berossos [Babylonian Bel-re’ushu] mentions our father Abraham, without naming him, in these terms: “In the tenth generation after the flood there lived among the Chaldeans a just man who was great and versed in celestial lore.” Hekataios [of Abdera] has done more than mention him: he has left us a book which he composed about him. Nikolaos of Damaskos, again, in the fourth book of his Histories makes the following statement: “Abram reigned. He was an invader who had come with an army from the country beyond Babylon called the land of the Chaldees. But not long afterwards, he left this country [Damaskos] also with his people for the land then called Canaan but now called Judea. He settled there, he and his numerous descendants, whose history I will relate in another account. The name of Abram is still celebrated in the region of Damaskos. A village can be shown that is named after him “Abram’s abode.’”

[Visiting Egyptians to establish whose teachings were superior, with some stereotypes about Egyptians]

When Canaan was gripped by a famine some time later, Abraham had heard about the prosperity of the Egyptians and was planning to visit them. He did this in order to profit from their abundance and to hear what their priests said about the gods. If he found the priests teaching more excellent than his own, he planned to conform to it; otherwise if his own beliefs proved superior, he planned to change their minds.

[Interlude of Sarah’s beauty drawn from Genesis]

He took Sarah with him. He feared the Egyptians’ frenzy for women, in case the king killed Abraham because of his wife’s beauty. So he devised the following scheme: he pretended to be her brother and, telling her that their interest required it, instructed her to play her part accordingly. On their arrival in Egypt everything happened as Abraham had suspected: rumours spread about his wife’s beauty so much that Pharaoh (Pharaothes), the king of the Egyptians, was not content with the reports of her. The king was burning with a desire to see her and on the verge of laying hands on her. But God thwarted his criminal passion by an outbreak of disease and political disturbance. When he had sacrifices offered to discover a remedy, the priests declared that his disaster was due to the wrath of God, because he had wished to violate the stranger’s wife. Terrified, the king asked Sarah who she was and who was this man she had brought with her. On learning the truth he made his excuses to Abraham: it was, he said, in the belief that she was his sister, not his wife, that he had set his affections on her; he had wished to contract a marriage alliance and not to violate her in a transport of passion. He further gave him abundant riches.

[Abraham, wise Egyptians, and the dissemination of astrological knowledge to the Egyptians and Greeks]

Abraham consorted with the most learned of the Egyptians, which is why his excellence and reputation became still more conspicuous. For, seeing that the Egyptians were addicted to a variety of different customs and disparaged one another’s practices with the result being that they were at enmity with one another, Abraham conferred with each party and, exposing the arguments which they adduced in favour of their particular views, demonstrated that they were pointless and contained nothing true. Thus gaining their admiration at these meetings as a man of extreme wisdom – gifted not only with high intelligence but with power to convince his hearers on any subject which he undertook to teach – he introduced them to arithmetic and transmitted to them the laws of astrology. For before the coming of Abraham, the Egyptians were ignorant of these bodies of knowledge. In this way, these bodies of knowledge travelled from the Chaldeans into Egypt, from which they passed to the Greeks.

On his return to Canaan, Abraham divided the land with Lot, since their shepherds quarrelled about grazing ground . . . [omitted remainder of account of Abraham, including material about the descendants of Abraham and Keturah, on which go to this link].


Source of the translations: 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), adapted by Harland.

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