Judean wisdom: Pseudo-Clementines on Abraham the astrologer and legends of migration (second-fourth centuries CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Judean wisdom: Pseudo-Clementines on Abraham the astrologer and legends of migration (second-fourth centuries CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified June 14, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=16805.

Ancient authors: Pseudo-Clement (second-fourth centuries, but 406 CE in this Latin translation), Recognitions 1.32-33 (link; link to Latin text of Rufinus’ translation).

Comments: Like the material presented by Artapanos (link), Eupolemos (link), and Josephos (link), some of the Judean traditions incorporated within the story of Clement (known as the Pseudo-Clementines) present Abraham as an astrologer. In this way, the ancestor of Israelites and Judeans could be pictured as responsible for the dissemination of an important component that advanced civilization. At the same time Judeans could compete with alternative claims by other peoples, such as those holding traditions that Babylonians or Egyptians invented such bodies of knowledge.

In the passages of the Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions below, Peter is pictured teaching Clement and others biblical history, including a story about Abraham’s special knowledge in reading the stars (on which also see other parts of Peter’s speech at this link in connection with the origins of Persian Magian skill). The material presented in the narrative also briefly sketches out a story about the migration of Abraham’s descendants, thereby claiming “barbarian” peoples, Persians and even Baktrian or Indian Brahmans as (mis-guided) relatives of Israelites.

There is a noteworthy tension in the Recognitions‘ treatment of astrology, however. On the one hand, an author or editor of the work at some stage includes a positive image of Abraham as astrologer as we have just seen. On the other hand, an author or editor at this or another stage also seems insistent on debunking the value of any supposed knowledge gained from astrology, at least of a certain brand of astrology. When Clement reunites with his father in the story, the narrative presents the father as misguidingly focussed on astrological fate, on which go to this link. Perhaps there are simply inconsistencies in the final author’s perspectives or aims. Yet there may also be the notion that there is good astrology as Abraham learned it and bad astrological determinism as practiced by Babylonians, Chaldeans (beyond Abraham), or other peoples contemporary with the author.

Works consulted: N. Kelley, Knowledge and Religious Authority in the Pseudo-Clementines: Situating the “Recognitions” in Fourth Century Syria (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006) (link).

Source of the translation: T. Smith, “The Recognitions of Clement,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325, Volume 8, eds. J. Donaldson and A. Roberts (Buffalo: The Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1916), 75-211, public domain, adapted and modernized by Harland.


[Abraham the astrologer]

(1.32-33) “In the twenty-first generation [after creation] there was a certain wise man, of the descent group (genus) of those who were expelled, of the family of Noah’s eldest son, by name Abraham, from whom our Hebrew descent group (genus) is derived. When errors were rampant throughout the whole world; when destruction – this time not by water but by fire – was imminent due to the hideousness of its crimes; and, when already the scourge was hanging over the whole earth beginning with Sodom, because of his friendship with God (who was well pleased with him) this man Abraham obtained information from God that the whole world would not equally perish. From the outset this same man, being an astrologer, was able to recognize the creator from the account and order of the stars, while all other people were in error. Abraham understood that all things are regulated by God’s providence. An angel also stood by him in a vision and instructed him more fully concerning those things which he was beginning to perceive. The angel also showed Abraham what belonged to his descent group and offspring, and promised him that those districts should be restored rather than given to them.

So as Abraham was seeking to learn the causes of things and was intently pondering on what had been told him, the true Prophet (who alone knows the hearts and purpose of men) appeared to him and disclosed to Abraham everything he wanted to know. The Prophet taught Abraham the knowledge of the Divinity; intimated the beginning and end of the world; showed him the immortality of the soul and the manner of life which was pleasing to God; and, declared the resurrection of the dead, the future judgment, the reward of the good, and the punishment of the evil, all to be regulated by righteous judgment. After giving him all this information plainly and sufficiently, the Prophet departed again to the invisible regions.

[Migration and colonies of Abraham’s descendants]

However, while Abraham was still in ignorance [i.e. before the Prophet shared this information], as we said to you before, two sons were born to him. One was called Ishmael, and the other Heliesdros. From the one [Ishmael] are descended the barbarian peoples (gentes), from the other [Heliesdros] the population (populus) of the Persians. Some of the latter have adopted the manner of living and the institutions of their neighbours, the Brahmans [i.e. pictured in Baktria or India]. Others settled in Arabia, some of whose descendants have also spread into Egypt. From them, some of the Indians and of the Egyptians have learned to be circumcised, and to be of purer observance than others. Although, over time, most of these descendants have turned to impiety from what was originally the proof and sign of purity.

Leave a comment or correction

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