Judean wisdom: Josephos on Solomon as the ultimate wise man, controller of lower spirits, and healer (late-first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Judean wisdom: Josephos on Solomon as the ultimate wise man, controller of lower spirits, and healer (late-first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 1, 2024, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=16406.

Ancient author: Josephos (late-first century CE), Judean Antiquities 8.42-49 (link).

Comments: Apparently tapping into the Greek notion of wise foreigners (or “barbarians”) and expressly competing with Egyptian priests’ image as the ultimate wise men, Flavius Josephos presents the Israelite king Solomon as superior to all others in wisdom, including wisdom about celestial phenomena (Josephos may be thinking of competition with Chaldeans) and about healing incantations and control of lower spirits (competition with Persian Magians). Josephos then gives an example of how Solomon’s knowledge continues to inform Judean wise men many centuries later (in his own time) in effectively controlling the lower spirits, or demons. A similar competitive approach using the figure of Solomon comes through in the Testament of Solomon (link).


[Solomon wiser than Egyptians]

(8.42-49) God granted Solomon such great prudence and wisdom that he surpassed people of ancient times. The Egyptians, who are said to excel all men in understanding, were not only a little bit inferior but proved to fall far short of the king in practical wisdom, when compared with him. Solomon also surpassed and excelled in wisdom those who in his own time who had a reputation for cleverness among the Hebrews, and whose names I will not leave out: they were Ethan, Heman, Chalkol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol (Athanos, Haimanos, Chalkeos and Dardanos, sons of Hemaon). Solomon also composed a thousand and five books of odes and songs, and three thousand books of parables and similitudes.

[Knowledge of physics and natural phenomena]

Solomon spoke a parable about every kind of tree from the hyssop to the cedar, and similarly about birds and all kinds of creatures of land, water, and sky. There was no form of nature with which he was not acquainted or which he passed over without examining. Instead, he studied them all philosophically and revealed the most complete knowledge of their several properties.

[Knowledge of healing and controlling lower spirits]

God granted Solomon knowledge of the skill used against lower spirits (or: demons; daimones) for the benefit and healing of men. He also composed incantations by which illnesses are relieved, and left behind forms of exorcisms with which those possessed by lower spirits drive them out, never to return.

And this kind of cure is of very great power among us to this day. I have seen a certain Eleazar, who is of the same tribe (homophylon) as myself, liberate men possessed by demons in the presence of Vespasian, his sons, tribunes and a number of other soldiers. This was the manner of the cure: he put to the nose of the possessed man a ring which had under its seal one of the roots prescribed by Solomon [on this see the Testament of Solomon (link coming soon)]. Then, as the man smelled it, Eleazar drew out the lower spirit through his nostrils. Once the man immediately fell down, Eleazar urged the lower spirit never to come back into him, speaking Solomon’s name and reciting the incantations which he had composed.

Then, wishing to convince the bystanders and prove to them that he had this power, Eleazar placed a cup or foot-basin full of water a little way off. He commanded the lower spirit, as it went out of the man, to overturn the cup of water and make known to the spectators that the lower spirit had left the man. When this was done, the understanding and wisdom of Solomon were clearly revealed. This is why we have been induced to speak about these things, in order that all men may know the greatness of Solomon’s nature and how God favoured him, and in order that no one under the sun may be ignorant of the kings surpassing virtue of every kind.


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.

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