Mega-Bleg: Plato, Aristotle, and the Jews

This is the sort of question that never occurs to me when I teach Plato and Aristotle back home (itself a rare event), but it’s the kind of question I’m sure to get asked while teaching them here in Palestine next week. And damned if I know the answer.

Were Plato and Aristotle acquainted with Abrahamic monotheism?

Put more concretely for purposes of historical inquiry:

Were Plato or Aristotle familiar with the Jewish people or the Hebrew Bible?

I’ll bet that David Riesbeck has an answer, but I pose the question(s) above (as well as those below) for anyone with answers.

For reasons too complicated to explain at (great) length, traditional Muslims (i.e., most Palestinians) do not equate the first question with the second. On the traditional Islamic view, the people we refer to as “Jews” were not “Jews” at all, but proto-Muslims, and the text we refer to as “the Hebrew Bible” was not that at all, but a series of proto-Qur’anic texts. On this view, the proto-Muslims of Israel became “Jews” when they forswore God’s teaching in favor of a tribal allegiance to Judah/Israel, and their (various) proto-Qur’anic scriptures became “the Hebrew Bible” after they were edited to that end for essentially political reasons. (Not all Muslims believe this, but the view can be inferred from the Qur’an, and many do.) This traditional story doesn’t really affect the way I think about the issue, but given religious sensibilities here, it’ll doubtless affect the way I teach it: at a minimum,  I’ll have to bear in mind that some of my students wholeheartedly believe it, whether I do or not.

Offhand, I’m tempted to say that neither Plato nor Aristotle were acquainted with Abrahamic monotheism, and that neither was familiar with the Jewish people or the Hebrew Bible. I don’t recall a single reference to the Jews or the Hebrew Bible in any work of Plato or Aristotle that I’ve ever read. But that’s hardly a conclusive set of considerations. For one thing, I haven’t read all of Plato and Aristotle. For another, even if I’d read them all, I don’t typically read either Plato or Aristotle with this particular issue in mind, so I’d likely have missed or forgotten a passing remark. Finally, I’m not sure how sweeping a claim I’m entitled to make on the basis of non-existent textual evidence: supposing that neither Plato nor Aristotle ever makes reference to the Jews in any of their extant work, should we infer that they were utterly unacquainted with the Jews, or should we infer that they had some vague sense of their existence, but too vague a sense for mention in the text?  I’m not sure. So my offhand judgment is somewhat tentative. Unfortunately, a quick online search only serves up a series of tendentious polemics on the issue; for obvious reasons, the only reliable information I saw discussed Plato and Aristotle’s influences on Jewish thought, not vice versa.

However plausible it is, I find my offhand judgment a little puzzling. In the Politics, Aristotle mentions Babylon, Carthage, the Celts, Crete, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Italy, Libya, the Persians/Medes, and Sicily. (I don’t have the Greek in front of me, so I don’t know whether he uses those very names, but my point is that he refers in some way to those people and places). The list implies that Aristotle had information on places much farther afield from Greece than ancient Israel, as well as places relatively close to ancient Israel. Why then the omission of the Jews? Was information about them simply lacking or inaccessible, or was the available information dismissed on grounds of its irrelevance to the project of the Politics?  In short, how did he manage to miss the Jews?

It’s hard to believe that I’ve never thought about this before, but I haven’t. So I could use some help from someone who has.

2 thoughts on “Mega-Bleg: Plato, Aristotle, and the Jews

  1. There are no clear references to the Jews in any Greek literature before around 300 BCE, and certainly not before the death of Aristotle in 322. Not only are there no references in the extant texts that we still have; Hellenized Jews such as Josephus, who had access to most of what has been lost, went hunting for references to the Jews in Greek literature and found nothing earlier, either. There might be some indirect and vague references (Herodotus mentions “Syrians in Palestine” who practice circumcision, but otherwise has nothing to say about them), but the first unambiguous reference we get is in Theophrastus’ On Piety (extant now only in fragments preserved by Porphyry) in which he shows some knowledge of Jewish animal sacrifice, though it seems pretty clearly not to be first-hand. There have been speculations that he depended on a contemporary writer, Hecataeus of Abdera, who was a court historian for Ptolemy I of Egypt and wrote a history making use of Egyptian records and traditions, which has rather more detail (we do not have this history, but we do have summaries and paraphrases of it made by Diodorus Siculus, who produced a supposedly universal history in the late 1st century BCE via a sort of copy and paste method). But there is no real evidence that Theophrastus relied on Hecataeus, and scholars aren’t even agreed about whether Hecataeus’ history was written earlier than Theophrastus’ On Piety. You’ll find some sources claiming one or the other as the earliest explicit references to the Jews in Greek (and, hence, “Western”) literature.

    The coolest early Greek reference to the Jews, though, has to be the fragment of the dialogue by Clearchus of Soli, a Peripatetic roughly contemporary with Theophrastus, which makes Aristotle the main speaker and has him relate a conversation he had with a Jewish philosopher. Unfortunately, since that’s also just a fragment preserved in a later text (Josephus this time), we don’t learn anything about the philosophical ideas that this Jew supposedly discussed with Aristotle; we just learn that Aristotle was very impressed by him, particularly by his character. It’s extremely unlikely that this is anything other than fictional, though, in much the same way that Plato’s Socrates’ meeting with Parmenides is clearly fictional. Despite the (now decaying) fashion for treating some of Plato’s dialogues as though they were reliable historical evidence, it seems pretty clear that the genre of philosophical dialogue was always understood as having a strong element of fiction.

    Maybe most interestingly, though, one of the only common features of all three of these early references to the Jews is that they’re described as an especially philosophical people (explicitly in Clearchus and Theophrastus, implicitly in Hecataeus). We can only speculate about just why that is, but one prevalent view has been that the Greek authors were struck by Jewish monotheism, opposition to anthropomorphism, and strict adherence to a systematic law with ethical aims. It’s hard to believe that Clearchus and Theophrastus really knew very much about the Jews, though; Theophrastus has some basic facts wrong, Clearchus says that they’re descended from “the Indian philosophers.” There’s no obvious evidence in these texts that these Greeks had read biblical or other Jewish texts, or even discussed them with Jews.

    So the weight of the evidence suggests that Plato and Aristotle knew nothing worth mentioning about the Jews, and particularly not about Jewish thought. Of course, some later Jewish and Christian writers claimed that Plato must have known at least the Torah, but there is no good reason to think so. But it’s not too surprising. While we might reasonably have expected more references to the Jews in the Classical period, extensive knowledge of their literature and ideas would have been surprising before the Hellenistic period. The Jews were, after all, one relatively small group of people over in the territory of the Persian empire, and it wasn’t until Alexander’s conquests that they themselves became Hellenized like the rest of the peoples that had formerly been under Persian rule. Prior to that, extensive interaction was barely possible. So of course there is no valid deductive inference from all this evidence to the conclusion that Plato and Aristotle knew nothing about the Jews, but there seems to be ample reason to think that they didn’t. Even if they had some very vague sense that such people existed, I’m not sure that would really amount to a positive answer to either of your questions. Barring some sort of conspiracy theory, they would have had something to say about it if they were aware of Jewish monotheism, law, scripture, etc.

    So there you have it. Alas, I do not simply have all this information stored up in my head; I just know where to look. You may be interested to have a look at Menahem Stern’s Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism, a collection of texts in the original languages with English translation and brief commentary. It presents all the known references (and includes some that one might think have only a very distant relationship to Jews or Judaism). If you look for it on Google you can find a pdf of volume 1.

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