The Jews of Egypt: From Rameses II to Emperor Hadrian

The Jews of Egypt: From Rameses II to Emperor Hadrian

The Jews of Egypt: From Rameses II to Emperor Hadrian

The Jews of Egypt: From Rameses II to Emperor Hadrian

Synopsis

Professor Joseph Meleze Modrzejewski, a papyrologist as well as a historian, uses the clear light of scientific analysis to illuminate the reality underlying our image of the past. The biblical account and Jewish and pagan literary texts are juxtaposed with the discoveries of a century of archaeological and papyrological research that unearthed the edicts of emperors as well as the humble correspondence of common people, inscriptions on shells in Aramaic and on tombstones in Greek. The author comments when necessary but, for the most part, lets the documents speak for themselves. In a tantalizing epilogue, Modrzejewski takes a long, probing, and provocative look at a turning point in Western civilization: the brief but crucial episode when budding Christianity and the Alexandrian Jews parted company.

Excerpt

We all know how deeply the origins of Israel, from Abraham to Moses, are rooted in the Egyptian past. The long sojourn of the Hebrews in Egypt was the prelude to the three basic events in Judaic history: the Exodus, the giving of the Torah, and the Mosaic covenant. But should a historian attempt to bring the biblical account into correspondence with available historical and archaeological data, he would be hard pressed indeed, since the two are vastly dissimilar. The style and contents of the Pentateuch (the Greek noun for the first five books of the Bible) are not those of the royal hieroglyphs. The Egyptian archives bear no trace of a Abraham or a Moses. Conversely, neither Genesis nor Exodus contains the slightest reference to the great political events studding the remote epoch these books are supposed to treat. Biblical Egypt and Egyptological Egypt have few points in common, and the few they have are debatable ones. The part played by hypotheses and delicate choices is all the more considerable.

Chapter 47 of the Book of Genesis tells how Joseph was authorized by Pharaoh to bring his father and brothers to settle in "the land of Goshen." This marks the starting point of the Hebrews' sojourn in Egypt. In fact, the event probably accounts for merely one branch of the Israelites' genealogical tree. The patriarchal tradition of Genesis and the Mosaic tradition of Exodus are bound together by only the flimsiest of threads. The memory of the Egyptian sojourn and the Exodus, dominant in the latter, is practically absent from the former. The patriarchal tradition originated among groups of people who probably had never gone to Egypt. In the Pentateuch, the two traditions are combined in a comprehensive table: Israel appears as the people of the twelve tribes, descended from the twelve sons of Jacob. Thus was the classical succession established: the Patriarchs, the sojourn in Egypt, the Exodus, the conquest of Canaan. The actual experience of one group was expanded by Jewish memory into the recollection of a common adventure.

The Pentateuch is ambiguous concerning the length of the stay in Egypt. The number of generations oscillates between three for the descendants of Levi (Ex. 6:16-20 and . . .

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