Judean wisdom: Philo on the superiority of Moses and Judean ancestral customs (first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Judean wisdom: Philo on the superiority of Moses and Judean ancestral customs (first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 31, 2024, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=7041.

Ancient author: Philo of Alexandria, Moses 2.1-3, 12-44 (link).

Comments: In his biography on Moses, Philo presents the figure of Moses as an ideal king, philosopher, law-giver, high priest, and prophet. As a child, Moses had outdone any Egyptian, Greek, or Chaldean teachers he had had.

Writing in Greek to a wider audience, Philo takes this as an opportunity to position Judeans at the pinnacle of ancient peoples with their superior ancestral customs and leader. In this passage, he is aiming to show that Moses is the ideal law-giver specifically. He deals with the translation of the five books of Moses (as they were known) into Greek and the notion that many other peoples had adopted Judean (Jewish) ancestral customs. So this is another instance in which competition among (as well as subsuming of) ethnic groups is quite clear.


[Moses superior to his Egyptian, Greek and Chaldean teachers]

(1.21-24) Teachers at once arrived from different parts [to teach the child Moses], some unbidden from the neighbouring countries and the provinces of Egypt, others summoned from Greece under promise of high reward. But in a short time he advanced beyond their capacities. His gifted nature forestalled their instruction, so that his seemed a case rather of recollection than of learning, and he himself actually devised and propounded problems which they could not easily solve. For great natures carve out much that is new in the way of knowledge. Just as bodies, robust and agile in every part, free their trainers from care and receive little or none of their usual attention, and, in the same way, just as well-grown and naturally healthy trees, which improve of themselves, give the gardener trouble, so the gifted soul takes the lead in meeting the lessons given by itself rather than the teacher and is profited by this. As soon as it has a grasp of some of the first principles of knowledge the gifted soul presses forward like the horse to the meadow, as the proverb goes.

Arithmetic, measurement of the earth, metre, rhythm and harmony, and the whole subject of music as shown by the use of instruments or in textbooks and treatises of a more special character, were imparted to him by learned Egyptians. These further instructed him in the pursuit of wisdom (philosophia) conveyed in symbols, as displayed in sacred letters [i.e. hieroglyphs], and they instructed him in the regard paid to animals, to which they even pay divine honours.

He had Greeks to teach him the rest of the regular school course, and the inhabitants of the neighbouring countries for Assyrian letters [i.e. cuneiform] and the Chaldean knowledge about the heavenly phenomena. He also acquired this from Egyptians, who give special attention to calculations regarding heavenly phenomena. And, when he had mastered the knowledge of both peoples, both where they agree and where they differ, he eschewed all strife and contention and sought only for truth. His mind was incapable of accepting any falsehood like the members of the sects [of the Greeks] do, who defend the doctrines they have propounded, whatever they may be, without examining whether they can stand scrutiny, and thus put themselves on a par with hired advocates who have no thought nor care for justice. . . [omitted remainder of book one].

[Introduction of book 2 – Moses as king, philosopher, law-giver, high priest, and prophet]

(1) The former treatise dealt with the birth and upbringing of Moses, as well as with his education and career as a ruler, in which capacity his conduct was not merely blameless but highly praiseworthy. It also dealt with the works which he performed in Egypt and during the journeys both at the Red Sea and in the wilderness, works which no words can adequately describe. Furthermore, it dealt with the troubles which he successfully surmounted and with his partial distribution of territories to the combatants. The present treatise is concerned with related matters which follow from the former ones. (2) For it has been said, not without good reason, that cities can only make progress in well-being if either kings are philosophers or philosophers are kings, But in one single person, Moses will be found to have displayed and more than displayed not only these two faculties – the kingly and the philosophical – but also three others. One of those others is concerned with law-giving, the second with the high priest’s office, and the last with prophecy. (3) On these three I have now chosen to write, being forced to the conviction that it is fitting that they should be combined in the same person. For Moses, through God’s providence, became king, lawgiver, high priest, and prophet. In each function he won the highest place. . . [material omitted].

[Judean Moses as the superior law-giver]

(12) That Moses himself was the best of all law-givers everywhere, better in fact than any that have ever arisen among either the Greeks or the barbarians, and that his laws (nomoi) are most excellent and truly come from God, since they omit nothing that is needful, is shown most clearly by the following proof: (13) Anyone who takes a considered view of the customs (nomima) of others will find that they have been unsettled by numberless causes – wars, tyrannies or other mishaps – which the revolutions of fortune have launched upon them. Often, too, luxury, growing to excess by lavish supplies of excesses, has upset the laws. Because the mass of people, being unable to bear “good things in excess,” becomes satiated and consequently violent: and violence is the enemy of law. (14) But Moses is alone in this, that his laws, firm, unshaken, immovable, stamped, as it were, with the seals of nature herself, remain secure from the day when they were first enacted until now. We may expect that they will remain for all future ages as though immortal, so long as the sun and moon and the whole heaven and universe exist. (15) Thus, though the people have faced so many changes, both to increased prosperity and the reverse, nothing – not even the most insignificant part of the ordinances – has been disturbed, because all have clearly paid high honour to their venerable and godlike character. (16) But that which no famine nor pestilence nor war nor king nor tyrant, no rebel assault of soul or body or passion or vice, nor any other evil whether of God’s sending or man’s making, could undo, must surely be precious beyond what words can describe.

[Judean customs widely respected among many peoples]

(17) Yet, though it may be rightly thought a great matter in itself that the laws should have been guarded securely through all time, we have not reached the true marvel. There is something surely still more wonderful: not only Judeans but almost every other people, particularly those which take more account of virtue, have so far grown in holiness as to value and honour our laws. In this they have received a special distinction which belongs to no other code. Here is the proof. (18) Throughout the world of Greeks and barbarians, there is practically no city which honours the customs of any other. Indeed, they can scarcely be said to retain their own perpetually, as they adapt them to meet the arbitrary occurences of times and circumstances. (19) The Athenians reject the customs and institutions of the Lakedaimonians [Spartans], and the Lakedaimonians those of the Athenians. In the world of the barbarians, the Egyptians do not maintain the laws of the Scythians, nor the Scythians those of the Egyptians. To put it generally, Europeans do not maintain the laws of Asians, nor Asians those of Europeans. We may fairly say that humankind from east to west, every land, people, and city, demonstrate an aversion to foreign customs (nomimoi). They also think that they will enhance the respect for their own by showing disrespect for those of others. (20) It is not so with our customs. They attract and win the attention of all, of barbarians, Greeks, inhabitants of the mainland and the islands, peoples of the east and the west, peoples of Europe and Asia, and peoples of the whole inhabited world from end to end.

[Judean custom of Sabbath day of rest]

(21) For, who has not shown his high respect for that sacred seventh day by giving rest and relaxation from labour to himself and his neighbours, freemen and slaves alike, and beyond these to his animals? (22) For the holiday extends also to every herd, and to all creatures made to serve humans, who serve like slaves their natural master. It extends also to every kind of trees and plants. For it is not permitted to cut any shoot or branch, or even a leaf, or to pluck any fruit whatsoever. All such things are set free on that day, and live as it were in freedom, under the general edict that proclaims that none should touch them.

[Judean customs of fasting]

(23) Again, who does not every year show amazement and reverence for the fast, as it is called, which is kept more strictly and solemnly than the holy month (hieromenia) of the Greeks? For in the Greek holy month, the unmixed wine flows freely, and the banquet is prepared sumptuously, and all manner of food and drink are lavishly provided, through which the insatiable pleasures of the belly are enhanced. These further cause the outburst of the sexual desires that lie below the belly. (24) But in our fast men may not put food and drink to their lips, in order that with pure hearts, untroubled and unrestricted by any bodily passion, such as is the common outcome of excess, they may keep the holy day. They propitiate the Father of everything with fitting prayers, in which they are accustomed to ask that their old failures may be forgiven and new blessings gained and enjoyed.

[Translation of Judean laws from Chaldean to Greek under Ptolemy Philadelphos]

(25) That the sanctity of our legislation has been a source of wonder not only to the Judeans, but also to all other peoples, is clear both from the facts already mentioned and those which I proceed to state now. (26) In ancient times the laws were written in the Chaldean language, and remained in that form for many years without any change of language, so long as they had not yet revealed their beauty to the rest of humankind. (27) But, over time, the daily, unbroken regularity of practice exercised by those who observed them brought them to the knowledge of others, and their fame began to spread on every side. For excellent things, even if they are obscured for a short time through envy, shine out again under the kind operation of nature when their time comes.

Then it was that some people, thinking it a shame that the laws should only be found among one half the human race, the barbarians, and denied altogether to the Greeks, took steps to have them translated. (28) In view of the importance and public utility of the task, it was referred not to private persons or magistrates, who were very numerous, but to kings, and amongst them to the king of highest repute. (29) Ptolemy [II], surnamed Philadelphos [reigned 284-246 BCE], was the third in succession to Alexander, the conqueror of Egypt. In all the qualities which make a good ruler, he excelled not only his contemporaries, but all who have arisen in the past. Even until today, after so many generations, his praises are sung for the many evidences and monuments of his greatness of mind which he left behind him in different cities and lands, so that, even now, acts of more than ordinary munificence or buildings on a particularly grand scale are proverbially called “Philadelphian” after him. (30) To put it briefly, as the house of the Ptolemies was highly distinguished compared with other dynasties, so was Philadelphos compared to the rest of the Ptolemies. The creditable achievements of this one man almost outnumbered those of all the others put together, and, as the head takes the highest place in the living body, so he may be said to head the kings.

(31) This great man, having conceived an enthusiastic affection for our laws, determined to have the Chaldean translated into Greek, and at once dispatched envoys to the high priest and king of Judaea, both offices being held by the same person. He explained his wishes and urged him to choose by merit persons to make a full rendering of the law into Greek. (32) The high priest was naturally pleased, and, thinking that God’s guiding care must have led the king to focus on such an undertaking, looked for Hebrews of the highest reputation, who had received an education in Greek as well as in their ancestral customs, and joyfully sent them to Ptolemy. (33) When they arrived, they were offered hospitality and, having been sumptuously entertained, requited their entertainer with a feast of words full of wit and weight. For he tested the wisdom of each by propounding for discussion new questions instead of the ordinary questions. They solved the problems with happy and well-pointed answers in the form of short pithy sayings, as the occasion did not allow for lengthy speaking. (34) After standing this test, they at once began to fulfil the duties of their noble task. Reflecting how great an undertaking it was to make a full version of the laws given by the voice of God, where they could not add or take away or transfer anything, but must keep the original form and shape, they proceeded to look for the most open and unoccupied spot in the neighbourhood outside the city [of Alexandria]. For, within the walls, it was full of every kind of living creatures, and consequently the prevalence of diseases and deaths, and the impure conduct of the healthy inhabitants, made them suspicious of it. (35) In front of Alexandria lies the island of Pharos, stretching with its narrow strip of land towards the city, and enclosed by a sea not deep but mostly consisting of shoals. Consequently, the loud din and booming of the surging waves grows faint through the long distance before it reaches the land. (36) Judging this to be the most suitable place in the district, where they might find peace and calmness and where the soul could interact with the laws with no one to disturb the privacy, they stayed there. Taking the sacred books, they stretched them out towards heaven with the hands that held them, asking of God that they might not fail in their purpose. God assented to their prayers, with the purpose that the greater part or even the entire human race might benefit and be led to a better life by continuing to observe such wise and truly admirable ordinances.

(37) Sitting here in seclusion with no one present except the elements of nature, earth, water, air, heaven, the beginning (Genesis) of which was to be the first theme of their sacred revelation, for the laws begin with the story of the world’s creation. They became, so to speak, possessed and wrote under inspiration the same word for word – not each several scribe something different – as though dictated to each translator by an invisible prompter. (38) Yet who does not know that every language, and Greek especially, abounds in terms, and that the same thought can be put in many ways by changing single words and whole phrases and suiting the expression to the occasion? This was not the case here, we are told, with this law of ours, but the Greek words used corresponded literally with the Chaldean, exactly suited to the things they indicated. (39) For, just as in geometry and logic, so it seems to me, the sense indicated does not admit of variety in the expression which remains unchanged in its original form, so these writers, as it clearly appears, arrived at a wording which corresponded with the matter, and alone, or better than any other, would bring out clearly what was meant. (40) The clearest proof of this is that, if Chaldeans have learned Greek, or Greeks have learned Chaldean, and read both versions – both the Chaldean and the translation – they regard them with amazement and reverence as sisters or rather one and the same, both in meaning and words. Such people speak of the authors not as translators but as prophets and priests of the mysteries, whose sincerity and singleness of thought has enabled them to go hand in hand with the purest of spirits, the spirit of Moses.

[Festival celebrating the translation]

(41) Therefore, even to the present day, there is held every year a feast and general assembly on the island of Pharos. From here, not only Judeans but multitudes of others cross the water both to do honour to the place in which the light of that version first shone out and to thank God for the good gift so ancient yet ever young. (42) But, after the prayers and thanksgivings, some setting up tents on the seaside and others reclining on the sandy beach in the open air feast with their relations and friends, counting that shore for the time a more magnificent lodging than the fine mansions in the royal precincts. (43) In this way, the laws are shown to be desirable and precious in the eyes of everyone, ordinary people and leaders alike, even though our people has not prospered for many years. It is natural that when people are not flourishing their belongings to some degree are under a cloud. (44) But, if a fresh start should be made towards brighter prospects, how great a change for the better might we expect to see! I believe that every people would abandon its peculiar ways and, throwing away their ancestral customs (patria), turn to honouring our laws (nomoi) alone. For, when the brightness of their shining is accompanied by prosperity, it will darken the light of the others as the risen sun darkens the stars.


Source of translation: F.H. Colson, G. Whitaker, and R. Marcus, Philo, 12 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1929-41), public domain (Colson passed away in 1943; Whitaker passed away in 1929; Marcus passed away in 1956), adapted by Harland.

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