Egyptians: Josephos on the envy of an inferior people (last-first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Egyptians: Josephos on the envy of an inferior people (last-first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified June 8, 2023,

Ancient author: Flavius Josephos (late-first century CE), Judean Antiquities 1.176-177, 201-216 (link).

Comments: Josephos is somewhat consistent in his negative characterization of Egyptians. Throughout his work attempting to refute Apion and others (link), for instance, Josephos’ use of the term “Egyptians” has negative connotations. So, for example, he focusses on the supposed distorted piety of Egyptians in the form of worshipping animals (link). Overall, Josephos is concerned to distance Hebrews, Israelites, or Judeans (Jews) from Egyptians partly because stories circulated among Greeks and others that Israelites were, in fact, merely a diseased sub-group of lowly Egyptians (link).

So when Josephos gets to retelling the biblical story of Moses and the exodus in his Antiquities (passages below), he takes the opportunity to smear the character of Egyptians overall. There are specific vendettas here relating to the historical relationship between Egyptians and Hebrews in terms of the story of slavery in Egypt, of course. The Egyptians’ negative treatment of Hebrews is attributed to envy. But Josephos also reflects common Roman and Greek stereotypes in casting Egyptians as effeminate, lazy, greedy and, overall, subject to the worst of the passions. The overall message of this and other passages in Josephos about Egyptians is: we, the superior Judeans, are not anything like the inferior Egyptians. Ethnic hierarchies are at work here.

Source of the translations: H.S.J. Thackeray and R. Marcus, Josephus, volumes 1-7, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1926-43), public domain, adapted by Harland.


[Judeans are Mesopotamians in origin, not Egyptians]

(1.176-177) Encouraged by this dream, Jacob with greater effort departed for Egypt along with his sons and his sons’ children. There were seventy of them in total. I was inclined not to recount their names, mainly on account of their difficulty. However, to confute those persons who imagine us to be not of Mesopotamian origin [i.e. Abram depicted as coming from Ur of the Chaldeans] but Egyptians, I have thought it necessary to mention them. Well, Jacob had twelve sons, of whom Joseph had already departed in advance: we proceed, then, to enumerate those who followed him and their descendants. . . [omitted long list of names and several sections dealing with Jacob in Egypt and the death of Joseph].

[Characterization of Egyptians after the death of Joseph and before the rise of Moses]

(1.201-216) The Egyptians – who are effeminate (trypheroi), lazy (rhathymoi) when it comes to working, and inferior when it comes to other pleasures and to love of money in particular – eventually became bitterly disposed towards the Hebrews through envy (phthonos) of their prosperity. For seeing the descent group (genos) of the Israelites flourishing and seeing that their virtues and aptitude for labour had already gained them the distinction of abundant wealth, the Egyptians believed that the Israelites’ growth in power was to the Egyptians’ own detriment. As the benefits which they had received from Joseph were forgotten with time and the kingdom had now passed to another dynasty, the Egyptians terribly mistreated the Israelites and subjected them to all kinds of hardships.

[Egyptians’ mistreatment of Israelites for four hundred years]

So they ordered them to divide the river into numerous canals, to build ramparts for the cities and dikes to hold the waters of the river and to prevent them from forming marshes when they overflowed its banks. Building pyramid after pyramid, they exhausted our descent group. In this way, our descent group was instructed in all kinds of technical skills and became accustomed to very hard work. For a full four hundred years they endured these hardships. In fact, it was a contest between Egyptians and Israelites, with the Egyptians striving to kill off the Israelites with drudgery and the Israelites always showing themselves superior to their tasks.

[Signs of rescue from the extermination of the Israelites]

While the Israelites were in this plight, a further incident had the effect of stimulating the Egyptians yet more to exterminate our descent group. One of the sacred scribes – persons with considerable skill in accurately predicting the future – announced to the king that there would be born to the Israelites at that time one who would undermine the control of the Egyptians and increase the position of the Israelites, if he reached manhood, and would surpass all men in excellence and win everlasting fame. Alarmed at this prediction, the king followed this sage’s advice in ordering that every male child born to the Israelites should be destroyed by being cast into the river, and that the labours of Hebrew women with child should be observed and watch kept for their delivery by the Egyptian midwives. . . [omitted some details]. Such was their miserable situation; but no man can defeat the will of God, whatever countless devices he may contrive to that end. For this child, whose birth the sacred scribe had foretold, was reared, eluding the king’s vigilance, and the prophet’s words concerning all that was to be done through him proved true.

This is how it happened. Amram, a Hebrew of noble birth, fearing that the entire descent group would be extinguished through lack of the succeeding generation, and seriously anxious on his own account because his wife was with child, was in grievous confusion. He accordingly had recourse to prayer to God, beseeching him finally to take some pity on men who had in no wise transgressed in their worship of him, and to grant them deliverance from the tribulations of the present time and from the prospect of the extermination of their descent group.

[God’s / Josephos’ summary of God’s ongoing favour for the Israelite descent group]

And God had compassion on him and, moved by his request, appeared to him in his sleep, exhorting him not to despair of the future. God told Amram that God remembered their piety and would always pay them back for it, even as God had already granted their ancestors to grow from a few souls into so great a population.

God recalled how Abraham, departing alone from Mesopotamia on his journey to Canaan, had in every way been blessed and above all how his wife, once barren, had thereafter, thanks to God’s will, been rendered fertile. God recalled how Abraham had begotten sons and had left to Ishmael and his descendants the land of Arabia, left to his children by Keturah the land of Troglodytis, left to Isaac the land of Canaan. God said: “Yes, you would in fact be considered impious if you did not remember all that prowess that Abraham displayed in war under my direction.

Jacob too became famous even among a foreign people for the height of that prosperity to which he attained in his lifetime and which he left to his children. With only seventy individuals in all he arrived in Egypt, and already you have become upwards of six hundred thousand. Take note that I am watching over the well-being of your community of you all and your own reputation. This child, whose birth has filled the Egyptians with such dread that they have condenmed to destruction all the offspring of the Israelites, will indeed be yours. He will escape those who are watching to destroy him. Raised in a marvelous fashion, he will deliver the Hebrew descent group from their bondage in Egypt. He will be remembered as long as the universe continues, not only by Hebrews but also by other peoples (allophyloi). I grant that favour on you and on your descendants. Furthermore, he [Moses] will have a brother [Aaron] so blessed as to hold my priesthood, he and his descendants, forever.” . . . [omitted narrative of the birth of Moses].

Leave a comment or correction

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *