Theophrastus on the Jews.

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Ben C. Smith
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Theophrastus on the Jews.

Post by Ben C. Smith » Sat Sep 12, 2020 9:57 pm

I have for some time now found myself fascinated by the description of the Jews which Porphyry attributes to Theophrastus, who would have written On Piety sometime in the last quarter of the fourth century BC:

Porphyry, On Abstinence 2.26: 26 But of the Syrians, the Jews indeed, through the sacrifice which they first made, even now, says Theophrastus, sacrifice animals, and if we were persuaded by them to sacrifice in the same way that they do, we should abstain from the deed. For they do not feast on the flesh of the sacrificed animals, but having thrown the whole of the victims into the fire, and poured much honey and wine on them during the night, they swiftly consume the sacrifice, in order that the All-Seeing <Sun> may not become a spectator of it. And they do this, fasting during all the intermediate days, and through the whole of this time, as belonging to the class of philosophers, and also discourse with each other about the divinity. But in the night, they apply themselves to the theory of the stars, surveying them, and through prayers invoking God. For these make offerings both of other animals and of themselves, doing this from necessity, and not from their own will. The truth of this, however, may be learnt by any one who directs his attention to the Egyptians, the most learned of all men, who are so far from slaying other animals that they make the images of these to be imitations of the Gods, so adapted and allied do they conceive these to be both to Gods and men. / 26 καίτοι Σύρων, ὧν μὲν Ἰουδαῖοι, διὰ τὴν ἐξ ἀρχῆς συνήθειαν ἔτι καὶ νῦν, φησὶν ὁ Θεόφραστος, ζῳοθυτούντων εἰ τὸν αὐτὸν ἡμᾶς τρόπον τις κελεύοι θύειν, ἀποσταίημεν ἂν τῆς πράξεως. οὐ γὰρ ἑστιώμενοι τῶν τυθέντων, ὁλοκαυτοῦντες δὲ ταῦτα νυκτὸς καὶ κατ' αὐτῶν πολὺ μέλι καὶ οἶνον λείβοντες ἀνήλισκον τὴν θυσίαν θᾶττον, ἵνα τοῦ δεινοῦ μὴ <Ἥλιος> ὁ πανόπτης γένοιτο θεατής. καὶ τοῦτο δρῶσιν νηστεύοντες τὰς ἀνὰ μέσον τούτων ἡμέρας· κατὰ δὲ πάντα τοῦτον τὸν χρόνον, ἅτε φιλόσοφοι τὸ γένος ὄντες, περὶ τοῦ θείου μὲν ἀλλήλοις λαλοῦσι, τῆς δὲ νυκτὸς τῶν ἄστρων ποιοῦνται τὴν θεωρίαν, βλέποντες εἰς αὐτὰ καὶ διὰ τῶν εὐχῶν θεοκλυτοῦντες. κατήρξαντο γὰρ οὗτοι πρῶτοι τῶν τε λοιπῶν ζῴων καὶ σφῶν αὐτῶν, ἀνάγκῃ καὶ οὐκ ἐπιθυμίᾳ τοῦτο πράξαντες. μάθοι δ' ἄν τις ἐπιβλέψας τοὺς λογιωτάτους πάντων Αἰγυπτίους, οἳ τοσοῦτον ἀπεῖχον τοῦ φονεύειν τι τῶν λοιπῶν ζῴων, ὥστε τὰς τούτων εἰκόνας μιμήματα τῶν θεῶν ἐποιοῦντο. οὕτως οἰκεῖα καὶ συγγενῆ ταῦτα τοῖς θεοῖς ἐνόμιζον εἶναι καὶ τοῖς ἀνθρώποις.

With the exception of animal sacrifice, this behavior sounds nothing like the Jewish nation described in the Hebrew scriptures, does it? Or perhaps...:

Russell E. Gmirkin, Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus, pages 36-37: 36-37 In the past, it was widely assumed that Theophrastus’s information about the Jews was highly inaccurate, but recent scholarship has pointed out that his description of Jewish religious practices corresponds to certain customs condemned in the Prophets, such as astrology, night offerings (mentioned in conjunction with honey) and human sacrifice. It appears likely that these customs, which the Hebrew Bible condemned as heterodox, were still practiced by some Syrian Jews at or close to the time of Theophrastus. Who these Jews were — whether, for instance, they were from Judea, Samaria, or some other area — is difficult to say, based on the limited information Theophrastus presents.

Gmirkin gives a list of relevant passages in the footnotes, and I have grabbed the full texts of each, including in most cases a good bit of the context:


Jeremiah 7.17-18: 17 Do you not see what they are doing in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? 18 The children gather wood, and the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead dough to make cakes for the Queen of Heaven; and they pour out drink offerings to other gods in order to spite Me.

Jeremiah 8.1-3: “At that time,” declares Yahweh, “they will bring out the bones of the kings of Judah and the bones of its princes, and the bones of the priests and the bones of the prophets, and the bones of the inhabitants of Jerusalem from their graves. 2 They will spread them out to the sun, the moon and to all the host of heaven, which they have loved and which they have served, and which they have gone after and which they have sought, and which they have worshiped. They will not be gathered or buried; they will be as dung on the face of the ground. 3 And death will be chosen rather than life by all the remnant that remains of this evil family, that remains in all the places to which I have driven them,” declares Yahweh of hosts.

Jeremiah 19.10-13: 10 “Then you are to break the jar in the sight of the men who accompany you 11 and say to them, ‘Thus says Yahweh of hosts, “Just so will I break this people and this city, even as one breaks a potter’s vessel, which cannot again be repaired; and they will bury in Topheth because there is no other place for burial. 12 This is how I will treat this place and its inhabitants,” declares the Lord, “so as to make this city like Topheth. 13 The houses of Jerusalem and the houses of the kings of Judah will be defiled like the place Topheth, because of all the houses on whose rooftops they burned sacrifices to all the heavenly host and poured out drink offerings to other gods.”’”

Jeremiah 44.15-19: 15 Then all the men who were aware that their wives were burning sacrifices to other gods, along with all the women who were standing by, as a large assembly, including all the people who were living in Pathros in the land of Egypt, responded to Jeremiah, saying, 16 “As for the message that you have spoken to us in the name of Yahweh, we are not going to listen to you! 17 But rather we will certainly carry out every word that has proceeded from our mouths, by burning sacrifices to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, just as we ourselves, our forefathers, our kings and our princes did in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for then we had plenty of food and were well off and saw no misfortune. 18 But since we stopped burning sacrifices to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have lacked everything and have met our end by the sword and by famine.” 19 “And,” said the women, “when we were burning sacrifices to the Queen of Heaven and were pouring out drink offerings to her, was it without our husbands that we made for her sacrificial cakes in her image and poured out drink offerings to her?”

Ezekiel 8.16-18: 16 Then He brought me into the inner court of Yahweh’s house. And behold, at the entrance to the temple of Yahweh, between the porch and the altar, were about twenty-five men with their backs to the temple of Yahweh and their faces toward the east; and they were prostrating themselves eastward toward the sun. 17 He said to me, “Do you see this, son of man? Is it too light a thing for the house of Judah to commit the abominations which they have committed here, that they have filled the land with violence and provoked Me repeatedly? For behold, they are putting the twig to their nose. 18 Therefore, I indeed will deal in wrath. My eye will have no pity nor will I spare; and though they cry in My ears with a loud voice, yet I will not listen to them.”

Nocturnal Rites

Isaiah 65.2-4: 2 “I have spread out My hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in the way which is not good, following their own thoughts, 3 a people who continually provoke Me to My face, offering sacrifices in gardens and burning incense on bricks, 4 who sit among graves and spend the night in secret places, who eat swine’s flesh, and the broth of unclean meat is in their pots.”

Ezekiel 8:7-13: 7 Then He brought me to the entrance of the court, and when I looked, behold, a hole in the wall. 8 He said to me, “Son of man, now dig through the wall.” So I dug through the wall, and behold, an entrance. 9 And He said to me, “Go in and see the wicked abominations that they are committing here.” 10 So I entered and looked, and behold, every form of creeping things and beasts and detestable things, with all the idols of the house of Israel, were carved on the wall all around. 11 Standing in front of them were seventy elders of the house of Israel, with Jaazaniah the son of Shaphan standing among them, each man with his censer in his hand and the fragrance of the cloud of incense rising. 12 Then He said to me, “Son of man, do you see what the elders of the house of Israel are committing in the dark, each man in the room of his carved images? For they say, ‘The Lord does not see us; the Lord has forsaken the land.’” 13 And He said to me, “Yet you will see still greater abominations which they are committing.”


Ezekiel 16.15-19: 15 “But you trusted in your beauty and played the harlot because of your fame, and you poured out your harlotries on every passer-by who might be willing. 16 You took some of your clothes, made for yourself high places of various colors and played the harlot on them, which should never come about nor happen. 17 You also took your beautiful jewels made of My gold and of My silver, which I had given you, and made for yourself male images that you might play the harlot with them. 18 Then you took your embroidered cloth and covered them, and offered My oil and My incense before them. 19 Also My bread which I gave you, fine flour, oil and honey with which I fed you, you would offer before them for a soothing aroma; so it happened,” declares Yahweh God.

Human Sacrifice

Isaiah 57.4-5: 4 “Against whom do you jest? Against whom do you open wide your mouth and stick out your tongue? Are you not children of rebellion, offspring of deceit, 5 who inflame yourselves among the terebinths, under every luxuriant tree, who slaughter the children in the ravines, under the clefts of the crags?”

Jeremiah 7.30-31: 30 “For the sons of Judah have done that which is evil in My sight,” declares Yahweh, “they have set their detestable things in the house which is called by My name, to defile it. 31 They have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, and it did not come into My heart.”

Jeremiah 19.4-6: 4 “Because they have forsaken Me and have made this an alien place and have burned incense in it to other gods, that neither they nor their forefathers nor the kings of Judah had ever known, and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent 5 and have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, a thing which I never commanded or spoke of, nor did it ever enter My heart, 6 therefore, behold, days are coming,” declares Yahweh, “when this place will no longer be called Topheth or the valley of Ben-hinnom, but rather the valley of Slaughter.”

Jeremiah 32.34-35: 34 “But they put their detestable things in the house which is called by My name, to defile it. 35 They built the high places of Baal that are in the valley of Ben-Hinnom to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire to Molech, which I had not commanded them nor had it come up in my heart that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.”

Ezekiel 16.20-22: 20 “Moreover, you took your sons and daughters whom you had borne to Me and sacrificed them to idols to be devoured. Were your harlotries so small a matter? 21 You slaughtered My children and offered them up to idols by causing them to pass through the fire. 22 Besides all your abominations and harlotries you did not remember the days of your youth, when you were naked and bare and squirming in your blood.”

Ezekiel 23.36-39: 36 Moreover, Yahweh said to me, “Son of man, will you judge Oholah and Oholibah? Then declare to them their abominations. 37 For they have committed adultery, and blood is on their hands. Thus they have committed adultery with their idols and even caused their sons, whom they bore to Me, to pass through the fire to them as food. 38 Again, they have done this to Me: they have defiled My sanctuary on the same day and have profaned My sabbaths. 39 For when they had slaughtered their children for their idols, they entered My sanctuary on the same day to profane it; and lo, thus they did within My house.”

Obviously, the monotheistic temple worship described in the Hebrew scriptures, presided over by priests allegedly descended from Aaron and assisted by Levites, is only part of the full picture of Jewish belief and praxis. The Elephantine papyri, too, reveal that the relentless focus on the Jerusalem temple was hardly universal, if it even existed at the time, that time being the the fifth century BC in the case of Elephantine.

It is probably a good idea to try to get a fuller grasp on the full range of Jewish religious expression, since there are traditions, including Christianity itself, which probably depend either in whole or at least in part upon those elements which the eventual canon of Hebrew scripture does not espouse: not necessarily human sacrifice (in most cases, let us hope), but other customs which were either condemned or overlooked by the authors and editors of the canonical texts.

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Re: Theophrastus on the Jews.

Post by DCHindley » Sun Sep 13, 2020 6:56 am

Perhaps these inaccuracies are to be expected from any anecdotal (hearsay) accounts to be heard in the ports and markets, spoken by those with little or no direct knowledge of the customs they described, much less observed.
The truth of this, however, may be learnt by any one who directs his attention to the Egyptians, the most learned of all men, who are so far from slaying other animals that they make the images of these to be imitations of the Gods, so adapted and allied do they conceive these to be both to Gods and men.
Tell that to the thousands of mummified cats, monkeys and crocodiles found in burials and crypts. These were probably "pets" or cultic animals which had been "deified" prior to mummification. In the 2nd-3rd century magical papyri from Egypt, "deify" was a code word for strangling the victim while uttering sacrificial prayers.

Per Otto Neugebauer (see the essays collected in Astronomy and History, 1983), Egypt had a reputation for esoteric and scientific knowledge that far surpassed their actual abilities to produce it. Rudimentary arithmetic inferior to that of the Babylonians, a lack of detailed observational records of a wide range of sky objects, etc., and lack of a philosophical basis like the Greeks had in Plato, all contributed to the problem. They did put on a good show in grand style, though, in their hieroglyphic pictograms and coffin covers, etc.

So, Theophrastus was wrong about the Egyptians as well.


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