Diodorus Siculus on the Jews

Diodorus Siculus on the Jews

Diodorus Siculus is a name largely lost in the swirling mists of history; forgotten to almost all except scholars and specialists but yet Diodorus is one of the most important historians of Western civilisation before the advent of Imperial Rome. For example, we derive much of our textual knowledge of Egyptian metal-working and gold-mining from his only known work 'Historical Library' as well as a large amount of information on the storied history of the Ancient Greeks.

In spite of his popular obscurity Diodorus affords quite a lot of interesting information on the jews - like Strabo before him - in the period before our sources from the Roman world begin to mention the jews in earnest. He begins his comments on the jews with three separate references in the first book of his 'Historical Library' to the jewish rite of circumcision, which Diodorus - like many others then and now - derives from the jewish residence or origin in Ancient Egypt whence the rite was long established. To wit:

'They say also that those who set forth with Danaus, likewise from Egypt, settled what is practically the oldest city in Greece, Argos, and that the nation of the Colchi in Pontus and that of the Jews, which lies between Arabia and Syria, were founded as colonies by certain emigrants from their country; and this is the reason why it is a long-established institution among these two peoples to circumcise their male children, the custom having been brought over from Egypt.' (1)

'And the proof which they offer of the Egyptian origin of this nation is the fact that the Colchi practise circumcision even as the Egyptians do, the custom continuing among the colonists sent out from Egypt as it also did in the case of the Jews.' (2)


'Thus it is recorded that among the Aryans Zarathrusta claimed that the Good Spirit gave him his laws, among the people known as the Getae who represent themselves to be immortal Zalmoxis asserted the same of their common goddess Hestia, and among the Jews Moses referred his laws to the god who is invoked as Iao. They all did this either because they believed that a conception which would help humanity was marvelous and wholly divine, or because they held that the common crowd would be more likely to obey the laws if their gaze were directed towards the majesty and power of those to whom their laws were ascribed.' (3)

We can see from each of these references that; as I have said, Diodorus focuses on the pact with Yahweh that is symbolized by the rite of circumcision and as such locates jewish origins in Egypt. His reference to the Decalogue and Moses' having dedicated or attributed them to Yahweh (4) suggests that Diodorus sees Moses as having been responsible for writing the Decalogue onto the stone tablets and that Moses was a not dissimilar mythological creation in Diodorus' mind to the legendary founders of Rome; Romulus and Remus, or the founding myths of Greek city-states of deriving their origins from characters from Greek mythology and/or Homer's 'Iliad' or 'Odyssey'.

Meaning - of course - to Diodorus' mind that Moses was probably a historical figure: who had been subsequently mythologized into a foundation tale for the jewish people. That Diodorus mentions Moses rather than Abraham is interesting precisely because it suggests that Diodorus had not read the books that now make up the Torah and as such found out his information about jews from Greek sources, first-hand accounts and/or by questioning jews he came across.

This tells us that what Diodorus is stating is fairly reliable received opinion rather than simple credulous belief in whatever jews told him: in essence he is applying critical discretion with his sources and trying to be as accurate as possible in the vein of Thucydides in his epoch-making 'History of the Peloponnesian War'.

When Diodorus clarifies his thought on Moses drawing a clear dichotomy between Moses as a leader of Egyptian colonists and the Getae in addition to the followers of Zarathrusta. Diodorus categorizes the last two religions as those that sought to help humanity as a whole by suggesting marvellous things to them (e.g. an ethical code and a good basis for a state) while the religion of Moses he characterizes as being wrought to make the jews fear Yahweh so much that they did not question Moses' brutal rule as they were too preoccupied trying to placate a whimsical and often openly genocidal god.

Diodorus then is suggesting that we should view the jews as a people marked by a covenant - represented by male circumcision (i.e. a modified form of human blood sacrifice) - (5) with a blood-thirsty god, who have historically been dominated by ruthless dictators - like Moses - in order to keep their fractious and egoistic nature in line: so much so that Moses even - in Diodorus' opinion - made up a god to justify and distract his fellow jews from the brutality and despotism of his rule.

This reading of Diodorus' more apparently neutral passages is justified by his own - and most famous - reference to the jews, which is anything but neutral in a fragment of the thirty-fourth book of his 'Historical Library'. To wit:

'King Antiochus besieged Jerusalem; but the Jews resisted him for some time. When, however, all their provision was spent, they were forced to send ambassadors to him to treat on terms. Many of his friends persuaded him to storm the city, and to root out the whole nation of the Jews; because they only, of all people, hated to converse with any of another nation, and treated all of them as enemies. They likewise suggested to him, that the ancestors of the Jews were driven out of Egypt as impious and hateful to the Gods. For their bodies being overspread and infected with the itch and leprosy, they brought them together into one place by way of expiation, and as profane and wicked wretches expelled them from their coasts. Those too that were thus expelled seated themselves about Jerusalem, and being afterwards embodied into one nation, called the nation of the Jews, their hatred of all other men descended with their blood to posterity. Hence they made strange laws, entirely different from those of other nations. In consequence of this, they will neither eat nor drink with any one of a different nation, nor wish him any prosperity.

For, say they, Antiochus, surnamed Epiphanes, having subdued the Jews, entered into the temple of God, into which by their law no one was permitted to enter but the priest. Here, when he found the image of a man with a long beard carved in stone sitting on an ass, he conceived it to be Moses who built Jerusalem, established the nation, and made all their impious customs and practices legal: for these abound in hatred and enmity to all other men. Antiochus, therefore, abhorring this their contrary to all other nations, used his utmost endeavour to abrogate their laws. In order to effect this, he sacrificed a large hog at the image of Moses and at the altar of God that stood in the outward court, and sprinkled them with the blood of the sacrifice. He commanded likewise that the sacred books, whereby they were taught to hate all other nations, should be sprinkled with the broth made of the hog's flesh. And he extinguished the lamp called by them immortal, which was continually burning in the temple. Lastly, he compelled the high priest and the other Jews to eat swine's flesh. Afterwards, when Antiochus and his friends had deliberately considered these things, they urged him to root out the whole nation, or at least to abrogate their laws and compel them to change their former mode of conducting themselves in common life. But the king being generous and of a mild disposition, received hostages and pardoned the Jews. He demolished, however, the walls of Jerusalem, and took the tribute that was due.'

This is clearly anything; as above stated, but a neutral judgement on Diodorus' part: although it is phrased in relatively neutral terms. That said it clearly indicates that Diodorus was - from what he knew of the jews - no friend of them and he held a particular antipathy for Moses.

We can see this in Diodorus' description of the jews 'hating every other nation' as well as 'treating them as enemies', which he directly ascribes to their 'impious ancestors' who were driven out of Egypt for being 'hateful towards' the (Egyptian) gods. Who then settled in the neighbourhood of Jerusalem and made 'strange laws' that were 'hateful towards other nations', which - Diodorus implies and in doing echoes Strabo - (7) is the origin of their conflict with the Selucid monarch Antiochus Epiphanes (i.e. jews being aggressive and arrogant towards powerful neighbours leading to their starting wars with them).

Diodorus - as I have said - clearly links these practices - which he obviously detests - back to Moses if we bear in mind that Diodorus' reference to expulsion of the 'lepers' of Egypt who formed a hated nation thereafter necessarily comes in the context of his comment about Moses having ruled the jews through imbibing them with the belief in a terrible god so that they would be distracted from his evil and despotic leadership. As such Diodorus sees the jews as a continuous people who not only have non-heroic origins - unlike the Greeks and Romans - but rather come from the worst of all the segments of society: the diseased and permanently disfigured.

Now I would argue that Diodorus' reference to the origins of the jews as 'lepers' and those with 'the itch' in Egyptian society is actually a metaphor for a revolutionary cult grouped around a despotic cult leader: Moses. This is suggested by Diodorus' description of how the ancestors of the jews were 'hateful towards' (i.e. rejected) the gods; not merely passively (i.e. by being diseased) but actively (i.e. being revolutionary), which then makes sense of why the Egyptians in Diodorus' account 'gathered up' the 'lepers' (i.e. rounded up and imprisoned the cult's followers) so that they could be easily banished (i.e. removed body and soul from Egyptian society thereby removing the revolutionary group in perpetuity).

This interpretation is also suggested by the sudden innovation of 'strange practices' by the 'lepers' as if they had been merely those afflicted with leprosy or 'the itch' then they should have simply kept to their original Egyptian system of worship and not suddenly innovated a new one that would have had to have taken time to take root as strong beliefs on the part of the population.

If we remember the famous story of the Golden Calf in Exodus where a large number of the jews - while Moses is on Mount Sinai - promptly create a golden statue of a cow to worship (i.e. the Egyptian goddess Hathor) and whom Moses - with the assistance of the tribe of Levi (the origins of priestly class in Judaism) - then promptly massacres. We can see a further suggestion of this cult-like scenario as the hard-line believers (the Levites) on the order of the cult leader Moses promptly massacre those who are perceived as apostates (the jews who worshiped Hathor).

Thus we can see that Diodorus' 'lepers' and those afflicted with 'the itch' are a metaphorical distinction between those who are afflicted with a mental plague (the lepers) and those who have shown the first signs of belief in it (those afflicted with the itch) so that the Levites are the 'lepers' while those jews who worshiped Hathor in the shadow of Mount Sinai would have been those afflicted with 'the itch'.

The symbols used by Diodorus are deceptively simple as well as clever wordplay in so far the lepers are the unclean, less desirous and contagious elements of a society (who have no interest in its maintenance) and itching is a symbol of uncleanliness and the carrying of disease. As such what Diodorus is doing is suggesting that the jews were a revolutionary religious cult bent on destroying the social and religious order of those in positions of power and as such were expelled by Pharaoh to be rid of the political and social problem they represented once and for all. As you can suppress a cult, but it is difficult to eradicate it totally without a large death toll and a lot of civil ill-will and unrest.

Thus Pharaoh hit upon the next best thing: gather the cult and those suspected of association with it together and banish them all to the desert wasteland of Egypt in the East to either die of thirst or break up into a non-threatening series of groups. That he very nearly succeeded in this is suggested by the story of the Golden Calf in so far that Moses feels so threatened by the reviving worship of Hathor - which would cut his following down substantially - that he kills all those who worship her image in his absence as a lesson to any of his other followers who would stray from his influence.

This then sets the scene for Diodorus' account of Antiochus Epiphanes' war against the jews as if the jews are a revived relic of an old Egyptian subversive cult and have - as such - cultivated a great hatred of non-believers - as well as those who had not come out of Egypt with them (as life not worthy of life so-to-speak) - then it makes sense of the advice given to him by his friends not to treat with the jews but rather to sack Jerusalem and 'root out the whole nation'. Or put another way Antiochus Epiphanes was told what the jews were and how they would never stop being subversive and hateful to everything that he and every non-jew believed so thus it was to the benefit of mankind for the jewish nation to be 'rooted out' in Diodorus' view.

Antiochus Epiphanes' conviction to extirpate the jewish religion is strengthened - in Diodorus' account - by his discovery - upon entering the Holy of Holies of the jewish temple (where none but a Levite could enter) - of a stone statue of a bearded man riding an ass that - Diodorus necessarily implies - the jews worshiped. Antiochus Epiphanes reasonably assumed that this was Moses - the founder of the cult - who the jews while pretending to worship an invisible but yet omnipotent and omnipresent god actually deified and worshiped as an ascended god (rather like prophet Elijah in modern Judaism).

This might seem strange and out of kilter with what is commonly believed about Judaism, but numerous reconstructions of Judaism up to and including this historical period have placed the jews as at least a dualistic religion (Yahweh and Astarte [the Shekhina in modern Judaism]) and quite probably a polytheistic one. For a simple check of this one can read the later prophets of Israel who repeatedly warned the jews against abandoning the worship of Yahweh (i.e. becoming polytheistic) and of breeding with non-jews (i.e. abandoning the laws of Moses): after all if there was no problem then what were the prophets sent by Yahweh to warn against and quarrel with their fellow jews about?

Antiochus Epiphanes - in Diodorus' telling of the story - seems to have - with quiet irony - seen the manifest falseness of the jewish religion - in professing one thing and then doing quite another - and decided to show the jews the powerlessness of their alleged god: Yahweh. Of whom remember Diodorus has already told us the jews were manifestly terrified of.

That demonstration took four forms (I place them in the probable order they were undertaken):

A) Sacrificing an unclean animal - a pig - on the altar of Yahweh so as to deliberately provoke the god into striking down Antiochus Epiphanes, which then did not happen. Thus, showing that Yahweh was not a god of whom the Selucid king could possibly be afraid as he was so weak or non-existent that he could not even avenge a religious outrage of this magnitude in his own chief place of worship.

B) Sprinkling a broth made of pig’s fat over the Torah scrolls in the Temple: thus desecrating them in the worst way possible in jewish eyes. Thus demonstrating to the jews that their holy writ was just like any other book and that - as such - was not holy let alone divinely-inspired.

C) Feeding the butchered flesh of an unclean animal - a pig - to the priests of Yahweh - probably after cooking it in Yahweh's eternal flame (as to double the religious injury) - so as to force them to violate all their religious scruples and thus demonstrate to them and the jews that Yahweh would not enact bloody vengeance on them if they dared to break his alleged holy laws.

D) Extinguishing the supposedly eternal fire in the temple whose continued presence was a symbol of Yahweh's own - after Moses' pillars of fire and smoke - and thus demonstrating to the jews that not only was Yahweh not present but also that he was so weak - or simply non-existent - that he could not restart his own 'eternal flame'.

Thus Antiochus Epiphanes hoped - as Diodorus relates - to eradicate what he saw as the subversive religion of the jews and indeed his friends encouraged him to go further and formally outlaw jewish customs and practices as well as force the jews into abandoning their hatred of others and becoming one with the world once again.

Antiochus Epiphanes suddenly relented - perhaps his rage had cooled or perhaps he had been bribed by the desperate jews - and decided to spare the jews their complete destruction as he had previously resolved upon: contenting himself with destroying - as he thought - the jewish ability to be aggressive by demolishing Jerusalem's walls and taking the wealth of the city with him.

Diodorus - evidently somewhat dissatisfied with Antiochus Epiphanes' sudden change of heart - rationalizes it with the comment that the Selucid king was of a kind and generous disposition, which is not - as Diodorus seems to be tantalizingly aware - a cogent explanation for this change of heart but rather Diodorus hints at a bribe when he talks of 'receiving hostages' (for future jewish good behaviour) and 'pardoning the jews' in return for 'tribute'. In other words if Antiochus Epiphanes would leave the jews to themselves they pledged to pay him an - in all probably very large - amount of gold every year for the foreseeable future: thus allowing the jews to rebuild and rearm while concomitantly allowing Antiochus Epiphanes to replenish his coffers as well as likely make a profit.

That Diodorus includes such an implicit clarification after making a strongly worded attack on the jews garbed in a beautifully neutral historical tone suggests to us that he doesn't like what Antiochus Epiphanes did, but has - as a good historian - to report it and offer reasons for why this was so. Hence Diodorus picks the most common of rationalizations for an action that can be regarded as a boon or favour - being of a generous disposition - without letting his own personal feelings break into his narrative too much.

Never-the-less we can discern Diodorus' evident distaste for all things related to jews and Judaism by looking at the totality of what he wrote regarding the jews and as such we can praise Diodorus for having the intellectual vision and courage to see the jews not as a strange Eastern curiosity, but rather as a potential threat to all those who came into contact with them.


(1) Diod. 1:28.2-3
(2) Ibid. 1:55.5
(3) Ibid. 1:94.2
(4) 'Iao' is a Greek understanding of the way that Yahweh (YHWH) is pronounced in Hebrew with focus on the initial letters i.e. 'Jah' which can sound like 'Iah' (remember Hebrew has no vowel sounds historically).
(5) Although Strabo (16:2.38) suggests that there may have been a practice of female circumcision among the jews as well at one point or another.
(6) Diod. 34
(7) Strabo 16:2.26-29