Historical Background:

The text of Pseudo-Hecataeus is actually a few fragmented quotations of some ancient from an ancient historian. An important element of these quotations is that the historian is not a Jew but a Greek historian named Hecataeus. The texts likely come from the very late-300’s BCE when this writer is known to have lived, only ten or so miles east of Philippi. Three of the quotations are relatively accepted as authentic, but one is less accepted. Even so, some of the best scholars accept all four texts as from this Greek historian and truthful accounts.

These quotations are important because Hecataeus is writing about his perceptions of the Jews as an external evaluator. The Jews have been in the Return to the land for more than two hundred years at this point. The Temple and Jerusalem had been rebuilt long before, but they were still not a great and powerful nation again. In fact, Alexander the Great moved through and made an agreement with Jerusalem to be a vassal state in 329 BCE. Alexander’s conquest of the Jews by peaceful agreement is likely the context in which Hacataeus gained the opportunity to write about the Jews. Most Greek historians spent time explaining things about the non-Greek peoples they encountered for academic knowledge and future reference. Such descriptions are immensely valuable in our attempt to reconstruct what Jewish life was like in this period.

Based on the “latest” Jewish literature in this Read-Through project, the 2nd Temple Jewish texts have had a strong emphasis on obedience to God’s teaching and have come to terms with the Exile as a form of disciplinary teaching about idolatry. Did these beliefs about God and Jewish identity come through in their interactions with the other nations? Hecataeus is able to help us precisely in this inquiry. He helps us understand how the Jews were perceived by the nations interacting with them as the Jews moved into the middle of the Second Temple Era.

Literary Synopsis:

The first reference to Hacataeus about the Jews is found in a letter between a royal librarian to a Greek king. The librarian is requesting that emessaries be sent to Jerusalem to attain a copy of the Jewish writings for the royal library. The librarian cites Hecataeus to prove that the Jews are dedicated to their writings because they are a divine philosophy that the Greeks have not yet spent time studying on account of the Jews being such a remote people who have been overlooked in the past. This first fragment reveals that the Jews were perceived as highly dedicated to what the Jews believed were divine writings, which we would call the Old Testament texts. On account of how the Jews speak and live by the it, the Old Testament is also believed by Hacataeus to be a repository of great wisdom, which is why it is referred to as a divine philosophy.

Another fragment is found in the work of the Christian teacher named Clement of Alexandria in the late-200s CE. Clement’s quotation comes from Hacataeus’ book on Abraham. (It should be a striking note that this Greek historian took the time to learn from the Jews about Abraham!) Hacataeus’ Abraham text emphasized that the Jews believed in a monotheistic God. The God of the Jews was also the Creator god. Hacataeus says that the Jews believe humanity has fallen away from following the Creator in their hearts, the inner life given to humanity by the Creator, and such falling away comes out in the behaviors of worshipping created idols. The Jews present a theology to Hacataeus that the perceived good and correct worship of the gods by the nations is actually sinful and evil.

The third and fourth quotations are both found in the writings of Josephus. The third fragment of Hacataeus claims that Alexander the Great gave the land of Samaria to the Jews on account of their loyalty to Alexander. Even more, the Jews do not need to pay tribute taxes on Samaria, meaning they could keep the spoils of ruling Samaria all to themselves. The Samaritans had tried to fight Alexander in 331 BCE and were crushed, but the Jews had sided with the young emperor, making this statement by Hacataeus historically plausible.

The last quotation of Hacataeus, also found in Josephus, is much longer than the other three fragments. The text that Josephus is drawing from is a Greek historical text in which Hacataeus describes the Jews and there interaction with/under the new Greek empire. There are a number of things that can be learned about the Jews in 2nd Temple era from this particular text:

  1. There are many Levites and priests in the late-300s. They are continually busy with all of the work concerning the temple in Jerusalem.
  2. The Jews seem prosperous and fruitful agriculturally.
  3. Hacataeus notes that the Jews are dedicated to living according to their sacred writings. The historian explains that devotion this includes public dialogue on the importance of being willing to suffer and die rather than disobey the Law. This might have been emphasized to show that the Jews were not particularly rebellious, but rather extremely pious. When Alexander the Great came to Babylon he demanded that the residents rebuild the temple of Bel, but the Jews refused to participate and were severely punished by Alexander to show that no form of rebellion would be allowed in his Greek empire. Hacataeus could be ethnographically explaining why piety, rather than rebelliousness, could account for the different responses the Jews of Babylon had toward Alexander compared to their brothers in Jerusalem who submitted easily. There were also cases of violent piety in the land ruled by Jerusalem in which Jews would attack and destroy temples built by non-Jews who moved into the land.
  4. Hacataeus says that the Jewish population is quite large. It seems that the concerted effort emphasizing procreative intention in Jewish families was a success. This was necessary after the obliteration of the population during the Destruction Event and the reality that a substantial number of Jews did not return to the land from the Exile.
  5. The Greek historian states that the land area that Jerusalem controls is vast. This may be a relative evaluation based on the limited land area that could be cultivated in the Greek lands under their own city-states. Either way, the Jews had spread themselves into the whole region, claiming both control of the land and allegiance to Jerusalem.
  6. Hacataeus is taken aback by the city of Jerusalem. He says that the city is large, which means the growth of the city had been on a healthy increase since the rebuilding projects of Ezra and Nehemiah a little more than a century before. The historian marvels at the beauty of the temple and how the priests are always busy in it.


            In the end, the Greek historian named Hacataeus gives us a picture of Jewish life around 300 BCE that seems to be flourishing as a people group by ancient standards. Jerusalem is a loud, bustling city. The area of land and villages full of Jews under Jerusalem’s rule is impressive to him. The Jews are dedicated to a monotheistic religion, eschewing any form of polytheistic worship, and even willing to die rather than be forced to disobey their way of life or participate in other cultic practices. The prominence of Jewish religion is typified in the glory of the temple, which depicts the Jews’ utter devotion to God. The Jews also seem to have significantly repopulated the land after the few thousands who had come back to inhabit it in the Return. Hacataeus’ depiction of the Jews around 300 BCE is a picture of bounty, prosperity, and religious devotion.


This post is a part of a Read-Through project in which I am reading through biblical and extra-biblical literature. I’m reading the texts in an order based on a couple of timelines I compiled. If you would like to join me on this journey the timelines are available, as well as my prior posts. Each one gives some historical background, a literary synopsis, and a few observations I found interesting enough to share about the examined text.

Posted by Justin Gill

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