Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.10.03 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.10.03

Response: Bar-Kochva on Pelling on Bar-Kochva, The Image of the Jews in Greek Literature.   Response to 2011.07.11

Response by Bezalel Bar-Kochva, Tel-Aviv University (

In my recent book, The Image of the Jews in Greek Literature, I argue that there is nothing in Clearchus' report about the fictitious meeting between Aristotle and a Jew at Assus to suggest that Aristotle recognized the superiority of Jewish wisdom. Prof. Pelling fully accepts this conclusion. However, he suggests a reading of his own which would necessarily mean – although Pelling does not say this explicitly – that "Aristotle" heard from the Jew some Jewish wisdom, while my reading indicates that the Jew only demonstrated his acquaintance with Greek learning. In view of the implications of the issue on the much debated question of Oriental influence on Greek culture, Pelling's interpretation calls for attention.

Here is the relevant sentence (Josephus, C.Ap. 1.181): ὡς δὲ πολλοῖς τῶν ἐν παιδείᾳ συνῳκείωτο, παρεδίδον τι μᾶλλον ὧν εἴχεν. Pelling prefers to maintain μᾶλλον in its comparative sense and interprets: "once the Jew became more at ease with his new companions and recognized their education, 'he passed on to them a little more of the wisdom he had' than he had done before. That is quite enough for Josephus' point: such wisdom was worth having, but was not something to impart lightly".

I am afraid this interpretation introduces a component that does not exist in the sentence ('than he had done before'). This is not 'an easier interpretation', as Pelling claims, because one has to assume a far-reaching ellipsis. Furthermore, this reading imposes some difficulties.

(1) Clearchus does not indicate anywhere that there was a former discourse between the Jew and Aristotle. The phrasing of the paragraph suggests that the meeting was a one-time event (ἐντυγχάνει κτλ.).

(2) It is difficult to accept that the preceding explanation – ὡς δὲ πολλοῖς τῶν ἐν παιδείᾳ συνῳκείωτο – applies to the association of the Jew with Aristotle and his men. Would Clearchus, who idolized his master, have been content with describing Aristotle and his company – even when quoting 'Aristotle' – as τῶν ἐν παιδείᾳ? The three friends who accompanied Aristotle to Assus, Erastus, Coriscus and Xenocrates, rose to fame in the generation of Clearchus, and the latter even served as the head of the Academy. (In the same paragraph they are called σχολαστικοί.) One would also doubt if such a devoted disciple as Clearchus would have used the same description to refer to Aristotle together with the many Greeks that the Jew had been mingling with in Asia Minor.

(3) The designation 'many' can hardly apply to the friends of Aristotle who left Athens in haste, found refuge at the court of Philip II, and later were sent together with him to Assus by the king. As a matter of fact, we know only about the three mentioned above.1

The explanatory sentence seems to go back to one of the preceding sentences in the same clause:

(180) οὗτος οὖν ἄνθρωπος ἐπιξενούμενός τε πολλοῖς κἀκ τῶν ἄνω τόπων εἰς τοὺς ἐπιθαλαττίους ὑποκαταβαίνων Ἑλληνικὸς ἦν οὐ τῇ διαλέκτῳ μόνον, ἀλλὰ καὶ τῇ ψυχῇ. (181) καὶ τότε διατριβόντων ἡμῶν περὶ τὴν Ἁσίαν παραβαλὼν εἰς τοὺς αὐτοὺς τόπους ἅνθρωπος ἐντυγχάνει ἡμῖν τε καί τισιν ἑτέροις τῶν σχολαστικῶν πειρώμενος αὐτῶν τῆς σοφίας. ὡς δὲ πολλοῖς τῶν ἐν παιδείᾳ συνῳκείωτο, παρεδίδου τι μᾶλλον ὧν εἶχεν.

Accordingly, the sentence under discussion refers to the residence of the Jew among many Greeks in Asia Minor before meeting Aristotle and his close circle at Assus. Even more significant is the statement that the Jew turned to be a Greek, 'not only in his language but also in his soul'. Notably, an almost identical phrase is used by Agatharchides of Cnidus with regard to Boxus, a Persian living in Athens who wrote in Greek on geographical and ethnographical subjects (preserved by Photius, Cod. 250, Bekker, 492a, ll.21-22).2 Agatharchides, known for his accurate expressions (at least as per Photius), wrote: ἑλληνίσαι γλῶσσαν καὶ γνώμην. (The equivalent for the ψύχη of the Jew is γνώμη.) All these considerations, taken together, indicate that the wisdom of the Jew was Greek.

I had therefore suggested the following translation: "As he (the Jew) had been associated with many educated [people], he was rather (μᾶλλον in its absolute sense) imparting something of the things [at his disposal]",3 referring to Greek wisdom acquired in years of residence among Greeks in western Asia Minor. The ability of the Jew to actively participate in a philosophical dialogue with the great Greek philosopher, demonstrating some of the Greek knowledge at his disposal, was considered surprising and worthy of notice by 'Aristotle'.

The absolute μᾶλλον relates to the former statement that the Jew 'tested' his interlocutors: it stresses that the Jew was not content with passively listening to them, but also demonstrated his own Greek wisdom, or perhaps even interrupted them for this sake, being eager to express himself.4

Last but not least: there is no real difficulty to this interpretation in the word order of παρεδίδου τι μᾶλλον ὧν εἶχεν: the absolute μᾶλλον is delayed to prevent hiatus and mainly to provide an emphasis as a variety of hyperbaton. The interpretation of the sentence should therefore be decided according to the context, the statements of the preceding sentences, and the contents of the fragment and testimonium as a whole.5

To conclude: the sentence under discussion not only does not indicate that "Aristotle" recognized the superiority of Jewish wisdom, but also does not seem to say that the great Greek philosopher learned (or even heard) Jewish wisdom from a Jew.

[The review by Wyrick on Bar-Kochva may be found at BMCR 2011.03.51.]


1.   On Aristotle’s stay at Assus see A.H. Chroust, 'Aristotle leaves the Academy', Greece and Rome 14 (1967), pp. 39-44; id. 'Aristotle’s sojourn in Assos', Historia 21 (1972), pp 170-176.
2.   Surprisingly enough, the passage is missing in all the editions of Jacoby's FGrH.
3.   This reading of μᾶλλον appears also (without explanation) in the translation to Greek Katharevousa by B.M. Bella, ΦΛΑΒΙΟΥ ΙΩΣΗΠΟΥ ΚΑΤ' ΑΠΙΩΝΟΣ· ΕΙΣΑΓΩΓΗ, ΜΕΤΑΦΡΑΣΙΣ, ΣΗΜΕΙΩΣΕΙΣ, Athens 1938, vol.1, p.379 (μᾶλλον μετέδιδέ τι κτλ.); cf. also, H.St.J. Thackeray, Josephus, with an English translation, vol.1, London-Cambridge (Mass), 1926, p.235 (The Loeb Classical Library): "it was rather he who also imparted to us something of his own". This is also how Clement of Alexandria, a master of the Greek language and its literature, probably understood the word μᾶλλον ; see: The Image of the Jews, pp. 52-53.
4.   On the "test", see: ibid pp. 49, 51.
5.   See further the detailed discussion on various aspects of the sentence, and the episode as a whole: ibid pp. 47-59. ​

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