Doing Justice in Pseudo-Phocylides

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).

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.

The Lives of the Prophets

The Lives of the Prophets (Liv. Pro.) seems to have been written in the first century by a Jew, but because it was preserved by Christians there many interpolations with distinctive Christian theology. It is possible the legendary acts of the prophets included in the book date to the Maccabean period but it is almost impossible to date the various strata of the book (the legends, the Jewish text, the Christian editing.) The best hint is the description of Elijah as having come from “the land of the Arabs” (21:1), possibly connecting his birthplace to the Nabateans. Since the Nabateans virtually disappear after A.D. 106 when Trajan moves trade routes to avoid Petra, the book was written after this time.

This book lists prophets from the Hebrew Bible and gives details on their birth, city of residence, and death. As D. A. Hare notes, the reason the book is so rarely included in collections of Pseudepigrapha is that it is nearly devoid of theology: “Religious edification is not its prime purpose, and consequently theological themes are for the most part dealt with only indirectly” (OTP 2:382). However, expanding biblical narratives is a practice driven by theology. For many of the prophets in the collection were not associated with miracles in the canonical texts. By passing along traditions of miracles (or creating new miracle stories) the author validates the word of these particular prophets. No non-canonical prophet appears in the list, even if a few are obscure in the Hebrew Bible. There are a few Christian additions, such as Jeremiah’s prophecy of the virgin birth, including the detail that the child would be laid in a manger (2:8).

Image result for The Martyrdom of IsaiahThe book assumes the text of the Bible as a foundation and adds legendary miracle stories to the adventures of the prophets. For example, Jeremiah prays for asps and crocodiles to leave the Jewish refugees alone when then arrive in Egypt (2:3). When Nebuchadnezzar goes mad in Daniel 4, the prophet is asked to pray for Nebuchadnezzar when asked by his son Baltasar (4:4).  Daniel did “many other prodigies” for the Persian kings which were not written down (4:18). Habakkuk sees the glory of the Temple and predicts its destruction (12:10-12).

The stories pass along a few traditions about the prophets. The tradition Isaiah was sawn in two by Manasseh (1:1) appears in the Martyrdom of Isaiah and possibly Hebrews 11:37. According to the book, Daniel was born in Upper Beth-Horon and was thought to be a eunuch (4:2). When Elisha was born in Gilgal, the golden calf in Bethel bellowed shrilly, so loud that it was heard in Jerusalem (22:1-2).

The Lives also passes along the story that Jeremiah hid the Ark of the Covenant in a rock in the wilderness (2:11-19), a story with some parallels in 2 Maccabees 2:4-8 and 4 Baruch 3:8-12. Since D. R. A. Hare sees no evidence of borrowing he suggests the Lives of the Prophets is evidence for the currency of this tradition in the “folklore of Palestine” (384). There is a location near the Dead Sea some Israeli guides will point out as the location of the Ark, at least according to fringe archaeologist Vendyl Jones.

A major interest of the author of these prophetic lives is the burial place of the prophet. Isaiah was buried underneath the Oak of Rogel (1:1). Jeremiah died in Taphnai, Egypt “in the environs of Pharaoh’s palace” after being stoned by his own people (2:1). Ezekiel was buried in the “field of Maour” in the grave of Shem and Arpachshad (Gen 10:22, possibly the “Oaks of Mamre”). The tomb is described as a double tomb like Abraham’s tomb at Hebron (3:3-4). Catherine Hezser speculates in her Jewish Travel in Antiquity (WUNT/2; Mohr Seiberg, 2011) that it is possible the Lives of the Prophets was used as a kind of guidebook to the tombs of the prophets, but she concludes it is impossible to be certain (386).


Bibliography: D. R. A. Hare, “The Lives of the Prophets: A New Translation and Introduction,” in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 2 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985)379-399.

The Book of Judges in Pseudo-Philo (LAB)

Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum is a Second Temple period collection of biblical expansions. These are not quite “alternate histories” but rather attempts to fill-in-the-gaps left by some of the stories in the Hebrew Bible. Joshua and Judges mention a few characters in passing, the author of LAB attempts to expand these tantalizingly brief biblical stories.

In LAB 25 Kenaz, from the tribe of Caleb, was elected as leader after the death of Joshua. This Kenaz is an obscure character in Judges, where he identified as the younger brother of Caleb and the father of Othniel.  He captured the city of Kiriath Sepher (Joshua 15:17, Judges 1:13, 1 Chron. 4:13). Like Joshua, he dedicates the people to the covenant as they are to continue the conquest. Kenaz discovers that some men from the tribe of Reuben have made a copy of the Golden Calf. In fact, men from many of the tribes are discovered to have made idols or committed idolatry. These sinners are punished with death (put to death in the river Fison). The precious stones from the idols are to be destroyed “under the ban.”

The Lord himself destroys them, but Kenaz is instructed to look for twelve stones to represent the twelve tribes and to make these into an ephod. Which stone was to represent which tribe is detailed in chapters 9-11 (cf. Ex. 28:17-20, which does not designate specific stones for tribes.) As Kenaz discovers stones not burned by fire and he finds they have names of the tribes inscribed on the back. It might be possible to use this passage as a guide for the various stones in the New Jerusalem, Rev. 21. It is possible there are several competing lists of stones for tribes since this list includes Joseph and Levi, but not Ephraim and Manasseh. The military victory of Kenaz are recorded in chapter 27. Like Moses and Joshua, his victories are based on prayer and relying on the Lord to fight the battles.

Chapter 28 is Kenaz’s last testament, although it differs a bit in form since he allows Phineas, the son of Eleazar the priest report a dream which he had three nights before in which the Lord threatens to destroy the nation if they do not follow the covenant. The holy spirit came upon Kenaz and he was “put into an ecstasy” and he began to prophesy about the creation of the world. Man has been given 7,000 years during which time they will dwell in this world. In chapter 29 Zebul is appointed to lead after Kenaz. Zebul is another obscure character from Judges 9:28-41 who liberates Shechem from Gaal, the son of Ebed. Perhaps this otherwise unknown person is Ehud (Judges 3:12-30, immediately after Othniel and before Deborah; see OTP 2:342 note o).

Chapter 38 expands on the career of Jair (Judges 10:36). In the biblical material there is little said about the man. Here he is a leader appointed by the Lord who does not lead the people to follow the Law, rather, he builds an altar to Baal. Both he and the worshipers at his sanctuary are burned with fire.

Chapter 40 offers some details on the well-known story of Jephthah’s rash vow appears here, with a great deal more detail (the daughter’s name is Seila, for example. “Seila is only one of more than forty names given by subsequent writers to this girl, who is unnamed in the biblical story” (Sol Liptzin, “Jephthah and His Daughter” in D. K. Jeffrey, editor, A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature.) Her lament while on Mount Stelac makes it clear she expects to be sacrificed, which exactly what happens. Israel mourns for Seila for four days every year and they named her tomb after her.

In chapter 44 the writer develops the intriguing story of Micah’s sin and idolatry (Judges 17). The idols are described as in the shape of human boys, calves, a lion, and eagle, a dragon and a dove. Depending on what one was praying for, they would offer a sacrifice at one of the altars (at the altar of boys for children, and the dove for a wife, etc.) This complex idolatry begins a stinging rebuke from the Lord himself (no prophet is mentioned here.) The Lord will destroy the whole nation because they have chosen to worship idols despite the fact they agreed (in the covenant) not to do. The Lord will cut his root off of the earth and the dying will outnumber the ones being born. Micah and his mother are the first to be burned up because of their idolatry.

The writer develops the disturbing story of the Levite and his concubine (Judges 19). The story in Judges has an implied parallel to the story of Lot’s rescue from Sodom, our author makes this parallel explicit. The difference is the priest stopped in Gibeah and went on to Nob; in Judges the outrage occurs at Gibeah (The biblical story may be part of an anti-Saul polemic. King Saul was from Gibeah, therefore his own family may have been involved in the atrocity recorded here; at the very least his father or grandfather would have been among the men who stole brides in Judges 21). Perhaps the writer is shifting the location of the outrage in order to protect the reputation of King Saul.

Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum (LAB)

Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum is retelling of biblical stories originally written in Hebrew in the late first century A.D. This date is based on a possible reference to the fall of Jerusalem in 19:7, but the evidence is thin and could be interpreted as referring to the Babylonians (586 B.C.) or Romans (67 B.C.), or even the period of Antiochus IV Epiphanies’ persecutions. There are potential parallels with 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra which would imply a date in the late first century.

The book claims to be written by Philo of Alexandria, but this is unlikely since Philo wrote in Greek. At several points in the text Pseudo-Philo contradicts Philo (the number of years from Adam to the flood, the description of Moses’ burial, etc.) The book is important for New Testament studies since it sheds light on how Jews in the first century may have understood their own history. However, this is limited since the texts “expanded” by Pseudo-Philo are not discussed by the New Testament authors in any detail.

The major interest in the book is the Covenant of God. The whole book of Genesis is summarized in chapters 1-8, yet there are four chapters detailing the covenant rededication at the time of Joshua (21-24). The leadership of the nation is an important theme, so much so that the author invents careers for Kenaz and Zebul to fill in the gap between Joshua and the first of the judges. Several “minor” judges are given detailed stories where the Hebrew Bible has nothing. This succession of leadership is more important than the origins of the nation, Genesis is rapidly summarized while the careers of Joshua, Kenaz, Zebul and the other Judges are quite detailed.

There are a few expansions of the biblical text in this book which are interesting. Chapter 6 relates the apocryphal tale of Abram’s refusal to make bricks for the Tower of Babel. Both Nahor and Lot are included among the twelve individuals who refused. The story was rewritten through the lens of the three youths in Daniel 3, including the climactic statement of faith in God in 6:11.

“Behold, today I flee to the mountains. And if I escape the fire, wild beasts will come out of the mountains and devour us; or we will lack food and die of famine; and we will be found fleeing from the people of this land but falling in our sins. And now as he in whom I trust lives, I will not be moved from my place where they have put me. If there be any sin of mine so flagrant that I should be burned up, let the will of God be done.”

The Babylonians throw Abram and his supporters into a fiery furnace, but God “caused a great earthquake, and the fire gushing out of the furnace leaped forth in flames and sparks of flame. And it burned all those standing around in sight of the furnace. And all those who were burned in that day were 83,500. But there was not the least injury to Abram from the burning of the fire” 6:17). God responds to Abram’s faith by promising to bring Abram to the “the land upon which my eye has looked from of old” and promises him “I will have my servant Abram dwell and will establish my covenant with him and will bless his seed and be lord for him as God forever” (7:4). Abram settles in Canaan after the confusion of tongues, although the author skips over Abram’s attempt to have a son through Hagar (ch. 8).

Overlooking the faithlessness and sin in the live of Abraham is typical of biblical expansions in the Second Temple period. As the great heroes of the faith become even more heroic, there is a tendency to omit their shortcomings. Even within the Hebrew Bible, Chronicles overlooks David’s sin with Bathsheba. In the case of LAB, the author offers an explanation of why God chose Abram. Abram is a faithful monotheist before God gives him the promise of Genesis 12.