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The Egyptian Account of the Origin of the Hebrews

Tacitus, best of the Roman historians.  Histories were frequently read before an audience.  Thus content and style were affected:  crisp style, sordid details, amusing tales, and grandiloquent speeches; while other element were left out, such as references.  Edith Hamilton said that he was the best of Roman writers in prose.  Moses Hadas provides the best translation.  Tacitus style was emulated by many of the best of English and foreign essayists.  Latin was part of the curriculum starting in grammar school until 2 centuries ago. 


Apion is another source for this tale, but only by reference.  Josephus attacks it in “Contra Apion”. 


todd schorr

Moses Hadas, translation


Moses Hadas, translation


     Evidence of this is sought in the name [for the origin of the Hebrew people].  There is a famous mountain in Crete called Ida; the neighbouring tribe, the Idæi, came to be called Judæi by a barbarous lengthening of the national name.  Others assert that in the reign of Isis the overflowing population of Egypt, led by Hierosolymus and Judas, discharged itself into the neighbouring countries.  Many, again, say that they were a race of Ethiopian origin, who in the time of king Cepheus were driven by fear and hatred of their neighbours to seek a new dwelling-place. Others describe them as an Assyrian horde who, not having sufficient territory, took possession of part of Egypt, and founded cities of their own in what is called the Hebrew country, lying on the borders of Syria. Others, again, assign a very distinguished origin to the Jews, alleging that they were the Solymi, a nation celebrated in the poems of Homer, who called the city which they founded Hierosolyma[1] after their own name.


3. Most writers, however, agree in stating that once a disease, which horribly disfigured the body, broke out over Egypt; that king Bocchoris, seeking a remedy, consulted the oracle of Hammon, and was bidden to cleanse his realm, and to convey into some foreign land this race detested by the gods.  The people, who had been collected after diligent search, finding themselves left in a desert, sat for the most part in a stupor of grief, till one of the exiles, Moyses by name, warned them not to look for any relief from God or man, forsaken as they were of both, but to trust to themselves, taking for their heaven-sent leader that man who should first help them to be quit of their present misery.  They agreed, and in utter ignorance began to advance at random.  Nothing, however, distressed them so much as the scarcity of water, and they had sunk ready to perish in all I directions over the plain, when a herd of wild asses was seen to retire from their pasture to a rock shaded by trees.  Moyses followed them, and, guided by the appearance of a grassy spot, discovered an abundant spring of water.  This furnished relief.  After a continuous journey for six days, on the seventh they possessed themselves of a country, from which they expelled the inhabitants, and in which they founded a city and a temple.


4.    Moyses, wishing to secure for the future his authority over the nation, gave them a novel form of worship, op­posed to all that practised by other men.  Things sacred with us, with them have no sanctity, while they allow what with us is forbidden. In their holy place they have conse­crated an image of the animal by whose guidance they found deliverance from their long and thirsty wanderings. They slay the ram, seemingly in derision of Hammon, and they sacrifice the ox, because the Egyptians worship it as Apis. They abstain from swines flesh, in consideration of what they suffered when they were infected by the leprosy to which this animal is liable. By their frequent fasts they still bear witness to the long hunger of former days, and the Jewish bread, made without leaven, is retained as a memo­rial of their hurried seizure of corn. We are told that the rest of the seventh day was adopted, because this day brought with it a termination of their toils; after a while the charm of indolence beguiled them into giving up the seventh year also to inaction.  But others say that it is an observance in honour of Saturn, either from the primitive elements of their faith having been transmitted from the Ideai, who are said to have shared the flight of that God, and to have founded the race, or from the circumstance that of the seven stars which rule the destinies of men, for Saturn moves in the highest orbit and with the mightiest power, and that many of the heavenly bodies complete their revolutions and courses in multiples of seven.[2]


5. This worship, however introduced, is upheld by it's an­tiquity; all their other customs, which are at once perverse and disgusting, owe their strength to their very badness. The most degraded out of other races, scorning their na­tional beliefs, brought to them their contributions and pres­ents. This augmented the wealth of the Jews, as also did the fact, that among themselves they are inflexibly honest and ever ready to shew compassion, though they regard the rest of mankind with all the hatred of enemies. They sit apart at meals, they sleep apart. and though, as a nation, they are singularly prone to lust, they abstain from intercourse with foreign women; among themselves nothing is unlawful. Circumcision was adopted by them as a mark of difference from other men. Those who come over to their religion adopt the practice, and have this lesson first instilled into despise all gods, to disown their country, and set at naught parents, children, and brethren.  Still they provide for increase of their numbers. It is a crime among them to kill any newly-born infant. They hold that the souls of perish in battle or by the hands of the executioner are mortal; hence a passion for propagating their race and a contempt for death. They are wont to bury rather burn their dead, following in this the Egyptian custom, bestow the same care on the dead, and they hold the belief about the lower world. Quite different is their faith about things divine. The Egyptians worship many animals and images of monstrous form; the Jews have purely conceptions of Deity, as one in essence. They call those profane who make representations of God in human shape of perishable materials. They believe that Being to be supreme and eternal, neither capable of representation or decay. They therefore do not allow any images to their cities: much less in their temples. This flattery is not paid to their kings, nor this honour to our Emperors. From the fact, however, that their priests used to chant to music of flutes and cymbals, and to wear garlands of and that a golden vine was found in the temple, some thought that they worshipped Father Liber, the conqueror of the East, though their institutions do not by any means harmonize with the theory; for Liber established a festive and cheerful worship, while the Jewish religion is tasteless and mean.[3]


    6.    Eastward the country is bounded by Arabia; to the south lies Egypt; on the west are Phcenicia and the Mediterranean. Northward it commands an extensive prospect over Syria. The inhabitants are healthy and able to bear fatigue.  Rain is uncommon, but the soil is fertile. Its products resemble our own. They have, besides, the balsam and the palm. The palm-groves are tall and graceful.  The balsam is a shrub; each branch, as it fills with sap, may pierced with a fragment of stone or pottery.  If steel is employed, the veins shrink up. The sap is used by physicians.  Libanus is the principal mountain, and has, strange to say, amidst these burning heats, a summit shaded with trees and never deserted by its snows. The same range supplies and sends forth the stream of the Jordan. This river does not dis­charge itself into the sea, but flows entire through two lakes, and is lost in the third. This is a lake of vast circumference; it resembles the sea, but is more nauseous in taste; it breeds pestilence among those who live near by its noisome odour; it cannot be moved by the wind, and it affords no home either to fish or water-birds.  These strange waters support what is thrown upon them, as on a solid surface, and all persons, whether they can swim or no, are equally buoyed up by the waves. At a certain season of the year the lake throws up bitumen, and the method of collecting it has been taught by that experience which teaches all other arts. It is naturally a fluid of dark colour; when vinegar is sprinkled upon it, it coagulates and floats upon the surface. Those whose business it is take it with the hand, and draw it on to the deck of the boat; it then continues of itself to flow in and lade the vessel till the stream is cut off; nor can this be done by any instrument of brass or iron. It shrinks from blood or any cloth stained by the menstrual of women.  Such is the account of old authors; but those who know the country say that the bitumen moves in heaving masses on the water, that it is drawn by hand to the shore, and that there, when dried by the evaporation of the earth and the power of the sun, it is cut into pieces with axes and wedges just as timber or stone would be.


7. Not far from this lake lies a plain, once fertile, they say, and the site of great cities, but afterwards struck by lightning and consumed. Of this event, they declare, traces still remain, for the soil, which is scorched in appearance, has lost its productive power.

[1] Jerusalem to us. 

[2]  The Romans and Greeks knew only 7 planets (counting the moon and the sun).  Tacitus refers to astrology which holds that men are ruled by the seven planets.  The Jews have a fixation on seven and seven times seven.  Tacitus and others thought it was from the seven planets of astrology. 

[3] Also Liber Pater (Liber means the Father), a Roman fertility god who had an important cult on the Aventine Hill in Rome.  During the famine in 496 B.C. the Sibylline Books recommended that the worshipong of Demeter, Iacchus, and Kore (Greek deities associated with the Eleusinian Mysteries) be identified with the Roman Gods Ceres, Liber and Libera.  As Liber Pater, he was often identified with the Greek god Dionysus, even though Liber was not associated with wine.  Liber had a festival on March 17.  Just like the Jews and Christians who associate their chief god Yahweh with other ruling gods (the universal spirit), the Greeks and Romans found that their Gods were worshiped by others, but with different names.  Thus we find that some Romans and Greeks thought Pater Liber was worship by the Jews under a different name; but Tacitus rejects this hypothesis because the Jewish worship was not sufficiently festive. 


This part of Tacitus history is insightful.  First, it expresses what the educated Roman felt of the religious Jews--the same would apply to all religious zealots.[i]  These fanatics were more animal than rational:  reason did not control their religious (and other) passions.  This lack of control led in the lifetime of Tacitus to riots in Rome, for which the Jews were expelled.  They  rioted in Alexandria.  And they revolted in Jerusalem, for which they were expelled from that city, after many were slain.  They were thus held in low opinion for their violence against mother Rome and for their religious fanaticism.  (The Christians were thought of by the education--which were those who listened to readings of Tacitus--no better).


This passage is an example of the power of expression of Tacitus and his Jewish translator, Moses Hadas. 


Since the Egyptians were offended by a tale which belittled their pharaoh and their gods, it is only fitting that they tell a tale belittling the chief God of the Hebrews, their leader in the Exodus tale, and the Hebrews.  The Egyptian tale, repeated by Tacitus, is no more anti-Semitic than Exodus is anti-Egyptian.  Tacitus treating the Egyptian tale as history is far less a slight on the profession of historian than the current Christians and Jews treating the Exodus tale (with its far greater supernatural content) as history.  Tacitus is good reading, and he is an historian.


More on this account, the surviving Egyptian source

[i]   The majority of the educated Romans though giving lip service to the traditional gods, found compelling the principal philosophiesEpicurism, Stoicism, and other scientific prospective of the nature of things.  To them religion was inconsistent with their beliefs, a dangerous and frightful folly, and a demonstration of defects in the practitioners rational process. 

Tacitus, who wrote at the end of the first century and beginning of the second century AD, is the best of writers in Latin Prose (Edith Hamilton concurs).  His concise style made his histories a standared reading from the 16th till the middle of the 19th century--in Latin of course.  His influence upon the English essay is best enjoyed in Francis Bacon's offerings.  And like Bacon, he wrote for the tastes of an educated audience.  This is reflected in his rightly held prejudice against religious fanaticism, which comes to the surface in the above selected passage on the Hebrews.  As he said, he wrote to prase those who deserve praise and expose thosw who merit blame.  The passage on the Hebrews thus is not merely a castigation of a troublesome lot of religious zealots, who rebelled gainst Rome, but also a fatherly lesson on the evils of religious excesses. 
His silence on Christ is yet another reason (see my essays thereon) for assuming there there was no historical Christ (the Gospels are essentailly fictions).  In a passage on the perversions of Nero, including the tourching of a few Christians following the great confligation in Rome, Tacitus mentions that Christ was the father of this new faith.  However, it is merely a repeating of popular belief of  the Christians of Rome about their founder, rather than a statement based on recent reports from the Levant region, and the one line exists merely to identify the Christians as worshipers of Christ.  This passage is another gem of his prose. 
If one be of little inclination to read source material on Roman history, then I would recommend the account of the life of his father-in-law, the governor of the 'brits.  It is a delightful biography dressed best in the translation of Moses Hadas. 

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The skeptic is one who judges all things according to the evidence.  The common herd affirms many things to a degree well beyond what the evidence supports; and conversely doubts that which is worthy of greater affirmation.  The humanistic skeptic applies a second measure, that of  harm resulting from such beliefs.  Issues of economics and politics, of religion, quackery and corporate medicine, and of imprudent behavior top the harm done list.   Education and scientific psychology are gateways to following the dictates of reason.