Who was Ahikar?

Also spelled Ahiqar, Ahikar is Tobit’s nephew (Tobit 1:21-22) and an example of a faithful Jew living in the Assyrian empire.

Tobit 1:21-22 (NRSV) But not forty days passed before two of Sennacherib’s sons killed him, and they fled to the mountains of Ararat, and his son Esar-haddon reigned after him. He appointed Ahikar, the son of my brother Hanael over all the accounts of his kingdom, and he had authority over the entire administration. 22 Ahikar interceded for me, and I returned to Nineveh. Now Ahikar was chief cupbearer, keeper of the signet, and in charge of administration of the accounts under King Sennacherib of Assyria; so Esar-haddon reappointed him. He was my nephew and so a close relative.

Ahiqar is “one of the best-known and most widely disseminated tales in the ancient modern world” (Lindenberger, OTP 2:480). The text is quite old, probably dating from the fifth or sixth century B.C. Fragments appear in the Elephantine documents. The book likely had an influence on several Apocryphal books, such as Tobit 1:41 and was popular well into the Christian Era. The book was “still being copied in Arabic as late as the eighteenth century and in Syriac as late as the end of the nineteenth “(Lindenberger, 492).

By Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=92797982

Elephantine Papyrus of Ahiqar Photo Credit: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg)

While the book is wisdom literature, it may not be Hebrew wisdom literature, at least in its most basic form. The genre of Ahiqar is a “court tale,” so often a parallel is made to Daniel (Goldingay, Daniel, 6) and there are parallels to Esther (Ahiqar saved a man’s life then later that man has power over him) The value of the book for New Testament studies is primarily in the “sayings” section. There are many sayings which have parallels to Old Testament wisdom and therefore may be present in the New Testament as well. Likely as not the New Testament stands on the foundation of the Old rather than on a book like Ahiqar. The book does serve to show the sort of proverbial wisdom which was current in the centuries before Christ and an interesting study could be done tracing the trajectory from Old Testament wisdom to Ahiqar then to Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon, then into Christian wisdom like material.

The plot of the book concerns the retirement of Ahiqar after the death of Sennacherib. Ahiqar requests that his adopted son Nadin take his role as advisor and scribe for the new king, Esarhaddon. Nadin spreads a rumor that Ahiqar has devised a “wicked plot” against Esarhaddon, so the king orders him killed. The guard sent to capture and execute Ahiqar was once involved in a court intrigue himself and Ahiqar spared his life. This guard proposes to kill a eunuch slave and tell people it was Ahiqar in order to spare his life. They do this, and Ahiqar hides himself while everyone thinks he is dead.

The story breaks off at that point, but Lindenberger summarizes the rest of the story as reconstructed from later versions: The king of Egypt contacts Esarhaddon and asks for the wisest man in Assyria to come and supervise the building of a temple between heaven and earth. No one can meet the challenge of the king’s riddles and Esarhaddon rues killing Ahiqar. The guard realizes the time is right, so he brings Ahiqar out of hiding and the king rejoices. After the king apologizes, Ahiqar asks to punish Nadin (which involves being chained up and beaten while Ahiqar lectures him.)

The Sayings of Ahiqar amount to several pages of proverbial wisdom. Many are nearly identical to Proverbs (line 82, for example, “spare the rod and spoil the child” cf. Prov. 23:13). Some are obscure and difficult to understand the point (line 117, there is no lion in the sea, therefore the sea-snake is called labbu, Akkadian for lion). Other proverbs invoke the name of various gods (Shamash the Sun-God, Baal Shamayn, “The Merciful” in line 107).

Several sayings can be describe as supporting the word of the king, as expected from someone who served the empire for many years. For example, “Quench not the word of a king; let it be a balm [for] your [hea]rt. A king’s word is gentle, but keener and more cutting than a double-edged dagger.”(100-101). “The k[ing]’s tongue is gentle, but it breaks a dragon’s ribs. It is like death, which is invisible” (105-106).

There are a few lines reminiscent of New Testament verses. Line 100, for example, describes the king’s word as sharper than a double-edged sword, compared to Hebrews 4:12, “the word of the Lord is sharper than a double-edged sword.” The parallel is superficial but may indicate the figure of speech was part of common in the first century. Other parallels are thematic, such as line 137 which condemns amassing great wealth, a common theme in the Old and New Testament (1 Timothy 6:10, for example). Line 171, “If a wicked man grasps the fringe of your garment, leave it in his hand” is similar to Matthew 5:40, “And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.”

Although Ahiqar has not left his mark on the literature of the Second Temple period quite like Daniel or Tobit, he is another example of a faithful Jewish exile who finds success serving a pagan king, is persecuted unfairly, yet God protects and prospers him.

Why are stories like Daniel, Esther, or Nehemiah so popular during this period? What do they have to say to the Hellenistic Jew living far from Jerusalem?

 

Bibliography: J. M. Lindenberger, “Ahiqar: A New Translation and Introduction,” ITP 2:479-507; James C. Vanderkam, “Ahikar/Ahiqar (Person),” ABD 1:113; Vanderkam, “Ahiqar, Book of,” ABD 1:119.

What is the Letter of Aristeas?

The book uses an epistle format to present Jewish faith as a rational religion worthy of the respect of the Hellenistic world. In addition, the Letter describes the apocryphal origin of the Septuagint. While there are a number of historical references in the book, these may very well be literary devices used to tell the story of the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek.

The Letter of Aristeas

Majority opinion dates the book to 150-100 B.C., although it may be dated as late as the first century. Since the book demonstrates a detailed knowledge of Judaism it is undoubtedly the work of a Jewish writer, likely from Alexandria. The book is extremely valuable for the study of the New Testament since it has a great deal of information about Judaism in the century before Christ. Of primary importance is the detailed description of the temple service and the city of Jerusalem. The letter contains a description of temple service as it was performed a little more than a century before the Jesus. While the book is usually thought of as the “origin of the Septuagint,” it is far more important for what it says about first century B.C. Judaism both in theory (the banquet questions and answers) and in practice (temple worship).

The first eight lines introduce the work. Like Luke and Acts, Aristeas addresses his work to Philocrates, who is praised in the prologue for his scholarly mind and understanding. The purpose of the book is to relate the meeting Aristeas had with Eleazar and the circumstances through which Aristeas led a group of Jewish scholars to Alexandria for the purpose of translating the Hebrew Bible into Greek.

Lines 9-51 relate the decision of the king of Egypt to collect books from all over the world into a single library. The Jewish books, however, cannot be used since they are written in Hebrew. They need to be translated before they are suitable for the great library. The king frees the Jews living in Egypt from slavery and honors them greatly. A letter is written from the king to Eleazar the high priest in Jerusalem explaining to him the plan to translate the Hebrew Bible for the library. Eleazar responds positively to this invitation and Aristeas leads the delegation to Jerusalem to bring the translators to Egypt. Six men are selected from each of the twelve tribes, a total of seventy-two men in all.

Lines 52-82 is a detailed description of the furnishings the Temple in Jerusalem. The items described are fantastic and beautifully adorned with gold and jewels. Lines 83-120 describe Jerusalem and the area of the Temple in detail, including a wonderful description of the vestments of the priests and the process by which they lead in the sacrifices. “Everything is carried out with reverence and in a way worthy of the Great God” (95). All of the details given have an “eyewitness” quality about them, although we must take into account the probability of exaggeration and boasting on the part of our faithful Jewish author. The impression we have is of great wealth and artistic skill in the design of the Temple and the surrounding city.

Aristeas returns to the intended theme of the letter in line 120b, with a slight apology to Philocrates for the detailed diversion. Eleazar selected men for the translation committee who were of the most noble character and well educated in the study of the Law (120b-127). Aristeas questioned Eleazar with regard to these men and he receives a lengthy discussion of the rationality of the Jewish religion (lines 128-171). The bulk of this section concerns the food laws, which the author seems to think need a special explanation. Some animals are forbidden for good reason: mice pollute everything they touch. Weasels are unclean because they were though to give birth out of their mouths. Eleazar convinces Aristeas in each case of the truth of the Jewish religion, and he tells Philocrates he desired to impart to him the “solemnity and characteristic outlook of the Law.”

Eleazar makes appropriate sacrifices and sends seventy-two representatives with Aristeas to Alexandria (172-186). They arrive with gifts for the king and are settled into quarters and well provided for by the king. A huge banquet is prepared, and the men as seated in the order of their age (cf. Gen. 43:33, Joseph seats his brothers in order as well.) There is a long section (187-300) in which the king asks each man in turn some question (usually ethical, philosophical or political) and the man pauses for a moment then gives a brief yet wise answer. The king is impressed by each and increasingly demonstrates his approval of the answers.

Each night of the seven-day banquet the king asks ten men a question. Each of these questions and responses gives an insight into the thinking of Judaism just before the turn of the centuries. It would be interesting project to take each question and answer and search for parallels in the debates between Hillel and Shammai in order to determine how current these questions may have been in the first century. It would also be possible to take each answer and find parallel in the New Testament, especially in the teaching of Jesus and Paul. For example, there seems to be a running theme of self-control and self-sufficiency throughout the responses which find a parallel in the letters of Paul (Gal. 5:23, Phil 4:10-13, for example.)

After the king is satisfied with the worthiness of the translators, they are taken to an island where they would set about the work of translating (lines 301-321). This is the most famous part of the letter as it relates the legendary origins of the Septuagint and the abbreviation LXX for the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. Each of the translators sets about their work for seventy-two days. After the work is finished, the books are read and accepted by the Jews with applause and no one suggested any changes be made to the translations. The translation was read to the king and he marveled at the wisdom of the Lawgiver. The translators are rewarded and told that if they ever wanted to return to Egypt the king would receive them gladly.

Like the rest of the Letter of Aristeas, this idealized apocryphal story of the origin on the Greek Old Testament is an attempt to show the Hellenistic world the Jewish faith is worthy of respect. But is that really the purpose? Who would read and be convinced of the excellence of the Jewish faith about 100 B.C.? I think it is highly unlikely a Greek living in Alexandria, Egypt would read the Letter of Aristeas and be convinced Judaism was a worthy religion and contemplate converting.

I think this Letter is apologetics for insiders. Aristeas does not write to convert Greeks to Judaism, but rather to convince young Hellenistic Jews that their faith is worthy of respect and to encourage them to remain in the faith. The Jewish people do not need to be embarrassed about their Scripture or their Laws because they are rational, and they can be proud of their worship in the Jerusalem Temple. By way of analogy, most Christian apologetics is not read by atheists who are considering converting to Christianity; Christians read this literature in order to bolster their faith and remain Christians.

Is this a fair reading of Aristeas? Perhaps I am wrong and this is missionary literature rather than insider apologetics.

The Context of Psalm of Solomon 17

Psalm of Solomon 17 is by far the most significant section of the collection. The Psalm describes a Davidic, messianic figure who will purge Jerusalem of Gentiles, gather the exiles and lead them in righteousness and shepherd the Lord’s flock in righteousness. This lengthy Psalm draws on the canonical Psalm 72 and is witness to fervent messianic hopes among some strands of early Judaism. The belief a messiah would soon appear and liberate Jerusalem from their Roman oppressors ultimately culminates in the first Jewish Revolt and the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. See also my post on Messianic Hopes and the Jewish Revolt.

Popmey's Seige of Jerusalem, Painting by Jean FouquetPsalm of Solomon 17 describes the activities of a “lawless one who lays to waste our land” (17:11). From the vivid imagery of verses 11-20 it is difficult to say this person is a Gentile, although he does things in Jerusalem that “gentiles do for their gods in their cities” (v. 14). He drives de devout ones from Jerusalem and they take refuge in the wilderness (v 17). The most common view is this lawless one is Pompey and the psalm represents the messianic expectations of the Pharisees. Julius Wellhausen suggested the psalm reflects the political unrest at the time of Aristobulus II and Hyrcanus II.

Although it seems clear enough that Psalm of Solomon 2 refers to Pompey as one who defiled the sanctuary (Ps.Sol 2:1-2), the identity of the lawless one is less obvious in Psalm 17. Kenneth Atkinson challenged the consensus view that Pompey is the lawless one by arguing the Psalm refers to Herod the Great. After he was appointed king of Judea Herod was forced to attack Jerusalem in order to secure his territory (37 B.C.) He was assisted by the Romans According to Josephus (Ant. 14.16.2, §475-81), “they were murdered continually in the narrow streets and in the houses by crowds, and as they were flying to the temple for shelter, and there was no pity taken of either infants or the aged, nor did they spare so much as the weaker sex; nay, although the king sent about, and besought them to spare the people, yet nobody restrained their hand from slaughter, but as if they were a company of madmen, they fell upon persons of all ages, without distinction.” Herod’s siege of the city took place in a sabbatical year which led to a famine and increased the suffering of the people. After securing Jerusalem Herod murdered the last of the Hasmonean dynasty (Antigonus II, Aristobulus III, and Hyrcanus II). Atkinson therefore dates Psalm of Solomon 17 sometime between 37 and 30 B.C.

The defenders of Jerusalem considered Herod a foreign invader, and the capture of the city must have appeared as an apocalyptic invasion anticipated by the Hebrew prophets. Josephus says “Now the Jews that were enclosed within the walls of the city fought against Herod with great alacrity and zeal (for the whole nation was gathered together); they also gave out many prophecies about the temple, and many things agreeable to the people, as if God would deliver them out of the dangers they were in” (Ant. 14.16.1, §470). There are two important items in this description. First, the whole nation was gathered and fought against Herod with zeal. Allowing for obvious exaggeration, this zealous gathering to resist the foreign invader, Psalm of Solomon indicates the son of David who is coming will smash the arrogant sinners (17:22-24) and gather “a holy people” (17:26).

Second, the zealous ones in Jerusalem “gave out many prophecies about the temple.” Although written after these events, Psalm of Solomon 17 contains the sorts of prophecies one might expect when the lawless gentiles are slaughtering people in the streets of Jerusalem. The description of the coming son of David in verses 21-25 is a collection of allusions to messianic texts in the Hebrew Bible. Atkinson compared several texts from Qumran which indicate the Qumran community also expected a Davidic king (4Q161; 4Q285; 4Q252; 4Q174) who would be a warrior (4Q161; 4Q285; 4Q252; 4Q174) and a righteous ruler (4Q252; 4Q174) (Atkinson 458). Atkinson observes that the authors of Psalm of Solomon 17, the Qumran texts, and the book of Revelation are usually regarded as pacifist, but they all looked forward with “apparent eagerness to great bloodshed and annihilation of their enemies” (460).

I would suggest Josephus’s description of the final defenders of the temple in 37 B.C. as “zealous” may indicate they were not as pacifistic as commonly thought. Although there was an expectation of a Davidic warrior king who would smash Jerusalem’s enemies, the zealous ones in 37 B.C. (or A.D. 70) were willing to join Phineas, Elijah and Judas Maccabees and defend the land against foreign invaders.

Whether this Psalm reflects the siege of Jerusalem at the time of Pompey or Herod, I agree with Atkinson’s conclusion to his article: the actions of Jesus at the triumphal entry and his “rampage in the temple” (as he puts it), as well as Jesus’s prediction of the destruction of the Temple would have resonated with the hope for a Davidic warrior messiah. Jesus’s intention to “give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45) was a shock even to his closest followers.

 

Bibliography: Kenneth Atkinson, “On the Herodian Origin of Militant Davidic Messianism at Qumran: New Light from Psalm of Solomon 17,” JBL 118 (1999): 435-460.

The Life of the Righteous Goes On Forever – Psalm of Solomon 13

Psalm of Solomon is another example of two-ways theology. There is a sharp contrast between the righteous (δίκαιος) and the sinner (ἁμαρτωλός). In this psalm, the difference between these two types of people is that the Lord has mercy on the righteous, devout person who fear him (13:12). The title of this psalm is a comfort or encouragement (παράκλησις) for the righteous. By properly understanding suffering the righteous person acknowledges they have been protected by the mercy of the Lord.

Two roads, two ways to liveThe first four verses of this psalm reflect the experience of the righteous. Although they suffer calamity, “the right hand of the Lord” covered them and they were spared. The right hand is βραχίων, literally the arm of the Lord. This is the regular expression for the Lord’s power in the Hebrew Bible. In Exodus 15:16, for example, the mighty arm of the Lord protected Israel as they came up out of Egypt. LXX Psalm 76:16 [ET 15] uses the word to describe the redemption of Israel: “You with your arm redeemed your people, the children of Jacob and Joseph.”

The writer says the Lord protected the righteous from sword, hunger, death and “wicked beasts.” This list sounds like the typical description of the dangers for the Jewish people in exile (Ezek 14:13-23, for example), but these also resonate with Paul’s famous line in Romans 8:35: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” or the suffering listed in 2 Corinthians 11:19-32. In 1 Corinthians 15:32 Paul says he “fought wild beasts” in Ephesus. Commentators usually take this as a metaphor for some sort of persecution. Both the psalmist and Paul agree suffering is not something to fear since the Lord protects the righteous. The difference is the psalmist says the Lord protected him from even meeting these things (v. 4) while Paul saw suffering as his participation in the suffering of Christ.

In fact, the righteous may suffer, but that suffering is discipline rather than judgment (13:7-10). The psalmist understands suffering as punishment for sin done in ignorance (v. 7). God is admonishing the righteous like a beloved child (v. 9). Verse 7 calls this suffering the “discipline of the righteous” (ἡ παιδεία τῶν δικαίων). In Psalm of Solomon 8:29 Israel’s suffering is described as discipline, calling to mind the common metaphor of Israel as an unruly child who needs to be disciplined (Hosea 11, for example).

The psalmist may be thinking of a text like Proverbs 3:11-12, “My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline (παιδεία) or be weary of his reproof, the LORD reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” Hebrews 12 also cites this verse from Proverbs to encourage Jewish readers to endure suffering as discipline from the Lord. But again there is a difference, the writer of Hebrews does not suggest his readers are being punished for sin when they face hostility on account of their faith in Jesus as Messiah.

The psalm concludes by repeating the contrast between the righteous person and the sinner. The righteous will go on forever but the sinner will be taken away for destruction (ἀπώλεια, 13:11-12). This is common to two-ways texts like Psalm 1, but it is a regular feature of Jesus’s parables as well. At the harvest (the final judgement), the righteous are like wheat gathered up and stored in the barn, the unrighteous are like weeds thrown into a fire and destroyed (Matt 13:24-30). When the messiah comes he will separate the nations like sheep from goats. The sheep are welcomed into the kingdom of God and eternal life (Matt 25:34, 46) but the goats are cursed and sent “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels,” to eternal punishment (Matt 25:41, 46).

According to this psalm, although the righteous may suffer discipline in this life, the Lord’s mercy is on the devout person who fears the Lord (13:12).

The Lawless and Slanderous Tongue – Psalm of Solomon 12

This psalm stands in the Jewish wisdom tradition by condemning the lawless and slandering tongue. The writer uses the adjective παράνομος, a word appearing in the LXX some 73 times, most often in wisdom literature. In Proverbs 3:32, for example, every lawbreaker is impure before the Lord. The writers of the Psalms of Solomon use the word eleven times (see 4:19 for example, may “the bones of the lawless before the sun in dishonor,” a phrase repeated in 12:4). This is not some breach of a pharisaical tradition. The only appearance of the word in the Septuagint translation of the Torah is Deuteronomy 13:14, the lawless who entice people to commit idolatry. In Judges 20:13 it describes the men who raped and killed the Levite’s concubine. It is the kind of rebellion which must be uprooted and cut off from the land (Prov 2:22).

In this psalm, the lawless are known by the way they speak (12:2-3). Their words are “in diversity of twisting” (Lexham LXX). A visit from the lawless one will fill a home with a false tongue. The speech of this person is like a fire which scorches beauty. With glee the lawless one will burn down your house through their lies.

The tongue is often compared to fire in wisdom literature (Ps. 120:3; Prov. 16:27; 26:21; Isaiah 30:27; Sirach 28:12-26).

Psalm 120:3 (ESV) What shall be given to you, and what more shall be done to you, you deceitful tongue?

Proverbs 16:27 (ESV)  A worthless man plots evil, and his speech is like a scorching fire.

Sirach 28:12–12 (NRSV) If you blow on a spark, it will glow; if you spit on it, it will be put out; yet both come out of your mouth. Curse the gossips and the double-tongued, for they destroy the peace of many.

Like James 3:5-6, the tongue is compared to a fire which “scorches beauty” (PsSol 12:2). James and Psalms of Solomon both use the verb φλογίζω. This verb is rare in the LXX, but it has the sense of intentionally setting a fire to destroy something. For example, in 1 Maccabees 3:5, Judas searched out people who broke the Law and “he burned those who troubled his people.” Although most Americans know about how a careless fire can burn thousands of acres, James may have in mind a pyre, wood stacked to make burn quickly (the NEB has “a huge stack of timber” (see Sophie Laws, James, 147).

Rolling Stones TongueAlthough the psalmist began by calling on God to save him from these lawless people, in verses 4-6 he turns to cursing the slanderous and blessing the “quiet person who hates injustice.” He prays that the bones of the lawless be scattered far from those who fear the Lord. Denying someone a proper burial is the ultimate dishonor. He asks God to destroy the slanderous tongue in “flaming fire far from the devout.”  The phrase flaming fire (πυρὶ φλογὸς) appears in 2 Thessalonians 1:8: when the Lord returns with his mighty angels he will inflict vengeance on the ones who do not obey the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ with “flaming fire.”

Once again, this is not far from James 3. James says the tongue starts a fire that sets the course of one’s life. Like a bit or a rudder, misuse of one’s words steers a life one direction or another. Think of a “white like” which requires increasingly more complex lies to cover the first lie. Many political scandals are a series of cover-ups of an initial lie. For James, the person to starts out speaking foolishly will have their live altered by that lie in ways that cannot image. In fact, the tongue can start a fire that is stoked by the fires of Hell. That new trajectory for one’s life leads to Gehenna! Like Psalm of Solomon 12:4, the slanderous speech of the lawless one will result in “flaming fire.”

But the psalmist blesses the quiet person who lives peacefully at home. Paul also describes the ideal Christian life as living quiet, peaceful lives in 1 Thessalonians 5:13-14, 2 Thessalonians 3 and 1 Timothy 2:3-4. James 3:17–18 includes peacemaking among seven virtues which characterize the righteous. For the psalmist, the righteous are those who “hate injustice (12:5), similar to Psalm of Solomon 5. When I commented on that Psalm I drew the analogy to the sort of “religion God accepts” based on James 1:27. James and Paul both stand within the same stream of Second Temple Jewish wisdom literature as Psalms of Solomon 12 by contrasting a life of wisdom (quiet, peaceful, respectful) with the slanderous unthinking speech of the lawless ones.