Jews in the Hellenistic and Roman Cities

By John R. Bartlett | Go to book overview

8

THE ESSENES IN GREEK SOURCES

Some reflections

John Dillon

This is a subject that I approach with some trepidation, aware as I am that there is a long history of controversy on the interpretation of the Greek sources for the Essene sect, especially the evidence of Philo and Josephus, and in particular the relevance of their evidence to what we know of the Qumran community, and, despite a long-standing interest in Philo, I cannot claim to be an expert in this field. 1

Nevertheless, a record of my impressions as an Hellenic outsider may be of some interest. What I propose to do is, first of all, to examine briefly the personal backgrounds of Philo and Josephus, in order to isolate factors that may have a bearing on their objectivity or competence as witnesses, and then to consider the various aspects of their accounts, with a view to establishing how far the variations between them, and between them and the evidence we seem to have from Qumran (both the documents and the archaeological evidence) are of any real significance.


The chief Graeco-Roman sources

Philo

Philo, whose dates may be taken as being approximately 30 BCE to 45 CE, is the earlier of the two, and on the whole the less well informed. A member of a very prominent and affluent Jewish family in Alexandria, his education appears to have been solidly Greek and his knowledge of Hebrew minimal, 2 though he plainly suffered a most remarkable conversion to his ancestral traditions at some stage in his life, which produced the unique amalgam of Greek culture and Jewish patriotism which we observe in his writings. It is

1 In fact, since this essay was originally composed, I have come upon an excellent survey by Todd S. Beall (1988), which seems to me to settle satisfactorily the basic accuracy of Josephus' account. In this revised version, I am much indebted to Beall.

2 On Philo's knowledge of Hebrew, I am glad to have the support of such authorities as Valentin Nikiprowetsky (e.g. 1977), and David Rokeah (e.g. 1968:70-82), as well as of my friend David Winston, for my view that Philo knew little or nothing of the language.

-117-

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