Artapanus and the Egyptian Moses: Jewish Syncretism in Alexandria

In the study of historical Gnostic religions, one is inevitably drawn towards the period of Graeco-Egyptian syncretism occurring in the wake of Alexander’s Egyptian conquest (c. 300 BCE).  My upcoming (and currently under-wraps) research project has been especially dependent upon such study.  One surprising element I have regularly encountered in this research is the participation of the Jews in both religious and historical Graeco-Egyptian synthesis.

Ancient Alexandria

Nowhere was the relationship between the Jews and the Graeco-Egyptian world more prominent than in the matchless city of Alexandria, which for centuries housed a significant and influential Jewish quarter.  According to Josephus, Jews were already living in that city during Alexander’s lifetime (d. 323 BCE), but it is certain they were at least forming a significant population by the opening of the third century BCE.

Relations between the Jews and the Alexandrian government were decent, save for a few small clashes.  Jewish relations with the Greek citizens of Alexandria deteriorated into bloodshed, however, beneath the rule of the Romans, who crushed a Jewish rebellion in that city to the tune of 50,000 Jews (c. 116 CE).  But before this, in the age of the Ptolemies (323-30 BCE), many Alexandrian Jews had little difficulty acclimating themselves, both in culture and religion, to the Graeco-Egyptian world.

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Philo of Alexandria (25 BCE- 50 CE)

It is within this philosophical and cultural melting-pot that such Jews as Philo (25 BCE-50 CE) achieved a dramatic synthesis between Judaism, Middle Platonism, and Stoicism.  The Jewish philosopher Aristobulous, working more than a century before Philo, had already claimed that Greeks like Orpheus and Musaeus had been dependent on Moses, and on the Torah, for their own doctrines.  These sort of speculations were evidently well-known by both Jewish and Gentile philosophers, and continued to be made in the following centuries.  Some Greeks, looking to establish the universality of Plato’s truth, themselves drew near to such ideas—thus the famous line of Numenius (fl. 2nd century CE): “What is Plato but Moses speaking Attic Greek?”[1]  Of course, the idea that the Greeks were especially dependent on Moses was a Jewish tendency.

While Hellenistic Judaism’s prominent relationship with Greek philosophy is today widely discussed, its relationship with acutely Egyptian thought has been far less visible.  Philo himself detested Egyptian religion and sought to distance his fusion of Judaism and Greek philosophy from Egypt’s naïve polytheism.  But other Hellenistic Jews looked to incorporate both the Greek and the Egyptian worlds into Jewish religion and history.

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Moses, Library of Congress

This spirit was most visibly captured in the work of Jewish historian Artapanus, who probably lived in Alexandria around the late second century BCE, beneath the rule of Ptolemy IV.  Artapanus’ work focused largely on promoting the exploits of the Jewish patriarchs in the land of Egypt: he portrayed biblical figures like Abraham and Joseph as the originators of various aspects of Egyptian culture, such as astrology, religion, and weapon-making.[2]  In Artapanus’ time, age was a valuable thing in a competitive religious milieu, and there was a constant jockeying for chronological authority.  Thus, similar to Aristobulous, Artapanus said that Moses had first taught Orpheus, the mythological father of the Greek culture whose later cult greatly influenced the Hellenistic philosophers. 

Image result for egyptian godsAccording to Artapanus, Moses had also divided Egypt into 36 nomes (territories) and assigned to each the worship of a different Egyptian god.  Coming from a Jew, this sort of claim featuring the central Jewish prophet’s tolerance of Egyptian polytheism is striking.  Niehoff writes that “in complete contrast to Philo, Artapanus did not abhor Egyptian religion, but subordinated it to his own tradition, thus suggesting a deep congeniality between the two.”[3]  But why, according to Aratapaus, did Moses assign the nomes of Egypt to “cats, dogs, and ibises”?  Evidently, “he did all these things for the sake of keeping the monarchy stable for [the king] Chenephres, for prior to this time the masses were disorganized and they would sometimes depose, sometimes install rulers, often the same person, but sometimes others.”[4]  Here we find a largely political motivation, but this is not meant to downplay the real religious significance of Moses’ alleged acts.  As John Barclay writes, “Moses in the palace of the king (Exodus 2:10) is for [Artapanus] a symbol of the integration of Jewish and Egyptian culture”;[5] the Egyptian Moses was the real intersection between the Jewish and Egyptian religious worlds. 

An interesting parallel to the idea that Moses divided up the land up among the Egyptian gods might be found in the Hebrew OT, in Deuteronomy 32:8.  As Michael Heiser convincingly demonstrates, this text should read, “When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when He separated the sons of man, He set the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God.”[6]  In Heiser’s view, which emphasizes the ancient Israelite belief in “the divine council/assembly” of lesser divine entities,[7] Deut 32:8 represents a dividing of the land between lesser gods. 


Moses murders the Egyptian

But how was Artapanus to deal with the story of the Exodus, and the blatant rejection of Egypt in the Israelite religion and history?  In Exodus, Moses even kills an Egyptian, abandons Egypt, and flees to join his own people—how could this fit with Artapanus’ mission?   Artapanus was thus compelled to rework the story of Moses’ murder of the Egyptian into a thrilling assassination plot hatched by a jealous king.  Moses’ violence was now a brave self-defense; Artapanus’ Moses does not abandon Egypt, but is forced to flee.  As Barclay observes, “Artapanus has managed to use Exod. 2.10-15 to produce a faultless Moses, as fully integrated into Egyptian life and culture as Artapanus himself.[8]

Interestingly, it is probable that another motivation for Artapanus’ work involved the refutation of pagan claims about Moses.  For example, the Egyptian priest Manetho (fl. 3rd century BCE) had slandered Moses as a charlatan and religious imposter (Josephus also works to refute these claims).[9]  Manetho had said that Moses was an Egyptian, and a leprous, crippled priest working in the pagan temples of Egypt, who fell away and taught atheism to the Jews (atheism in this case being the denial of the Egyptian gods).  It is probable, then, that Artapanus works against these claims by portraying Moses as not only comfortable with the gods but as authoritatively establishing the whole religious order in Egypt.

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The ibis-headed Thoth

Another interesting feature of Artapanus’ work is his ultimate identification of Moses with the Egyptian god Thoth.  It is this Thoth-Moses, he says, who was responsible for not only first revealing philosophy to the Hellenistic world,[10] but for first translating the elusive Egyptian hieroglyphics into Greek.  As many linguists have observed, language plays an influential and possibly determinative role in the establishment of culture;[11] Thus we might say that Artapanus’ Moses acts as a melting point for not only divergent religions, but for the entire way of life of the Greek, Jewish, and Egyptian peoples.  In the end, this Thoth-Moses was, according to Artapanus, so revered that he was “deemed worthy of godlike honor by the priests and called Hermes, on account of the interpretation of the sacred letters.”[12]   And here we find yet another interesting convergence: Moses is equated with both the Egyptian god Thoth and the Greek god Hermes.

The historical combination of Thoth and Hermes was an easy-to-achieve synthesis: both were gods of wisdom, invention, and divine messages.  This particular fusion predated the work of Artapanus, and was a fascination of Greek settlers in Egypt, and one of the grandest products of their tendency to mix gods in the Ptolemaic kingdom (a practice perhaps initiated by Ptolemy I himself, pushing his Serpais cult to unify his disparate peoples).  The long-standing combination of Thoth and Hermes would also provide the basis for the rise of the legendary prophet Hermes Trismegistus, who played the central figure of the later pagan Gnostic movement known as Hermeticism (a movement which now occupies much of my current study).

Ultimately, both the Egyptian Thoth and the Greek Hermes, being the conductors of divine Image result for mosesmessages from heaven, naturally fit with the Moses persona: Moses was the great oracle and mediator between the biblical God and the Jews, and was himself an author and co-author with God, and one who even brought down messages inscribed by God’s own hand from Sinai.

While most studies of Jewish Alexandrian syncretism revolve around the fascination of figures like Philo with Greek philosophy, there is yet another world of Jewish syncretism traveling towards Egypt.  This is perhaps an even more surprising direction, given the difficult history of the Jews with that people, and the readiness of Jews to look down on Egyptian religion.  But in the work of Artapanus we find a flexible Hellenistic Judaism looking to join in religious and historical assimilation with Egypt.  Interestingly, the endeavor to recognize harmony between the biblical religion and the Egyptian world would not cease with Jews like Artapanus, but would live on in the efforts of some of the most influential fourth century Church Fathers.  But the Christian harmony with Graeco-Egyptian syncretism is a discussion for another day…



[1] Numenius of Apamea quoted in Clement of Alexandria, Strom. 122.150.4.

[2] John J. Collins, “Artapanus,” The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Vol. 2 (Garden City: Doubleday, 1983), pp. 889-903.

[3] Niehoff, p. 73.

[4] Eusebius’ account of Artapanus in Praep. Ev. 9.27.5.

[5] John M.G. Barclay, “Manipulating Moses: Exodus 2:10-15 in Egyptian Judaism and the New Testament,” Text as Pretext: Essays in Honor of Robert Davidson (Bloomsbury Pub., 1992), p.  33.

[6] Michael S. Heiser, “Deuteronomy 32:8 and the Sons of God” Bibliotheca Sacra, 158 (Jan-March 2001), pp. 52-74.

[7] The idea that there is a divine assembly of deities governing the world, sometimes beneath the authority of a supreme God, is a widespread belief in the ancient world and can be located in the religions of the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Hebrews.  Biblical passages like 1 Kings 22:19-23 surely refer to such a belief.  Some also interpret passages like Psalm 82:1-6 along these lines.

[8] Barclay, p. 34.

[9] Daniel Jeremy Silver, Images of Moses (Basic Books, 1982), p. 58; see Josephus’ Against Apion for his refutations of critics like Manetho, Lysimachus, Chaeremon, Apion, Posidonius, and Apollonius Molon.

[10] Garth Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes, p. 23.

[11] The popular Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, also known as Linguistic relativity, holds that one’s language influences or even determines one’s worldview.

[12] Eusebius recalling Artapanus, Praep. Evang., IX, 27, 6, emphasis added.


4 thoughts on “Artapanus and the Egyptian Moses: Jewish Syncretism in Alexandria

  1. Mr. Chandler,

    I recently listened to your podcast interview with Sean Finnegan on “Restitutio” regarding your latest book, and I must say I am quite intrigued. I am a blind philosophy student at the State University of New York at Fredonia, with special interest in philosophy of religion and Christian church history. This sounds like a fascinating book and one I would love to read. My plans are to continue study and eventually find work in ministry. (I am a unitarian Christian myself).

    Being blind, the Braille books web site I use to get reading material does not have your content on there for accessible electronic download. Aside from saying hello and letting you know how much I appreciate your work and insight, I was curious if you had any ideas of how I could obtain this material in electronic format. I’m not trying to avoid paying for it and have no plans to copy or redistribute; I simply would like to read it for my own gain. Is there any way, either through you or the publisher, I might be able to pay for and obtain an accessible PDF, DOC, or other format of the book? If you know where I could find it, I would even be willing to give an audiobook a try.

    Thank you once more, and it was a pleasure to listen to you on the podcast. Keep up the great work.

    Nicholas Hlifka


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