Historical Background:

The text known as Demetrius the Chronographer is a set of six Greek fragments attributed to Demetrius. The text is the earliest Jewish writing in Greek known other than the LXX. By being the earliest text to reference it, Demetrius helps date an early version of the LXX. Demetrius leans heavily on the Greek Scriptures, assuming the LXX is both accurate and authoritative for Jewish history. The writer, Demetrius, seems to be writing to those within the 2nd Temple Jewish community who would also be acquainted with the biblical narratives, probably as the LXX.

The literary style of Demetrius parallels a number of texts in Greece, Egypt, and Babylon that sought to examine the writings concerning each people’s past and show them to be historically valid. The ancient method of examination was characterized by finding problems in a received text and finding viable solutions.[1] This makes Demetrius the earliest example of biblical exegesis in a similar vein to the more scientific methods employed by biblical studies today. This predilection for the historical viability of the biblical narratives in the Demetrius text indicates a larger communal interest in the reliability of Israel’s collective memory concerning God’s work in the world since his work in creation is centered on Israel’s election foremost. This concern for historical reality can be traced all the way into and beyond the first century A.D. Jewish writers, such as in the works of Philo, Josephus, Paul, and the Evangelists—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Since Demetrius uses heavily relies on the LXX this indicates the Greek translation is widespread and fully accepted, at least by Demetrius’ community of Hellenistic 2nd Temple Jews, lends to a substantial time after the compilation of and acceptance of the compiled Hebrew Torah text in the mid-400’s B.C. with Ezra. It would take time for the Hebrew Torah to disseminate throughout the Jewish Diaspora from Babylon. Then came the time needed for the Greek LXX to be translated, accepted, and disseminated as well. It seems reasonable to assume that Demetrius could not have been a written any earlier as the Hellenistic 2nd Temple Jewish document it is before the mid-to-late fourth century. The ancient method characterized by finding problems from and solutions for communal historical texts is a method in Greece, Egypt, and Babylon in the early third century. It is safe to assume that the final and circulated forms of our Demetrius fragments derive from books written sometime in the third century B.C. within a Hellenistic Jewish community seeking to validate their scriptural history by more exact exegesis. The mention of Ptolemy IV, who began his rule c. 221 B.C., in the sixth fragment of Demetrius offers both a more precise time and place for the originating documents: the large diaspora community of Hellenistic 2nd Temple Jews in Alexandria during the late-200’s B.C.

Literary Synopsis:

The first fragment is a few sentences that restates the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac to God and God providing a ram via an angel to save Isaac found in Genesis 22.

The second fragment is longer. It focuses heavily on showing the ages of all the characters in the Genesis story between Jacob leaving Isaac to find a wife in Haran all the way until the birth of Moses in Exodus. Demetrius’ purpose seems to show the veracity of the text concerning movement of Jacob’s family with the allowance of time for the children of the narrative to be born in their proper place by their parents.

In the third fragment Demetrius is concerned with proving that Moses did not marry any woman from outside the Abrahamic family. He uses Genesis 25:1-6 to show that land of Midian is a place populated with the descendants of Abraham through his son, Midian, who he begat with his second wife, Keturah. Since Midian is filled with Abrahamic people then Moses’ Zipporah, though a Midianite, is not outside the chosen family of Abraham. Likewise, Demetrius assumes that since, for him, Ethiopia is part of the East to which Abraham sent Keturah’s sons then that land too is populated by Abrahamic descendants. Therefore, even the Ethiopian woman (“Cushite” in most translations, Num 12:1) that Moses takes as a second wife is within the fold of the Abrahamic peoples and valid for him to marry.

The fourth fragment is also only a few sentences and mainly a quotation of the LXX about Moses leading the people to Marah in Exodus 15.

The fifth fragment is about the Israelites and Moses after they had crossed the sea. Demetrius notices that the Israelites have weapons to fight Amalek in Exodus 17 and believes this is a problem because Israel had left Egypt to worship, not battle. Now, it would be easy to say Demetrius should simply read Exodus better because Ex 13:18 clearly says, “the people of Israel went up out of the land of Egypt equipped for battle.” But the problem is Demetrius relies on the LXX and the Greek translation of Ex 13:18 does not include the word “equipped for battle”. This word is only in the Hebrew text we now have, which could have been easily redacted into the verse to address the very problem that Demetrius notices. Instead of proposing to alter the biblical text, Demetrius proposes that the Israelites simply picked up the weapons of the drowned Egyptians.

The sixth and last Demetrius fragment that calculates the time between the captivity of the northern tribes of Israel and the captivity of Judea with Benjamin, and then the time from the Babylonian captivity until the reign of Ptolemy IV circa 221 B.C.

Observations:

  1. Fragment 2 verse 9 quickly recounts the Genesis 34 story of Dinah’s rape and how her brothers murder her rapist, his father, and all the men of their city. It does not include in the summary how the rapist, his father, and all the men of their city agreed to be circumcised in order to proper marry the women of Israel’s family. Jacob is greatly distressed by his sons’ murderous behavior because he fears the other cities and peoples of the land will turn against their family. The Genesis 34 story ends with the brothers asking if it is acceptable for the daughter(s) of Israel, their sister(s), to be treated as prostitutes—used as objects for sexual pleasure as long as the (bride) price is met. Demetrius’ summary supports a reading of the Genesis 34 story that justice for the honor of Abraham’s family must be the priority when living among the nations rather than capitulating to degrading and evil forms of peace among them.
  2. This concern for treating the Abrahamic family with honor is shown again later in Fragment 2 verses 13-14 about how Joseph treats Benjamin when giving him five times as much as his other brothers. Demetrius believes this is not to dishonor his other brothers, but since Leah had six sons and Rachel only had two Joseph’s generosity to his only full brother is meant to bring the honor of six sons to Rachel.
  3. Demetrius’ concern for family is part of a larger theology of sex held by 2nd Temple Jews. The idea of sexual mixing with the nations was harshly decried as evil and intermingled with connotations of idolatry. The assumption that murder is justified to protect the daughters of Israel and that a solution must be found to Moses marrying a Midianite and an Ethiopian speaks to this theology of sex within Demetrius’ biblical exegesis as an apologetic for an already common and demanding feature of 2nd Temple Jewish life.   

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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.


[1] James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Garden City: Doubleday, 1983), 845.

Posted by Justin Gill

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