Hecataeus of Abdera°

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HECATAEUS OF ABDERA ° (fourth century b.c.e.), Greek historian and ethnographer. He evidently visited Jerusalem and was the first pagan who wrote extensively on the history of the Jews, incorporating it into his account of Egypt. A summary of it has been preserved in Diodorus, the first-century c.e. historian (60:3), via the ninth-century Photius (Bibliotheca, 224). The following is a summary of Hecataeus' report.

From time immemorial there lived minorities in Egypt whose manner of sacrificing differed from that of the general population. When a plague occurred, the Egyptians expelled them. Some found refuge in Greece; the majority fled to Judea, then uninhabited. Their leader, Moses, founded Hierosolyma and its Temple, establishing a cult and a constitution which differed completely from any other. Because he believed that God is the master of the universe, Moses prohibited the presentation of the divine in a human form. The laws of marriage and burial differed from those among other groups of men, to whom the Jews adopted a hostile attitude. The Jews never had a king, but Moses assigned a prominent role to the priests, the chief of whom is said to receive messages from God. When he teaches the divine commandments, the assembled Jews prostrate themselves until the high priest concludes with these words: "Moses heard these words from God and he spoke them to the Jews." During the Persian and Macedonian occupations, Hecataeus concludes, many of their ancient institutions were modified.

Hecataeus' account, like those of Megasthenes and Theophrastus, is on the whole sympathetic to the Jews. He stressed the humaneness of such enactments as Moses' prohibition of infant exposure and his equal distribution of the land. His apparently high regard for the Mosaic constitution explains the popularity of pseudonymous books under his name. Hecataeus, according to the Letter of *Aristeas (v. 31), wrote to *Ptolemy ii of Egypt asking him to invite 72 priests from Jerusalem to translate the Torah. This passage probably apppeared in Pseudo-Hecataeus' book called "On the Jews," from which Josephus has preserved extensive excerpts. The work treated conditions in Palestine during the period of Alexander's successors, the Diadochi, mentioning the high priest *Hezekiah (not elsewhere mentioned) recording the extent of Judea, and describing Jerusalem's Temple and cult. Many scholars, including H. Lewy, Tcherikover, and Guttmann, attribute this work to the genuine Hecataeus. They point, for example, to the statement that the Persians deported the Jews to Babylon, a slip a Jewish forger was unlikely to have made. There is no question, however, that Josephus' Contra Apionem, 1, 183–204, is the work of a pseudographer. Hecataeus indirectly criticized the Jews for not mixing with other nations; Pseudo-Hecataeus displays the fervor of an ardent Jew. The suspicion of forgery was already raised in the second century c.e. by Philo of Byblos, who wondered whether Hecataeus had become a Jewish convert. The author of this work may be labeled "Pseudo-Hecataeus i." Also forged, though by a different hand ("Pseudo-Hecataeus ii"), is the book "On the Time of Abramus and the Egyptians" to which there are two known allusions. Josephus (Ant., 1:159) states that Hecataeus wrote a work about the patriarch, Abraham. Clement of Alexandria (Stromateis, 5:113) quotes nine lines from a drama attributed to Hecataeus, portraying the patriarch's smashing of the idols. The quotation was taken from a Jewish anthology of Greek poets and philosophers who purportedly subscribed to the truth or antiquity of biblical tenets. Scholarly opinion is divided over Pseudo-Hecataeus i, but there is a general consensus that Pseudo-Hecataeus ii is a forgery. Pseudo-Hecataeus i is certainly earlier than the Letter of Aristeas, and was possibly written in the first half of the second century b.c.e. Pseudo-Hecataeus ii antedates Josephus, and is perhaps as early as or even earlier than *Aristobulus.


F. Jacoby, Fragmente der griechischen Historiker, 3a (1940), no. 264; Jaeger, in: jr, 18 (1938), 127–43; Klausner, Bayit Sheni, 2 (19512), 17, 26, 106; N. Walther, Thoraausleger Aristobulos (1964).

[Ben Zion Wacholder]