Doing Justice in Pseudo-Phocylides

Pseudo-Phocylides was a sixth century B.C. poet who was well known in the ancient world as an author of maxims and proverbs applicable to daily life. In the first century B.C. a diaspora Jewish writer created 230 lines of poetry in the name of Phocylides in order to demonstrate to the gentiles that Judaism was a rational religion. The point was probably not to convert the pagans but to create “sympathizers” among the gentiles (OTP 2:566).

Who was Pseudo-Phocylides?Their value to New Testament backgrounds is to show what sort of “wisdom” was current in the first century. Nearly every line has some sort of parallel in the Old Testament and other apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, so any New Testament parallels are only similar in that they share this same foundation. For example, line 42, “the love of money is the mother of all evil” is a common bit of wisdom found also in 1 Timothy 6:10 and in another form in Hebrews 13:5. According to the author, Gold is the “originator of evil, destroyer of life, crushing all things.” It is unlikely the New Testament writer knew the saying from the document we now call Pseudo-Phocylides. A saying like “the love of money is the mother of all evil” was simply a part of the wisdom tradition among the Jews as well as Greco-Roman ethical teaching.

The first two lines of the book introduce Phocylides as “the Wisest of men” who sets forth these counsels of God by his holy judgments, gifts of blessing.” This is followed by several commands which recall the Torah. For example, line 3, “Neither commit adultery nor rouse homosexual passion” combines Exodus 20:14 (Deut 5:18) with Leviticus 18:22 or 20:13. The editor of this section of OTP labels these verses as a summary of the Decalogue, but the lines are not strictly from the Ten Commandments.  “Do not become rich,” for example, may be based on the command not to covet, but the connection is not direct.

In Second Temple Jewish wisdom literature, a wise person does not simply exist in a state of wisdom. Their wisdom is demonstrated by doing acts of justice and mercy. In lines 9-21, the author commands his readers to “always dispense justice” and then describes several concrete examples of what dispensing justice looks like. For example, “Flee false witness; award what is just” (12) and “Give the laborer his pay, do not afflict the poor” (19).

In lines 22-24 the write admonishes the reader to be diligent in doing mercy. Once again, the wise person “does mercy” by treating the poor and needy with respect. Pseudo-Phocylides is consistent with the treatment of the poor in the Torah and other wisdom literature.

Pseudo-Phocylides 22-24 Give to the poor man at once, and do not tell him to come tomorrow. You must fill your hand. Give alms to the needy. Receive the homeless in (your) house, and lead the blind man.

Proverbs 3:27 (ESV) Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it.

Sirach 4:3–6 (NRSV) Do not add to the troubles of the desperate, or delay giving to the needy. 4 Do not reject a suppliant in distress, or turn your face away from the poor. 5 Do not avert your eye from the needy, and give no one reason to curse you; 6 for if in bitterness of soul some should curse you, their Creator will hear their prayer.

Like Micah 6:8 or the book of James, the author of this collection expects the wise person to work out their faith in God through concrete actions towards the poor and need. There are several examples of this in the book of Acts. In Acts 9:36 Tabitha “was full of good works and acts of charity” because she made garments for the poor. In the next paragraph of Acts, the Roman centurion Cornelius was considered to be a righteous man because he “gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God” (Acts 10:2).

Pseudo-Phocylides therefore is additional evidence that first century Jewish practice considered care for the poor and underclass to be a natural response to God. See also Pseudo-Phocylides on Hard Work.

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